Doctrinaire Assumptions and the US media

PBS will soon be airing a new episode of Frontline, called Bush’s War. Frontline is one of the better news shows on American television. An episode in 2006 focused on Dick Cheney (“The Dark Side”) brought attention to some important elements of the Bush Administration, namely the way they pressured the CIA into “finding intelligence” to justify a war in Iraq. A 4-part series (“The News Wars) also focused, rightly, on the establishment media’s woeful reporting leading up the war. In comparison to most US media — especially on television —PBS takes a deeper look at issues and has much more time for nuance and explanation.

Nonetheless, the program still works within the same framework of basic assumptions that dominates the national media and the academic establishment. These assumptions serve to limit institutional analysis, narrow the parameters of debate, and generally serve the interests of the country’s most powerful structures: the state and corporate interests. In an effort to highlight these assumptions I will make some predictions about tonight’s program. It is worth noting that is not meant to merely point out problems with Frontline’s coverage; it is my belief that these assumptions can be applied to coverage from any of the major national print and broadcast media outlets, as well as in a the majority of contemporary scholarship. That Frontline’s coverage is much more aggressive in their investigative journalism than the majority of US media outlets, and is described as liberal or left by many critics, only further illustrates how pervasive these assumptions are across the spectrum of political debate in the United States.

1) The concept of international legality of the invasion of Iraq, or any other US-led interventions will not be mentioned.

The media will certainly cite violations of international law committed by other countries — especially those that are not US allies. The prediction here is that US foreign policy, in particular, will not be viewed through the lens of international law.

Ethan Brossner, the deputy foreign editor of the New York Times, was quite accurate when she told Asharq Al-Awsat, an English-language Arabic newspaper based in London, “we stay away from assertions of legality on most international issues, because law is less clear about international affairs than about national affairs:

Her statement is backed up by the output of the international section of the Times. Not once, for example, did the Times write an article questioning the legality of the War on Terror. This would seem to be a very basic question: does US’s stated foreign policy adhere to international law? But the subject simply never came up.

It would likely be of some interest to the public, that at the Nuremberg trials, it was ruled that preventive wars are the “supreme crime” a nation can commit. Or, that following World War I, sixty-three nations — including “coalition of the willing” members, the US, the UK and Australia — renounced war as an instrument of foreign policy in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. The signing nations “solemnly declare[d] in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” Despite this, when President bush announced, at West Point in 2002 and again at his inauguration speech in January 2005, that his foreign policy was to use force as a means to “spread democracy,” the media simply failed to report that it violated international law that the US helped put into place.

This tendency can be seen quite clearly when assessing the coverage of the conflict in Israel and Palestine as well. The Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” This clearly outlaws Israel’s settlement activity, which as of this writing (March 23 2008) has been expanding. Yet, as Howard Friel and Richard Falk report in their book, Israel-Palestine On Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East: “These 19 words, which outlaw all of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and which easily fit into any newspaper editorial or news article, were not printed or cited by the New York Times from September 29, 2000 to December 31, 2006—the broadest period covered by this volume.”

A search from December 31, 2006 to March 23, 2008, reveals that the pattern has held since Falk and Friel conducted their research.

The New York Times is hardly alone in ignoring international law. This is the norm for major American media across the board, including PBS. Hence my prediction that international law will not be a focus of “Bush’s War.”

2.) It will be assumed that the War in Iraq was waged in order to “liberate” the Iraqi people from a tyrant, and pave the way for democracy to flourish in the Middle East. The idea that US foreign policy is based, not on benevolence and a love of democracy, but rather to serve its own geopolitical positioning, will not be discussed.

In 2008, criticism of the War in Iraq is relatively common. But, by in large, the charge is that the War is a case of benevolent intentions gone awry. The typical criticism assumes that the United States wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East, but tactical mistakes and narrow-minded neoconservative ideologues ruined the project. The war in Iraq is a tragedy because it was lost, the narrative goes, not because it was immoral, illegal, or done to serve US interests.

Even from the fiercest critics in mainstream circles, the idea that United States invaded Iraq to serve its own geopolitical and economic interests is simply not broached.

This is especially curious, since the US military has stated quite clearly, what its foreign policy objectives are, and this information is public and widely available online. For example, a document called Joint Vision 2020, which was prepared the vision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the start of the Bush presidency, states that the US must achieve “full spectrum dominance” meaning they must have “access to and freedom to operate in all domains – space, sea, land, air, and information” so they can “maintain the ability to rapidly project power worldwide in order to achieve full spectrum dominance.” The 40-page document does not contain the word democracy.

In 2006, the Department of Defense released the Quadrennial Defense Review Report, which supports the idea that US foreign policy is based on becoming an unrivaled, permanent superpower. The report, which outlines the objectives of the Department of Defense, is released every four years and is considered the main documenting articulating US military doctrine. Yet, this document, like Joint Vision 2020, is virtually ignored by the major media.

Interestingly, in contrast to the mainstream media, at least one scholarly journal analyzed the true aims of US foreign policy in the post- 9-11 world was Foreign Affairs — the major foreign policy journal in the United States. In 2002, they published an article by G. John Ikenberry (viewed as a liberal in academic circles) called “America’s Imperial Strategy” which said the principal goal of US foreign policy in, “Next American Century” was, according to Richard Haass, policy planning director at the State Department, “to integrate other countries and organizations into arrangements that will sustain a world consistent with U.S. interests and values” Of course, Foreign Affairs is read primarily by academics and politicians, and barely dents the American public. Whereas the mainstream media, such as the Times and PBS – neither of whom mentioned the Foreign Affairs article or Haass’ statement — not only penetrates a much larger audience, but also serves to shape public debate far more broadly.

It is my prediction that PBS Frontline, will ignore the stated foreign policy aims of the United States, as outlined by their own planning documents and the major foreign policy journal, and continue to assume that the goal of the United States was not to use “full spectrum domination” to assert its economic and political dominance across the world.