In this interviewer's humble opinion, the great question now regarding the Iraq debacle isn't: Should we stay or should we go? The more important question is: Have we learned anything?
We should go, but it's going to be a horrible mess either way. And once we go, inevitably, the spinmeisters who favor consistently deploying America's military might will effectively place blame for the ensuing horror on those who opposed the war; rather than those who led us, and lied us, into the biggest train wreck in the history of American foreign intervention.
That's why Norman Solomon's new book clearly delineating the rhetoric and tactics of war spin is so important. War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death neatly organizes the rhetorical and tactical spin that administrations employ to get us all hopped up with war fever. And he also shows how the mainstream media has enthusiastically played an equal part in selling one military incursion after another. Let us hope for a bigger and better "Vietnam Syndrome" — one in which the people, the press, the congress and even administrations become much more skeptical of the spin that is used to rush us into military action.
I contacted Solomon to ask him a few questions about Bush's spin during yesterday's State of the Union address and about the future of spin in general.
RU SIRIUS: Nearly every chapter headline in your book describes an essential element of America's war spin over the last few decades. Which tactics did Bush employ tonight?
NORMAN SOLOMON: At this point, Bush has run through the standard repertoire of how to make war sufficiently "easy" in the minds of most Americans. He has banged on the same drums for so long that now most of the public recognizes the hollow sounds.
Some of the generic assumptions summarized in the War Made Easy chapter titles — such as "America Is a Fair and Noble Superpower," "This Is About Human Rights," "This Is Not at All About Oil or Corporate Profits" and "They Are the Aggressors, Not Us" — are still in place and largely operative in the presidential and media spin cycles. And those assumptions help to put a brake on efforts to shut down the U.S. war effort.
But many of Bush's other boilerplate themes, such as "Our Leaders Will Do Everything They Can to Avoid War" or "Our Leaders Would Never Tell Us Outright Lies" or "Opposing the War Means Siding With the Enemy" — or even the highly serviceable claim that "This Is a Necessary Battle in the War on Terrorism" — have either been overtaken by events or worn very thin. I think it's fair to say that Bush has told so many lies since the heady war-agenda-building days of 2002 and early 2003 that he can no longer keep track of them.
RU: Most of your book is about the propaganda spin that is used to lead us into war. This is only our second experience, in my life, with propaganda spin after the war turns into a disaster (yes, I'm old enough to remember Vietnam). How does spin get altered when the circumstances don't go right? And do you see shades of Nixonian spin in Bush's comments on the war tonight, or is he taking a different approach?
NS: Well, speaking to the first part of your question: What remains as the cutting edge of Bush's arguments, such as they are, can be largely summarized by the last two chapter titles of War Made Easy: "America Needs the Resolve to Kick the 'Vietnam Syndrome'" and "Withdrawal Would Cripple U.S. Credibility." Much of Bush's discussion of Iraq during this latest State of the Union address meandered through themes having to do with American resolve. But the brashness and outright arrogance of the President Triumphant has been replaced, out of necessity, by a more circumspect affect from Bush. The "Mission Accomplished" gleeful zealotry has been supplanted by the line that caused some pundits to swoon after the speech Tuesday night: "However you voted last November, you didn't vote for failure!" So after the war turns — as you said — into a disaster, the spin is altered by regrouping and retrenching — and perhaps downscaling — the rhetoric.
Thematically, on the subject of Iraq, the latest State of the Union speech is a more toned-down and limited version of what Richard Nixon said in a nationally televised address about the Vietnam War, which may have been the most important speech of his presidency. "There were some who urged that I end the war at once by ordering the immediate withdrawal of all American forces," Nixon said on November 3, 1969. "From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow." As President Bush did on Tuesday night, Nixon portrayed himself as opting for sacred principle rather than opportunism: "I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election. I had to think of the effect of my decision on the next generation and on the future of peace and freedom in America and in the world."
A quick withdrawal might well be popular at home, Nixon said, but it "would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia but through-out the world." He provided the evidence and then the conclusion: "For the future of peace, precipitate withdrawal would thus be a disaster of immense magnitude. A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends."
So, the president said, as the host government's "forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater." But there was an emphatic catch: "I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. And there are obvious reasons for this decision which I am sure you will understand."
An actual withdrawal rate would depend on many factors. Clearly, Nixon said, "It is not wise to be frozen in on a fixed timetable. We must retain the flexibility to base each withdrawal decision on the situation as it is at the time rather than on estimates that are no longer valid." The course of action he had chosen, Nixon added, "is not the easy way. It is the right way." And he said: "In speaking of the consequences of a precipitate withdrawal, I mentioned that our allies would lose confidence in America... Far more dangerous, we would lose confidence in ourselves."
Nixon went on to say: "We have faced other crises in our history and have become stronger by rejecting the easy way out and taking the right way in meeting our challenges. Our greatness as a nation has been our capacity to do what had to be done when we knew our course was right." And: "Let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism." All of those themes add up to standard-issue rhetoric when a president is facing heavy domestic opposition to a war that he wants to continue.
RU: Bush's ratings are falling below Nixon's at his lowest point. Do you think he did himself any good tonight?
NS: Bush is in a much weaker position politically than Nixon was in late 1969 and given the current situation, I don't think Bush did much in his speech other than shore up some of his remaining base — mostly the Republicans who never met an American war they didn't adore. This may be a slim majority of Republicans, but overall it's a distinct minority of Americans, maybe 30 percent. Bush has lost the other two-thirds of the public on this war, and nothing he said in this State of the Union address could do much to effectively woo them back.
RU: Some pundits are seeing this as a move to the center — with the talk on health care, the environment and immigration. Of course, Bush has always blown kisses towards environmentalism in these speeches.
NS: Yes, one more parallel to President Nixon is appropriate, and ironic. You're correct that Bush "blows kisses towards environmentalism," and he's been notably and transparently insincere in doing so — if his record is to be the measure of sincerity. For all his horrific faults, Nixon had a decent environmental record as these things go. Bush's environmental record has been atrocious. After a half-dozen years of ignoring or implicitly mocking concerns about climate change and fuel efficiency, Bush now throws out mild rhetoric and tepid policy proposals that supposedly address those concerns. Politically, he reminds me of someone adrift on a bar of soap, finally — out of concern for his own survival — curtailing his habit of splashing vast quantities of water onto his feet.
RU: Are any of the basic elements of spin a harder sell as the result of the Iraq disaster? Have we (the US body politic) learned anything? Will we be harder to spin next time?
NS: I think that's a big concern of Bush's most militaristic backers — such as the neocons clustered around Dick Cheney. The credibility of a war-seeking president — at least this one — is in tatters. The "Project for a New American Century" vision of an American military giant striding across the Middle East and remaking it in the process has gone blurry because of the debacle in Iraq. Yet we shouldn't be too confident on this point.
For one thing, Bush represents a reckless "double or nothing" mentality: When things go wrong, he ups the stakes and keeps gambling (with other people's lives, of course). So in that sense, Bush has never been more dangerous. For instance, a U.S. missile attack on Iran seems to me to be quite likely before the George W. Bush presidency ends. Bush is clearly a big believer in (Pentagon) violence as an efficacious means of implementing what he imagines God's patriotic will to be.
Also, the U.S. news media don't like the spectacle of Team USA losing. This was articulated, so to speak, by then-CBS-anchor Dan Rather just days after Baghdad fell in the spring of 2003. He went on CNN's "Larry King Live" and emphasized his professional allegiance. "Look, I'm an American," Rather said. "I never tried to kid anybody that I'm some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of 'win' may be. Now, I can't and don't argue that that is coverage without a prejudice. About that I am prejudiced." The vast majority of mainline U.S. journalists remain similarly prejudiced, and their objections to this war turn largely on the failure of the Bush administration to "win" it.
A backdrop and continuing context for all this is what the chapter "If War Is Wrong, the Media Will Tell Us" describes as a military-industrial-media complex. A few sections of the chapter are especially relevant here:
Strong economic pressures are very significant — and combine with powerful forces for conformity at times of nationalistic fervor and military crisis. "Even if journalists, editors, and producers are not superpatriots, they know that appearing unpatriotic does not play well with many readers, viewers, and sponsors," media analyst Michael X. Delli Carpini has commented. "Fear of alienating the public and sponsors, especially in wartime, serves as a real, often unstated tether, keeping the press tied to accepted wisdom." Journalists in American newsrooms don't have to worry about being taken out and shot; the constraining fears are apt to revolve around peer approval, financial security and professional advancement.
The attitudes of reporters covering U.S. foreign-policy officials are often similar to the attitudes of those officials. "Most journalists who get plum foreign assignments already accept the assumptions of empire," commented longtime foreign correspondent Reese Erlich. (I traveled to Iraq with him in September 2002, and we later co-authored the book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You.) He added: "I didn't meet a single foreign reporter in Iraq who disagreed with the notion that the U.S. and Britain have the right to overthrow the Iraqi government by force. They disagreed only about timing, whether the action should be unilateral, and whether a long-term occupation is practical.' After decades of freelancing for major U.S. news organizations, Reese offered this blunt conclusion: 'Money, prestige, career options, ideological predilections — combined with the down sides of filing stories unpopular with the government — all cast their influence on foreign correspondents. You don't win a Pulitzer for challenging the basic assumptions of empire."
Far from restraining the reliance on war as an instrument of foreign policy, the widespread media support for economic "globalization" boosts the view that the U.S. government must strive to bring about favorable conditions in international affairs. The connections between military might and global commercial market-share are not shouted from Washington's rooftops, but the links are solid. With matter-of-fact approval, Thomas Friedman wrote in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."
Workday concepts of professionalism have routinely included parroting Pentagonspeak. And when corporate-media journalists step out of the pack, they usually get slapped down for it. In late April 2003, a few weeks after Saddam statues began to fall in Iraq, MSNBC correspondent Ashleigh Banfield caused a stir when she spoke on a college campus in Kansas. "There are horrors that were completely left out of this war," she said. "So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story, it just means you're getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that's what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn't journalism, because I'm not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn't see what it took to do that." Four days later, responding to a flap over Banfield's remarks, a spokeswoman for NBC management admonished the fleetingly errant reporter in the course of issuing an apology: "She and we both agreed that she didn't intend to demean the work of her colleagues, and she will choose her words more carefully in the future."
The Banfield-in-Kansas episode was part of a classic pattern: In a wartime frenzy, TV correspondents blend in with the prevailing media scenery. Later, a few briefly utter words of regret, although next time around they revert to more or less the same pattern of cheerleading the current war.
Mark Twain remarked that it was easy to quit smoking — he'd done it thousands of times. When the White House pushes for a new war, the U.S. news media seem to be pretty much back to square one.
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