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Gareth Porter: Obama and Romney debate a false narrative about US foreign policy

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JIHAN HAFIZ, PRODUCER AND REPORTER, TRNN: Thank you for joining The Real News here in Baltimore. My name is Jihan Hafiz. And you’re watching The Porter Report.

This week we have Gareth Porter. He’s a historian and investigative journalist on U.S. foreign and military policy. He writes regularly for the Inter Press Service on U.S. policy towards Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This year he was awarded the Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. And he is a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Gareth, thank you so much for joining us.

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thanks for having me again, Jihan.

HAFIZ: Of course.

PORTER: Glad to hear your voice.

HAFIZ: Good to see you as well. And this week we’re going to talk a little bit about U.S. foreign policy in regards to the elections, as the debate’s focusing on U.S. foreign policy was just this week. Now, there has been lots of reporting on this in the mainstream media news, and of course they tend to agree with the fact that President Obama won this debate. But also in other networks they suggest that there’s not much difference between President Obama and Mitt Romney when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Can you talk a little bit about that, please, Gareth?

PORTER: Well, of course the coverage in the news media of the presidential and vice presidential debates has been overwhelmingly focused on the horse race aspect of the debates—in fact, I would say virtually entirely on the horse race. Who did better? Who won? Did either Obama or Romney, you know, really give such a great account of himself that he clearly emerged victorious? Did one or the other say something or a whole series of things that showed that they were really not clued in or somehow not energetic enough? All those were the substance of the coverage of these debates.

What interests me, however, is the fact that the entire range of discussions in these debates, both presidential and vice presidential, elicited such a high degree of misleading and simply untrue statements, some of which was, you know, fact-checked by the news media, but much of which simply went unnoticed. And, you know, I would point to both Afghanistan and Iran as the best examples of the kinds of issues where there were statements made by both the candidates that are clearly, you know, misleading to the American people.

Just to take the Afghanistan War example first, you know, you had in a vice presidential debate the vice presidential—Republican vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, talking about how the United States military needs to have more troops for a longer period of time in Afghanistan so that the United States can ensure that it will have a successful result. This, of course, is really pulling the wool over the eyes of the American people, leading them to believe that somehow there’s a relationship between how many troops the United States keeps in Afghanistan over the next year or 18 months and the outcome of that war, when in fact it is absolutely clear to anyone who is following this closely (and I include in this generalization the colonels and the generals themselves who are in Afghanistan, except for the four-stars and maybe three-starred generals whose careers are on the line who have to believe that they’re doing a good thing there) that everyone else understands that this makes no difference, that the outcome is not going to be determined by the presence of U.S. troops. They’ve done their thing. They’ve been—you know, we had the 30,000-, 35,000-troop surge. They’ve come home now. And recently a senior U.S. official was quoted in The New York Times over the last couple of days, in fact, as saying that, you know, the American people should know, but they haven’t been told, that when the United States pulls all its troops out, the Taliban are going to move back into those zones, those districts that they were kicked out of by the occupying U.S. troops in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. So, I mean, that really spells the defeat for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But neither candidate was willing to even come close to recognizing that fact. And, of course, President Obama and Vice President Biden simply told the American people, well, we’re getting out; I promised we’d get out, and we are getting out; whereas in fact the intention very clearly is to leave 10,000 or more special operations forces in Afghanistan for an, you know, at this point undetermined period of years. So on both sides we’re basically lying to the American people on Afghanistan.

HAFIZ: Gareth, I want to ask you a bit about Iran, because Iran’s been a major Washington, D.C., policy aspect for the past couple of years, and it usually revolves around the threat of a possible nuclear weapon. You saw that Mitt Romney mentioned Iran dozens of times and said they cannot allow them to have nuclear technology. I’m wondering: how important of an issue is this, in this campaign, to the American people? I mean, how much does the American voter care about Iran’s nuclear facilities?

PORTER: Well, that’s an interesting question, and I think it’s a bit murky, just how important this is to American voters. For one thing, you know, if you examine the polling data, this opinion survey data, on the issue of Iran and what the United States should do about the Iranian nuclear program, what you find is that, as is often the case, pollsters sometimes lead the people that they are surveying on by giving certain cues or clues as to the correct answer. And I’m thinking just a few years ago of a poll—I think it was two years ago, 2010, a poll that began by asking the American people: do you think that the United States should—what should the United States do to essentially force Iran to give up its nuclear program? And then they offered various alternatives, options, as to what the United States should do, and they were to pick from those options. Then the second question was: do you think that Iran has nuclear weapons yet? Well, of course, people, having been told that the United States must force the Iranians to give up their nuclear program, generally believe that the correct answer was that Iran already has nuclear weapons, whereas in fact—as we all know, that there’s no evidence of that and no reason, from the U.S. intelligence community’s point of view, to believe that they do in fact have nuclear weapons—nobody really believes that who is in a position to know.

So, constantly the public is being given cues by both politicians and pollsters that are misleading on that issue. And I think to the extent that they believe that Iran does have nuclear weapons, they’re alarmed about it, and to the extent that they don’t believe that Iran has nuclear weapons, they’re not really very alarmed and they really don’t think that that’s central to the campaign at all.

And the second point I would make about the way the campaigns of both parties have handled this issue is that clearly Mitt Romney might as well be the foreign minister of Israel, because he takes the position—or has taken the position, you know, 90 percent of the way—that Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, wants him to take. He’s basically said openly that I’m running for president, I’m going to take my cues on Iran from the prime minister of Israel—which is an unprecedented situation for the United States to be in, where a major party candidate is openly saying that my policy on a major national security issue is going to be dictated by a foreign country. And that, I think, is something that deserved much more critical scrutiny and much more commentary than it got in the U.S. news media.

But then there’s a third point that I want to make, and that is that I think Netanyahu clearly hoped that Mitt Romney would go even further than he did in these debates and he would actually say that if I’m elected, I will give an ultimatum to Iran: if they don’t stop their nuclear program, their enrichment program entirely within a certain number of months after I’m elected, I will go to war against them, I will attack them. And, of course, Romney’s not going to say that, for the simple reason that it would not be popular in this country—he knows that—and because the U.S. military and the State Department and everybody else surrounding him would completely oppose that and give him very good reasons for not giving such an ultimatum. So I think that this debate and the campaign in general has been very disappointing to the Israeli government, and in fact has probably caused the prime minister, Netanyahu, to back down from the kind of rhetoric that he’s used over the past many months on Iran.

HAFIZ: Gareth, I wanted to move from Iran and Afghanistan on to Pakistan. Now, there was a third-party debate, and a major part of their foreign policy discussion was the use of drones. And, if you recall from the Mitt Romney–Obama debate, President Obama was citing the use of drones as this miraculous method of taking out wanted terrorists by the United States government. Now there are also other reports coming out that the use of drones in Pakistan has created even more anti-U.S. sentiment as a number of these drones are also targeting unknown areas, in effect killing many civilians. In fact, this week there was an attack where children were killed. Can you talk a bit about the drone policy and the effects it’s had on the U.S. goal of promoting democracy, so-called promoting democracy in that region?

PORTER: Well, I can very quickly give my overview of that issue of how drones affect U.S. national security by saying that I have written in the past, as have other journalists—the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London in particular have written about how the drone strikes in Pakistan have in fact killed large numbers of civilians. They are not discriminate in the way in which the Obama administration has claimed in the past, very clearly. And if you look at the statistics, even those that are kept by the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., which are based on rather misleading reports in the U.S. news media and in Pakistani news media, and which therefore basically consider—anyone who is called a militant in these news reports is listed in these statistics as a militant, and therefore could not be, supposedly, a civilian, whereas in fact we know that the Obama administration has—since the beginning, in 2009, has considered anyone who is a military-age male in the vicinity of a drone strike who gets killed as a militant. That is the automatic way of categorizing anyone in that situation. And therefore the only people that are considered to be civilians in the statistics that have been kept have been women and children. And that means that hundreds of men who are not combatants but who are killed in these strikes have in fact been civilians. And that has been a major aspect of the policy that the U.S. news media has still not covered adequately.

So I think that this is a very serious problem for the United States, and I can tell you that the population of the FATA region, the tribal region of Pakistan where these strikes are being carried out, are adamantly against them, overwhelmingly against them, even though they’re also overwhelmingly opposed to the Pakistani Taliban. So this is a point of view that is shared overwhelmingly. It is shared by people who are the victims of these strikes, whose lives have been very adversely affected by the strikes, and this makes the United States even more unpopular than it was in Pakistan. And the rest of the population of Pakistan outside these regions are even more opposed to the United States than in the regions themselves. So we have a very serious problem in Pakistan that the U.S. government and the two parties have not even begun to seriously tackle.

And this is another cost, I’m afraid, of this two-party system, that a policy that is very clearly adversely affecting the security of the United States is not being adequately debated, it is not being given the consideration that it deserves, because—as I said at the outset: that the two parties have gotten used to lying to the American people to a degree that makes it impossible for debates to take place, even in a presidential year, when it’s so important that we understand what the real positions are of the candidates who are running for president and what their implications are for the American people. And I think that is a problem that now has to be given an extremely high priority by people who care about the future of this country. It’s time to really think much more seriously about what is wrong with the two-party system, what needs to be done about it. And I think, you know, obviously the need for other parties, at least a third party, must be high on the political agenda in this country.

HAFIZ: Well, it’s definitely one narrative from both U.S. candidates, and from what you were saying, Gareth, a very different reality on the ground there in that region. It was wonderful having you, Gareth. Thank you again for joining us.

PORTER: Thanks so much, Jihan.

HAFIZ: Take care. And thank you for joining us here on The Real News from Baltimore. My name is Jihan Hafiz. And until next time, take care.


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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.