A Demobilized Press in a Global Free-Fire Zone

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‘It’s a finesse to give power to Rumsfeld — giving him the right to act swiftly, decisively, and lethally,’ the first Pentagon adviser told me. ‘It’s a global free-fire zone.’” (Seymour Hersh, The Coming Wars, the New Yorker magazine)

George Bush’s all-foreign-policy inaugural address offered a globe-enveloping neocon version of a Pax Americana world. Analyses in the days that followed tended to mention, often critically (as did the Democrats), that the President named not a single country in his speech, not even Iraq — though there was a clear reference to our war there. (“Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon.”) In fact, the only foreign place name, Sinai (“the truths of Sinai”), was fittingly enough for this President a reference to the Old Testament in a speech that God (“the Author of liberty”) evidently did everything but write.

In truth, though, there was no need to mention the names of specific lands. For one thing, the President’s men and women were, in the days around the inauguration, out on the hustings mentioning names galore. Dick Cheney went on the shock-jock Imus Show, threatening Iran by name with the big stick of Israel (“…the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards”); while Secretary of State designate Condoleezza Rice, in her Senate testimony, listed a six-country Fistful of Evil (“outposts of tyranny”) — Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Zimbabwe — as well as a Quadrangle of Reversible Tyranny — Russia, China, Pakistan and Egypt — “friendly” states which needed to institute democratic reforms or else. Meanwhile, in the New Yorker magazine, Seymour Hersh was informing us that the President had already signed a fistful “of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia” including Iran.

So the President had no need for place names, not just to avoid his well known penchant for mangling them, but because his intention in his inaugural address was to take possession of the whole planet in the name of “freedom” (whose essence, like “torture,” turns out to be all in the definition). After all, as the speech made clear, he wasn’t addressing just Americans or Iraqis or Pakistanis or North Koreans or Israelis; he was, in near-revolutionary fashion, issuing a warning to “every ruler and every nation” (you know who you are); he was addressing “anew” all “the peoples of the world,” no exclusions or exceptions. It was the all-embracing inaugural equivalent of those frequent smaller moments when our President simply states that other countries, peoples, movements must do this or that. This time, in an excess of retro-triumphalism, he laid his giant “must” like a footprint on the planet itself!

If his reach was planetary, his speechwriter’s ability to yoke words together on the battlefield of freedom was creative: There were, for instance, two tiny, symbolic shotgun linguistic marriages in the speech — of force and freedom (“the force of human freedom”) and of diplomacy and intelligence (“the quiet work of intelligence and diplomacy”). Okay, he didn’t quite say “the Pentagon” — no names after all — but Seymour Hersh did and George might as well have in his sweeping desire to bring “freedom” to those we declare unfree at the point of a sword, cruise missile, or Special Forces team. After all, he did say, without irony or self-consciousness, that, as humanity yearns for “freedom,” so no “human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”

Thanks to the actual war we’re fighting in the Middle East, our Reserves and National Guard are experiencing low reenlistment rates and our all-volunteer military is beginning to feel the involuntary pinch and strain of a global mission to hell; but in his inaugural speech, the President himself, exhibiting a spirit of sacrifice otherwise missing from his opulent inaugural gala, essentially declared himself eager to re-up for the voluntary neocon plan to remake the world. In the meantime, the neocons themselves, now reemerging from their Pentagon and Vice-presidential offices and their pre-electoral purdah, were calling for the whacking of Syria or Iran or you name it. Many of them, from the Vice President on down, seem all-too-ready to repeat aspects of an exceedingly familiar script in which exiles from a Middle Eastern country (no names needed), settling as lobbyists into Washington, assure them that a simple military blow will shake that land’s regime to its roots, that its people will then welcome us with open arms and well, you can write the rest of the script yourself.

Connecting the Dots

Given the planetary reach (or do I mean grasp?) of the President’s inaugural speech, it was with relief that I picked up my hometown paper on the post-inaugural morn and promptly noticed an article that had a sweep to match. In a piece headlined A Global Map of Influences and Ideas, Roberta Smith took the reader on a global tour that ranged from Egypt and Greece to China and Japan, the U.S. and Europe to the Congo and even distant Papua New Guinea. Just the sort of sweep you might expect in response to the President’s planetary creed — or was it a screed? The only catch: Smith was writing in the Weekend Arts section of the New York Times on the Winter Antiques Show at the city’s Seventh Regiment Armory; and when you turned to the newsier parts of the same paper, if you were thinking anywhere near as globally as the President, you were in for a big disappointment.

There were only two reports that day linking together a number of countries, and neither was there thanks to aggressive Times reportage or op-ed page analytic acumen. In a page-six (bottom) piece, “Cheney Says Israel Might ‘Act First’ on Iran,” David E. Sanger offered a modest report on how the Vice President, briskly questioned by non-reporter Don Imus, had managed to threaten Iran with the big stick of the Israeli Air Force and in the process tied together three countries: Israel, Iran, and Iraq, with a passing nod to Europe. (Hidden deep in the piece, there was a wonderful little nugget for news junkies: On the “Israeli option” for hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities, Sanger commented, “It was a reference to a military option much discussed in Washington but rarely talked about in public by top officials.” Of course, he didn’t add the obvious tagline — “and rarely mentioned by reporters for major papers who know how often it’s being discussed in private in Washington but” Hmmm.) Then there was a page 10 report by Edward Wong, Top Rebel in Iraq Says War With U.S. May Last for Years, which focused on a new wave of kidnappings of foreigners now sweeping parts of that country — and so, thanks to criminal gangs and various insurgent factions there, managed to put in a single piece references to Brazil, England, China, France, and the Americans.

Otherwise, on the day the President swept the world into a bag marked “freedom,” the Times was blissfully clear of geopolitical reportage of any sort, though you could read about the “spectrum of faiths” in the President’s speech (“References to Pluralism Try to Establish an Umbrella for a Spectrum of Faiths”), or about the insubstantial nature of TV coverage of the event (“Coverage Anchored in Color and Style, Not in Substance”), or about how Bill Clinton and Karl Rove were seen deep in conversation during the inaugural lunch (“Mr. Clinton, Mr. Rove, Have a Seat and Pass the Pudding”).

Ho-hum. This has been the state not just of the Times, but (with various honorable exceptions) of most of our major papers most of the time since September 12, 2001. What an unequal contest between the Bush administration and the press these years have proved. After all, you’ve had a regime in Washington whose top officials have never hesitated to connect the dots, as they see them, at a global level; who have identified an “arc of instability,” stretching from the Andes to the very border of China and from the former Yugoslavia deep into Africa (and largely coinciding with the oil lands of our planet); who have been bolstering military ties and planting bases (from those “enduring camps” in Iraq to new outposts in Central Asia) all along that “arc” ever since; who had a plan, temporarily thwarted by stubborn, completely unexpected resistance in Iraq, to sweep up and transform the Middle East, felling regimes there like so many bowling pins under the rubric of “democracy”; who have been visibly organizing a rollback of whatever was left of the former Soviet Union; and who were ready, even eager, to plan and set up a global system of offshore prisons, holding areas, and torture camps. Facing them has been a press (forget TV) on most days incapable of putting two or three countries in the same article, or linking more or less anything to anything else on a regional, no less global level. In other words, as we head into George Bush’s second term, you have the most mobilized administration in memory and a media which, in a sense, has demobilized itself almost completely.

There’s a certain irony here. In the Cold War years, the press regularly connected the dots to a ridiculous extreme. If labor peeped in Uruguay, or some small group took up arms in the Congo, or a pen fell off a desk in Vientiane, Laos, on editorial pages and in articles such events would instantly be connected to the great, global, Cold War struggle between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR. Now we find ourselves at another ridiculous extreme with a press — even in end-of-the-year commentary in 2004 — seemingly incapable of noticing that the dots are there, no less connecting them unless someone in the Bush administration points to them in public, as in the President’s speech or the Vice President’s Imus appearance.

I rarely find myself in the same camp with former CIA director and neocon wild man R. James (“World War IV”) Woolsey, but recently in an interview in Esquire magazine, he was quoted as saying wistfully, “There are days when I really miss the Soviet Union.” Well, present press coverage is almost enough to make this reader nostalgic for the good old days of Cold War reportage when at least connecting the geopolitical dots was thought to be an essential part of covering the world.

Hotel Journalism

One thing we can learn from the Sumatran tsunami is that, under the right circumstances, our major newspapers are still capable of reporting from and linking together nine, ten, eleven nations on a single day on a single front page — even, god save us, in the same article. Given the last three years of press coverage, this has, in a way, been a small miracle of reportage amid a very large catastrophe. It turns out that, given the opportunity, our demobilized press can actually mobilize itself to offer a singular picture of a large swathe of our planet.

It might lead you to wonder why, then, month after month, whether you picked up the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or any other major American paper, you could find a story with Iraq, but not Iran. Iraq and Iran, but not Afghanistan, and certainly not Israel. Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not India. And certainly not Iraq, Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, not to speak of a couple of the ‘Stans of Central Asia, and distant China — although all of them are wound together in complex ways in the thinking and planning of various members of the Bush administration. When was the last time you read a piece of mainstream analysis that actually tried to weave Bush’s globe together? If you did, I managed to miss it (though, pressed by the President’s speech, David E. Sanger of the Times did give it a very modest shot in this Sunday’s Week in Review (A Speech About Nothing, Something, Everything). Some wonderful reporting can be found in the mainstream press; but, even when superb, it usually remains remarkably unattached, just another in a series of fragments, seldom added up or woven together. The larger picture, except when offered up in Bush-form in a soaring inaugural address or, stick in hand, in translation by the Veep — and so forced on reporters — is regularly, painfully missing in action.

If our triumphalist President was thinking big on the day his second term began — big enough to cause a supporter like former speechwriter Peggy Noonan on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (Way Too Much God) to label his “God-drenched speech,” with genuine dismay, as lacking all “moral modesty” and “over the top,” our mainstream press, on the whole, was thinking small indeed and cautiously beyond words.

That smallness of thinking was evident last week in the initial news responses to Seymour Hersh’s remarkable New Yorker piece “The Coming Wars.” The press jumped on his article and ran with it, based on one piece of information in it — that the Pentagon had reportedly already inserted Special Forces units into Iran as part of a program to defang the Iranian nuclear program. It was thus announced as an “Iranian story” and continued as such. But this was distinctly a lesser aspect of a remarkable tale, clearly leaked to Hersh by embittered CIA sources who knew that they had just lost a long-term intra-bureaucratic struggle with Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and been sidelined. And the larger story wasn’t even that the President had signed a series of orders granting the Pentagon the right to insert Special Forces units into ten countries, or the news (“We’re going to be riding with the bad boys”) that the Pentagon might officially become a terrorist outfit:

“U.S. military operatives would be permitted to pose abroad as corrupt foreign businessmen seeking to buy contraband items that could be used in nuclear-weapons systems. In some cases, according to the Pentagon advisers, local citizens could be recruited and asked to join up with guerrillas or terrorists. This could potentially involve organizing and carrying out combat operations, or even terrorist activities.”

The real story was an accelerating tale of “Pentagon encroachment.” (Note, for instance, that a Times front-page piece Sunday, Commandos Get Duty on U.S. Soil, reports another small, war-on-terror Pentagon encroachment, this time on domestic soil — the positioning of “super-secret commandos operating under a secret counterterrorism program code-named Power Geyser” as part of Presidential security for the inauguration.) Hersh’s news was that “the war on terrorism would be expanded and effectively placed under Pentagon control,” and the Pentagon would, as the administration’s legal experts saw the matter, be able “to run the operations off the books — free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A.”

Put another way, the legal theory that first came to light in the “torture memos” that emerged from the White House Legal Counsel’s office — that, in his role as commander-in-chief in “wartime,” the President was essentially unfettered by Congress or the courts and could act as he wished — turns out to reach way beyond the issue of torture. Yes, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had trumped the CIA and was once again expanding its turf. It was now to be the armed intelligence and diplomatic spearhead of an ever-more militarized government; but at least as important was the urge that lurked behind this development — to free the President of all accountability, all democratic fetters, all those balancing powers so familiar to high-school students in any civics class. What this represents is a strikingly expansive imperial definition of “freedom.”

Enthusiastic as this administration might have been for “taking off the gloves” and setting up torture centers abroad, its leading officials and legal advisors were even more enthusiastic about “freedom” — the freedom of a President to order torture, if need be; or to send off-the-books units of the Special Forces into any country of his choice, friendly or unfriendly; or, as the man presiding not so much over a nation as over an ever more expansive military, to call for whatever acts he deemed fit and proper.

This was, in fact, a huge story by a reporter who had broken more than his share of striking stories in his journalistic lifetime and it was reported both sensationally and in a small-scale way by the press. Barton Gellman was an honorable exception to this, adding his own addendum to the Hersh story on the front-page of this Sunday’s Washington Post; a piece entitled Secret Unit Expands Rumsfeld’s Domain:

“Perhaps the most significant shift is the Defense Department’s bid to conduct surreptitious missions, in friendly and unfriendly states, when conventional war is a distant or unlikely prospect — activities that have traditionally been the province of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations Pentagon officials emphasized their intention to remain accountable to Congress, but they also asserted that defense intelligence missions are subject to fewer legal constraints than Rumsfeld’s predecessors believed. “

Despite the odd exception like Gellman, this narrowness of focus in reportage and analysis has generally been the story behind the story of mainstream news in America these last few years.

The truth is, if you happen to be looking at the world, it’s not really so terribly difficult to connect a few dots. We’re not exactly talking about brain surgery here. The British Independent‘s Robert Fisk reported from Baghdad recently that many western reporters are now largely or even wholly confined to their Iraqi hotel rooms or offices by the dangers of that land. (“Several Western journalists simply do not leave their rooms while on station in Baghdad.”) But even where the dangers are nonexistent, our embedded press has largely been engaged in a kind of “hotel journalism.”

Perhaps this is one reason why so many of our papers are now hemorrhaging readers. If you want to read about what’s not being said “publicly” in Washington or elsewhere; if you want someone to think on a global scale that befits Bush administration strategists, if you want someone to connect the dots and suggest ways our world is linked together, you really have to turn elsewhere. If, to take a small but telling example, you want to know what Seymour Hersh thought of coverage of his piece, don’t expect a New York Times or Washington Post reporter to call him and ask. That would be stepping too far outside the box. You need to listen instead to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! (or catch the transcript at the always lively website). Only there will you be able to read of Hersh’s bemusement that the media more or less missed his real story:

“Goodman: Can you explain where the CIA and the Pentagon fit into this picture?

“Hersh: Well, that’s actually to me the most interesting part to the story that I wrote — not about Iran, because you can almost argue that, of course, we’re doing surveillance. I’m sort of amazed that it became such a big story in the last 24 hours or 36 hours. The real issue — what the story is about, is the fact that the diminution of the CIA is unbelievable. More is totally centralized in the White House and the Pentagon than since the rise of the national security state after World War II in the Cold War. We now have the White House and a Pentagon that basically dominates the process. The C.I.A. has been marginalized.”

Only listening to Goodman’s show would you find out that Hersh is trying to hook another big fish:

“that the President, when it came to prisoner interrogation issues and the intelligence from it and operational stuff, is much more actively involved in a way we don’t see than we might think. We always see him as sort of not really getting tuned in. I think in this stuff, he’s really more tuned in, but I — you know, I have to prove that.”

If you wanted to get an early heads-up on what the Hersh piece meant in terms of freeing the President of all democratic fetters, you would have had to leave the mainstream for the invaluable website where their fiery libertarian columnist Justin Raimondo wrote “Exporting Democracy — or Terrorism? Seymour Hersh exposes the scheme to make America a terrorist state” (“[Hersh’s] scoop is that we have decided to join the Axis of Evil ostensibly in order to fight it. If I thought for a moment that Americans can live with that, then I’d wear the ‘anti-American’ label like a badge of honor.”)

If you wanted to find somebody trying to weave together a picture of neocon dreams of global mastery, whether in relation to Iran, Syria, North Korea, or all of them together, you probably would have to check out Jim Lobe of Inter Press News whose indefatigable work can only be found on-line in this country. If you wanted to read a piece by someone who wasn’t willing to consider the “orange revolution” in Ukraine purely as a democratic triumph in a geopolitical void, you would have had to turn to the Nation magazine to check out Stephen F. Cohen’s recent piece of media criticism, The Media’s New Cold War.

“In most of these former Soviet regions where the Kremlin is accused of ‘imperial meddling,’ from the Baltics in the West and Georgia in the South to the states of Central Asia, there are now US and NATO military bases, with more being planned. They too go unmentioned [in the media], along with the essential question, widely discussed by scholars, of whether they are part of an ever-expanding American empire.”

Nowhere in the mainstream, in fact, are you likely to find an article that would even think of linking our new bases in the former SSRs of Central Asia to events in Ukraine, no less consider them, from the Kremlin’s point of view, as part of a “tightening noose.” And who is bothering to say — even when Condoleezza Rice pointedly mentions the otherwise nearly forgotten former SSR of Belarus as ripe for democracy — that the Bush people have long been dreaming feverishly of pushing Russia (from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea) back to something like its 14th century boundaries — or that this sort of dream of “rollback,” even in the rabid early 1950s, would have seemed slightly mad, but now is increasingly a geopolitical reality? Encirclement? A new Cold War? World War IV? (Note, for instance, that the Russians and the Chinese, though hardly commented on in our media, are preparing massive joint war games for the first time this year.) From the media’s point of view, Alfred E. Neuman’s old motto might suffice: What me worry?

Here’s the strange thing: In a world where Gaia — the Earth as a single throbbing organism — is already a cliché; where “globalization” remains a buzzword; and where we happen to be ruled by the greatest geopolitical dreamers and gamblers in our history, our demobilized media treats the world, if at all, as a set of hopeless fragments and just doesn’t consider puzzling them together part of the job description. If you want to grasp our world as it is, you might actually have to click off that TV, use your local paper to wrap the fish, and head for the Internet. Tom