Political Theatre

In May of 2003, when a flight-suit-wearing George W. Bush stepped off a fighter plane and onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to deliver his victory speech, "Mission Accomplished" banner perfectly positioned behind him, Hollywood and Washington were in absolute alignment.  The War President looked like a war president - the 'good type', not the 'bad type' - and the people loved it.

Even liberal pundits swooned at his manliness, going out of their way to celebrate how great this made America look.  Chris Matthews could hardly contain himself:
"We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple. We're not like the Brits."

No doubt, it was a public relations masterpiece of the worst kind.

At the time, the official position of the Bush administration on the Iraq War was that major combat operations had ended, and that the rest would be up to "winning hearts and minds" - a phrase unironically borrowed from president Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War rhetoric.  Of course, any sentiments that "Mission Accomplished" meant the war was over were tragically misplaced, just as was the idea that one could ever win hearts and minds by bombing another country's infrastructure into rubble, its people into submission.  But this, as usual, was just political theatre, meant to put a positive spin on what was clearly an aggressive war meant to fulfill strategic goals in a neocolonialist agenda.

Colin Powell had done the same thing a few months before, when he tried to sell the Iraq War on the world stage by holding up vials of anthrax and pointing to blurry pictures of structures captioned with scary titles.  Most everyone at the UN saw through it.  The Washington Post reported: "Irrefutable".

But just as the violence in Iraq was far from over, there were also no weapons of mass destruction to be found, and the U.S. government knew it from the start.  The story history tells is wholly unflattering to the charades, photo-ops, and hysterical posturing which proceeded the war, and one would certainly get the idea that they were complete failures which should by now have fashionably gone out of style.  Good then - for those masters of propaganda - that Americans seem to have trouble seeing past the makeup, bright lights, and flattering camera angles in order to take in the broader perspective.

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One of the news programs supposedly tasked with facilitating the public's interest, the CBS show 60 Minutes, recently managed to score an interview with both President Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Presumably, only "the most successful television broadcast in history", which has "won every major broadcast journalism award over its tenure" could manage to hit the jackpot like this.  But despite having two of the most powerful people in the world at their mercy, interviewer Steve Kroft completely balked on holding them accountable for anything they've done over the past four years.  The entire affair was one soft question after the next, which Kroft - Obama's go-to guy for interviews - delivered with fawning deference.  It was clear whose interests were being served by this bit of kabuki theatre, and they weren't those of the general public.

Most of the questions were personal, and almost completely unrelated to policy.  They included such gems as: "You said the staff took a little longer to ignore, to forget the campaign stuff. What about the spouses? Is that an impertinent question?" and "How would you characterize your relationship right now?".  Kroft also threw in a line of questioning alluding to Clinton's potential presidential bid in 2016 - something even Clinton and Obama thought was out of line.  Conor Friedersdorf, writing for the Atlantic, summed it up:
Exactly one question attempted to challenge an Obama decision and hold him accountable for it, and for what was he being held accountable? Failing to start another war or foreign entanglement! Note that the Obama Administration surged troops into Afghanistan, carried out the Bin Laden raid, was complicit in the Stuxnet attack on Iran, violated the War Powers Resolution when unilaterally deciding to participate in the war on Libya, is presently planning for a new drone base in Northwest Africa, and wages regular drone strikes in at least four countries.

Pathetic as it is, this would be all be standard fare and hardly worth mentioning if the setting itself were not so hypocritical.  60 Minutes is no stranger to hard-hitting journalism.  As Friedersdorf notes, in 2007 the program subjected then-president Bush (whose poll numbers, granted, were dwindling at the time) to a series of biting questions on his policies.  While many conservatives complained, this was exactly the type of journalism which made the program so popular in the first place.  And that prestige was surely key to overcoming the incredible challenge of landing a sit-down interview with the president.  Hell, even managing a single question on the few occasions Obama actually takes them at a press conference is an exceedingly strenuous task.

The most damning moment for Kroft and 60 Minutes, however, comes when consider you sheer number of viewers that such a program attracts.  Not only is it one of the most watched broadcasts on television, but the numbers skyrocket when politicians of this stature are featured.  Kroft's 2008 interview with the president and first lady, for example, drew over 25 million viewers.

To have the time and luxury to ask these two giants any questions you'd like, knowing that the result will be seen by a huge audience, and then to give them a pass on the most important issues of our day... well, that's not just bad journalism, it's ethically irresponsible.  Kroft is certainly aware of the fact the administration pursues policies which result in the deaths of innocents the world around, not to mention that the vast majority of statements made in defense of those policies have been misleading at best.  By neglecting to raise as much as a single objection, Kroft throws not just Americans under the bus, but the rest of the world (subject to American foreign policy) as well.

But the buck doesn't stop there.  Obama himself surely knew that this event would end up as a sad joke from the moment he decided to sit down.  After all, he exercises almost complete control over these situations.  He decides not only who he will allow to interview him, when the interview will happen, and how long it will last, but also whether he even wants to do any interviews in the first place.  He also knows that from Kroft's view, angering both the current president and the clear favorite for the next Democratic nomination would be career suicide.  He knows that Kroft wants to get the next interview (would he receive that 'honor' if he were to make the president uncomfortable?), and that his entire career rests on his ability to do so.

Thus, it's 'politics as usual' - a circus act meant to give the masses a feel-good vibe, nothing more.

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Senator Richard Burr, Republican from North Carolina, took the floor, barely able to compose himself for the storm he was about to unleash on poor John Brennan.  "I'm going to try to be brief," he started, nervously readjusting his seat and leaning forward into the mic, "because I've noticed you're on your fourth glass of water, and I don't want to be accused of waterboarding you."

Laughter broke out across the room.  Old, white smirks wall-to-wall.

"That's a good one," quipped Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), presiding over the hearing as Chairman of the Select Committee for Intelligence.

Few there apparently felt that telling a torture joke, during a hearing to determine whether or not one of the U.S. leaders most responsible for the implementation of torture was fit to head the CIA (which is, at the very least, still torturing by proxy today), might have been a bit hypocritical.  Certainly the political creatures we call representatives care little for the victims of torture, who have received no compensation of any kind for the brutality they've experienced under the care of John Brennan and his ilk.  The best those held at Guantanamo, black sites, and the similar torture chambers of America's allies could ever hope for is simply to be released years later without charge, as has been the case with the vast majority of those detained thus far.  No one in Congress speaks for them.

An incredible lack of perspective is, by now, par for the course in Washington.  Senators, mostly just going through the motions, ramble on about relationships between various structures of political power, all with little to no relevance to human concern.  Occasionally they make a joke only a power-hungry sycophant hardened by a lifetime of compulsive lying could enjoy.  No matter what happens, they know who their masters are.  They know who they must spend hours a day trying to siphon campaign funds from.  And even those who delude themselves into believing what they're doing is for the public good - they know the truth.  They know their job is to maintain the illusion of democracy.

There was, however, a glimmer of hope in Thursday's otherwise drab and completely scripted affair (this is actually one of three hearings: the pre-hearing, the 'for public consumption' hearing, and later the classified hearing).  A splattering of pink in the audience belied the presence of a certain well-known antiwar group.  Sure enough, one by one they stood up, said their piece, and were escorted out by police.  They asked about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, about how many other countries the CIA was killing people in, and whether or not the policies of the war on terror were actually making America less safe.  This proved to irritate Feinstein enough to where she had the entire audience cleared, only allowing those back in who weren't wearing pink, or who were otherwise deemed worthy.

Any notion of democracy out of the way, the show resumed to a laughable display of posturing and platitudes.  Senators showed faux anger, pressing Brennan on some extremely narrow topics, most of which were inconsequential or otherwise trended that way as time went on.  Marco Rubio (R-FL) took over the duties for the Republicans' never-ending crusade to make the Benghazi embassy attack reflect poorly on Obama, asking Brennan why the CIA can't just pick up anyone off the streets anywhere in the world and indefinitely detain them (spoiler: it can and does).  Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) asked of Brennan that he, unlike other CIA Directors, "speak truth to power", apparently unaware that they had just kicked out Code Pink for doing exactly that.  Jim Risch (R-ID) stressed the importance of killing the messenger preventing leaks, elaborating on how damaging they are, and predictably saying nothing about the much more real crimes exposed by whistleblowers in the first place.

It was actually Sue Collins (R-ME) who made the most poignant statement of the day, alluding to the fact that, despite the claims made by top officials, al-Qaida seems to be growing rather than shrinking.  Maybe, she inferred, it was due to the overwhelming backlash against drone strikes in the many countries they're being utilized in.  Unfortunately, neither she or any other member of the committee pressed this point, allowing Brennan to offer the standard 'we at the CIA don't agree with that opinion'.

Meanwhile, the few Senators who seem to care (at some level) about the increasing reliance on 'state secrets' and the destruction of civil liberties - like Ron Wyden (D-OR) - were stymied into asking all the wrong questions.  Rather than get to the heart of the matter, they were primarily concerned that no one had yet provided them with legal memos or lists of killings and drone strikes.  Interesting.  Are they unable to make their own judgments based on the facts they're already privy to?  Certainly they have more information than this lowly writer, do they not?

Overall, for those concerned citizens who believe in one of the two parties - or at least the idea that, in general, representatives do care about deeper issues - it would be easy to believe the debates offered at the hearing were characteristic of what serious, in-the-know people thought of practices such as torture, rendition, indefinite detention, and assassination.  The protestors were simply radicals, unaware of the many nuances of the discussion at hand.  No doubt this is the picture the architects of the policies in question want to paint.

And for all intents and purposes it seems they've won out.  Alex Seitz-Wald, writing at Salon:
A whopping 83 percent of Americans approve of the Obama administration’s use of [drones] to kill terrorists, according to the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll on the subject, from February 2012. The same poll found that 65 percent of Americans favor the use of drones against American citizens suspected of terrorism overseas.

But it gets worse. Among self-described liberal Democrats, fully 77 percent endorse the use of drones against terrorist targets. On the question of killing Americans in drone strikes, Democrats approved of the use 58-33 percent, as did liberals, 55-35 percent, as the Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out last year.

It doesn't end there.  A more recent poll of viewers on the Ed Schultz Show (a liberal program with a host who is not a big fan of drones) turned out with 78% in support of "the policy of targeted killing of American citizens".  What else can we say from this other than that Obama has been extraordinarily successful in selling the war on terror?  He's not only revitalized its worst civil liberties abuses, but also redefined war to fit the standards of those who believe they're peaceniks.  No matter what one thinks about these policies, it's clear that they would never have received this level of support under the Bush administration.  Bush and Cheney's dog and pony show just wasn't as convincing.

Looking back on those simpler times, though, does tell us a bit about whose "hearts and minds" politicians are actually aiming to win.  It's not those in a far-away country, belonging to people who are being incessantly bombed to bits.  It's those whose support keeps the drones in the air and the politicians in power.

They're trying to win our hearts and minds.  And in that sense it really has been "Mission Accomplished."

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