To put the problems of U.S. foreign and military policy into the quip-ridden language of contemporary politics: “It’s the empire, stupid.”
Understanding this big picture is crucial as we struggle to respond politically to the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. Yes, the Bush administration is a threat, but it’s not the threat. True, the neocons are a danger, but not the danger.
The threat and danger — the rot at the core of U.S. actions abroad — is not a single politician or school of thought, but the project of empire-building. That has gone forward through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, most intensely and recklessly since the end of World War II, when U.S. power and domination peaked.
Take what is probably the single most obscene enterprise in this period — the U.S. attack on Indochina, what we call “the Vietnam War.” Its roots were in the policy of a moderate Midwestern Republican (Dwight Eisenhower), who supported French attempts to recolonize Vietnam and undermined a political settlement after the Vietnamese kicked out the French. The violence necessary to prop up a client regime in the South was ramped up by the darling of liberal East Coast Democrats (John Kennedy), and then intensified to truly barbaric levels by a rough-edged Southern Democrat (Lyndon Johnson) and a rough-edged Western Republican (Richard Nixon).
In U.S. political mythology, we were either a well-intentioned giant that simply misunderstood the nature of Vietnamese society (the liberal view), or a well-intentioned giant kept from victory by a fifth column at home (the reactionary view).
In the mythology of U.S. journalism, the news media played the role of tough critic, holding the powerful accountable for their mistakes. In this story, reporters and editors are either heroes for their courage (the liberal view) or traitors for their contribution to defeat (the reactionary view).
The problem is that both myths are myths. The U.S. assault on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was part of a wider attack on independent movements in the Third World, which U.S. policymakers were eager to destroy. And the U.S. press was mostly boosterish about the war, especially in the early years, becoming skeptical only when larger forces in society turned critical.
At a point when abandoning these myths is crucial to building a left/progressive political movement that can challenge the U.S. empire, media critic Norman Solomon has written an engaging book that helps explain how the myth-making machine works. War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death outlines how politicians and corporate journalists typically see the world in similar fashion, sometimes squabbling over the finer points of empire construction and maintenance but with the same basic worldview.
Solomon’s book is organized around 17 specific myths that presidents and pundits — even when they may be locked in what seems to be conflict — work together to maintain. The first is most central to the imperial enterprise: “America Is a Fair and Noble Superpower.” It is this American exceptionalism — the belief that unlike other great powers, the United States is motivated not by the self-interest of some set of elites but by benevolence — which allows policymakers to sell wars that are designed to extend and deepen U.S. power as a kind of international community service. In the words of pundit Charles Krauthammer, “We run a uniquely benign imperium,” a claim that is regarded as absurd around the world but is shamefully easy to peddle to the U.S. public.
Because we are this benign power, “Our Leaders Will Do Everything They Can to Avoid War.” Solomon methodically goes through the evidence for the opposite conclusion: U.S. leaders often strive to make war inevitable. Most important here is Solomon’s attention to the first Gulf War and Yugoslavia. In the aftermath of the Bush II debacle in Iraq, too many folks (including, sadly, some on the liberal/progressive side) talked wistfully about how George W.’s father “did it right” in 1990-91 by building an international consensus before going to war. Yes, George H.W. displayed more savvy in derailing diplomacy and then bullying/bribing other nations to fight that war — which was necessary only to demonstrate U.S. power and establish greater dominance in the Middle East — but that’s hardly something to celebrate. In the Clinton attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 — a war that many liberals were willing to believe was “humanitarian” in intent and execution — Solomon describes how the United States made sure diplomacy would fail in negotiations by insisting on conditions no nation could accept, clearing the way for war.
None of this should surprise anyone; it’s how empires behave. In an empire that has expansive political and expressive freedom, however, we want to believe that journalists can check such abuses. Here, Solomon explains the folly of believing that “If This War Is Wrong, the Media Will Tell Us.”
The strength of Solomon’s analysis is that he doesn’t caricature the news media. Journalists often do excellent work, and when the political conditions are right, they can be an important part of a healthy political culture. But Solomon points out that while stories that critique the powerful do get written, challenges to the conventional wisdom typically run once, often buried inside the paper. Meanwhile, the pronouncements of the powerful are repeated day after day, often on the front page. Accurate and important reporting is usually overwhelmed by the drumbeat.
Solomon explains that in addition to the ideological similarities between journalists and policymakers, one key reason for this is the slavish reliance of corporate journalists on so-called official sources: politicians, policy advisers, military leaders, think-tank hacks, and the other “experts” created by the public-relations machinery. We have a free press, but one that doesn’t use that freedom to act in consistently independent fashion.
How bad is it, really? Karen DeYoung, a Washington Post reporter and former assistant managing editor, put it bluntly in an August 12, 2004, Post story that looked at the paper’s failures in the run-up to the Iraq War: “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.” DeYoung explained that contrary arguments tend to get pushed off the front page, down in the story where many will never read.
That’s how bad it is. An experienced reporter can acknowledge that journalists routinely allow themselves to be used as conduits for lies; one of top newspapers in the country can publish that acknowledgement; and the game between politicians and journalists rolls along without much interruption.
There are indications, however, that more and more people are tired of empire and the news media’s capitulation to power. We shouldn’t overestimate the percentage of the U.S. population that is becoming critical; Bush and politicians of his ilk continue to dominate the political landscape, and much of the rest of the voting population accepts the empire-with-a-human-face that John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and most Democrats continue to sell. But the seeds of a principled and committed anti-empire movement are here.
On the media front, things are similar; polls show that a majority of the public accepts the idea that the media’s main problem is that they’re too liberal. But the seeds of not only a limited media-reform movement but also a more expansive and critical media-justice movement also are taking root.
Solomon is hopeful but not naïve. He knows long-term grassroots organizing is necessary, and he’s on the lookout for issues that can engage people. In recent weeks he’s written about the possibility of pressing for Bush’s impeachment after the “smoking gun” memo from Britain, which made clearer the Bush administration’s lies to manufacture the pretext for a war on Iraq. He’s not promising Bush could actually be impeached but arguing that a serious movement could “push over the media obstacles and drag politicians into a real debate about presidential war crimes and the appropriate constitutional punishment.”
What will lead people to want to be part of that movement? No doubt some of the motivation will come from a realization of self-interest — while imperial conquest enriches a small elite segment of this country and provides some short-term material benefits to average Americans, it’s inherently destructive and unsustainable. But Solomon ends his book by pointing out that U.S. citizens also have a lot of moral self-reflection to do. “While going to war may seem easy, any sense of ease is a result of distance, privilege, and illusion,” he writes in the book’s conclusion.
Can we be the people we claim to be — with the values we claim to hold — and support empire, whether it’s Bush’s full-bodied version or the Democrats’ empire-lite? The answer is clearly no. But breaking through the “War Made Easy” mythology is difficult, especially in a mass-mediated age. As Solomon points out, “The mass media are filled with bright lights and sizzle, with high production values and lower human values, boosting the war effort.”
But his final words contain the hope we need: “Conscience is not on the military’s radar screen, and it’s not on our television screen. But government officials and media messages do not define the limits and possibilities of conscience. We do.”
It’s up to us not just to critique what politicians say and what’s on television, but to understand where conscience must lead us: Taking seriously the responsibility and risks that will be required to help dismantle the U.S. empire.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, and the author of “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity.” He can be reached at email@example.com.