David Barsamian is the founder and director of Boulder, Colo.-based Alternative Radio. The show can be heard locally on KUNM (6 pm Saturdays) and KSFR (4 pm Sundays). He recently lectured at the Center for Contemporary Arts on “The War Expands: Obama, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
WEBEXTRA: Full Barsamian transcript
SFR: You’re suggesting a national mandate for change has been translated into business as usual?
DB: To some extent. I think voters who opted for Obama in November, like the majority in New Mexico and Colorado, are so greatly relieved to be rid of the Bush administration that a lot of people have suspended critical thinking right now. Obama has, I think, taken very dangerous steps by doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan and increasing attacks inside Pakistan.
Obama doesn’t speak as though he wants to occupy those territories endlessly, though.
If you listen to Obama’s speeches, he never gave up the notion of America leading the world. What does that mean for America to lead the world? I think he’s embraced the war on terror by rebranding it. He’s not at all dismantling the 700-plus bases we have around the world and reducing the Pentagon footprint. It’s old wine in new bottles. Yes, the new bottle is attractive, eloquent—it’s wonderful to hear English spoken again—but we shouldn’t suspend our critical thinking. The result of Pakistan’s military campaign in the Swat Valley—undertaken in exchange for what’s called ‘US aid’—is three million refugees.
Three million refugees is a situation most Americans really can’t comprehend.
It’s the peak of summer heat right now in South Asia. Daytime temperatures are over 100, sometimes 115. Millions of people don’t have adequate shelter and water as a result of US actions. Is this how you win hearts and minds? By causing this kind of displacement? Most people here live relatively privileged lives. The things that Pakistanis and Afghanis go through, the levels of inflation and unemployment, are virtually unknown here. Obama is continuing a colonial attitude that the people in the Third World are extras in an American movie—they are there to fulfill our agenda and the idea that they might have their own agenda is dismissed.
Are we fomenting increased hatred of the US among Pakistanis?
Who knows how many jihadis are being born right now in those tents and those camps? Most Pakistanis believe this war is not their war, but that their government is executing it on behalf of Washington. And it’s true that the idea of nation building is at the heart of the issue, the idea of engineering other societies. Obama seems to have picked up where his predecessor left off. But most of the people in these countries don’t look on nation building so favorably. How would we like it if Bangladeshis had invaded the US? I don’t think it would be very popular to have people who don’t speak our language and don’t share our cultural and religious background stopping us and checking IDs. We would be very resentful and, obviously, people don’t like that anywhere.
Why would Obama subscribe to Bush Doctrine thinking?
I have a very serious quarrel with Obama’s governing style. He’s governing as though he barely won the election. People should remind him that he got 9.5 million more votes than his opponent and he swept the Electoral College. He’s being very timid and he is not challenging his military advisors.
Why is the myth that we can’t just leave these occupied territories so pervasive?
That speaks to the Rambo, John Wayne syndrome. We can’t look weak or other nations will think less of us. There has always been this strain of extreme chauvinism, jingoism and nationalism in the US that I think blurs clear thinking, to use Orwell’s term. We mobilize emotional, visceral arguments rather than rational, intellectual arguments. It’s an imperial mind-set that is very hard to break for either party, especially when Obama’s timidity is so perplexing, given his mandate. If you ask people in the US, in New Mexico and Colorado, ‘would you rather have universal health care and free public education from K through university or would you rather have B-2 bombers at $2 billion a pop and Los Alamos creating a new generation of nukes,’ they’ll take health care and education every time.
Is the Obama administration is timid because the profits of a few large companies are still perceived as more important than peace?
The view was widely held during the Bush regime that it was an “oligarchy.” And, OK, if Iraq had oranges or cauliflower instead of oil, it’s unlikely the US would have invaded, but there’s a tendency to overdetermine it. Afghanistan doesn’t have much beyond pomegranates and grapes. Its largest industry is opium. Really there’s a much deeper impulse toward imperialism than just profit. The massive force and size of the military simply gravitates toward warfare. What’s in it for them if peace breaks out?
It seems obvious that if had spent trillions in helping the world rather than waging war, we would have gone further in diffusing the threat of terrorism.
That would require policy makers, even liberals, to recalibrate their whole menu of options. There was a criminal attack on the US that was launched from Afghanistan. For American liberals, Afghanistan has always been the just war, while Iraq was the wrong war. I reject that formulation. Both wars are crimes against the peace, to invoke the rulings of the Nuremberg trials, the planning and waging of aggressive war is the supreme crime. In doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan there are already more Americans dying there than in the first months of this year than in the previous 5 years combined. And that we’re going into Pakistan where you’ve got almost 200 million people, it’s not going to turn out well.
Is the national press not doing its job?
The national press is rather conformist and predictable. One doesn’t go to the corporate media for real information, one looks there for entertainment, gossip, scandals, that’s one reason young people are leaving traditional media in droves—which is a good thing. Journalism is certainly in a precarious situation right now. Corporate media is being consolidated and at the same time there’s a powerful lobby for imperialism. Who is making money during the recession? Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, Raytheon. Just last year Exxon turned the greatest net profit in the history of capitalism. Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t kidding when he said there was a military industrial complex.
Is informative journalism moving to the internet?
The internet has had a tremendous impact on the market. Millions have left television, millions have left newspapers and magazines. But most of the stuff on the internet is opinion. It’s not investigative journalism. It’s people being very subjective but there’s not the digging and the hard work of following a story, of tracking down the leads and the sources. The economic model is not there. Who will pay these journalists to seek out deep information? It’s quite ominous in the sense that, if politicians know that nobody is looking over their shoulder, they can become even more brazen than they have been. It’s not healthy for democracy. If the press is not there, who is going to monitor them? Me? My neighbor? I’m not coming down to Santa Fe to keep an eye on what Richardson is doing. I think we’re headed toward two or three major newspapers in the country and that’s it. The onus will be on weeklies and alternative magazines to be the voice of dissent.
What can be done if the current strategy in Afghanistan isn't the correct one?
Convene a conference that will include all the stakeholders, including the Taliban. If I talk to an axe murderer, it doesn’t mean that I endorse his views. And the fact is is that the Pakistani Taliban is very different from the Afghani Taliban. The Taliban is very different from Al Qaeda, even though the two are always conflated in the American media. So we need to sit down with the Taliban, and bring in China, Russia, India, Pakistan and diligently seek a diplomatic solution to the many problems facing the region.
But when such an option is politically untenable to the Obama administration, how do the people move toward affecting such a shift?
That’s the toughest question and it can only come about through organization and solidarity. Take the Civil Rights Movement for example. Without cell phones or the internet or even answering machines, a half million people found their way to DC on a hot August day in 1963. That’s the power of organization. Today we have the illusion of organization. Email is great, but it’s not a substitute for organizing, it’s not a substitute for sitting in at the state capitol or blocking a Marine recruiting office. Obama has given people the sense that they’re part of a grass roots movement, but there is no sustained national movement. It’s quite intoxicating to believe that you’re involved in something. Ani De Franco proclaimed “thank God we have somebody in Washington who is listening to us.” It’s very revealing: It’s pure delusion.
So where do we start?
It takes work. The nature of the national system is that it’s very hard to get any leverage. I think it’s easier to get involved locally. It’s on the city council level, the school board level that it’s easier to have penetration. So it starts at the local level and then it can expand out to other communities to the statehouse, to the region, to Washington, just as the Civil Rights Movement did. Elected office wasn’t even an option for those people and we’ve forgotten the lessons of that era. Now is a good time to revisit them. Community media is where these ideas take hold. Public radio, the Santa Fe Reporter, these places must provide the intellectual nutrition and the voice of different opinions on a sustained level so that people hear about it just as much as they hear about Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie.
You don’t have a new book out. Why are you touring now?
Because this stuff is important to talk about. Because of the escalation in the war in Afghanistan, because of the catastrophe in Pakistan. Because we need to challenge the conventional wisdom. It’s as simple as that.