Aug
20
2010

Hannah Gurman on Iraq, Norman Solomon on Petraeus and Afghanistan

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This week on CounterSpin: One war is ending, while the other is the subject of a major PR blitz. Right on schedule, we're told, Operation Iraqi Freedom is winding down, with live TV coverage relaying the images of the final U.S. combat brigades leaving the country. The caveats to the story of the "end" of the war are abundant—tens of thousands of troops and private contractors remain, and some are already suggesting they'll be there longer than we've been told. So how does a war that isn't really ending actually end? Hannah Gurman wrote about the Orwellian state of the Iraq War for Salon.com, and she'll join us to talk about it.

Also on CounterSpin today: The Afghanistan War is another matter altogether—public support continues to plummet, and recent scandals regarding the leaking of classified documents and the removal of General Stanley McChrystal haven't helped matters. McChrystal's successor David Petraeus has been making the rounds in the media, trying to put a new face on the war and re-define what it is the U.S. military expects to accomplish there. We'll talk about the Petraeus media blitz with author and FAIR associate Norman Solomon.

All that's coming up, but first let's take a look back at the week's press.

—Social Security turned 75 this past week—but corporate media weren't exactly throwing a party, with many reports stressing the supposedly dismal financial shape the program is in. Social Security scaremongering is a media staple, so this is nothing new. The August 5 release of the Social Security trustees report declared some short-term problems mostly associated with the recession, but the program's long-term health remained essentially unchanged. But that's not the message you got in the media. On CNN's Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer announced, "Social Security reaches the final financial tipping point." This is not at all true, and CNN viewers were not treated to another view on the matter. Blitzer's guest was CNN pundit David Gergen, who argued that yes, the Social Security trustees might say Social Security is in decent shape, but the scary part is that the government would be paying retirees, thus "the cost to government will go way up." Well yes, in the sense that people have paid into Social Security and now expect the government to pay out the money that it has collected. How this would qualify as unusual or as a crisis is unclear. Gergen went on to blame "the liberals" for arguing that Social Security doesn't need to be "saved" right now. That view might be liberal to someone like David Gergen, but it also happens to be accurate, if we accept these trustees' reports. CNN's Situation Room has been peddling this sort of scaremongering regularly as of late—let's hope they find the time to offer something in the way of balance.

—The war in Afghanistan has re-emerged as a major news story, and according to most polls it's more unpopular than ever. NBC's Sunday morning chat show Meet the Press has dealt with this political reality by promoting the views of the military and supporters of Obama's Afghanistan policies.

The most recent example came on August 15, when Meet the Press devoted the entire show to a profile of General David Petraeus. This wasn't exactly a feet-to-the-fire interview; at the very start, host David Gregory touted the work ethic of "America's most famous warrior."

And there's a pattern here. After the release of the WikiLeaks Afghan war documents, Meet the Press' August 1 show featured an interview with Mike Mullen—he's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Two weeks before that, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was the guest; a panel discussion followed with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, whose mild criticism of the war was "balanced" by pro-war pundits Ed Gillespie and David Brooks. And two weeks before that, the Stanley McChrystal controversy brought Afghanistan back to Sunday morning TV. Meet the Press's guest? Ardent war supporter John McCain. The panel discussion that day was notable because it actually featured a critic of the war—California Rep. Barbara Lee. But she was surrounded by 4 pro-war pundits.

So at a time of considerable opposition to the war, NBC is tilting heavily in favor of war supporters.

Why? Well, one can't overlook the fact that NBC parent General Electric does heavy business in military equipment. Now, if you want to join in the call to NBC to bring more voices to the airwaves, you can go to FAIR's website—FAIR.org—and add your voice.

—Now, you probably heard about White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' recent remarks slamming the "professional left" for being too critical of the Obama administration. As he put it, people who compare Obama to Bush "ought to be drug tested."

Now, in the corporate media, moving to the right and bashing the Democratic base is constantly offered up as a smart move for Democratic politicians. So to no one's surprise, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank offered a defense of Gibbs' comments. As he saw it, the oil spill in the Gulf is all cleaned up, combat in Iraq is ending, healthcare reform was enacted, and a depression has been averted. So, what's the problem here?

Well, for progressives, the Obama administration badly mishandled the BP disaster—and this all came shortly after the White House endorsed more offshore oil drilling. As for Iraq, that troop withdrawal is a Bush policy; meanwhile there is a massive troop increase in Afghanistan, which was opposed by the left—and unmentioned by Milbank. On healthcare, the left's critique was that the White House stripped out some of the progressive aspects of the reform bill, such as the public option, and didn't consider a single-payer health plan. Now, averting a depression is a good thing, but the criticism from the left is that the federal government hasn't done enough to combat unemployment, and that the economic stimulus was smaller than it needed to be. So Dana Milbank is singling out the left for having the gall to oppose moves that the left disagrees with. It's a strange argument, but it's not surprising that Beltway pundits like him would approve of Robert Gibbs' base-bashing.

—The Los Angeles Times reported on August 13 than the "moral argument" over California's gay marriage ban known as Proposition 8, "has morphed into a debate over the democratic process and the propriety of judges overturning laws approved by voters."

Well, it was strange, then, that an article about this "debate" would feature only viewpoints from one side: that is, the side that says, "The people voted on it and it should be left alone." All five of the sources quoted by reporter Mike Anton took this position.

Of course constitutional findings have frequently clashed with public opinion; the civil rights era provided an array of such examples. Now, Anton actually acknowledges this, writing that there is a long-standing "tension between 'majority rule' and a Constitution designed to protect the rights of individuals against the majority."

Well, given that, wouldn't it make sense to find someone in your article to take the pro-Constitution side?

—And finally, from the I-think-I-knew-that-already department: It was revealed recently that Fox News Channel's parent company, NewsCorp, made an unusually generous $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association—that's a 527 political group dedicated to getting Republicans elected in statewide races. The takeaway on this seemed to be that Rupert Murdoch's right-wing politics aren't just evident in his New York Post tabloid or on his 24-hour cable news channel—his company is actively supporting conservative political causes.

This is all true, and coming in a crucial election year, one can't help but conclude that Fox and News Corp are rooting for one side to win. But if you've ever watched Fox News Channel, you know this already. If anything, the in-kind donations that Fox makes to the Republican cause on television every night are far more valuable than this one donation.

But it's also true that various entities within the NewsCorp universe have given money to Democratic interests. Rupert Murdoch was a supporter of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and the company has made donations to the Democratic National Committee, as well as to other Democratic politicians. As Howard Kurtz pointed out in the Washington Post, GE/NBC gave about $200,000 to both of these governors groups, and the same spirit of bipartisanship could be seen from Disney and CBS. Why? Well, big media companies rely on big favors from big politicians; therefore, it's always smart to spread your money around, and to give a little more to the party in power whenever that's possible. That's not to say there's nothing wrong with Fox backing Republicans—but you already knew about that. If anything, this story is a reminder that the media giants spend a lot of money bankrolling the politicians they're "covering" over in their news divisions.

HANNA GURMAN

CounterSpin: Goodbye Operation Iraqi Freedom, hello Operation New Dawn.

The Iraq War is ending, we're told, with TV crews back in Iraq capturing footage of the final combat troops exiting the country. One might reach for the term "Orwellian" to describe such events, perhaps because there is no more fitting way to convey the up-is-down, black-is-white sense of what has happened in Iraq, and what is happening there now.

Our next guest wrote about this for Salon.com

under the headline "The Iraq Withdrawal: An Orwellian Success." Hanna Gurman is an assistant professor at New York University's Gallatin School. She joins us now by phone.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Hanna Gurman.

Hanna Gurman: My pleasure.

CS: Well here's the official story: violence is down, Iraqis are stepping up. As ABC's Christiane Amanpour put it recently, "The surge, let's face it, has worked." These are basically the indisputable facts in our media discussions of Iraq. In what ways do you think this narrative qualifies as Orwellian, as you put it?

HG: Well, it's really hard to say where to begin. By almost every measure with respect to security, the state of Iraqi politics and maybe most importantly, Iraqis' access to basic resources and the state of Iraq's infrastructure—there are things that this mainstream story just isn't illuminating. In terms of infrastructure, for example, there are still many, many Iraqis who do not have electricity. They have about two to three hours of electricity a day, and the latest Brookings index shows that there's 30,000-50,000 private generators making up for that gap between the national grid and what people actually need. So that's just one example of the basic situation on the ground that we don't really hear that much about from Obama or from Ambassador Christopher Hill when they are touting the success of the surge narrative.

CS: It's interesting: those Brookings numbers used to be widely cited in the media when they wanted to demonstrate progress in the Iraq war. You don't hear them cited as often now, perhaps because the findings are rather dismal.

HG: Yeah, and those figures are really in many ways the heart of what Iraqi citizens see on the ground, and they point to the everyday situation. So it is interesting that that's one of the things we're really not hearing much about in terms of the surge narrative. We're hearing a lot more about the decreases in violence. We're hearing a lot more about the optimism about Iraqi politics. And even with respect to those things, there are things to be questioned.

CS: Speaking of the Orwellian, I'm looking at the Washington Post headline, "Operation Iraqi Freedom ends as last combat soldiers leave Baghdad." The article notes that "There might never be an acknowledged end to the Iraq war." The real point seems to be this message: "U.S. commanders also seem to be stressing that this is no longer America's war to lose." The end, it would seem, is not about winning then, it's about not losing.

HG: Yeah, and it does also point to the strange shift from the concept of victory—which used to be the way people thought about America's goals in war—to now, success. So even if we don't win, we still don't lose. There is this prominent word, success, and you see it everywhere in discussions of the Iraq withdrawal—that we are successfully handing over the situation to Iraq.

CS: Also the day we recorded this show, the New York Times had this piece that's somewhat muddled. It tells us there's going to be this "tiny military presence" in Iraq.

Experts are quoted saying this will be insufficient for the task; we may need to send more troops. At the same time, this presence will exist alongside thousands of private security forces, five massive compounds, massive amounts of State Department planes and helicopters. There will be private security guards—the Times explains these are "quick reaction forces to rescue civilians in trouble." And it also tells us that Iraqis object to these forces because they have a history of killing civilians. What are the mechanics of the Iraq occupation in this post-war phase?

HG: Well, you heard that today, or Thursday morning Iraqi time, the last combat brigade pulled out of Iraq. So now you have by the end of this month, 50,000 troops are going to be in Iraq. They're going to be simply transferred, or relabeled, from combat battalions to advise and assist battalions. And so they'll be there to be training or continuing to train the Iraqi security forces. What they actually do on the ground, I think it's still very much up in the air whether and when they will actually be participating in combat; I think is very much up to the base. Then you have this other story that you've been discussing, which is the transferring over, in many ways, of military responsibilities to the civilian personnel in Iraq. And in essence it's a shadow army. It's very paradoxical because on the one hand, it really raises the responsibility of the civilian presence in Iraq, but on the other hand, it's really a civilian presence that is operating security apparatus in Iraq.

And there are many military and even senior civilian officials who believe that that civilian presence is either going to have to be upped or eventually supported by a more conventional military presence. So they really don't know.

CS: Yeah, that seemed to be the message of the Times story that based on the quotes—people on the record or anonymously saying there could very well be additional troops poured into the country just to maintain some semblance of stability that they have now. Again, this is a perfectly Orwellian idea, finally, but the discussion about Iraq seems to require—and you pointed this out—that we ignore the past, and on some level, we even ignore the present, at least as it's seen from the eyes of actual Iraqis. There's an enormous amount of coverage right now, but it's about how U.S. soldiers feel about leaving this country, very little about how Iraqis feel now that this war is entering a new phase.

HG: Yeah, I think it was telling that today's story in the Washington Post on the withdrawal really follows the American soldiers out of Iraq, and you don't have any window onto what Iraqis are thinking about this. Opinion polls show that Iraqis want the U.S.

forces out, but other than that, we really rarely get glimpses into what the everyday situation is for Iraqis on the ground—and if you think about it, there's a lot to be concerned about. I already mentioned all of that information about the Brookings index and what it tells us about the conditions on the ground. There's also the political chaos that you really don't hear that much about. Ambassador Hill is constantly putting an optimistic spin on the results of the Iraqi elections. But as of today, the Iraqi parliament has met only once, and recently delayed its second meeting. They still have not convened a government. And so we really, what we see on the ground is a state of instability rather than stability. But it's being spun as a form of improvement because 2006 and 2007 were so dire that pretty much anything is an improvement from there.

CS: Hannah Gurman is an assistant professor at NYU's Gallatin School.

You

can read her article, "The Iraq Withdrawal: An Orwellian Success," at Salon.com.

Thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Hannah Gurman.

HG: Thank you.

NORMAN SOLOMON

CounterSpin: It's hard to figure out what has changed recently in the trajectory of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, other than an increase in violence and more death and destruction. Here on American television, the war has a new salesman. General David Petraeus is making the rounds, from exclusive interviews with major newspapers to long sit-downs with network TV stars. The political necessity of this push seems evident—the public continues to lose faith in the war, and as any military officer or corporate pundit will tell you (somehow with a straight face), public support is vital to maintaining a war effort.

Joining us now to talk about the Petraeus media blitz is author and activist Norman Solomon. His most recent books are Made Love, Got War and War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

Norman, welcome back to CounterSpin.

Norman Solomon: Hey, thanks Peter.

CS: I didn't have to dig very deeply into our archives to find the last time we talked about the need to make a big push in the media to sell the public on the Afghanistan war. It was late December; there was a surge of 30,000 additional troops; the White House needed to talk about benchmarks, progress, and or course, the eventual withdrawal timeline. It seems like this sales job is different in content, but not much different in terms of format—you reach out to friendly media, you make assurances that there's this plan that's being executed, and so on. Is there anything new here?

NS: Well, really the salesman is expendable, as is the Secretary of Defense or one might argue, over a long period of time—even the president. They come and go, but the apparent imperative to keep spinning the media to maximize the war effort just keeps on trucking along. And really in this case, you had General Petraeus kicking it off with, I think, a pretty astute choice: giving an exclusive first with David Gregory at Meet the Press. And the net effect, I think, was to lay out—complete with beginning the hour showing the General doing push-ups all the way through to at the end of the hour the sort of summation from David Gregory, focusing on whether Washington would allow the military enough time to do what it needed to do. And so in David Gregory's close after all this interview and footage of General Petraeus in Afghanistan—I'm quoting here: "You have to wonder whether he has enough time politically to achieve what he thinks is possible here." But part of the problem is what Petraeus may think is possible in Afghanistan, or at least says he thinks is possible, is really countermanded by facts on the ground.

CS: Now, you mentioned that the generals can be expendable. The previous general, Stanley McChrystal, was very useful...until he wasn't. Petraeus is a little bit different in that there's a certain kind of halo here. This is the man, after all, who won the Iraq War, so got to give him—as David Gregory's saying—we've got to give him the chance to win the Afghanistan war, too.

NS: Yeah, that's the presumption that keeps being promoted, and whatever's actually happening to U.S. troops—as by almost any measure, they fail by the Pentagon's own definition—seems to be just swept aside in the, I can't say cult of personality, but just the focus on the persona of these four-star generals and so forth. And even when in this case, Petraeus says the most implausible things, there's media reflex to just defer and give implicit, or very explicit, credibility. For instance, midway through his Meet the Press interview, General Petraeus said, "It's not about us winning hearts and minds. It's about the Afghan government winning hearts and minds." Well, I mean, I was in Kabul a year ago, and I think it was apparent to anybody there that it was preposterous to think the Afghan government was doing anything other than losing hearts and minds. And in the last year things have gotten appreciably worse.

CS: You do get this sense that Petraeus is sending messages. The Washington Post—you cited this in your recent column—referred to the idea of attenuating the draw down, which was the message coming from Petraeus—meaning from what I can gather, that the troop withdrawal won't happen on schedule. And this is one of the crucial arguments that's going on right now. There are some liberal voices critical of the war trying to argue that Petraeus' signals, that we might be in Afghanistan longer than you think, that we might not start withdrawing when you think, is not Barack Obama's plan to wind down the war. One of the people who made this argument was Bob Herbert from the New York Times. He was relying on a book by Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, which was this kind of behind-the-scenes White House biography, where Obama very dramatically tells Petraeus you've got to stick to this plan, we've got to get out on schedule. And Petraeus says, yes sir. Now in this interview with NBC and in others, Petraeus is saying something different, and these liberal critics of the war are saying, what's going on with David Petraeus? Do you get the sense that Petraeus is saying something the White House doesn't want him to say, though?

NS: It's really implausible to me that General Petraeus would schedule and then implement this huge media blitz without absolute acceptance and approval from the White House—particularly when Petraeus was hired to do this job after the fiasco with Stanley McChrystal and his interview to Rolling Stone magazine. Really what Petraeus is doing is widening the escape hatch for what was, from the very outset, an extremely ambiguous pledge—non-pledge—from the president last winter, that a draw down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would start in the middle of 2011. For instance, at the Meet the Press interview, General Petraeus said a few days ago, first he cited Vice President Biden, and he paraphrased Biden thusly: "It could be as little as a couple of thousand troopers who go home next July." So in other words, already the groundwork is being laid more explicitly for, not even a token, even less than a token withdrawal. What Obama did was kick the can down the road, dangle this very amorphous, nebulous pledge, something for more peace-oriented parts of his constituency to hang their hat on if they really wanted to be overly credulous.

And now the spin is moving forward, as I think we would anticipate. So the idea, in sum, that Petraeus is some kind of renegade away from Obama policy, I think lacks any sort of plausible basis.

CS: You mentioned this peace constituency and the message Obama is sending. You mentioned this in the piece that you wrote about this PR effort:

Petraeus is making the rounds just as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blew off some steam in an interview about how the White House is frustrated with the "professional left." These are the dead-enders who want the wars to end and would probably even go after President Dennis Kucinich if they had the chance I guess. Again, this is one of these choices—the choice here is whether or not to see his words and the comments of Petraeus as reflecting the White House's real view, or somehow conflicting with White House policy goals.

NS: Well I see a couple major parallels. You know, both Petraeus and Gibbs work totally for President Obama and Gibbs is very close to Obama. And it's really beyond any, I think, rational assumption that somehow Gibbs is off on his own. I mean, he's clearly not. And by the same token, what Gibbs has done is something that Obama is more implicitly doing about the war in Afghanistan. Gibbs has verbally and repeatedly moved to delegitimize the part of the Democratic party, including on Capitol Hill, that doesn't just march in lockstep with Obama policy that includes escalating a war in Afghanistan.

CS: Norman Solomon is a journalist, historian, and progressive activist.

You can read his work at normansolomon.com.

Thanks for joining us CounterSpin this week, Norman Solomon.

NS: Thank you, Peter.

LINKS:

—"The Iraq withdrawal: An Orwellian success," by Hannah Gurman (Salon.com, , 8/15/10)

—"Gen. Petraeus Goes to Media War," by Norman Solomon (CommonDreams, 8/16/10)