Given the planetary reach (or do I mean grasp?) of George W. Bush’s inaugural speech, it was with relief that I picked up the New York Times on the post-inaugural morn and noticed an article that had a sweep to match. In a piece headlined “A Global Map of Influences and Ideas,” Roberta Smith took the reader on a tour that ranged from Egypt and Greece to China and Japan, the United States and Europe to Congo and even distant Papua New Guinea. The catch: Smith was writing on the Winter Antiques Show. There were only two news reports that day linking a number of disparate countries, and neither was there thanks to aggressive reportage or op-ed page analytic acumen. In “Cheney Says Israel Might ‘Act First’ on Iran,” David E. Sanger offered a modest report on how the Vice President, briskly questioned by the shock jock (and nonreporter) Don Imus, had threatened Iran with the big stick of the Israeli Air Force and in the process tied together three countries: Israel, Iran and Iraq, with a passing nod to Europe. Then there was a report by Edward Wong, “Top Rebel in Iraq Says War With U.S. May Last for Years,” which focused on a new wave of kidnappings of foreigners and so referred to Brazil, England, China and France. Otherwise, on the day the President swept the world into a bag marked Freedom, the Times was blissfully clear of geopolitical reportage of any sort.
This has been the state not just of the Times, but (with various honorable exceptions) of most of our major papers most of the time since September 12, 2001. What an unequal contest between the Bush Administration and the press these years have proved. You’ve had a regime in Washington whose top officials have never hesitated to connect the dots, as they see them, at a global level: who have identified an “arc of instability” stretching from the Andes to the very border of China and from the former Yugoslavia deep into Africa (and largely coinciding with the oil lands of our planet); who have been bolstering military ties and planting bases (from those “enduring camps” in Iraq to new outposts in Central Asia) all along that “arc”; who had a plan, temporarily thwarted by stubborn, completely unexpected resistance in Iraq, to transform the Middle East, felling regimes there, under the rubric of “democracy,” like so many bowling pins; who have been visibly organizing a rollback of whatever was left of the former Soviet Union; and who were ready, even eager, to plan and set up a global system of offshore prisons, holding areas and torture camps.
But when was the last time you read a piece of mainstream analysis that actually tried to weave Bush’s globe together? Some wonderful reporting can be found in the mainstream press; but it usually remains remarkably unattached, just another in a series of fragments, seldom added up or stitched together. In other words, as we head into George W. Bush’s second term, you have the most mobilized Administration in memory and media that have demobilized themselves almost completely.
There’s a certain irony here. In the cold war years, the press regularly connected the dots to a ridiculous extreme. If labor peeped in Uruguay, or some small group took up arms in Congo, or a pen fell off a desk in Vientiane, Laos, on editorial pages and in articles such events would instantly be connected to the great global cold war between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, the United States and the USSR. Now we find ourselves at another ridiculous extreme, with a press seemingly incapable of noticing that the dots are there, never mind connecting them.
That smallness of thinking was evident in the initial news responses to Seymour Hersh’s remarkable January 24/31 New Yorker piece, “The Coming Wars.” The press jumped on his article and ran with it, based on one piece of information in it–that the Pentagon had reportedly inserted Special Forces units into Iran as part of a program to defang the Iranian nuclear program. It was thus announced as an “Iranian story” and continued as such. But this was visibly a lesser aspect of a startling tale, clearly leaked to Hersh by embittered CIA sources who knew that they had just lost a long-term intrabureaucratic struggle with Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. The real story was an accelerating tale of “Pentagon encroachment”–the fact that “the war on terrorism would be expanded and effectively placed under Pentagon control,” and that the Pentagon would consider itself free from already modest legal restrictions imposed on the CIA. Put another way, the legal theory that first came to light in the “torture memos” that leaked from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales’s office turns out to reach way beyond torture. It wasn’t even that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was now to be the armed intelligence and diplomatic spearhead of an ever-more-militarized government but that the President, in his role as “commander in chief,” was to be freed of all accountability, all democratic fetters, to order whatever he saw fit.
The press predictably took a big story and ran small–and Hersh, interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, indicated as much. The most interesting part of his story, he said, was “not about Iran…. The real issue is that in–what the story is about, is the fact that the diminution of the CIA is unbelievable…. More is totally centralized in the White House and the Pentagon than since the rise of the national security state after World War II in the cold war.”
Isn’t it strange that month after month in our major papers you could find a story with Iraq but not Iran; Iraq and Iran but not Afghanistan–and certainly not Israel; Afghanistan and Pakistan but not India; and certainly not Iraq, Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India together, not to speak of a couple of the “stans” of Central Asia, and distant China, although all of them are wound together in complex ways in the thinking and planning of various members of the Bush Administration. Nowhere in the mainstream are you likely to find an article that would even think of linking our new bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to events in Ukraine, or bother to say that the Bush people have long been dreaming feverishly of pushing Russia back to something like its fourteenth-century boundaries–a dream of “rollback” that even in the rabid early 1950s would have seemed slightly mad but is now increasingly a geopolitical reality.
Here’s the odd thing: In a world where Gaia–the Earth as a single throbbing organism–is already a cliché; where “globalization” remains a buzz word; and where we happen to be ruled by the greatest geopolitical dreamers and gamblers in our history, our demobilized media treat the world, if at all, as a set of hapless fragments and don’t consider puzzling them together to be part of the job description. If you want to grasp our world as it is, you might actually have to click off that TV, use your local paper to wrap the fish and head for the Internet.