Sep 3 2010

Phyllis Bennis on Obama Iraq policy, Dean Baker on Social Security


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This week on CounterSpin: On August 31, President Obama announced the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq in a speech from the Oval office. While in a palace in Baghdad the commander of those combat operations, General Ray Odierno, announced that his job was over, proclaiming that in Iraq, “hope has replaced despair.” This was all noted with little challenge by corporate media. We’ll talk with Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy studies about the changing U.S. role in Iraq.

Also on the show: Are Americans on the verge of losing one of the most popular social programs we’ve ever had in the name of fiscal “reform”? The chair of the commission on fiscal reform likens Social Security to a milk cow, and says the very word “entitlement” is offensive. What are the real threats facing the program we rely on to support us after retirement? We’ll hear from economist Dean Baker, co-author of the book Social Security: The Phony Crisis, and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

All of that’s coming up but first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—Martin Indyk’s August 27 upbeat op-ed in the New York Times used familiar but inaccurate language to describe the situation in the Middle East. Discussing impending talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Indyk argued that there is “For Once, Hope in the Middle East,” because, “First, violence is down considerably in the region.”

Indyk pointed out that while 452 Israelis were killed in the violence during the Intifada back in 2002, Israeli death tolls have dramatically decreased in recent years, and he noted that only 6 Israelis were killed in 2009, and just two so far this year.

Missing, of course, is any mention of violence against Palestinians. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, there have been 100 Palestinians killed by Israelis in the time period following Israel’s December 2008 assault on Gaza; and the assault itself killed 1,397 Palestinians, a large majority of whom were either minors or non-combatants. Assessment’s such as Indyk’s recall comedian George Carlin’s newsman bits where he used to report partial sports scores, such as: “Notre Dame, 26…”

It’s difficult to be hopeful about peace in the Middle East when major U.S. news outlets treat Palestinian deaths as absolutely irrelevant.

—A FAIR study published in August looked at politically-themed books reviewed by the New York Times Book Review and the CSPAN show After Words and concluded that both outlets heavily favored white male authors and reviewers. The Times came off particularly bad in the study, which revealed 95 percent of the U.S. authors reviewed were white, and an even greater proportion, 96 percent, of reviewers were white.

As far as gender was concerned, women who obviously account for roughly 50 percent of the population, accounted for just 13 percent of the reviewed authors and 12 percent of the reviewers. (You can read that study online at

So, is the Times Book Review a sort of white male ghetto in an otherwise more diverse newspaper? No. On gender, numerous byline studies have shown the paper heavily favoring male reporters, particularly on the front-page. One study by FAIR in 2005 found that 88 percent of the Times front-page articles were written by men.

And now, a new study has emerged showing that the Times runs more than 6 times as many obituaries on men as they do on women. According to the website NYTPicker, so far in 2010, 85 percent of the paper’s obituaries have been about men, with male obits outpacing women’s 606 to 92.

Even in death, it seems, women just don’t rate.

—So eager was New York Times reporter Matt Bai to find a liberal champion who would take on the menace of Social Security that he seems to have put words in Representative Earl Blumenauer’s mouth.

The headline for Bai’s piece, largely a profile of the Oregon Democrat, was “One Liberal Voice Dares to Say, Cut the Budget.” Of course, many liberals call for cutting the federal budget—generally, though, they suggest that the U.S. ought to cut its massive military spending first. Taking on the military industrial complex, though, isn’t as brave as taking on old people, so those liberals don’t get articles about them in the New York Times.

Bai’s piece mocked what he called “the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile of Treasury Bills—often referred to as IOUs—in a dedicated trust fund.” Of course, Treasury Bills—that is, government bonds—are not often called IOUs… except in stories about Social Security. In Bai’s view, government bonds are imaginary: “This is sort of like saying that you’re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.”

Bai attributed his view that Social Security’s $2 trillion-plus pile of Treasury Bills were actually worthless to Rep. Blumenauer, saying that he, “argues that the program can’t exist on make-believe money.” But, whoops—Blumenauer released a letter explaining that he never said any such thing, that he actually thinks “the Social Security trust fund is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government which has never and will never default on its commitments.” So the New York Times had to run a correction—and it looks like Matt Bai will have to look for a new hero.

—For the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Dateline NBC took a special look back at the disaster on August 22. Anchor Brian Williams, who covered Katrina for NBC, recalled the experience as his own boys’ adventure tale: “You know, I’ve been around a lot of guns and a lot of dead bodies, and a lot of people shooting at people to make dead bodies. But you put them all together and you put it in the United States of America and boy, it gets your attention.” Yeah, okay, Brian. He went on to say, “There was no government. There was no semblance. There was no organization. There was no New Orleans for a few days there.”

In the days after the levees broke, corporate media outlets were abuzz with stories of looting, murder, snipers shooting at rescue helicopters, even the raping of babies at the Superdome. But a month later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that most of this violence never actually happened—no babies raped, no snipers, and only four confirmed murders in the week following the hurricane, a pretty typical week for the city. And while so-called “looting” did occur, much of it was for survival in a city where no help—no food, no water—arrived for days.

Meanwhile, investigative reporters like A.C. Thompson have documented police and white vigilante violence in which at least 11 black civilians and possibly more were shot in the days following the hurricane—Dateline had nothing to say about that.

There’s no doubt the media-stoked hysteria over rampant violence fed into the atmosphere of fear that made those shootings possible. Rather than rehash that hysteria, journalists like Williams should be apologizing for the part they played in it.

—And finally, the August 27 edition of USA Today offered a stunningly deceptive summary of the start of the Iraq war:

In October 2002, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to authorize force against Iraq. In November, the United Nations Security Council adopted a unanimous resolution offering Saddam [Hussein] “a final opportunity” to comply with disarmament.Three months later, Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S. and European intelligence agencies believed Iraq was hiding its weaponry and seeking more.

The final U.N. inspection report stated that Iraq failed to account for chemical and biological stockpiles. U.N. inspector Hans Blix said he had “no confidence” that the weaponry had been destroyed.

An accurate chronology would indicate that while inspectors expressed frustration with some Iraqi behavior, they believed they were making progress. They determined rather early on, for instance, that there was no Iraqi nuclear program to speak of. Since that was one of the Bush administration’s most damning claims, you’d think its falsehood would appear somewhere in any account of the pre-war period.

You may also remember that while there was an effort to get the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution that would formally endorse the war, even though the weapons inspections process was not finished, the U.S. did not prevail in that effort and the inspectors were removed. It’s boggling to read an account of the run-up to the war that discounts this essential fact.

It’s not clear where the Hans Blix quote about “no confidence” comes from. He used that phrase in a “preliminary assessment of Iraq’s weapons declaration” in 2002; but in his February 2003 statement to the U.N., Blix said, of weapons of mass destruction, that his team “has not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed.” USA Today‘s account might be useful for war apologists; anyone interested in history should ignore it.


CounterSpin: On August 31, President Barack Obama addressed the country from the Oval Office, discussing America’s wars and the economy. Obama announced the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, and suggested that in doing so, he’d kept a promise. The next day a New York Times editorial called the Iraq conflict “a tragic pointless war.” This rational assessment was delivered on the assumption that the war in Iraq was really coming to a clear end, at least for Americans. The Times wasn’t the only outlet to take the Obama proclamations to heart, over and over news outlets reported them as matters of fact.

But how accurate is it to say that U.S. combat troops are leaving, or that combat is over, even just for Americans? Phyllis Bennis joins us to talk about Iraq. She is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you.

CS: As we survey news reports we find that Obama’s proclamation that he has ended combat operations in Iraq, has met with little skepticism from journalists. What’s actually going to happen with U.S. policy in Iraq?

PB: The policy has not changed. It is true that the number of troops are significantly lower than they were at their height of 165,000; it’s now down to about 50,000. That’s a good thing. Reduction in troops is a good thing. But the notion that this troop reduction somehow means that all combat brigades, let alone combat troops, are out of Iraq is just specious. The 50,000 troops that are in Iraq now are combat troops. The Pentagon has, in their own words, remissioned them. They have given combat troops a new mission, which is for training and assistance of the Iraqi military. But they remain combat troops ready to reengage in combat at any given moment. We heard from President Obama about the Fourth Stryker Brigade, which is, as he described it, the last combat brigade leaving Iraq. We didn’t hear about the 3,000 new combat troops, more combat troops, from Fort Hood in Texas, who were just deployed to Iraq about ten days ago. We also didn’t hear about the 4,500 special forces, which have the job: one, of continuing its counterterrorism operation, meaning using its capture-or-kill list to run around the country and capture or kill people. The other is to train their Iraqi counterparts, the Iraqi Special Operations Force, which is shaping up to be something that looks suspiciously like an El Salvador-style death squad. This is not the end of combat.

CS: John Pilger reports in the New Statesman on September 2, that U.S. policy with regard to airstrikes and bombing will not be affected by the President’s announcement. It looks like there’s also, and I think you mentioned it, going to be an increase in the number of contractors, military contractors in country.

PB: Absolutely. The number of contractors is quite disturbing both in its own right and because it’s the beginning of a process underway of militarizing U.S. diplomacy. There will be 7,000 new armed contractors coming into Iraq solely to work under the auspices of the State Department, not the Pentagon, when the State Department becomes the primary U.S. agency in Iraq. What we really didn’t hear from President Obama is that the transition underway is not so much from U.S. control to Iraqi control as much as it is from Pentagon control to State Department control. The agreement that was signed between the U.S. and Iraq that requires, if it doesn’t get changed—which is, I think a likely possibility—required all U.S. troops and armed contractors under Pentagon control to be out of the country by the end of next year, does not apply to contractors, armed or not, under the auspices of the State Department. So with this giant new embassy that holds 5,000 diplomats—it’s the size of Vatican City—there will be at least 7,000 armed contractors. The State Department is bringing in armored cars, surveillance drones, planes, and their own rapid response forces. So what we’re seeing is the Pentagon leaving, largely, but the State Department taking on military tasks.

CS: The State Department, in addition to buying some armored vehicles, is also buying 25 Blackhawk helicopters. Well, in coordination with President Obama’s announcement of the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, the commander of those operations, General Ray Odierno, addressed a ceremony held at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad, telling the crowd, “For now my journey is over,” and proclaiming that in Iraq, “hope has replaced despair.” From what you know, does that assessment accurately portray the feelings on the street?

PB: Quite the opposite. It’s a very depressed time because of the conditions facing people with inadequate electricity, inadequate clean water, inadequate jobs, inadequate everything except for baking heat and military occupation and more violence. Ironically, those statements you just read don’t even match what General Odierno himself said to the New York Times just this past Monday, just 48 hours before the speech that you referenced, where he was asked whether the United States had made the country’s divisions worse, and his answer was I don’t know. There’s all these issues that we didn’t understand, that we had to work our way through, he said. Did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe. He said we came in naive about what the problems were in Iraq. I don’t think we understood. And then goes through a whole list of things that the U.S. troops didn’t understand. And those of us who tried to say this isn’t going to work, you don’t understand—well, we didn’t get a hearing.

CS: Well, one of the things we’ve noted with coverage of this phase of the Iraq War is the invisibility of Iraqis and their views. This might account for why a general can get away with saying something like hope has replaced despair in Iraq.

PB: I think that the lack of Iraqi voices has been huge. We hear, once in awhile, Iraqi voices in exile. We almost never hear Iraqi voices, other than officials and Iraqi generals. But for people on the street, even beyond the general sense that nobody in any country wants to have foreign troops occupying their land. But in the very specific sense in Iraq, the presence of U.S. troops has not been able to protect them from the rising violence, from the massive loss of jobs, from the lack of electricity. The heat of Basra—I’ve been to Basra this time of year—it’s 130 degrees there, and people don’t even have fans, let alone air conditioning. They don’t have enough clean water even to drink, let alone take a cool shower. So it’s a desperate situation facing the vast majority of people in Iraq. It’s part of the reason that the current government in Iraq, which isn’t even the new government—there hasn’t been a government created six months after the elections. But the caretaker government has such little credibility and such little support in its own country because of the massive corruption and because of this vast gap between the lives of people in the Parliament or in the government, who drive around in their air conditioned cars with their security entourage while the people of their country are sweltering in the streets.

CS: So there’s very little justification for talking about success or victory or kept promises, I guess.

PB: I would say there’s no justification for talking about victory or success. And I think, actually, President Obama was quite careful not to do so. The promise kept technically, the combat brigades have been withdrawn in the sense that they have been renamed. Combat troops remain. The substance of that promise has not been kept. The technical, the language of the promise, maybe. But I think many people thought that this president was not just someone driven by spin and language.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis, author of Ending the Iraq War: A Primer and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis!

PB: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


CounterSpin: There are of course any number of debates to be had about what the government does with public money. But it’s hard to have a thoughtful debate when some parties repeatedly misrepresent the basic facts. So it is with Social Security: is the system broken and near bankruptcy? You’d certainly be led to believe that by reading some news articles or looking at some TV talk shows. And if that’s not true, what exactly is the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and what does it mean that its head, Alan Simpson, has a history of distaste for the program, of which his recent comment that Social Security is like a “milk cow with 310 million tits” is merely a colorful illustration? Are Americans on the verge of losing one of the most popular social programs the country has ever had?

We’re joined now by economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Dean Baker!

Dean Baker: Thanks for having me on.

CS: Let’s start with the bigger picture. The reason we’re being told that we have to “look at” Social Security is because we’re in economic straits and Social Security is a drag on the economy. What overall relationship does that view bear to reality?

DB: Well, it basically bears none. Actually, given our current straits, Social Security has been a great boon to the economy in the sense that it’s kept purchasing power, kept demand up. Keep in mind that our current problem is that we don’t have enough demand in the economy—that’s really not a debatable position. If we had more people out there spending, investing, creating demand in whichever way, we’d have more people employed. So this is an economy that at least at the moment that’s suffering from inadequate demand, and Social Security right now is a great thing. It’s putting a lot of money in people’s pockets and most of them spend most of it. It’s not part of the problem right now; it’s one of the things helping support the economy.

CS: Well, I feel like I’m asking you to explain that the moon isn’t made of cheese, but I’d like you to please help us understand this idea, which comes from a recent article in the country’s so-called paper of record, the New York Times: Referring to legislators who oppose cuts to social security Matt Bai writes,

The coalition bases its case on the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile of Treasury Bills—often referred to as i.o.u.’s—in a dedicated trust fund. This is true enough, except that the only way for the government to actually make good on these i.o.u.’s is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases…. So this is sort of like saying that you’re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.

Can you make sense of that for us?

DB: Well, it’s hard to make too much sense of it because it’s really a dishonest and ill-informed statement. Social Security, again we’re moving away from the current situation—we’re talking about the long term. So currently the program’s just fine. We look further out, what happens? Well, Social Security has amassed more than 2.5 trillion in government bonds. Those are never called IOUs, by the way, except in the context of the bonds held by Social Security, and this is simply, you know, something that people do who are trying to justify the cuts in Social Security. The story here’s actually very simple. You or I buy a government bond, you know if we go and get a $1,000 government bond or let’s imagine the big pension fund and it gets a a billion dollars worth of government bonds, well, those bonds all pay interest and then they have due dates. And we don’t ask where’s the government going to get that money, you know, when you or I want to cash in our $1,000 government bond or a rich person has a million, or a pension fund has a billion. There’s nothing complex about this. Social Security has the money. And we could ask a separate question: what about the government’s books? There are some problems, perhaps down the road, in terms of the overall federal budget. But that’s not a Social Security problem. That’d be like saying that, you know, if we had a pension fund here sitting there with ten trillion dollars in government bonds and go, ‘Well that’s looks fine but where’s the government going to get that money.’ You don’t ask that about the pension fund, and it makes no more sense to ask it about Social Security.

CS: The Times was actually forced to retract words that Matt Bai put in the mouth of his source in story, Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, that the system held “make believe money.” He actually never said anything of the kind. Do you have any why such a fundamentally distorted idea would gain so much traction? I mean, is it really that the media elite are so elite that they don’t know anybody who’s on Social Security? They have no experience with it?

DB: Well, I think it does kind of speak to power relations. Let’s imagine that Mr. Bai had made similarly inaccurate and damning statements about a private company. Suppose that he had inaccurately said that Microsoft, Bill Gates had admitted to defrauding their competitors. And it turned out Bill Gates hadn’t said that. My guess is that Matt Bai would be looking for a new job right now. And in fact he did something almost as bad or arguably worse. I mean, you could argue what’s bad, what’s worse here, but something very serious with reference to Social Security. And I don’t know, The Times doesn’t discuss its discipline problems, but I expect we’re going to see Matt Bai writing for them just as he always does.

CS: Well, some, including some in the Obama administration, have said that Republicans want to privatize Social Security. Well, we know that that is the dream of some people; they’ve said that out loud, but that’s not really on the table right now, is it?

DB: No, and this is really kind of a, I wrote a piece kind of making fun of this, and it deserves to be ridiculed because that is not the issue. You know, if President Obama wants to defend Social Security, he should get up there and say he will not go along with any efforts to cut the program because that’s what’s on the agenda at the moment. It’s something he has put on the agenda by appointing a lot of people who quite explicitly say they want to cut Social Security to his deficit commission. So, privatization, I’m glad to hear you’re opposed to that, but that’s not on the agenda right now. The Republican leadership’s not talking about it, not to say they don’t want to do it. You know in their heart of hearts they probably do, but they’re not about to push that right now. So for President Obama to get out there an say he’s opposed to privatizing Social Security, it’s kind of like saying he’s opposed to the invastion of Indonesia. Glad to hear it, but I didn’t know anyone was pushing for it.

CS: What are the very real threats, do you think, to system at the moment?

DB: Well, there’s a consensus inside Washington that we have to raise the retirement age, and it’s one of these consensuses that’s based on nothing, but all knowledgeable people are supposed to agree with it. So the idea is that we’re living longer, so we should raise the retirement age. Well, of course we have raised the retirement age. It used to be 65 was the age at which you could first collect full benefits; it’s now 66; that goes to 67 in about a decade. So we have already raised the retirement age. The second point that people have to understand, they say that, you know, people are living longer. That’s true, but disproportionately that’s the wealthier living longer. So if you look at the bottom two quintiles of the population, they really have not seen much increase in life expectancy. A third part of the story, the implication is we expect people to work later in their lives, well a lot of people, again it’s disproportionately those at the middle and the bottom of the spectrum, almost 45 percent of the workforce works at jobs that are considered either physically demanding or difficult work conditions, like working outside all day. Those people, you know, they probably are going to have a difficult time working ’til age 70. We’ve a lot of people who sit at desk jobs, like I do, who are saying that the people who are working in factories, construction work, cleaning toilets, they should be working till 70. I expect I will work ’til 70; I’ll probably enjoy that. That probably wouldn’t be the case if I were cleaning toilets eight hours a day. The last thing, and this is really just kind of mind-boggling, we just had this enormous economic collapse, and what that meant was for the near-retirees, the people they want to raise the retirement age for, they saw most of their savings disappear. Now, many of them didn’t have much to begin with, but those who did, most of their savings were either equity in their home or they had a 401K plan. Well, the stock market’s down by about a third even after, you know, it’s recovered some, but even after it recovered, it’s still down about a third from where it was before the crash. And the housing market has plummeted, destroying in many cases, people’s entire home equity, it’s a very heavily leveraged asset. If you own 1/3 of your home, and the price fell by a third, you were 100 percent wiped out. And a lot of people are in that boat. So you have a lot of people who are right at the edge of retirement, they’re in their 50s, some are early 60s, they have almost nothing by way of a 401K plan, very few traditional pensions anymore, and in many cases, they have almost nothing by way of equity in their home. And we’re talking about people, middle income people. I mean, it’s unfortunate, but not exactly surprising, that people who were poor during their working lifetime also don’t have anything as they get to retirement. But we’re talking about people of middle class jobs, earning $30-40,000 a year, they’re approaching retirement with almost nothing. So the fact that you have people saying, ‘Oh we have to cut their Social Security.’ What are they looking at?

CS: We’ve been speaking with Dean Baker; he’s co-director of the Center for Economic & Policy Research and author of most recently, Taking Economics Seriously from MIT Press.

Dean Baker, thank you very much for joining us this week on Counter Spin.

DB: Thanks for having me on.


Institute for Policy Studies

Center for Economic & Policy Research