Mark Danner in conversation with Geoffrey Garrett, US Studies Centre, Sydney
Mark Danner in Conversation with Geoffrey Garrett
U.S. Studies Centre
University of Sydney
February 25, 2010
GG: Thanks very much, Meredith, and thanks to everyone for being here on this beautiful late summer's afternoon, and in particular, thanks to Mark Danner for being in Australia and agreeing to be with us this evening. Mark is in Australia talking about his new book, which is available for sale outside the door, with the title, with the disarming title, I think it's fair to say,Stripping Bare the Body. I've heard a couple of Mark's radio interviews where he can go into some detail explaining the etymology and the significance of this title. Maybe someone in the audience will want to ask him about that in the question and answer period.
But to my mind, the interesting thing that I read in the preface to Mark's book, by Louis Begley, the novelist, was this description of Mark's book, which is, and I quote, "A moral history of America's engagement in the world over the past generation." It seems to me that there are actually very few people in the world better equipped than Mark Danner to write such a moral history. He is a magna cum laude graduate from Harvard University, I note in really serious humanities, in modern literatures and aesthetics, but he also took some classes from international relations scholars at Harvard like Guido Goldman and Stanley Hoffman, who no doubt wanted to engage you in the world.
But after Mark graduated from Harvard, he's gone on to have an extraordinary journalistic career, but he's returned to the academy in later life. I don't know whether you'd consider yourself in later life yet, but it's a life long lived already. Mark is a professor of journalism at the University of California Berkeley and also holds a chair in foreign affairs, politics and humanities at Bard College. His professional life as a journalist has a lot of New York in it, which is not surprising, I guess, for somebody born and raised in Upstate New York, in Utica, New York. But Mark has an enormous profile in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, where many of his most important writings have appeared.
In addition to his countless articles, he's the author of five important books, all of which have pretty evocative titles, I think it's fair to say. He wrote The Secret Way to War, on Iraq, Torture and Truth, about the Abu Ghraib prison, The Road to Illegitimacy, about the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election recount in Florida, and The Massacre at El Mozote, about American involvement in the El Salvador civil war. In addition to that, I think you are one of the longest chroniclers of the troubled history of Haiti in investigative journalism, beginning your writing, really, with the fall of Baby Doc Duvalier, I think, in '86, '87, and the Reagan Administration's involvement in the exit of Duvalier.
For all his work, Mark has received, among other things, a National Magazine Award, three Overseas Press awards, and Emmy and a MacArthur genius grant, something all intellectuals of various sorts aspire to, but so very few of us ever get anywhere near a MacArthur genius award.
MD: They do make mistakes, one has to say. [Laughter.]
GG: I can't be thrown off the script there, because this was clearly not a mistake awarding Mark a MacArthur fellowship. I wanted to discuss with Mark some issues that are really on the agenda today for the U.S. and the world, but relying on your experience and your insights into the last 20 or 30 years as a frame to give us some insight into what's going on today and tomorrow. I would like to try to speak in this formal part of the conversation with Mark for no longer than about 20 to 25 minutes, because I'm sure there are going to be lots of questions from people in the audience, so I'll try to get out of the way, except to be a traffic cop to make the Q&A engagement period go as smoothly as possible.
I wanted to ask you, Mark, about, let me see...one, two, three, four really big areas. The state of the American empire: torture and the legacy of September 11, the regime change agenda and all that, and how Barack Obama is doing as U.S. President. So let me see if I can go through those things relatively quickly. Let's start with American empire. You write in your book that "the United States gazes out upon the world with a self-satisfied confidence in the superfluity of its power. The mistakes flowing from its ignorance, it can and does survive, for the costs are borne by the objects of its gaze."
A very nice literary turn of phrase that, but it's a pretty standard critique, I think it's fair to say, of the George W. Bush two presidential terms, the arrogance and ignorance of empire, as many people have termed it. I'm wondering if you think it still applies to Obama's America. The conventional view, of course, I think from both the left and the right, is that Obama is less arrogant, he's less ignorant, but he's also less sure of American primacy. So is the indictment that you've developed over the decades, really of America's global engagement, less true under Obama than before? What's the difference that Barack Obama has made and might make?
MD: Well, I think you've put your finger, Geoff, obviously on the key question about Obama. First, before I try to answer that, I want to thank the United States Study Centre, Geoff and Meredith, and all of you for inviting me here and coming here on this beautiful day to this beautiful, beautiful room, this extraordinary hall, and I'm just happy to sit here. I'm sorry I have to actually try to make sense also, as I enjoy the surroundings.
Let me try to start by pointing to something that Barack Obama did, which I think is one of his most striking acts as President, and I'm talking about the American President, after only four months in office, getting on a plane and flying to Cairo and making a speech in which he addressed the Muslim world, and in particular addressed young Muslims. He had said often during the campaign — and I covered the 2008 Presidential election, so I saw him speak many, many times — he said often that one of the key things he would do as President would be to make an address from a major Muslim capital, and Cairo was chosen.
And indeed, he made a very eloquent, I thought, address. Did anyone here actually see the speech, I'm curious? One maybe. All right, well, I stayed up late in California, actually, and watched the speech — I think it came on at 3:30 in the morning — and was very impressed. He quoted the Koran repeatedly, he talked about democracy, he talked about a new partnership between the United States and the Arab world, he talked about a new beginning. He said a lot of eloquent things, and he made a real start, I think, in turning the corner in what is, however you want to call the war on terror, in essence a political war.
That is to say, it's a war in which people, young Muslims throughout the Muslim world, decide, because of their political beliefs, to take up arms against the United States, and very often against their governments, which they perceive to be supported by the United States. And the way that war will end, if it does end, is not when the United States, using its planes and missiles and soldiers, kills every young Muslim — that will not be how the war ends — it will be at a certain moment when those political decisions are made by fewer and fewer Muslims, that is, people will stop perceiving the United States as an inveterate enemy of theirs in the Muslim world.
Okay, he made the speech, it was very eloquent, it was salutary, it was welcome. I was proud of him, as an American, watching him. But I thought about it afterwards and thought, well, here is this man, a very eloquent man, a young man, 47 years old, very little foreign policy experience at all, making a speech in Cairo. Now, Cairo is one of the two regimes that Osama bin Laden and his compatriots have targeted — the Egyptian regime and the Saudi regime. Both of those are thought to be the key apostate regimes in the Muslim world. They claim to be good Muslims, but in fact are tools of the United States.
Both of them are autocratic. The Mubarak regime, which has been allied closely with the United States for 30 years, has been ruling in a state of emergency for three decades, tortures its citizens freely, highly repressive. Had tortured, famously, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's number two. The Saudi regime also, long-time ally of the United States, an alliance built in a famous meeting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud aboard a cruiser in the Great Bitter Lake during World War II, and that alliance goes back seven decades.
So here you have an American president vowing to make a new partnership with the Muslim world, and yet he is, by definition, the exponent of policies that predate him by decades that ally the United States very tightly with the very autocracies that the jihadists are trying to destroy, and that having failed to destroy directly, that is, having tried to destroy Mubarak's regime directly and the House of Saud directly, have turned to the United States, the far enemy, to destroy them at second hand. That is, the thought is the Mubarak regime, if it didn't have those two billion American dollars every year, would fall. What do we do? We attack the United States, we force the United States out of the Middle East. That is the way we get to the near enemies.
So what can Obama do? He can talk beautifully. He can present a new political face to the Muslim world, and I think he's done that brilliantly. He can serve as a symbol. He is, after all, an African American man, the first to serve as president. He spent a year growing up in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country. His middle name is Hussein. His father was a Muslim. So he can serve as a symbol.
But when you actually get to the pith of American policy, the problem that young Muslims have with the United States, he hasn't begun to alter those policies. In fact, the idea of altering those policies, of stopping this alliance with the Mubarak regime, with the House of Saud, is not even on the agenda in the United States. So has Obama begun to change things? Yes. Is the realm of change large enough to make a critical difference in that war in particular?
At least as far as we can see now, a year into his presidency, the answer to that is no, because you're talking about the U.S., to get back to your question, the U.S. imperial role in the world. And that imperial role was inherited, in the case of the Middle East, from the British in the wake of World War II. The United States essentially took it over — the House of Saud, as I mentioned, during World War II, and then Mubarak, which was an alliance that Kissinger formed in 1973-'74.
So these lineaments, these kind of basic structures of American foreign policy, long predate Obama and are much, much, as it were, greater than he is. And the key question — I'm sorry I'm answering the question at such length — but the key question really is, the question you're asking me really is will Obama be a revolutionary American president.
GG: Okay, so can I focus that question, because that is where I wanted to go.
MD: I thought I was being very focused. Was that not focused?
GG: I'm going to go back to the term "morality."
GG: Because what I think you've been saying about Obama is that there are all theserealpolitik constraints out there in the world, and changing the tone of American foreign policy isn't enough, because a bunch of the underlying structural interests remain the same.
MD: Tone is extremely important.
GG: Tone is extremely important, but I think you, Barack Obama and George Bush might not agree on much, but I think you'd probably all agree that there should be an underlying morality to America's engagement in the world. So Bush had a morality, but people are now calling it a misplaced ideology. It was naÃ¯ve, it was messianic, it had a bunch of properties that don't seem to have worked. Barack Obama would probably — I mean, he's a pragmatist, but I think he'd also say — this is the genius of Obama. I'm a pragmatist, but I'm also an idealist.
It's sometimes easy to be critical — it's always easy to be critical of American foreign policy, whether it's run by Barack Obama or George W. Bush. I wanted to ask you what your moral compass would be that should guide American engagement in the world. You've just been critical of a realpolitik. So what's a moral U.S. foreign policy actually look like? Does it look like Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s? Are there any exemplars you'd look to, or would you have to come up with something new yourself?
MD: God, these are rather difficult questions. Essentially you're saying put up or shut up, you know, what would you do?
GG: I'm not that eloquent. I couldn't figure out how to say that.
MD: [Laughs.] I'm giving you some American pragmatism there.
GG: Oh, there you go.
MD: Put up or shut up. You know, I agree with you completely that George W. Bush was an extremely moralistic president. There's no question about that. He had very broad moral goals, and in the sentence you quoted from the introduction to Stripping Bare the Body, I pointed out that the rest of the world has suffered for that morality. And very often during the U.S.'s imperial period, if we want to call it that, since the Second World War, that has been the case. Imperial powers do that. They put the cost of their mistakes on others.
I think that the combination of realism and moralism that you point out, that you find in Obama, is quite common to those successful U.S. presidents. One of them would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, who was very much a realist in his fighting of the Second World War, and also began the UN and many of the other multilateral institutions with which the U.S. was associated and with which it embedded its power really up until the George W. Bush administration, which was unique in postwar American history in its obsession with unilateralism. I think that distinguishes the George W. Bush administration as much as its moralism.
GG: So morality and moralism are synonyms in American...?
MD: No. No, I wouldn't say at all.
GG: Sorry, you said morality and multilateralism. That's not the game? There's something bigger to the game?
MD: I think multilateralism, if it works well — you know, we're talking here about the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, all the institutions that the United States helped construct after the Second World War and really embedded its power, so it wasn't a unilateral power. And you know when you put it in those terms, you get the fact that this was a realist policy as well.
It was the people who, the so-called wise men, the people who formed American foreign policy after the Second World War — Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, George Marshall and others perceived that the U.S., if it was going to be the great power on the world stage, and remain a great power, the laws of realism meant that other powers would gang up, as it were, to counterbalance it. And embedding its power in institutions was thought to be a way to increase its power, in effect, so it was both idealistic and realist at the same time.
But let me try to get to your sadistically difficult question. Jimmy Carter I would not, and no one would, flaunt as an example of a successful U.S. president. Nonetheless, I think his human rights policy was salutary, and I think it did an awful lot of good, particularly in Latin America, where I reported a fair amount, and where you meet people all the time who regard Carter as a kind of secular saint. Usually those people were in very horrible prisons or in very horrible torture centers, and they were sprung from those by Jimmy Carter.
And Haiti, which you mentioned, and which I began reporting on when Duvalier was thrown out, ending a 30 year dictatorship, a horrible dictatorship, incredible sort of master of terror in that country, as I write about a lot, part of the reason he was overthrown in '86 was because of tendencies that had begun and had been nourished under the umbrella of the human rights policy of Carter. Was Carter successful? No. Would a successful U.S. policy have to, in some way, encourage the development of democratic institutions in a very broad sense, not through invasion, which of course George Bush did in Iraq? Yes, I think that's true.
Because I think, to go back to my answer to your first question, when you point to the Mubarak regime, for example, if you center that in the House of Saud as well, as the key problem when you talk about the war on terror, what is the actual issue here, it is autocracies in the Arab world and the quarrel that Osama bin Laden has with them. It seems to me the problem there, when it comes to U.S. policy, has to do with what political scientists call political modernization. It's a very condescending term, of course.
But the implication being how do you take the Mubarak autocracy, 30 years of a state of state of emergency, horrible prisons, torture, an elite, very sclerotic elite, how do you take that and make it some way into a more representative government in which people have some hope of advancement, in which there's hope among young people, in which the thousands of people who graduate from Egypt's very active universities have some hope of progress.
You know, oddly enough, George W. Bush proposed the Iraq invasion as an answer to the general question I just identified. Can't do it in Egypt. Too complicated, you know. They're our ally. We'll do it in Iraq. Was he sincere about fighting a war for democracy? A lot of you will scoff at that, but I happen to believe the president actually did believe in that. This is not to say that there were not other reasons for the Iraq war, including realist reasons, including oil reasons. It's absolutely true. But it was perceived, particularly by the president himself, I believe, because his ideas on foreign policy were simple and clear. He saw this as answer to an ideological problem.
Condoleezza Rice put it this way: how do you act in such a way to give the region's young people, and particularly its young men, hope so they will stop thinking that the solution to their problems is driving airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington? And one of those reasons is you open up the political system, you create some kind of representative government, you destroy the sclerotic, deeply distressed world of Arab autocracy, which the U.S. has supported for half a century, so it was a completely contradictory policy.
But I'm saying that U.S. foreign policy, to be successful, has to have a moral element that is not materialistic, that encouraged democratic development, that encourages representative government. And of course the key question becomes — and we saw this during the Cold War when it came to Latin America and Latin American autocracies, and the fear of communist takeover, if you had a democratic opening — how do you, in Egypt, have democratic development that doesn't put fundamentalists in power? The kind of problem is actually quite homologous to the Cold War problem of communism and democratic openings.
Now, from my point of view, I think the Muslim Brotherhood, who everybody seems to agree, if there were a truly free election in Egypt, would win, I think, frankly, that would be a salutary development. I don't think that would...you know, that's like the Huns overrunning the temple. I don't agree with that. I think that the U.S., when Hamas won the election on the West Bank in Gaza, the U.S. should have worked with Hamas and it should have encouraged the Israelis to work with Hamas because Hamas suddenly had constituencies to answer to, and it had to deliver democratic results. And by shunning Hamas, by refusing to work with Hamas, the U.S. gave this political grouping an excuse to be repressive.
GG: That was a very interesting election. You've elided, thus far, democracy and morality, but in your own work—
MD: Have I? [Laughs.]
GG: —in your own work you obviously, the torture issue and hypocrisy, moral hypocrisy, looms very large, so I wanted to ask you a question about torture and the legacy of September 11, beginning with your own quotation about it, again from the book, which is you say, "Go beyond the laws broken and the treaties violated. It is hard to think of a dynamic more corrosive of the liberal idea of government, a government limited in its power, prevented by its basic philosophy and its laws from violating the autonomy of the individual."
So the charge is out there that I think you're making and many others have made, and certainly it's one that resonates around the world, that the biggest global problem with the American response to September 11 is hypocrisy. You were supposed to be defending freedom, but you violated the freedoms of detainees, prisoners of war and others through terrorism.
President Obama, of course, said exactly the same thing. But as you know, the president has run into some difficulties. He's not been able to close Guantanamo Boy, he has not been able to try detainees in criminal courts on the American mainland, and he seems to be unwilling to push hard for a high level inquiry into how torture happened, leaving open the possibility of prosecution of senior Bush officials. What kind of grade are you giving the Obama Administration regarding its response to torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and all of that, this extraordinarily sad piece of recent American history?
MD: Well, at the moment I'd have to give it a failing grade, absolutely. You know, the most egregious remnant, or the most egregious development in our political life as a result of September 11th is the fact nearly a decade later that apparently a majority of Americans truly believe the country cannot be kept safe, and they cannot be kept safe, while following the law. Torture was not something that was done, it's something that is done. In other words, it has become part of the American system. We have two major political parties. One of them has a view on torture that is absolutely clear. It's for it. I'm talking about the Republican Party. They are for what are called—
GG: Dick Cheney is very happy to say this in public.
MD: He is, indeed. He said it ten days after leaving office. Ten days after the new president took power, the former vice president said this publicly and he said it repeatedly. And unfortunately, he is not some kind of crazed prophet howling in the wilderness. He has had a very substantial effect on the Republican Party which, as I say, is squarely in favor of what are called EITs, extreme interrogation techniques.
So one major political party is very clear on torture. It's for it. It doesn't call it torture, but it is torture. The story is extremely well-known now. It's documented with great thoroughness. I published a book on it, as you mentioned, in 2004, six years ago, two-thirds of which is documents setting out how the torture policy was arrived at, what particularly it consisted of, how the lawyers justified it. We have known this for at least a half dozen years in great detail.
So one political party is strongly for it, the other major political party, the one in power, the Democrats, is ambivalent...is ambivalent. Barack Obama has spoken eloquently — and I give him credit for this — against torture and in favor of the proposition that one doesn't have to choose between security and human rights and the law, because one should say the law, that the United States has made substantial international undertakings not to torture, including signing the convention against torture and implementing domestic statutes that forbid it in line with that convention. So he has said the right things.
The development that's so interesting over the last year — and when I say said the right things, I'm not talking about just making a speech. His second full day in office, he signed three executive orders — this was live on television — vowing to close Guantanamo prison within a year, vowing not to torture, and vowing to set up a new interrogation regime. All of this was done with great pomp and display. And it was striking to see it because essentially this stuff has been in the news, but presidents have been pretty loath to talk about it, except for George W. Bush, when he spoke for it, and said we don't torture, and then, in effect, said that we do. You know, it was kind of a wink.
During the last year, President Obama, having stated these goals, has been frustrated, as you say, in almost all of them. Closing Guantanamo has been blocked. Congress has refused to vote him the money. It doesn't mean it won't happen, but it's been slowed down. He has missed his deadline. The tentative efforts to perhaps investigate some of those who did the torturing — and this was extensive action. Probably a hundred or more detainees were fairly severely tortured. There is, in effect, no real investigation into those activities.
There is a special prosecutor who is looking into the destruction of videotapes or video recordings of these interrogations that were destroyed, and as part of his brief he's supposed to look into those interrogators who went beyond the very broad limits of what the Bush Administration allowed, which included water boarding. Very, very harsh, horrible stuff.
They're supposed to, if...in some cases where interrogators went beyond this, for example where they threatened to rape the wife of a detainee who was in custody, where they threatened to kill the children of a detainee who was in prison naked in a black site being kept awake for seven, ten days at a time, who racked a gun, a semiautomatic pistol next to a detainee's ear. He had a hood on, was naked, hands chained to the ceiling, feet chained to the floor. Interrogator came in and went, "Chk-chk, I'm gonna blow your brains out now. You're going to die now," put the gun to his temple.
Well, that is illegal. You can water board, you can do all these other things, but that's illegal. So perhaps the investigations will take in that. But the basic policy that allowed water boarding, that allowed long-term sleep deprivation, that allowed walling and beatings of various kinds, that allowed keeping people up for two weeks, three weeks at a time — think of that for a moment — that basic policy is, for all intents and purposes, still legal in the United States, so torture has gone from being an anathema to being a policy choice.
And Obama, who would clearly like to change this, in his very tentative efforts to move against it, has been attacked ferociously at every turn. So we have a situation where the politics of fear, you know, it's the most lucrative political emotion in a democracy, fear. And the politics of fear, which the Republicans used very effectively under George W. Bush, and were quite explicit about using it, continue and have been essentially installed as a permanent feature of American politics.
And torture's persistence — it's not being used now, according to the administration, but it could be — is essentially an artifact of those politics of fear. So we have a kind of disfiguring of our political system that I, at this point, I've talked about this as a state of exception, a kind of soft martial law. And the great problem, really, if you think about politics and morality in the United States, in that democracy, is how we will escape the state of exception. And at this point, I don't know the answer.
GG: I want to end by asking you about Barack Obama's aspirations versus the shackles that he seems to be under. We've had a long conversation, and I did promise to get everyone else engaged, the increasing numbers of people who are here engaged as soon as possible.
MD: Has it been a long conversation? It seems to me to have just begun.
GG: Unless my watch is going quickly, time is marching on. But I did want to ask you a couple of put up or shut up questions on Iraq and Afghanistan. An interesting thing has happened in the U.S. After five years of it being all Iraq all the time, no one cares about Iraq anymore. We are now sitting in an environment in Iraq where there's going to be an election in a couple of weeks. The Sunni parties seem to have been excluded. They're telling their voters not to turn out.
People are concerned that the likely winning party in leadership is going to look a lot like an Iran inspired radical Islamist government. People talk about the possibility of a real civil war breaking out in Iraq. But Barack Obama rose to prominence with pristine anti-Iraq credentials saying getting out of Iraq is what we've got to do, and come hell or high water, I'm withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq later this year. Is that the right policy?
MD: The honest answer to that question is it's too soon to tell. It depends what will happen in this election. I'm worried about the election because, I mean, you've described very well the central political problem in Iraq, which is the disenfranchisement, in effect, of a Sunni minority that has always run the country in its history as an independent state. And that was the problem in political hydraulics when the Americans invaded, not how to remove Saddam Hussein. That was not the big problem.
The big problem was how do you establish, in some form, a representative government which would put the majority Shia parties in power, in one form or another, and do it in such a way that you will have a loyal opposition, which is to say a Sunni minority, which has always held power, and now would be put in the position of being a permanent minority. How do you secure their rights? How do you make them a loyal opposition?
And the Bush Administration invaded as if they'd never given that a moment's thought. And since the invasion, we've had essentially civil war for several years. The United States finally stepped in in 2006 and essentially bought the insurgency. Well, actually, they rented the insurgency, which of course is the great problem, they didn't buy it. They hired the Sunni insurgency. They started paying them, literally, $300 a month, all these insurgents, under the idea that eventually the Iraqi government would be able to rent the insurgency and somehow bring them into the government. But the Shias have been reluctant to do that, as you say.
And I have a fairly dark view of what the future is going to be there. It remains an extremely violent country. You have very large-scale car bombings every other week or so. They barely make the newspapers in the United States. American amnesia, you know, the American gaze, like a great spotlight, has moved on, and the ruins have been left in darkness. But I think, to go back to your question, Obama is pushing forward on the policy that he declared, and that, by the way, George W. Bush also agreed with, of a deadline on the withdrawal of American "combat troops," quote, unquote. It's unclear what exactly that means.
GG: Fifty thousand or so residual [Americans] in a combat role.
MD: Exactly. Well, this is what they're saying. I mean, it's very clear. You know, you're quite right. The president bought his political credibility with dovishness on Iraq that he paid for, by the way, with hawkishness on Afghanistan.
GG: Don't preempt my next question.
MD: Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'll shut up and let you ask it.
GG: Well, I mean, obviously I wouldn't disagree with anything, really, you've said about Iraq. It seems to be a problem that's going to get worse in an environment where Americans are paying less attention.
GG: Not obeying the Colin Powell doctrine—
MD: Well, wait a minute—
GG: What did he call it? The Pottery Barn Colin Powell doctrine.
MD: Yes, you break it, you own it.
GG: You break it, you own it.
MD: Well, you know, you're right, I didn't really answer your question. My answer, I guess, would be...obviously the first answer I gave was we don't know; it depends on the results of the election. My general view of this is the Iraqis, one way or another, are going to be governing themselves, and that the Americans ought to get out of the way, if they possibly can. The problem with that, I mean, that sort of delightfully simple little locution I just gave, is that a civil war in Iraq, a full-scale civil war, will almost inevitably become a regional civil war, simply because Iraq is one of those places — Yugoslavia is another — where you have a kind of civilizational dividing line cutting directly through the country, Sunnis on one side, Shia on the other.
You follow the Shia, you end up in Iran, so you have an enormous Shia population of 70 million over the border. You follow the Sunnis, you end up in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, so you have an enormous Sunni population that way. And if, indeed, it looks like the Sunnis are going to be crushed by the Shia government, which it could very quickly look like, because indeed the Shia kicked the Sunnis out of Baghdad, basically — you had a battle of Baghdad that the Sunnis essentially lost — if that war starts again, it's quite likely that the Saudis, the Syrians, almost certainly, and perhaps the Jordanians, will support the Sunni side, so you'll have a war that will not be confined to Iraq itself, but will have very large regional implications, and the U.S., as the imperial power of the region, would consider that to be directly against its interests, particularly against its involvement with the Saudis. So I think that as a practical matter, if the election leads to larger-scale violence, you'll have a slowdown in that withdrawal.
GG: In the interest of time, I will not ask you about Afghanistan. Maybe someone in the audience will. As you know, this is a big issue in Australia. Australia's combat troops are out of Iraq, but they're in Afghanistan. The Dutch seem to be pulling out of the province where Australia is doing the heavy lifting. I would imaging that this will become an increasingly important issue in Australia.
But let me end, as I suggested I might, with some paradoxes about Barack Obama. In the context of an Obama visit to Australia next month, which seems to me is likely to be the biggest foreign visit to Australia since Queen Elizabeth came to commemorate the bicentenary of Australia in 1970. I mean, this is going to be a very big deal. And it just underlines, to me, a couple of paradoxes.
The first one is that Barack Obama remains so much more popular outside the U.S. than he ever was inside the U.S. The Economist had something that said that if the electoral college had been a global one, Obama would have won 7,050 to zero rather than how he did in the U.S. So more popular abroad than at home, but then at home the other paradox is that Obama still seems to have this personal political capital that isn't proving enough to get things done, to bring the country, to bring the Congress with him.
Do you think the promise of President Obama is sort of running on empty now, or is there going to be a real bounce? Is it just unemployment in the U.S.? Is the world's confidence in Obama's ability to change America and the world still justified, given what we now know 13 months into the Obama presidency?
MD: Well, I agree that he remains immensely popular abroad, and it's fascinating. The Nobel Peace Prize I think was a representation of kind of not only the hope for Obama, but the nightmare that was Bush for the way the rest of the world looked at Bush, that he represented a kind of nightmare of an American power that was bound only by its own power, only by the extent of its own power, not by law, not by anything else. So it seemed to me that the awarding of the Nobel Prize was an embodiment of what you're pointing to.
Having said that, I think we should underline the fact that he remains very popular in the United States. I mean, his approval ratings now stand around 50%. George W. Bush, for two and a half years, was under 30%, so Obama still remains a very popular politician.
GG: Yeah, but there's a cliché on that one that people throw out, which is that Barack Obama, at this stage in his administration, is less popular than any president since Gerald Ford, who had to deal with exits from Saigon and Watergate.
MD: That's right. Well, he pardoned Nixon. That was Ford's big problem.
GG: Pardoned Nixon, yes, so...
MD: But I think that reflects...obviously comparing poll numbers is a very tricky business, but the general degree of presidential popularity is down since that time. But you're pointing to, I think, a bigger question, which is the American system itself is in trouble. The most obvious embodiment of that is that the Republicans are filibustering every single bill in the Senate, which essentially means...it's a kind of hoary old parliamentary technique which really comes down to the ability to demand a super majority, 60 votes, to pass legislation. It used to only be used in very, very special cases.
In fact, ironically enough, or maybe not ironically enough, the key way that a filibuster was used in American history was to prevent civil rights reform. Segregationist senators — Democrats, by the way — would block any effort to allow African Americans to vote by using the filibuster. So there's a great irony that this, for the first time, is used in a thoroughgoing way — this has never happened before — with the arrival of an African American president. Not enough people, I think, observe this. But the effect is that though the Democrats have a very strong majority, they are unable to pass major legislation.
Now, Obama came in...it seems to me important to point out that the difficulties he's having, in a sense, are a representation or a...I don't know what I would call it...of the forces that allowed him to take office. Obama is the thing that we need to thank George W. Bush for. Obama is the fulfillment of his lack of popularity. George W. Bush, for two and a half years, was as unpopular as any president has been, which allowed something historic to happen: a 47-year-old African American politician with very little experience at the national level — he'd only been a senator for a couple of years — was elected President of the United States. It's an incredible thing.
And I guess what I'm trying to emphasize here, it only could have happened with the kind of mess and disaster — a deeply unpopular war, and economic catastrophe of worldwide proportions, perhaps unprecedented since the Great Depression, a degree of political disgust in the country that was unprecedented — all those things came together to make it possible to elect Obama.
GG: But can he rise out of the mire? Can he bring the country out of the mire?
MD: Well, having been elected, he had to cope with the mire, first of all, and he's doing that now. I happen to be...as I had mentioned at the beginning, I covered the election campaign. I have a very high opinion of Obama's political skills. I think also it should be remembered he is learning on the job. He's very young. He has been a national politician for only a couple of years, and he is learning his way in an extremely dysfunctional political environment. Do I think he can raise himself from the mire? Yeah, I actually do. Here go you, we'll get it on tape.
I think he is going to pass the healthcare bill. I think that that will be recognized, in a matter of weeks or perhaps months afterwards, as an extremely significant political achievement, not to say historic, which is what it will be called in the United States, that hasn't been seen since Lyndon B. Johnson passed Medicare in the mid '60s. I think they will run on this and will not do quite so badly in the elections as people say. And yeah, I actually am, against all sane appearances, rather optimistic about him. I don't know, maybe this is the kind of dogged optimism that comes from covering massacres and torture and disasters.
GG: This is an equal opportunity optimism. After all, 1981 and 1982 were terrible years for Ronald Reagan, and he bounced back. Maybe some people would hope that Obama bounces back and bounces in a different way than Reagan did. And of course Obama is a big fan of Reagan. He's a bigger fan of Reagan than of Bill Clinton, because he thought that Reagan had these big aspirations and could move the country and appeal to the country directly over Congress, all that kind of stuff, rather than being a triangulator, which is something he doesn't want to be.
MD: My feeling is that Obama said that about Clinton and Reagan in part just to piss off Clinton.
GG: Hillary Clinton—
GG: Or Bill, yeah. That's right, 2008 was a tough year.
MD: It was a very tough year. The one thing I think we can say is if Obama bounces back as Reagan bounced back, Obama will bounce in a different way than Reagan did.
GG: I think that's bound to be true, and I think for a lot of people in the world, obviously, there's great hope still that that is what happens. So first question, please.
Q: You've talked a bit about the Middle East already. I'd like to refocus the attention there for a moment. You said Obama's learning on the job. Do you think he's learning on the job in his negotiations with the Israelis? He called for a settlement freeze. The Israelis seem to have called his bluff on there. The settlements really are going on. You just have to read the Israeli press every day. But the Americans seem to have gone quiet on that. Do you have any sense where that's going to go?
MD: Well, it's a very good question. I think that was one of a series of mistakes they made on coming into office. I think Netanyahu, it could have been predicted that he would call their bluff, given the makeup of the current government in Israel. And I think most people who know more about these matters than I do thought it wasn't a particularly propitious time to send George Mitchell, who's the special envoy in the Middle East, to make a major initiative in that area.
On the other hand, I can see how, looking at it from Obama's point of view, he wanted to essentially show that there was new wind in the American sails when it came to the Middle East, when it came to Iran, when it came to Afghanistan as well, which we never did talk about. And I think this was part of that. I don't think it is a propitious time, not only on the Israeli side, but on the Palestinian side. The problem is the chance for a so-called two state solution is slipping away, essentially.
GG: As a journalist, are you concerned that the Mossad, the purported Mossad attack in Dubai, with now Australian passports, U.K. passports, German passports, French passports, is this potentially a really big issue, or is it going to pass?
MD: Well, I hate to say it, but people are so used to the Israelis doing these things that they almost take it—
GG: But it's on tape and we have the passports now, so it looks like it could be qualitatively different.
MD: Well, it could, but remember that Netanyahu has been there before. His last term in office they tried to assassinate Meshal. King Hussein, at the time, was so angry about it he demanded...you know, they sprayed poison in his ear, and Hussein was so angry about it — this happened in Oman — he demanded that an antidote be sent and that his life be saved, which it was, and the head of Mossad at the time was forced to resign. Could that happen again? Absolutely. But I think it depends on what you're talking about when you talk about how big will it be.
I'm shocked by the kind of incompetence of...you know, Mossad has this enormous reputation, and the idea that they used passports that could have been traced to current passport holders strikes me as astonishing. I'm sure there's some tradecraft reason for it, but I'm shocked by it. But will it continue to have repercussions? I don't know. It's a great story, so it will continue to be covered in the press, if there are a series of disclosures that continue to come out. And of course that will partly depend on what kind of enemies Mossad has in Israel, because there's going to have to be a continuing leaking of information.
GG: Absolutely. Next question.
Q: I have a question about the history of the use of torture by the United States. Torture, of course, is nothing new anyplace, and it frankly surprises me that this is something that George Bush came up with the first time. What do we know about earlier uses of the American government's uses of torture?
MD: Well, it's completely true that it's nothing new. And some of the techniques, like water boarding, go back to the Inquisition or farther — were used by the French in Algeria, were used by the Argentines. The protocol itself that was used by the CIA seems to have derived from the Red Chinese, as we called them at the time, during the Korean War, and the Soviets. We know where this stuff came from. It isn't new. You're quite right. You might be referring to the U.S. in Latin America, where the U.S. was involved in training some regimes who used torture. That's a matter of record.
I have to say, though, that I would like to emphasize that this particular use of it, it seems to me, is quite different in kind. And I mean by that that the American government, broadly speaking, legalized torture, complete with memos written by Department of Justice lawyers, one of whom, John Yoo, is my colleague on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley. Those memos you can read. I urge anyone here interested in the law to read them. They're remarkable documents.
But the fact is that this was made officially legal, and the sessions with Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of the more prominent early prisoners who were tortured in the black sites were reported on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, not only to the top levels of the CIA, including the Deputy Director and the Director of Central Intelligence at the time, George Tenant, but were conveyed to the Principals Committee across the Potomac and the White House, which included the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, National Security Advisor, Vice President, and on some occasions, the President. So we're talking about responsibility for this being spread broadly and very, very high, and legalized, and that, I think, is unprecedented, and I think it's a very significant distinction.
GG: Okay, so I'm looking at my watch. Given the number of people who want to speak and the size of the audience that remains, maybe we'll run over a few minutes from our anointed 7:00 unless...
MD: It's fine with me.
GG: Not very long, so if we can all try to be extremely disciplined here and there.
MD: [Laughs.] I'll do my best.
GG: Well thought through, but not too [much].
MD: The questions are too good, that's the problem.
GG: Okay, next question.
Q: I didn't hear any mention of the United Nations, and seeing as George Bush tried for the UN to get approval to go into Iraq, but failed and took the war into his own hands, or the law into his own hands, how do you think Obama and America more generally might deal with the United Nations in the future, and its observance of United Nations views?
MD: Well, I did actually mention the United Nations a couple of times. Americans have a rather ambivalent view about the United Nations, and the institution is a favorite whipping boy on the right. The right, when it's in power, including Reagan, tried to defund it. It's sort of the great...for those who support American unilateralism in American power, the UN is the great bogeyman. You know, "Why should we do what a bunch of dictatorships and tyrannies tell us we should do?"
And this goes back a hundred years in American policy. It's one of the reasons why the U.S. didn't join the League of Nations and why the UN has a permanent Security Council with veto power. That's basically to get the United States as a member of the United Nations. That's where the Security Council comes from.
It's true that Obama, it seems to me, has a lot more respect for the UN. He is much more multilateralist in his thinking. Whether, if it came to a situation where there was an attack on the U.S., whether the United States would necessarily follow UN precepts or not I think remains an open question. But it certainly is much more likely under Barack Obama than it was under George W. Bush.
It should be said, by the way, that the Bush Administration did go to the UN on Iraq. Many in the administration didn't want to do that. They were essentially pushed by Tony Blair. And Dick Cheney, if he had his way, would have ignored the UN completely.
GG: And it is the case, of course, that the only one of Obama's close foreign policy advisors who made it into the cabinet is Susan Rice, who's the ambassador to the UN.
MD: That's right. Yeah, good point.
GG: But she's been rather silent, it seems to me.
MD: She's very low profile, that's true.
Q: I have a question about a current development in American politics. I was wondering how you would evaluate the influence and the effect of the Tea Party movement, both on the Obama Administration and coming Congressional elections.
MD: Well, that's a great question. I think the Tea Party movement has had a rather dramatic effect, most of all in the Republican Party. The Republican Party was in a terrible state after the 2008 election. It lacked any national leadership. In fact, its most influential figures were really Rush Limbaugh, a radio host, and Glenn Beck, a television host. You laugh. You laugh at your peril.
GG: Highest rated shows in the United States, aren't they? The two highest rated political shows.
MD: On cable. On cable television, yes, absolutely. So these were very influential figures. The Tea Party has kind of come in. You know, it's heir to a long tradition in American politics of kind of populist rabblerousing. The closest parallel to it in recent years was the Perot movement in '92, which, by the way, helped elect Bill Clinton. Perot got 19% of the vote, which is the most since 1912 for a third party candidate. Anyway, I think its influence has been very significant. Its influence was very strong in electing Scott Brown, a senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy's old seat, and I think that it has driven the Republican Party to the right.
And the odd thing is, if my analysis of where the future of Obama is true, if he comes back in the way I've suggested, the Tea Party movement will help the Democrats by indeed pushing the Republican Party to the right, in other words, getting rid of moderate candidates and nominating much more extreme ones. Somebody's running against John McCain, for example, in Arizona, the last nominee of the Party. So whether that will happen or not, I don't know. I think a lot depends on healthcare. But it's a fascinating movement. And Sarah Palin's relationship to it is fascinating as well.
GG: Okay, perhaps this...and mindful of time, why don't we go for this as the last question. I'm sorry.
MD: I promise to answer quickly. I hate to have the people standing there sit down.
GG: All right. Okay, we're going to be really fast, so everyone who's being so polite in staying, we'll liberate you to the late afternoon very soon, I promise. Okay, fast questions, fast answers.
Q: I also wanted to ask about the alliance with Israel and Middle Eastern peace, and I'm interested in what you were sort of about to say about the possibility of a two state solution faltering, so I encourage you to finish that. But I also wanted to just quickly—-
GG: No add-ons.
Q: The crux of it was the relationship between the U.S. and Palestinians, and the western Palestinians, and why is it that the West seems unable to talk to the Palestinians? It seems such an obvious thing that needs to happen, I can't understand why they don't do it.
MD: I should say that I'm signing books after here, and you don't have to talk quite so quickly. I'm happy to talk to you afterwards. But I'll try to answer that. I think the two state solution is slipping away basically because of demographic pressures. That is, already in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, it's a majority Arab population. At a certain point, Israel is going to be a minority population state, minority Jewish, ruling over a majority Arab, most of whom are disenfranchised.
And by the same token, at a certain point it will serve the Arab cause more to push for a democratic solution, because they will, indeed, have power in Palestine. As far as talking to the Palestinians, again, that's a complicated question. The U.S. does talk to the Palestinians frequently and regularly, so there's no problem with not talking to the Palestinians. The big problem is Palestinian political fragmentation, which the U.S. has not been smart enough, most recently under the Bush Administration, to discourage. But that's a big question.
GG: Okay, thank you.
Q: Thank you, Mark. Your Rush Limbaugh, I refer to him as Rush "Limbo," because he keeps dropping the moral bar lower and lower. But I just wanted to ask, just following on from the Tea Party question, in a way, the demographic changes in the United States have forced some even Republican strategists to say the Republicans might even become irrelevant because of the influx of Latino Americans energizing the African American base with Obama that's swinging the demographics, the voting demographics much towards the Democrats.
Do you think that there will be some seismic change as a result, and we're seeing the Tea Party movement as a reaction, in a sense, to this imminent threat? And can you see some really large changes in terms of activating Americans in terms of their political involvement and the subsequent mass changes that might make?
MD: Well, that's really two questions. I think it bears remembering that only three years ago Karl Rove was still talking about building a permanent Republican majority, so, you know, one makes predictions like that of a rump party and an irrelevant party very much at one's peril. And I think that American politics, on the one hand, is sclerotic and nasty and dysfunctional. On the other hand, it's immensely fluid, so I wouldn't want to make a prediction.
Particularly you pointed out the role of Latino voters. The idea that they are permanently Democrat I think is completely mistaken. I think that is a part of the electorate that will be...a smart Republican nominee will fight hard for those. Actually, Bush did.
GG: Because they're so socially conservative.
MD: Exactly. They're there for the taking, as perhaps African Americans are not. But thank you. It's a good question.
Q: To what extent do you think that the President's Joint Chiefs of Staff or other military advisors separate policymaking from giving actual military advice?
GG: I presume you're thinking about the infamous Afghanistan case where we had the generals lobbying in public for the president—
Q: Yes. The idea is that they're separated, but in reality, do you think it is that easy to separate them?
GG: How did that one all go, that Afghanistan decision in the second half of last year?
MD: Yeah, that's a fascinating, and again, quite a complicated question. Geoff's referring to the controversy between Stanley McChrystal, who was Obama's chosen general. Obama actually fired the general in Afghanistan, which is almost unprecedented in American history. Truman fired McArthur, and I think that's the only other parallel you could give — and hired McChrystal, whose great forte is counterinsurgency.
McChrystal argued strongly that if 30,000 more troops or 40,000 more troops weren't sent to Afghanistan, failure would be produced. And General Eikenberry, who was a former general running things in Afghanistan, and who is now the ambassador in Kabul, sent a couple of cables which essentially argued the opposite, and said the Afghan government is so dysfunctional that the U.S. shouldn't be sending more troops until that particular problem could be solved, so we had an argument going on—
GG: But they weren't doing it in chain of command privacy. This is in the world press the next day, which is pretty unprecedented, so...
MD: That's true. Absolutely. Although to be fair, the McChrystal thing happened in response to a question in London. Because I haven't reported that myself, I'm not sure how much...people generally think, well, this is the generals pissing on one another, and, you know, how incredible, but I'm not absolutely sure how much one can rely on that conclusion. I mean, it definitely was a rather unusual spectacle, there's no question about it.
To go back to your question about policymaking, there are all sorts of examples. Colin Powell, who Geoff was talking about earlier, is a great example of this. During the Bosnia war, Colin Powell essentially, whenever there became discussion of going into Bosnia and stopping this genocide which we were watching on our television screens, Colin Powell would go public and basically say, as he said at one point, "When I hear politicians talking about surgical strikes, I head for my bunker," he said.
And he's a man who had great political influence at the time. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and he wrote an op-ed piece essentially saying don't going into Bosnia. Now, that was unprecedented. I don't think it had ever happened before. And is he supposed to do that? No, absolutely he's not. But are these guys — and they mostly are guys — willing to do it on some occasions? Absolutely.
The other example is the so-called generals revolt, which happened under George W. Bush, when you had a number of very senior people come out and say that Rumsfeld should be fired, which again was, I think, unprecedented in American history. I don't think anything like that had ever happened. So I think the gist of your question is, the implication that this idea that we're not talking about politics, we're only talking about military policy is very murky.
And by the way, the last example happened very recently when Admiral Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, came out and very strongly put forward a position saying that the gays in the military policy, "don't ask, don't tell," which essentially bans gays who admit their sexual preference from serving in the military, the admiral said that policy should be ended. He said this publicly in front of Congress, and he said that's my personal opinion. It was actually a remarkable moment. But was it about policy? It absolutely was about policy. Anyway, it's a fascinating question and I wish I could say more, but soon we'll all have to be having dinner here, so I should... [Laughs.]
GG: The bad news is that the formal part of our proceedings, unfortunately, have to end. The good news is that Mark is going to be signing books, and from what I can tell, very happy to engage with you all more after the session. So I want to thank everyone for coming this afternoon, but especially to Mark for giving not only so much of his time so generously, but also so much food for thought for us all. Thank you very much, Mark, for being here.
MD: Thank you. It was a great pleasure. [Applause.]
[End of recording.]