The Pornography of Power: Lust for Empire Has Weakened America


Robert Scheer has been a journalist for 30 years, over which time he has interviewed presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, as well as other major political figures. For years a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and now for the San Francisco Chronicle, he's currently the editor-in-chief at and represents the left point of view on KCRW's political radio show "Left, Right and Center." In addition to print and radio, Scheer has also worked in movies: He played a reporter in Warren Beatty's "Bullworth" and was a project consultant for Oliver Stone's "Nixon."

Scheer is the author of eight books, among them, Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton -- And How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush (Akashic Books, 2006). His latest is The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America. In it, Scheer takes on the United States' foreign policy, arguing that our military budget, which amounts to more than the rest of the world's combined, has gotten completely out of control. AlterNet writer Emily Wilson recently sat down with Scheer at a restaurant in San Francisco to hear his views on the federal government, the media's complicity in war, the rise of the neocons and how even Nixon got some things right.

Emily Wilson: You write in the acknowledgements that you had one book in mind, but your editor wanted you to do this book. Why did he want this book?

Robert Scheer: I had just given a lecture to this libertarian convention. It was called "Ike was Right," and it reflected some of the evolution of my own thinking. I no longer am enamored of the big federal state, because most of what it does I oppose -- particularly once Clinton cut the welfare program. We no longer have a federal program to aid poor people. We don't have a poverty program. And Clinton, with his Financial Services Modernization Act, managed to give the banks everything they wanted and take away more rights from the state. It used to be that in California we had a limit on interest payments. States had reasonable, populist-inspired controls over corporations. And then there's the Telecommunications Act. We used to believe communications should be in part locally owned to have diversity and so forth; that's all gone bye-bye with the Telecommunications Act. So there you go: You have three things the Clinton administration, presumably a progressive administration, did that took away three reasons that I would care about the federal government.

… Now, as my book lays out, six out of ten dollars of the discretionary budget go to the military, and in Congress they're scrambling over how to use the other four out of ten for the other things we care about. So my concern is, all right, let's let California keep its money, let's keep it on a state level -- and in my book I even argue that's what the founders had in mind. I quote George Washington, who's my great hero in this book: They knew if you got into empire you weren't going to have representative democracy. Because when you're on the local level, people can be informed, they can demand the truth, there isn't classification, there isn't national security -- and when you get to empire and foreign adventures (being) the norm, not the exception, is to be lied to and not to discover the truth for 20, 30, 40 years or whatever. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which Johnson and McNamara said was the basis for expanding the war to North Vietnam, was based on a lie, that they knew to be a lie when they went to the nation and said we were attacked. They knew there was no evidence of an attack. We didn't learn that for 20 years.

So my feeling before I went to the libertarian convention was … what do I think about the federal government? We needed the federal government when a guy like Roosevelt was our president and we could set some standards of child labor and the right to organize unions, and pay people adequately, and health and safety and so forth. But what the federal government has come to mean is basically an arm of the military industrial complex that favors big business and big agriculture. We'd be better off with the states just keeping their tax dollars and using them to educate their people, and fix their levies, and deal with their subprime mortgage scandals, and all the other things we want money for.

EW: You say the administration used 9/11 as an excuse for this military spending.

RS: Most of the pundits make themselves stupid in the interest of their careers. They devote very little time to looking back at what happened, what are the lessons to be learned, and so forth. I was at one conference at the University of California at Berkeley, sponsored by the journalism school, and they had this one panel titled "Did we get it wrong?" I pointed out: You guys got it wrong, but some of us got it right, and a good chunk of people in the streets around the world got it right. Really, the more interesting question is: "Why did you let yourselves be had in this way? Why were you so easy to co-opt?" And it has to do with fear. It was the trauma of 9/11: You didn't want to be on the wrong side of it, and the people who own your broadcasting stations and your newspapers were afraid if they lost viewers and readers, they wouldn't come back. And these cable lunatics of the right, the O'Reillys and Rush Limbaughs, they might be picking up this big fan base and you forgot your obligations under the Constitution to inform the public. And I said: More importantly you didn't look back at anything. You didn't look at the history of Iraq; where does Saddam Hussein come from? … You went along with the crap about weapons of mass destruction, but also, you didn't look carefully at the politics of that area. Didn't you know that if you invade Iraq, all you're going to do is strengthen Iran?

The whole fallacy, the lie that most people subscribe to in the media and the elite, is that adults are watching the store. Sensible, solid people are making sensible, solid decisions. They may get it wrong from time to time, but it was not for lack of effort and work and serious discussion of NBC and "Meet the Press." The fact is, you look at what they've been reporting on for most of my adult life since World War II, and it's mostly gibberish.

EW: But you make it sound in The Pornography of Power like our foreign policy was more sane before this Bush was president, and that people like his father and Nixon were more moderate on defense.

RS: We've had a struggle between the realists and the adventurists, as I call them, going back to Nixon's opening to China. I wrote a Nixon re-evaluation for the L.A. Times in the '80s. That does not make Nixon a great man. I think he was a war criminal. Once he went and visited China and was making peace with bloody communist dictators like Mao; how in the world could you justify escalating a war to stop the spread of communism? It was absurd. But he did -- and millions of Indo-Chinese died as a result. I'm not trying to exonerate Nixon, but in opening to China and in developing detente with the Soviets, he undermined the whole basis of the Cold War. He said, communist is nationalist, not internationalist, and it's capable of change. And he was right. That's why the communist governments of Vietnam and China are competing for shelf space at Wal-Mart.

In response to Nixon, you had the development of the neoconservatives. This is where they come from. They were grouped around Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the senator from Washington who was called the "Senator from Boeing." Richard Perle worked for him, and Paul Wolfowitz, and so forth. These people were very angry with Nixon, and they started all this threat inflation, and fear of the enemy, and so forth -- and Nixon was suddenly seen as a pinko or something or weak on defense. That's where it all starts. And then the Soviet Union did collapse -- and not because we invaded, but because the economy sucked.

The neocons used every trick in the book to attack Nixon. All of it was aimed at undermining the detente with the Soviets and the opening to China and bringing us to a much more primitive imperialist position, which they favored. These people are mostly ex-Trotskyists, or there fathers are … and they believe in permanent revolution, only now it's from the right rather than from the left. But it's the same notion: You have to make turmoil, you have to break eggs to make an omelet, and they've combined that with a Pax Americana mission that Reagan had, that we are the keepers of the flame, we are the sanest, smartest, most wonderful people in the world; everything we do, even when it's all screwed up, is done for good reasons -- and we're the indispensable agent to human progress. So they become the neocons. They're not really conservative in any way at all; they're betraying the conservative tradition of this country as defined by Washington and Eisenhower, and they get us into these incredible adventures.

Well, they were going nowhere fast because the facts were undermining them. The fact was, the world was becoming multipolar; we didn't have an enemy in sight, and George Bush's father in 1992 gave a speech that was of historic significance. He said the Cold War is over, the Soviet Union is dead, and I've ordered my secretary of defense to cut defense spending by 30 percent. And Dick Cheney, who was his secretary of defense, went along.

EW: You write about how McCain launched a Mr. Smith-style crusade against a deal with Boeing and the Air Force. Do you think he would cut the military budget? How about Obama?

RS: I don't know what McCain or Obama will do when one becomes president. I am quite enthusiastic about Barack Obama. I like his freshness. I like that he can think out loud, and I like that he has been tough in his opposition to the Iraq War. I like his willingness to advance negotiation rather than conquest -- as opposed to Hillary, who was talking about obliterating Iran. I mean, what God-given right do we have to obliterate 80 million people? A country that we have screwed around with ever since we overthrew Mohammed Mosaddeq 54 years ago? Obama said he would talk to them. He didn't say, "I'd give away the store." He didn't say, "I'll endorse anything they do." He said he would talk to them. And then you have McCain acting the total fool, saying, "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," like it's some kind of game. You know, metal piercing the skins of children -- and that's a game?

So I think Barack Obama has been a good candidate, and I respect his ability to engage young people. So (it's not that) I don't think there is a big difference between Obama and McCain. I do.

… I'm very worried about McCain on … a very critical issue, because it really goes to the heart of … the prospect for peace and war. The Democrats scare me a little. Republicans scare me more because I don't see any Eisenhowers or even Nixons in the ranks of the Republicans. The Republican Party has moved very far right, and people like Nixon would be considered flaming peacenik liberals by today's standards. After all, Nixon believed in a guaranteed annual income for everyone. Imagine if Clinton had done that instead of wiping out welfare. And Nixon believed in the Environmental Protection Agency. He did many sensible things. He did terrible things in escalating the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, but he broke the whole momentum of the Cold War by opening to China. By today's standard there are no Republicans like that.

On the other hand, Barack Obama has shown a freshness of approach to a complex world. He doesn't feel the need to impose values he's taken from Illinois on everybody in the world. He's lived out there. So there is something very exciting about Barack Obama. However, I find it unnerving that the Democrats and Republicans at this time both want to expand military spending rather than cut it. I understand all the arguments why you can't do that as a Democratic candidate and why you have to be strong on defense, but that's how we get into this madness. And if you listen to the tapes of Lyndon Johnson, he said, I cannot get out of Vietnam because Barry Goldwater will have me for lunch -- he will wipe the floor with me.

So that's the problem with the Democrats. And I think people who support Obama should say they expect him not to get us into wars like Iraq but also to question all this enormous spending on the military, which is making for a more dangerous world.

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