Mark Danner has some unusual characteristics for a mainstream US journalist.
He has published in some of America’s finest literary journals and is an irregular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Yet, despite his impeccable media establishment credentials, he remains entirely capable of critiquing its failures.
In an exclusive interview with newmatilda.com last week, Danner covered a lot of ground. He is haunted by his country’s use, abuse and boasting of torture on "enemy combatants" and the inability or unwillingness of Obama to challenge the criminality of the Bush years.
I raised with him the roughly 700 military bases or outposts across the world that Washington acknowledges it operates, according to American historian Chalmers Johnson. When I asked Danner what the US needs them for, he spoke with a frankness unusual in a mainstream journalist about the way the media avoids using the words "empire" and "imperialism" to describe America’s role in the world.
"People don’t want to use that kind of terminology because they’ll get placed on the Left. It is viewed as an inherent denunciation of American policy. To talk about empire, you’re automatically Noam Chomsky, you’re making a point about hegemony but I don’t see it like that. The United States has imperial visions and responsibilities and that’s just a fact. It obviously works differently to the Roman Empire or the British Empire.
"But the US worldwide has interests and it controls the sea-lanes. The American navy is absolutely unparalleled in the world and nobody rivals this power. There is no other worldwide navy though the Soviets tried to build one and failed. That’s what empires do — they keep the sea-lanes clear. China is building a blue-water navy but it’s generally thought that Beijing wants to construct a ‘string of pearls’ — military bases from China to Africa because at this stage their foreign policy is primarily focused on securing resources."
Danner was in town last week to give a talk at Sydney University, and to promote his most recent book, Stripping Bare the Body. During his talk Danner challenged the core beliefs of the American-led battle against terrorism by outlining the wide gulf between reality and rhetoric. He cited President Barack Obama’s "eloquent address" in Cairo last June that articulated the importance of reframing the relationship between the West and the Muslim world.
But Washington seemed to ignore the contradictions of an African-American president talking about democracy and human rights while still wholeheartedly backing dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are key targets for al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Danner observes that while such inconsistencies might escape the mainstream Western voter, they are at the very centre of the way people in non-Western countries see US behaviour. Obama’s seeming endorsement of the policies of client states such as these — or at least no public moves to condemn their brutality — plays directly into the hands of those who point to America as the great hypocrite.
In that context, Danner argued that the Muslim Brotherhood gaining influence in Egypt through democratic elections should be cautiously welcomed and a "salutary" lesson for a super-power long used to backing anti-democratic forces.
He argued that after one year in office, Obama would get a failing grade on the project of completely ending torture and closing Guantanamo Bay. More ominously, lamented Danner, many polls find a majority of Americans now believe that torture is necessary to keep the homeland safe from terrorist attack. "Fear is now a permanent feature of American life," Danner said.
He reminded the audience that the filibuster technique, ruthlessly used by the Republicans in the last 12 months to block Democrat-led initiatives in Congress, had an ironic history. "It used to be something Democrats used to block civil rights legislation to allow African-Americans to vote," Danner explained, "and today the same tool is being used by the Republicans against an African-American President." He wasn’t optimistic that this political gridlock would be broken anytime soon.
Far from being a beltway analyst, commenting on events from the safety of the US, much of Danner’s fame stems from his influential first-hand coverage of conflicts outside the US and of the effects of his country’s foreign policy. Also, his work has dealt frequently with the seeming inability of the corporate press to report honestly on conflicts and trauma both near and far from America. "The verdict since 9/11 is quite mixed," he told me. "What the press did in the run-up to the Iraq war was a terrible job. One of the mitigating reasons for that was that the Bush administration chose to make its case [over Iraq]on intelligence grounds and put journalists in the position of being seals, wanting fish. The ones who clapped most agreeably, such as Judith Miller at The New York Times, got the biggest fish. Intelligence stories depend on leaks. Secondly, the political elites essentially closed ranks over the invasion."
Danner argues that the Iraq invasion potentially hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans, as the so-called "Left" didn’t want to be seen as being on the wrong side of history. "Anybody on the Democratic side who thought they might be President in 2004, such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, all supported the war; it was the smart vote, in part because of what happened after the earlier Iraq conflict in 1991 when Democrats opposed a very popular war."
Violence as a catalyst for action is something that Danner looks at in a variety of ways in his book. As he says, "for leaders in a democracy, charged with crafting a foreign policy that can attract consensus or at least acquiescence, the instinctual power exerted by the spectacle of violence is a reality to be managed and sometimes feared."
And that’s a dynamic that has certainly applied to the rapacious relationship between the US and a place in which Danner did some of his most powerful early journalism: Haiti. In the aftermath of the recent earthquake, Danner wrote in The New York Times that the country needed a serious and long-term commitment from Washington to build a "new Haiti", but not of the militaristic kind: "Haitians have grown up in a certain kind of struggle for individuality and for power, and the country has proved itself able to absorb the ardent attentions of outsiders who, as often as not, remain blissfully unaware of their own contributions to what Haiti is. Like the ruined bridges strewn across the countryside — one of the few traces of the Marines and their occupation nearly a century ago — these attentions tend to begin in evangelical zeal and to leave little lasting behind."
Events have brought Haiti back to attention in the most unfortunate way. But it is hard to see a lot of hope for the US altering the way it goes about its business there or elsewhere. In one of the most telling passages in Stripping Bare the Body, Danner describes another US intervention in Haiti, this time during the Clinton presidency: "The Americans, exerting their overwhelming power to reshape the politics of a tiny immiserated land, failed disastrously in Haiti. They underestimated the nationalist response that would accompany their every move, blundering about like a watchmaker blinded by his own shadow."
And to anyone who has watched the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, that’s a description that sounds tragically familiar.
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