Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 24, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: Here’s the question that John McLaughlin asked his panelists on “The McLaughlin Group,” that I’ll now ask you: ‘Do you have the feeling that the world is moving on, but the United States is standing still?’
Newman: Because I don’t think that’s possible.
Salit: And it’s not possible because?
Newman: Because the United States is not that powerful. It can’t resist what the world is doing. I think that’s a typical McLaughlin U.S. chauvinist formulation.
Salit: Let’s focus on one side of this, that the world is moving on. McLaughlin would say that third world (so-called) insurgencies are growing, that the credibility of the United States is decreasing, that the balance of power in the world is shifting, that the drive for self-determination in the Arab world and Africa and Latin America is strong. Those interests are asserting themselves economically, politically, culturally, militarily, etc. Is that a fair characterization, in your view, of how the world is moving on?
Newman: Well, the world is moving on. In some ways that’s a blatant tautology. Where else would it move but on? Don’t forget six years ago the President of the United States lost the popular vote to someone who is more sympathetic to the concerns of the third world than he is. So, Americans are very much a part of this process of the world moving on, and as you point out, it’s not brand new. It’s not just a reaction to Bush.
Newman: But surely, there are reactions to Bush.
Newman: The world moves on. There’s a continued desire for some fundamental kinds of changes. Now, different people have different ideas about how to effect those fundamental changes. I think a source of a lot of resentment of the Bush Administration internationally is that it seems to think that America has the right – through might – to determine exactly how that moving on will occur. Some people don’t agree with that.
Salit: So, when McLaughlin asks the question ‘Is the U.S. standing still?’ is he pointing to what you’re also pointing to, namely the resistance of the U.S. to accept a new reality where its “might” doesn’t prevail because the world is changing in certain ways, and the U.S. can’t exert the kind of control that it was once able to exert?
Newman: Well, I don’t think it’s terribly cynical to think that what the Administration is saying is that they don’t want others’ might to prevail; they want our might to prevail. Many, many people throughout the world are suspicious of that posture, and so we have had a continuous process of movements and nations asserting their independence. And that’s moving along. Are we near the end of that? I think not. That process will continue, I suspect, for some time. Where will it end up? I don’t know.
Salit: The occasion for this discussion on “The McLaughlin Group” was the United Nations summit this past week where, in an unusual occurrence, you had a variety of world leaders on what is closer to a level playing field than we generally see. You have Bush speaking at the UN and you have Hugo Chavez speaking and then you have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking, and you hear these opposing voices express themselves.
Newman: At least that’s who they give most of the coverage to. Significantly, they don’t give much coverage to the Presidents of Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s interesting to me.
Salit: Tell me what you find interesting about it.
Newman: Well, it fuels the idea that they are just puppets and that there’s no reason to cover them because everything they have to say is going to be said by Bush. Is that really the case? I don’t think so. Not fully. But, is it a perception that many people have? Yes, it is.
Salit: We just watched President Talabani of Iraq interviewed on CNN by Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer, of course, asked him about the friendly greeting between Ahmadinejad and the Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki. They showed videotape of the two of them embracing one another and Blitzer says to President Talabani, ‘Well, what about that?’ And Talabani says, ‘Iran is a neighbor of ours, we’re looking to have friendly relations with Iran and we’re also friends with the United States.’ There was something very graphic in the simplicity of Talabani’s answer. It’s Hey, we’re in a different place – geographically, politically and economically – than you are, and there are certain realities that are dictated to us by virtue of being in that position, and that’s the world, pal. What I hear Talabani saying is there are certain material realities that we live with and we have to navigate our way through this on behalf of Iraqi interests, etc. And so it’s not the case that an all-or-nothing relationship with the United States is really possible for them.
Newman: Hillary Clinton hugs the wife of Yasir Arafat and X number of years later, she’s running for President of the United States. Different people do different things in different contexts.
Salit: Pat Buchanan described Chavez as an “oaf,” but with a populist voice who taps into the populist insurgency in his own country and other parts of the world. He’s also in the middle of a re-election campaign and that presumably has to do with the nature of his remarks. Buchanan and Tony Blankley both acknowledged the weight of a third world insurgency in the world situation today.
Newman: Well, that’s no small part of how they justify their reactionary positions in terms of United States policy. That’s the basis for their right wing extremism. They may say that Chavez is an oaf, but more importantly, he’s an oil-owning oaf.
Salit: Tony and Mort Zuckerman both agreed that the unpopularity of the United States is a serious problem for the U.S. You could say, Well, of course that’s true, and nobody would deny that, except that a lot of commentators and analysts do deny it. They deny the fact of it and they also deny the downside of it. But in this case, these two conservative guys were reflecting on the extent to which that’s true. A number of people said that they don’t remember the U.S. being as unpopular as it is today at any point in their lifetime and that that unpopularity is a serious vulnerability for America and for the American people.
Newman: Well, it’s a smaller world than ever before. Television brings social upheaval into everyone’s home. Our view of the world is much more controlled by public relations and so these are critical factors, more so than ever before.
Salit: Do you experience this moment as a high point in American unpopularity internationally?
Newman: You can’t separate that from Washington’s unilateral position as a world power. The U.S. doesn’t have a Soviet Union to deflect some of that unpopularity, or to at least divide it in half, so all the anger is focused on Washington. I don’t know if it’s a high point. That would require that I knew what was going to happen in the future. But is it more than we’ve ever seen before? Yes, I think so. Is Bush a part of that? Yes, he’s a part of that. Still, as I said, being the sole super power probably has more to do with it than just Bush, personally.
Newman: If you take on the role of the world’s policeman, and insist at the point of a gun that people have got to respect your power, then you’re going to get some predictable reactions.
Salit: Chris Matthews led a discussion on the dynamics and the conflicts in the Muslim world today. David Ignatius, who writes for the Washington Post, said that as Western/American/European values become more predominant and elements in Islamic society move more towards those values, to use his term, they “disengage” from their own culture and their own society. That leads to a kind of void or vacuum, into which more extremist or fanatical elements can gain positions of leadership. That’s his broad accounting for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. And then Irshad Manji, a Muslim writer, said that there is a new generation coming up in the Arab world who are caught between the influence of modernity and the influence of traditionalism and that that causes a tremendous amount of cultural and personal and political conflict. She argues that there are no role models in the picture today that can help young Muslims find their way through that conflict and create a new identity which handles both modernity and tradition. I’m wondering what you think about these socio-cultural accountings of what’s happening in that part of the world.
Newman: As I said last week, if the Bush game plan – if the neo-con game plan – works completely, that still leaves Iraq – as well as lots of other countries in that region – with masses of poor people.
Newman: That’s the condition that is being engaged, probably necessarily very, very slowly. But that creates, as it always has created, the context for extremism. Call them “extremists” if you like but some of those extremists get elected because they have popular support. Do people want greater material wealth? Do people want to come to America because they still see it as a place, probably correctly, where they can live better with more of the benefits of modernity, as opposed to what they feel now is the oppressive resistance to modernity? Yes, of course they do. Always have, always will.
Salit: That has to be dealt with, then.
Newman: It’s a very long process, and it’s going to involve engaging fundamental structural features in the world, in terms of economics, culture and politics. Are they being engaged? I think so. But, they’re being engaged very slowly. They’re not being engaged in such a way as to make them newsworthy on the talk shows, which for the most part wouldn’t even get into those deeper issues, except maybe on “The McLaughlin Group,” albeit from the right. I find it a worthwhile show to watch because periodically, like today, they have something resembling open discussions on some of those kinds of issues. But that’s unusual. And even they do it only once in a blue moon. Most of the talk shows don’t do it at all, because they’re so over-determined by political considerations.
Salit: Let me shift gears slightly and ask you a more hardcore political question about John McCain. McCain was on “Face the Nation” today. He just crafted the compromise about the rules governing torture, interrogation and prosecution of military combatants. Do you think from an electoral-political point of view, that McCain is in a win-win position in terms of the outcome of 2006? What I mean by that is, if the Republicans hold on to the House then he’s proven himself a loyal Republican, and that strengthens his position. If the Republicans lose the House, then he’s in another good position, as the figure who can bring the party back together again, back to dominance in 2008.
Newman: I agree, but that’s the position of any relatively intelligent frontrunner. And right now McCain is the frontrunner. Leave aside Rudy Giuliani for just a moment because Giuliani has not yet made it plain that he wants to go up against McCain. McCain is in the frontrunner position right now. And, he’s the one who could make a big mistake and lose something. So, it’s not so much a win-win, although I think that’s accurate, as it is a Don’t set yourself up to be badly hurt and you’ll probably win. That’s what he’s doing, politically, it seems to me. And that’s what frontrunners always do, if they have any brains.
Salit: Thank you.