Nov 26 2010

Robert Kuttner on the deficit obsession, David Swanson on ”War is a Lie”


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This week on CounterSpin: Elites, including within the corporate media insist—against the evidence—that voters are highly concerned about the deficit. This is one of the reasons the draconian plan put forth by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the president’s deficit commission, got such a friendly reception in the media. We’ll talk to economist Robert Kuttner about coverage of the Bowles-Simpson plan and about a media that obsesses over future deficits in the midst of economic hard times.

Also on CounterSpin today: War Is a Lie. That’s the title of activist and writer David Swanson’s new book, which takes a sweeping look at the lies we’re told—and we tell ourselves—about American wars. And, of course, many of those lies are transmitted by corporate media eager to support war. David Swanson will join us to tell us more.

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

—Say what you want about the Obama administration’s foreign policy; the Washington Post op-ed page seems to have one opinion: The White House needs some Henry Kissinger. On November 22, Jackson Diehl wrote a column headlined “Obama’s foreign policy needs an update.” And by update Diehl apparently meant that the White House lacks “grand strategy—or strategists.” His examples: Henry Kissinger and Condoleeza Rice. Now, Kissinger’s crimes are too numerous to mention here, but who exactly remembers Condoleezza Rice’s strategic wisdom?

Dropping Kissinger’s name is practically required at the Post though. On July 8, Post columnist David Ignatius singled out Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski as “masters of Machiavellian diplomacy” that were missing from Obama’s inner circle. Both men were “creative,” explained Ignatius—by which he meant, well, devious. And few months earlier, Ignatius wrote that the Obama White House was weak on, yes, Kissingerian strategic thinking, they were suffering an excess of what he called pragmatism. Well that’s one way to put it.

—The civilian trial of terrorism suspect Ahmed Ghailani, who was linked to the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, was unsatisfying to those who believe that accused terrorists should not be tried in civilian courts. To them, the scoreboard tells the story: Ghailani was convicted on one count, and acquitted on over 280 other charges.

The newspaper headlines on November 19 laid out the problem. USA Today‘s headline read, “Detainee’s Acquittals Spark Debate Over Civilian Trials,” while the Washington Post ran with “Verdict in Terror Case a Setback for Advocates of Civilian Trials.”

A more rational media system would discuss the verdict primarily as a result of the U.S. government’s decision to torture detainees like Ghailani, who had been held at “black sites” and at
Guantánamo Bay.

As Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald noted on November 18, the judge hearing the case “banned the testimony of a key witness because the government under George Bush and Dick Cheney learned of his identity not through legal means but instead by torturing (and also possibly coerced the testimony of that witness).”

The manner in which the government pressed the case against Ghailani was closely linked to these torture allegations. It’s hard to have a serious conversation about the case without acknowledging this. And the fact that the trials excluded evidence allegedly obtained through torture is, as Greenwald argued, proof that the justice system was functioning properly.

—The annual protest at the Georgia military training facility formerly known as the School of the Americas got big play in the New York Times this year—as an example of activist failure. The November 22 article was headlined “Fort Benning Protest Dwindles, if Not Its Passion.” Now, if that wasn’t clear enough, the piece began with this: “The annual November protest here at the gates of Fort Benning used to really be something.”

Ah yes, the New York Times, always concerned with anti-war protests. The Times went on to mock that with this year’s “smallest crowd ever,” “the times, they are a changing.”

Now actual organizers and attendees had a different view, with some noting that actually the thousands on hand for this year’s event would most certainly not constitute the “smallest crowd ever.” And really, if the protests were ever “really something,” surely the Paper of Record was paying attention to them, right? Well a search of the Times‘ coverage didn’t seem to turn up much. One piece in 2005 focused on locals who disliked the protests: “Annual Protest Draws Ire of Those Supporting Troops” was the headline. In 2000, the Times seemed to publish a photo of the protest, but no story—a media practice that we’ve often dubbed “news from nowhere.” A dispatch from the year before dwelled on changes to the school’s curriculum—the message being that whatever abuses may have been linked to the school were a thing of the past. It’s hard not to conclude that the Times is giving the School of the Americas protests more coverage this year only to belittle them.

—The news that the Irish government accepted a $100 billion bailout brought to mind some punditry from a few years back, cheering the Irish economic miracle—which, it turned out, was largely a housing bubble that is now bursting. Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias dug up a 2005 column by New York Times columnist and lecture circuit fixture Tom Friedman, in which he broke down the debate along familiar lines: “the Franco-German shorter-workweek-six-weeks’-vacation-never-fire-anyone-but-high-unemployment social model or the less protected but more innovative, high-employment Anglo-Saxon model preferred by Britain, Ireland and Eastern Europe.” Guess what? Friedman had his money on the latter; the Irish model is the way of the future, he explained; the only question is when the Germans “will face reality.” Lucky for Friedman, his job apparently does not require that he be right about much.

—And finally, last week CounterSpin discussed how the Charlie Rose show’s discussion of the White House deficit commission had been dominated by right-leaning guests who were supportive of the plan put forward by commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. FAIR also addressed this bias in a November 16 action alert, pointing out that experts, including progressive economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, had argued that the Bowles-Simpson report was fundamentally flawed. We asked people contact Rose’s show with their thoughts about their coverage.

And on November 19, the Charlie Rose show featured Dean Baker and Representative Jan Schakowsky, a liberal member of the commission and a dissenter from the Bowles-Simpson plan. FAIR thanks those who contacted the show.


CounterSpin: The harsh cuts in services recommended by the co-chairs of the president’s deficit commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, got a soft landing in the news media. As we’ve mentioned, Charlie Rose featured nothing but supporters of the cuts…until a FAIR action alert prodded the show into including a couple of critics. Our guest has some observations about press coverage of the Bowles-Simpson plan, as well as some larger thoughts about the deficit obsession.

Robert Kuttner is an economist, the co-editor of The American Prospect, and a senior fellow at the public policy group Demos. His new book is A Presidency in Peril. He joins us now from Massachusetts.

Welcome to CounterSpin Robert Kuttner!

Robert Kuttner: Thanks, and thanks for all that you guys do.

CS: Well, in your November 14, piece on the Huffington Post, “What Planet Are Deficit Hawks Living On?” you looked at some of the coverage of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations. Tell us about what you found.

RK: Well you know, I could’ve just as easily titled that “What Planet Are the Mainstream Media Living On?” because Pete Peterson, who spent a billion dollars to bankroll the foundation modestly named after himself, the Peter P. Peterson Foundation, has really succeeded in persuading the press—not just the center-right press but the editorial page of the New York Times, the editorial page of the Washington Post, most TV commentators—that the main crisis afflicting the economy is the impending deficit, and that the only reason Congress doesn’t deal with it is that partisan bickering has left Democrats defending spending and Republicans defending low taxes, and so the deal that the country needs doesn’t happen because of petty partisan rivalry. This is just nonsense. It’s bad economics. To begin with, when you have a depression—and let’s not mince words here: even though the unemployment rate is not quite as serious as it was in the 1930s, the dynamics of depression are the same—it’s depressed purchasing power, wounded banks, high unemployment, businesses too traumatized to invest. And in circumstances like this, as the Fed has demonstrated, low interest rates can only take you so far. So you desperately need very serious deficit spending to make up for the shortfall of purchasing power elsewhere in the economy. This is a time when you need more deficits, not fewer. This is a very respectable view, but the mainstream press has bought into this idea that the real crisis is a crisis of deficits. Well, if you tackle the deficit first, which is what all these commissions, many of which lead back to the same Pete Peterson, would have us do, you only put the economy into a deeper hole, you only make the process of eventually getting back to fiscal balance that much more painful. Because you’re doing it at a slower rate of GDP growth and a higher rate of unemployment. So it’s bad economics, and then to add insult to injury, the way they go about reducing the deficit doesn’t put everything on the table, contrary to the rhetoric. It’s mostly cuts in spending, it’s mostly cuts in spending of the sort that helps regular people. They close some tax loopholes, so-called, that mostly benefit the middle class, like the homeownership interest deduction, and the Bush tax cuts—$4 trillion over ten years—are not on the table at all. And the whole plan of the two co-chairs, Bowles and Simpson, is only $3.8 trillion, so if you just got rid of the Bush tax cuts, the problem that they put forward would be more than solved. It’s the worst example of the media basically embracing one side of the debate, and it’s the side of the debate that happens to be wrong economics, than I think I’ve ever seen in my career as a journalist and economics writer.

CS: You just mentioned a New York Times editorial, and you also wrote about it in your Huffington Post piece. Tell us, what was the position that the Times editorial took and what was wrong with it?

RK: There was another one after that. I mean there’ve been two of them in less than ten days. My guess is that the usual Times editorial writer on economics, who’s very good, must be on vacation because this read like a press release from Pete Peterson. Basically the story was that recommendations of Simpson and Bowles were not perfect but a good start. Both parties have to put aside their differences, cut the deficit. Some of this is about timing. You know, in ten or fifteen years, the accumulated deficit, which translates into the ratio of national debt to GDP, is going to be too high. But the way you get that down is to get a recovery going first and get the economy back to full employment, and then you have more revenues coming in. This is what happened after World War II. And you don’t have to have all kinds of austerity to get the debt ratio down. If you do the austerity first, it sandbags the economy, and then it becomes much, much harder ever to get back to fiscal balance.

CS: You wrote about a David Leonardt piece in the New York Times that worried about the deficit in 2030, as you put it: “What’s insidious about articles like this is that they take the premise of the deficit hawks for granted—that the projected deficit rather than the prolonged slump is the top economic challenge.”

RK: Right. And, I mean, I’ve done some television, and you get the same thing on CNN, which is supposedly the middle of the road cable network. I was debating David Walker, the former head of the Peterson Foundation, and the whole set-up piece to our little debate totally bought into the premise that, you know, if Congress just did the right thing, the Republicans would agree to raise taxes, Democrats would agree to cut spending—so that even before the debate, they had accepted one side as the right thing to do. I’ve literally never seen it this bad in terms of the mainstream media just accepting one side of a debate as if it were factual.

CS: We heard repeatedly that one of the big issues of this past election was the deficit, and yet this wasn’t borne out by polling. A CBS poll a week after the election that asked “What should the new Congress concentrate on in January?,” found 56 percent naming the economy/jobs, and just 4 percent naming the deficit. Why do you think elites, including the media, insist on saying deficits were a chief concern to voters? Is it projection?

RK: Well, I think it’s propaganda. It’s the fact that the Peterson Foundation and kindred groups have put so much money into propagating this viewpoint, which is very much a Wall Street viewpoint. Peterson started out as kind of an enemy of Social Security, and his storyline for 20 years has been Social Security eventually is going to bankrupt the country. But it turned out that what bankrupted the country was investment bankers like Peter Peterson. The American Prospect ran a wonderful piece by two political scientists, Chris Howard and Rick Valelly, called “Deficit Attention Disorder,” where they went through all of the major public opinion polls, and demonstrated that it is elites who are obsessed with the deficit, not general voters. And this is really a case where the citizenry is well ahead of economic elites. The mainstream media has this trope that there is this symmetrical responsibility for bad policy. That’s how they can view themselves as even-handed. So if there’s bad policy it must be that the Democrats are irresponsible about spending; the Republicans are irresponsible about tax cuts, and if the two parties would only do the right thing, we could solve the problem. Dave Broder’s written that column probably 50 times, and the editorial page of the Washington Post hundreds of times. It’s a form of cheap grace for the media. It’s a way of looking like you’re even-handed, but it ducks taking a hard look at the real questions.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Robert Kuttner. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril. You can read his piece, “What Planet Are Deficit Hawks Living On?,” at the Huffington Post.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Robert Kuttner!

RK: Thanks so much.


CounterSpin: George W. Bush recently re-emerged from wherever it is that he’s been since leaving office, and suddenly we were talking about the Iraq War, confronting once again Bush’s rationale for the Iraq invasion. At this point there’s little debate that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But there’s an argument to be made that treating Iraq as an exceptional case of media and government duplicity obscures a very long history of lying in the service of war-making.

That is one lesson of the new book War Is A Lie, which tries to tackle the most familiar arguments for starting and continuing America’s wars. We are joined now by the book’s author, David Swanson.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, David Swanson.

David Swanson: Great to be here.

CS: I guess I should ask if you if you think the lesson I took from your book is more or less in line with how you see it. I think on the very first page of the book you wrote that a “war based on lies” is just another way of saying a war.

DS: Yes. I think, I’m hopeful that there’s more than one lesson in the book—it’s a pretty long book—but I think that this idea that the Iraq war is somehow unique and other wars aren’t like that, are based on honest, truthful statements, sort of drove me to documenting the fact that that just isn’t so; that each and every war in history launched by our nation or any other nation has been driven by lies, has been prolonged by lies, has been prettified after the fact with a whole new set of lies, and that what keeps the war machine in place and the possibility of war as tool of our public policy is all a foundation of lies.

CS: Now, we talk about lies, and we can also talk about language, and this where the media comes in. It’s such a powerful tool to obscure our understanding of what a war is. Most of the time, as you point out throughout the book, when we’re talking about our military we’re talking about “defense” spending and our Secretary of Defense. You spend some time talking about words that are used to talk about wars—media reports constantly stress the “battlefield” in the war on terror, for example. The battlefield doesn’t really exist, but it’s very useful as a propaganda tool.

DS: Well that’s absolutely right. We don’t have open fields with two opposing armies in different color uniforms going at each other as cannon fodder. We just don’t have that anymore. We have wars fought in people’s towns and cities and villages. And if we pictured what war really is, we’d be less supportive of it. You’re absolutely right. Most of what we do with our military, and what other militaries do, is not defense, but we’ve called it that since 1948 because we’ve been told to, and it affects how we think about it. You could do a Google search this week for North Korea or South Korea and “military aid.” Military aid ought to strike us as nonsensical as military intelligence or military music, but it doesn’t, and so we begin to have humanitarian images in our mind just from that language.

CS: I was thinking about the book when reading some of the commentary and the reporting about Afghanistan of the last couple of days. We saw Obama emerge from a NATO summit talking about this new deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and we’re lead to believe that there’s something important here, though then when you read further into most of these pieces or listen to them, there’s not really a deadline and there’s not really a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan.

DS: No, you know, Afghanistan he’s even put forward, although less so than World War II, as a just war, in contrast to Iraq. This is a good war, even though it’s based on revenge, which is a primitive emotion, not a legal basis for war; even though we had the opportunity to put Osama bin Laden and others on trial and passed it up. We wanted a war instead. And Afghanistan is a prime example, just like Vietnam, of a war where the war planners understand perfectly well that it’s hopeless, that they can’t possibly succeed in any way, they can’t even explain what success would look like, and they just keep it going. They keep putting out these reports just like the one last week about progress in Afghanistan. And if you read the report you discover that there’s nothing that resembles progress, and you don’t even know what the goal is toward which they’re progressing. And so you have to start looking at, you know, the real reasons for these wars, including the desire to put a gas pipeline through Afghanistan, the desire to have military bases and weapons, including possibly nuclear weapons there in Afghanistan in this very strategic place on the globe. But then there have to be irrational motives driving these people as well because they understand it’s just a question of time: how much blood and treasure before they pack it in? And so in the book I look at the lies, I also look at what the real reasons might be, rational and otherwise.

CS: Yeah, there’s a great section of the book where you talk about the public rationale verses the private or the semi-private rationale where the policy makers and war makers are speaking among themselves, they use different kind of language to talk about what their goals really are. Public support for wars is an important part of the book, and you mention that public support tends to drop rather sharply once the wars go on too long, that certainly applies to Iraq and Afghanistan. And particularly with Afghanistan it means that we have to see this shift in rhetoric—the original cause for the war is lost, and we start hearing things about supporting the troops and needing to fund the war to support those troops or the desire to not abandon the people of Afghanistan now that we’ve invaded them, the idea being that continuing the war is important for the sake, not of our reputation but for the sake of the people whose country we’ve invaded.

DS: Right, these wars are now acts of benevolence for the benefit of the people whose land we’re occupying whether they want it or not. We know better than they do. There’s a segment of the population that has to have that kind of explanation for a war, especially one that drags on like this, while at the same time there are others who have to understand a war as a fight against evil, demonized peoples are dictators who must be wiped off the face of the earth. And you can have these competing justifications for a war because each section of the populace will hear the one they want to hear. And at the same time, supporting the troops is overwhelmingly the most common justification for prolonging a war. Once it gets going, once people notice the absurdity of the claims that were put forth to start it, the war keeps going for the troops. So it’s much harder to end a war than to get one started. And yet when you look at private conversations among war planners, never once anywhere on any war have I ever seen anyone in private mention that they need to keep a war going in order not to disappoint the troops—or even in order not to disappoint the families of those troops already dead. In fact you hear almost the exact opposite: you hear about the need, for example, to spill American blood in order to trap a president or the rest of the government into a war. You can get a war going and escalate it if you can manage to get some Americans killed, which is a very different approach from what you hear in public. We must support wars to support the troops.

CS: There’s a whole chapter devoted to the role of the media; it’s a useful if somewhat depressing, review of press’ performance in this area. You have to always remind yourself—we spoke about this recently, David Broder in the Washington Post speaking about bombing Iran as a way of sort of casually promoting the Obama White House and bringing about bipartisanship. I wonder what you think, finally, about this state of war propaganda. There’s certainly an argument that it’s more sophisticated in some ways now than it was during World Wars I or II—the racism, is doesn’t seem as crude now as it did then. Are things better now, or about the same? Does the distribution of independent media give us some hope in this regard?

DS: Well, I think that the propaganda has gotten more and more refined and more and more permanent. So that, you know, the campaign of lies before and during World War I shut down afterwards and went away and didn’t come back for some years. Now it’s just a steady diet as we have this permanent war machine and these bases spread around the globe, and the War on Terror without end and without limit in time or space. The propaganda keeps flowing, and it’s very skillfully done, and despite the humanitarian pitches to certain sections of the population, racism and religious bigotry and xenophobia are still huge motivators—not just within the military but in terms of public relations in building support for wars. Last week Freedom Watch held an event at the National Press Club, which I’m delighted to say the press completely ignored, where they laid out the case. And by they, I mean Congresswoman Bachmann, and Alan Keyes, and a bunch of…James Woolsey, former CIA director and so forth, laid out the case for attacking Iran and again and again, they come back to the fact that these people are not Christians; they’re not even Jews; they are Muslims; they’re driven by a hateful Islamic ideology and they need to be dealt with accordingly. And you know, the racism is quite transparent. They have a 9/11 first-responder on the panel, giving a speech about the need to start a war with Iran, who explains that when he rescued people out of the World Trade Center, he didn’t care what race they were. But that place is holy ground and the idea of building a mosque there is yet one more reason why we need a war on Iran. So I think bigotry is still alive and well.

CS: We’ve been speaking with author and activist David Swanson. His new book War Is A Lie is available now. You can go to to get all the information.

David Swason, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DS: Thank you.


—”What Planet Are Deficit Hawks Living on?,” by Robert Kuttner (Huffington Post, 11/14/10)

War Is A Lie