Nov 12 2010

William Greider on G-20 & trade, Ali Gharib on Iran & Wikileaks

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This week on CounterSpin: Coverage of the G-20 summit in Seoul is squarely focused on trade deals and U.S. relations with China. But is the whole discussion of globalization, China and trade missing the point? William Greider makes that case in a new piece in the Nation magazine. He’ll join us to talk about it.

Also on CounterSpin today: There’s growing talk of a U.S. military attack on Iran. And some elite journalists, who think they have found evidence of Iranian interference in Iraq, are doing their part to beat war drums. If the script sounds familiar, that’s because many of the same journalists who helped lead us into war against Iraq are now on the Iranian case. We’ll talk with journalist Ali Gharib who blogs on U.S.-Iran relations at

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

—The November 8 New York Times had a story about what some Republicans were saying on the Sunday chat shows the day before. The article would have been a lot more useful if it had fact-checked some of their claims. On ABC, Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul proposed cutting the pay of federal workers, who are allegedly pulling down $120,000 in wages and benefits every year, much more than workers in the private sector. Was Paul right? You would assume so, since the Times didn’t suggest otherwise. Paul likely got this information from a USA Today story from August that was roundly criticized for making apples-to-oranges comparisons between workers. Other research has shown that federal workers actually make about the same, or slightly less, than workers with similar levels of education and experience at private companies.

But back to the Times: The paper noted that on another TV show, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell claimed that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthy would be a tax hike on “750,000 of our most productive small businesses.” As many have noted, on CounterSpin and elsewhere, this claim is bogus; the actual number of actual small businesses that would be affected is much, much smaller. McConnell also slammed the new healthcare law as a “monstrosity” that “took over one-sixth of our economy.” That’s also wildly misleading. Healthcare spending does account for about 1/6 of the economy, but the new law doesn’t “take over” anything—unless there’s a secret national health plan clause everyone missed. Politicians say things that aren’t true all the time. But a media system that doesn’t call them on it ensures more lying in the future.

—And, speaking of Sunday chat shows: The Meet the Press post-midterm show on November 7 featured two conservative Republican guests, Senator Jim DeMint and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. That’s only natural, because the GOP did so well, winning back the House…. right? Oh, but wait…. Here’s Meet the Press‘ then-host Tim Russert on November 12, 2006, just after those midterm elections:

The voters send a loud and clear message to the White House, and give the Democrats control of the House and the Senate for the first time in 12 years. What now for the Republicans? We’ll ask a man who is positioned to seek the GOP nomination for president in 2008: Sen. John McCain of Arizona. What now for the Democrats? We’ll ask a man who lost a Democratic primary, but was just re-elected as an independent: Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Seems like however things go at the polls, Republicans can’t lose for winning with the elite press corps.

—In a diplomatic stop in Cambodia late last month, Hillary Clinton paused to lecture Cambodians about the importance of confronting the darkest chapters of their history. According to the November 1 New York Times, she told the Cambodians, “A country that is able to confront its past is a country that can overcome it.” Clinton was speaking about the Cambodian tribunal investigating the crimes of the Pol Pot regime of the 1970s.

What’s generally good advice is 24-carat cynicism coming from an administration that says “look forward, not back” in refusing to even investigate leaders who recently prosecuted an aggressive war, and still walk the public stage boasting of their use of torture.

And just for the record, Pol Pot’s killing fields would never have been possible without the U.S.’s relentless bombing and destabilization of Cambodia, which provided the power void that the murderous Pol Pot regime was able to exploit. Estimates of Cambodian casualties as a result of the U.S. bombing vary; in 1975, the Washington Post estimated 450,000 dead and wounded.

But no mention of this history—recent, or from past decades—in the New York Times report on Clinton’s lecture. It is a remarkable testimony to the strength of our propaganda system that the Newspaper of Record can run such a story without so much as touching the dark chapters of U.S. history, which have never been sufficiently probed and for which no high American official has been held accountable.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently wrote an unflattering piece about Fox‘s election coverage. That led Bill O’Reilly to “joke” about Milbank being… decapitated. But this was only the latest example of a demented Fox News culture that permits on-air personalities to fantasize about murder and violence against those deemed enemies of the station, its personalities or their worldview.

Before Fox hired him, Glenn Beck was famous for talking about killing filmmaker Michael Moore with his bare hands, and hoping out loud that congressmember Dennis Kucinich would be burned alive. At Fox, Beck performed a 2009 skit portraying himself poisoning Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In 2008, Fox News contributor Liz Trotta and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee—who would be given his own Fox News show months later—joked about the assassination of Barack Obama.

Recently, the website News Hounds detailed how Fox‘s “owned and operated” fan website, Fox Nation, features comments calling for Barack Obama’s assassination—including posts calling for the president to “get what Kennedy got,” for the CIA to “take this pres down,” and a warning to the president that the Quran “ain’t thick enough to stop a .308 round.”

If this wasn’t so deadly serious it would be seriously funny: O’Reilly has spent years talking about civility and accusing progressive websites of fomenting hate speech. His crusade targets the comments sections of such websites, highlighting entries that generally pale in comparison to those broadcast on Fox. But even more ironic is that when O’Reilly is called out for failing to distinguish between the editorial content and comment sections of these websites, he argues that the groups should be responsible for everything that appears on their websites: “Open forum is bull…. You can regulate what’s on your website.”

But apparently not what’s on your cable news channel.

—And finally, George W. Bush’s book tour is reminding us of the softball journalism that his administration often enjoyed. USA Today‘s front-page feature told readers that Bush “smiles and laughs readily” and that “there’s no hint of annoyance” when he’s asked “how he copes with the ridicule that hasn’t abated much since he left office.” Well that’s a relief. Or take Matt Lauer’s November 9 NBC interview. Early on Lauer said this: “The Florida recount. Hanging chads. A divided Supreme Court. George Bush had a rough road to the White House.” We’re not sure how a guy who lost the popular vote and made it to the White House thanks to the Supreme Court suffered a “rough road,” but he certainly faced little in the way of rough questioning from Matt Lauer. On the Iraq War, Lauer said that Bush “eventually decided to go to war based on Saddam Hussein’s defiance… and what seemed to be rock-solid intelligence.” That Iraqi “defiance” included allowing UN weapons inspectors in the country, who left only when the U.S. bombing started. Claims about “rock-solid” intelligence conveniently obscure the fact that there were plenty of questions about the intelligence at the time.

And about the failure to find WMDs: Bush is being widely quoted saying that he “had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it.” Huh… We can remember Bush at a gathering of journalists in March 2004, cracking jokes about looking for Iraqi weapons around the White House. The bit even included a slide show. The reporters in attendance roared with laughter. The media outlets that will convey Bush’s regrets about the Iraq debacle now aren’t likely to recall his comedy routine—it would make him look back, and them too.


CounterSpin: After any election, the press sifts through the returns to find the meaning—or, more to the point—the message from the electorate that they want to promote. If the midterms were about the economy, then the media recommendation is simple: more so-called free trade agreements, which create jobs here and prosperity everywhere. And more “globalization,” which we’re told will provide the same. With top Obama administration officials in Seoul for the G-20 summit, the papers are full of stories about the United States and China—how to get the Chinese to stop manipulating their currency, how to fix the U.S. trade deficit, and so on.

But what if the whole conversation about the United States, China and the global economy is missing the point? William Greider’s new piece in the Nation magazine “The End of Free Trade Globalization,” takes a hard look at these questions. Greider is the magazine’s National Affairs correspondent, the author of several books, including One World Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism.

William Greider, welcome back to CounterSpin.

William Greider: Thanks, Peter.

CS: We’re hearing plenty about China right now—some of the conversation, as you point out, is melodramatic and moralistic. Some of it is about policy—tariffs, currency manipulation. The message I got from your piece is that much of this conversation in the media and elsewhere is misplaced. Governments and corporations have devised this globalization model to suit their needs, and we’re seeing the results—results that might be very difficult to turn around. You say, “We have reached the endpoint of globalization as we know it.” What’s ending and why?

WG: There’s so many layers to this, it’s hard to pick one as a starting point, but my sense of this process—which I’ve covered as a reporter literally for decades—is that America started out with noble intentions to bring the world out of World War II, and it would be reluctantly but then eagerly the leader of the world, that is the free world as we used to say. And trade and creating or restoring, really, a global trading system was at the center of that always, and that’s good not bad. But the U.S. ran that system in a way that was based on what I always thought was a false premise, which is if American multinationals, both banks and producing companies like General Electric and others, can be alive in that system and on top of it, that will benefit everybody in America. Well, it was clear right from the start that that wasn’t so because what it meant was moving production to other countries, first Europe then Asia, and ceding some markets to other producing nations, etc., etc. Back home the working class, and particularly the unionized working class felt the pain and loss—the jobs disappeared or their wages got busted down in competition with low wage nations. The great fallacy of the American governing classes was that the U.S. was always in charge, and that while other countries like Japan bent the rules or broke them in order to gain industry, they would sooner or later see the light and be like us. The breaking point we are at now is that it is so dramatically clear that that was not the case—that other countries, as nations do, pursued their own self interest—and do it their way, not our way. And so the U.S. is in this deep hole, and that’s about trade deficits, it’s about lost production, it’s about lost jobs and wealth and so forth and so on. I say it’s the end point of that American self-indulgence and arrogance because we can’t go on like this anymore. The U.S. essentially is tapped out as a producing economy and as a consuming economy. The rest of the world, however, got used to having us at the center, wide open arms, buying their exports. And what President Obama has been trying to say to foreign leaders, starting with China, but also including Europe, is it’s over guys, we can’t go on like this. You can’t build your economy by exporting to the U.S. consumers because we can’t afford it. But that’s the essence of the present crisis.

CS: The sort of Tom Friedman foreign policy gurus are saying, “Now, let’s hold on, we know there’s a problem, but the system is the right one. America needs to dig down and restore its greatness, lead the world in innovation, things will then bounce back in our favor.” The proper role for government is to make policies that are friendly to corporations so they have the flexibility they need. Are they just missing, people like him, just missing the point, do you think?

WG: They’re missing more than the point; they’re missing the way the system actually works. And in the piece I wrote in the Nation, one of my witnesses is Andrew Grove, who was for many years the CEO of Intel, one of the great computer industry firms and very globalized. Grove, who’s now emeritus, wrote a piece for Bloomberg last summer, which was quite amazing. The title was “How to Make an American Job before It’s Too Late,” Andrew Grove. What he pointed out, he took a shot at Friedman as somewhat deluded about how things work. The computer industry in the United States, which everybody has celebrated—the famous Silicon Valley—has been offloading most of its production jobs for 30 years, so that we now have a situation where in the U.S., the computer industry employs about 160,000 people, less than it had employed in the 1970s, when PCs were started. The Asian industry, not just China but principally China, has something like, I think it’s 1.5 million employees. And they make Apple, Intel, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Dell, all of the brand names that Americans buy are manufactured in Asia. That’s the problem. And Grove, to his great credit, said only the government can stop this, and it has to act now, because otherwise we’re not going to rebuild our manufacturing out of innovation. His point was innovation has to be held accountable to the national interest, that is: figure out how to keep the production in this country, at least the high value-added jobs.

CS: One of the takeaways from your piece is that government policy has to be a lot more aggressive in these areas, and we’re hearing some messages—and you put it in the article—from some corporations and from political leaders that’s suggesting that these people in this elite class are starting to see things differently now. Is that your sense?

WG: Well, that’s putting it rosily, more rosily actually than even I do. I’m an optimist as you know, and I try to see a future that has some promise to it rather than dwelling on the past and its errors. So yes, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful about our president who has not gotten much credit for it but really for the last year or two he’s actually been explaining this problem, albeit in nicer terms than I use, but he understands what’s happening. He needs political support to push him, really, into stepping up to stronger measures, and I mean unilateral measures. But the alternative is that this system will become unwound. And I think there’s a real, present danger of it. This is one of those areas where the media, particularly the prestige media, that is our best newspapers, had been utterly blind and negligent in explaining this conflict—a political conflict but also an economic conflict—to American readers. The rest of the world has a better grasp of how the global system works than the U.S. does. Americans have been propagandized with complicity by the major media, to believe that we have the best system of all systems and that naturally everybody else in the world wants to be like us. That’s not true now, it hasn’t been true for 30 or 40 years, and yet read the best papers—the New York Times, the Washington Post—and you see this never, never discussed. And I’ve got a little heat in my voice because I feel that’s one of the—one element, maybe not the most important one—but how can Americans understand our situation if the establishment media is so intimidated by the orthodoxy, they won’t explain the argument about it?

CS: We’ve been speaking with William Greider, National Affairs correspondent for the Nation magazine. His new article “The End of Free Trade Globalization” can be read at

William Greider, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

WG: Thank you, Peter.


CounterSpin: The prospect of a U.S. military attack on Iran is under increasing discussion in U.S. power corridors. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham has called for a war to “neuter” the Iranian regime, and former CIA chief Michael Hayden says an attack on Iran may not be the “worst of all possible outcomes,” and at any rate “seems inexorable.”

The media is doing its part too. Columnist David Broder has suggested war with Iran might be just what the U.S. economy needs, while other journalists seem to think they have found further justification for such a war in newly released WikiLeaks documents—documents they say corroborate earlier reports that Iran is “meddling” in Iraq.

With us to sort all this out is Ali Gharib, a New York-based reporter on U.S. foreign policy who blogs on U.S.-Iran relations at You can read his piece, “What Did WikiLeaks Really Tell Us about Iran?,” at the Columbia Journalism Review website.

Ali Gharib, welcome to CounterSpin.

Ali Gharib: Thanks very much; it’s good to be here.

CS: Well, it’s funny, few mainstream journalists have demonstrated a sustained interest in WikiLeaks revelations, which have mostly reflected badly on the war in Afghanistan and the honesty of U.S. officials in their public assessments of the war. But now, some journalists seem to have found something interesting in the documents. Tell us about that.

AG: Well, in the latest WikiLeaks document dump about Iraq, there was a lot of documents about the U.S. military having knowledge about Iraqi army people and Iraqi government officials torturing people in their prisons, but this didn’t seem to be the focus of a lot of the mainstream media attention. Rather, they focused on what the documents supposedly told us about Iran’s involvement in the Iraqi insurgency, particularly the Shia militias.

CS: Well, tell us a little bit about the specific journalists who have shown this sudden interest in the WikiLeaks revelations.

AG: Well, probably the most mainstream one was Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who has been sort of beating the heck out of this story for about three years now. He started writing about it in 2007 based on anonymous tip-offs from military officials and others and has written about it consistently and sort of expressed the idea in his latest article, which came out last month after the WikiLeaks document dump, that the document dump confirmed what he’d been told anonymously by these officials before. And in addition to Gordon, there have been other journalists who’ve taken this tack, many of them are on the more hawkish end of the spectrum—people like Eli Lake of the Washington Times as well as Jamie Kirchick who used to be with the New Republic and now is with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal—though I would argue he’s more in the mainstream category than in the hawkish end of the spectrum.

And these guys have really kind of unequivocally stated the WikiLeaks document dump is incontrovertible evidence of Iran’s involvement in nefarious activities in Iraq, and that just—if you read the reports carefully as well as more skeptical takes—that seems to not be the case. From the mainstream guys like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times it’s a little more troubling because of the lack of caution they applied in the run-up to the Iraq War—in blindly accepting what U.S. officials and others were telling them based on single-source information that turned out to be incorrect and then that was used to press the case for war in public opinion, as well as in the Congress.

CS: Well, and of course Michael Gordon was a co-author of several of those reports with Judy Miller that ended up in getting Judy Miller dismissed from the New York Times. Journalists like Michael Gordon of the Times reported about Iran “meddling” in Iraq, furnishing explosives, etc., the first time around three years ago based on U.S. military sources. Those stories largely washed out. But here comes Gordon and colleagues trying to sell the same story again based on sources from the same crowd—U.S. military sources, this time found in the WikiLeaks documents.

AG: Yeah, it’s highly probable and in fact likely that the same military sources that were telling Gordon about these—they’re called explosively formed penetrators

that they were accusing Iran of building—and actually there’s a funny story that was reported by Tina Susman of the L.A. Times where the U.S. military has scheduled a press conference to show these Iranian-made weapons and then, just ahead of the press conference, the U.S. military actually got there with their Iraqi colleagues and realized that there was no evidence that these weapons were from Iran. At the time, Michael Gordon was writing stories saying just this, that the EFPs were indeed coming from Iran, and that was based almost exclusively on unnamed U.S. military sources. And it’s incredibly probable that these military sources were getting their information from the same reports which have just been released by the WikiLeaks, meaning that essentially Michael Gordon is using his same information that is sort of shoddily put together and not necessarily completely convincing, to confirm the story that he wrote three years ago. But it’s all based on the same often single-sourced intelligence reports from the field in Iraq.

CS: Sort of selling an old product in new packaging, really.

AG: Exactly. It’s the same thing. It’s recycling.

CS: Set the context for us here. This kind of reporting is playing into a policy discussion in Washington, D.C., that isn’t exactly neutral.

AG: As you noted, Lindsay Graham has just called for the U.S. to neuter Iran’s conventional forces, which is certainly a wider war than even people like Senator Joe Lieberman, who’s called for the so-called surgical strikes against Iran as if this wasn’t a war. The Washington Post columnist David Broder, who’s called the dean of the Washington press corps, wrote an article last month where he called for Obama to start a war with Iran as a way to resurrect the economy. And just by talking about this stuff constantly, it does what political scientist Stephen Walt has called the mainstreaming of war, where if you just put the idea in people’s heads that this is possible and it can work, it becomes a more viable option for them and it becomes easier to build public opinion to go to war.

CS: Let’s say you were an editor at a major American media operation, what would you have your reporters asking? How would you approach this in order to sort of deflate the arguments for the march to war?

AG: Well, if somebody were making these charges against some other random country—if somebody goes and accuses, let’s say, Belarus of supporting Iraqi insurgents, that’s one thing. But in light of the fact that there is this massive public campaign that’s really been ramped up since Jeffrey Goldberg’s August article in the Atlantic about the prospects of an Israeli strike against Iran, that this campaign is really starting to get going makes it especially troubling. And if I was an editor, I would say that in light of this campaign, reporters should excercise a special caution, and they should seek out and air dissenting views on reporting subjects that could be misconstrued as being a causus belli to go to war with Iran.

CS: Which is what you’ve done in some of your pieces, when you go to some of these experts who deflate the notion that the Wikileaks

AG: Yeah, you know especially in the era of blogging, these views aren’t hard to find. There’s plenty of experts on military equipment as well as nuclear equipment, and these people all have blogs these days. It’s easy enough to find them and see who’s dissenting and call them up and see what their evidence is.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Ali Gharib, you can read his piece, “What Did WikiLeaks Really Tell Us about Iran?,” on the Columbia Journalism Review website.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Ali Gharib!

AG: Thanks very much. It’s my pleasure to be here.


—”The End of Free-Trade Globalization,” by William Greider (The Nation, 11/22/10)

—”What Did WikiLeaks Really Tell Us about Iran?,” by Ali Gharib (, 11/2/10)