Episode 71: Laundering Imperial Violence Through Anodyne Foreign Policy-Speak (Part II)

Citations Needed | April 3, 2019 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Do it now. Do it. Give me — no, I’m just kidding. Yes, please help us if you can. We’ll spare you the long winded pitch this week and we’ll move on to the show, which I know we’re excited to dive into because it’s a potpourri, it’s a mixed bag, it’s a smorgasbord of bullshit and we’re excited to finish our Top 10 list of our favorite — or least favorite depending on you look at it — anodyne foreign policy-speak used to launder sociopathy. If you haven’t listened to the episode prior to this — Episode 70 — please listen to it before you listen to this one.

Nima: Please do listen to that episode first. It’ll give you a sense of what we’re doing here on this Part II. Just to review the first five favorite/least favorite, good/evil anodyne foreign policy-speak terms that we went over. Number one was “engagement.” Number two was the “putting of pressure” through “robust sanctions” on a rogue regime in order to “isolate” that official enemy country. Number three was the plea to “do something” or the lament that we have just “stood idly by and done nothing.” Number four was the “no fly zone.” And number five was “limited” or “kinetic strikes.” That is the quick review of the first five of our list. We now get to the back-end of the list to bring this Top 10 listicle episode home.

Adam: Which I believe, if I’m not mistaken, Nima, is your favorite, is number six which is “all options on the table,” which is —

Nima: Love it.

Adam: Which is such good menacing mafioso-speak.

Nima: (Laughing) ‘Eh, you don’t know what we’re going to friggin’ do.’

Adam: You know what? We got all options.

Nima: ‘I got all of my options.’

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: At this point, President Obama says all options are on the table.

Man #2: Now’s the time to let Assad know that all options are on the table.

Man #3: All options on the table says Senator Graham

Woman #1: All options on the table after North Korea launched a missile over Japan

Man #4: We leave all options on the table.

Woman #2: We could allow them to think that the United States might actually have all options on the table as opposed to consistently announcing that the United States doesn’t really have all options on the table.

Man #5: I would like to leave the formula at all options on the table.

Woman #3: They want to know that all options are on the table.

Man #6: Are you considering military options for Venezuela?

Donald Trump: We’re not considering anything, but all options are on the table.

Man #6: Does that mean you’re considering-

Donald Trump: Which is all options always. All options are on the table.

[End Clip Montage]

Nima: This is absolutely without a doubt my favorite on our list, “all options on the table,” which is a way of saying the United States government or whoever saying it, but it’s pretty much usually the United States government, is weighing it’s options, weighing what it is going to do about a very difficult situation involving another country and their actions and that to make this determination, all options are on the table. What may happen, we don’t know. All options are on the table. That could be sending cupcakes, it could be launching nuclear weapons.

Adam: So 100 times out of 100 you could replace the term “all options” or “all options on the table” with U.S. military invasion or U.S. military bombing.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Like there’s never a time where they mean anything else. It’s a way of saying we’re going to bomb you or invade you. And the way that that Mitchell and Webb sketch where there’s the ambiguous bond villain who’s sort of like, Dr. No, you remember this? And then he says:

[Begin The Mitchell and Webb Look Clip]

Leslie: Mr. Harrison has an irritating talent for disrupting my arrangements.

Keith: Would you like me to have him… removed.

Leslie: Yes, perhaps. Perhaps it would be better if Mr. Harrison were taken out of the picture.

Alan: Sorry, guys, you’re doing it again.

Leslie: What, Alan?

Alan: ‘Have him removed.’ ‘Take him out of the picture.’ I thought we agreed at the meeting that these terms are needlessly ambiguous.

Leslie: I suppose.

Alan: We all agreed that from now on when we want someone murdered, i.e. deliberately killed to death, then that’s what we’re going to say.

Keith: Look, everyone knows what we mean.

Alan: Well, on this occasion, perhaps. I mean that was an order to murder Detective Harrison. Right?

Keith: He has become a nuisance.

Alan: Right, but a nuisance we should murder. Is that it? I mean my nephew’s a nuisance, but you see what I mean?

Leslie: Yes. Yeah. All right.

Alan: Well can you say it then please?

Leslie: Okay. Please deal with the Harrison situation.

Alan: Well, that’s no good.

Keith: That was perfectly clear.

Alan: Oh, what are you talking about, Keith? This is going to be, ‘Let’s hope Professor Ritzon meets with a little accident’ all over again. I spent nine months hoping that Professor Ritzon would meet with an accident before Leslie made it clear it was an accident we were supposed to make happen.

Leslie: All right. You’ve made your point.

[End Clip]

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: So the first time this was used, cause I was curious where it started, and I know that we went into the newspaper archives of New York Times, Washington Post and the term had been used for benign purposes, uh, about, you know, where to get tax revenue, healthcare, ‘we’re going to seek all options on the table, what’s the best way to do it.’ But as far as a menacing foreign policy thread, the first use of it was in, it was April 24th of 1988, a Bush administration official told several different newspapers, I believe it was in a press conference, in regards to Manuel Noriega, in precedent, where The New York Times said quote, “Now, the goal is expressed vaguely, ‘All options on the table,’ said a knowledgeable U.S. official here.” So that’s the first time. And then George H.W. Bush used it again in 1990 when he was threatening to overthrow or to expel Iraq from Kuwait in which they said, the White House, that quote, “all options” are being explored. So then you have this other menacing threat, August 22nd of 2002 Bush, the son of Bush I says, quote, “all options” on the table for Iraq. Hillary Clinton loved all options. February 23rd, 2011 Clinton, this is a Voice of America headline, quote, “Clinton: U.S. to Consider All Options Against Libya.” We all know how all these turned out, these all involved military invasions or bombings. And just recently in February of 2019 Reuters reports “Venezuela’s Guido proposes all options be kept open to oust Maduro.” In literally every one of those quotes or headlines you could replace “all options” with “military option.”

Nima: Yeah. Attacking with your military.

Adam: But it’s sort of unseemly to say that so we have to do the mafioso, you know, ‘nice country it’d be a shame if something happened to it.’

Nima: (Laughs.) So I think, you know, the reason this is my favorite is, um, as someone who has followed the ridiculous propaganda over the Iranian nuclear program for over a decade now, and obviously the freak out over Iran has been going on since the revolution in ’79, but in earnest since 1984 with the nuclear mythology, but really the height of the all options on the table, I think was during the George W. Bush era. And because of the, you know, post Iraq, now Iran is the new target, at that time, all options on the table was used so much. August 13th, 2005 Bush was in none other than Jerusalem and he was asked about what would happen were talks with Iran not to pan out the way the U.S. wanted to and their nuclear program would proceed. Obviously the underlying nonsense there is that they had a nuclear weapons program, which they did not have, but that was the kind of talking point. What would happen? And Bush replied, ‘all options are on the table.’ At another point, Bush was asked by a reporter at a news conference:

[Begin Clip]

Woman #1: When you talk about Iran and you talk about how you have diplomatic efforts you also say “all options are on the table.” Does that include the possibility of a nuclear strike? Is that something that your administration will plan for?

George W. Bush: All options on the table.

[End Clip]

Nima: So to put this into kind of stark terms here, it’s not merely that military assault, military attack, totally illegal, which I know means nothing when you’re an empire, but you know this illegal attack, devastation, invasion, potential occupation of another country is deemed to be one of the options on the table, but also note “all” means all. Which also includes nuclear first strikes, which by any measure is genocidal and yet it is casually talked about as just one of the, ‘eh, one of the frigging options.’

Adam: Yeah, it’s just an option is if you would choose the LuAnn platter at Luby’s.

Nima: Well, that’s why it’s so sinister because they literally say “on the table,” it’s not all options are available to us. It’s a fucking menu.

Adam: Yeah it’s a menu of, it’s a way of saying, you know, ‘we can do this the easy way or the hard way, you decide’ right? On to number seven. This was a close second for me. This was a hard one. This is “modernize.”

Nima: Oh, it’s so good.

Adam: “Modernize” is what you do when you boost your military budgets and invest in more F-35s, aircraft carriers, ice cutters, nukes. You’re just modernizing things.

Nima: Yes. You’re just updating and you’re upgrading, right? It’s the safe and rational thing to do. And so modernization has this, you know, it’s new, it’s cutting edge. It is the good use of money, right? Cause you’re modernizing. Like it’s not retrograde. You’re moving toward the future. That is where budgetary discretionary funding should go. It is modernization. And so you see stuff like this from Reuters, February 12th, 2018: “The Department of Energy said the money was needed to modernize and restore the country’s nuclear weapons complex.” The same day The Hill reported, “Pentagon Budget Seeks Billions for Modernizing Nuclear Arsenal, Missile Defense.” A week later, this is February 19th, 2018 in The National Interest, “The United States Army will receive increased funding in the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal as the service struggles to modernize while simultaneously fighting wars in current conflicts.”

Adam: Which we have, we have no control over. The wars are just a law of nature and we…yeah.

Nima: Yeah. And so apparently we’re fighting these wars in an insufficiently modernized capacity. So that apparently is problematic. Which is why you need to modernize. March 1st, 2018 from CNN “U.S. nuclear policy is aimed at deterring Russia through the modernization of the U.S. arsenal.”

Adam: They’re not growing it. They’re not building more nukes. They’re modernizing.

Nima: They’re just modernizing.

Adam: Reuters, March 7, 2018, “U.S. F-35 Fighter Modernization Could Cost $16 Billion Through 2024.”

Nima: ‘Hey, modernity cost some fucking money, man.’

Adam: You gotta modernize man, what’s wrong with you!? Military.com March 7th, 2018, “Navy to Modernize Its Super Hornet Fleet.” There’s other variations of this tautology like overhaul or rebuild. The idea being is that something that’s sort of fallen into disarray and it needs be put back together. That if you don’t modernize, our military will fall behind and presumably China will invade Westchester.

Nima: It’s fucking falling apart here. You gotta modernize this. You’ve got to modernize this kitchen. You gotta modernize the, you know, nuclear silos. What do you fucking take us for, right? Like who’s, who could take this place seriously?

Adam: And a modern United States is self evidently preferable to a premodern one. The United States must keep pace or otherwise the perennial bad guys, Russia and China will catch up to us.

Nima: That’s right. God forbid, we are perceived to be antiquated in our global reach.

Adam: Military buildups in other countries are never modernized. They’re always military buildups. Russia, you know, increases its military budget by 15 percent or China’s building a new fleet of aircraft carriers. We never hear about Russia modernizing its force, nor is it ever mentioned that the U.S. spends three times more on its military than China does despite having a fifth of its population.

Nima: Right or that the U.S. spends more than like the next 9 or 10 military expenditures worldwide.

Adam: Or that, yeah, that NATO has a military budget 14 times greater than Russia, that we have to sort of modernize to maintain these conflicts that are laws of nature. We have no control over them. We’re sort of always playing catch up and the military is sort of like an iPhone software that has to be updated. Oh you’ve got to modernize it. It’s, it’s got to be modern.

Nima: Yeah. You got to modernize it. Especially in light of the fact that no country on the planet has the military that, I mean let alone the budget, but has the hardware at the scale of the United States. And so the idea that the U.S. is patrolling the Persian Gulf in like triremes or you know, this idea of the Spanish armada and that we’re just, you know, being passed, you know, China is modernizing and Russia is modernizing and you know, God forbid Iran does anything even remotely modern with their defense systems that the United States needs to keep pace. I love that one. “Keep pace” and “upgrade” and always be the most cutting-edge.

Adam: The idea that maybe Russia or China themselves are responding to U.S. military buildup that has been in the works for years is never considered.

Nima: It only goes one way.

Adam: Yeah, it’s always we’re responding to them, but the fact that we released these bipartisan, you know, naval recommendations or military budgets that are proposed years ago about building up ice cutters in the Arctic or naval destroyers, that these plans have existed for several years and China can read a newspaper and they know that. So there’s never a sense that they’re keeping up with us. We’re always keeping up with the bad guys who operate separate from our own military buildup. And this is a frame that’s existed for almost a hundred years. New York Times Friday, December 29th, 1922 “Our Big Warships to be Modernized. Senate to Be Asked to Make $7,000,000 Available to Start Work” on this modernization. So that’s $7 million, which I guess was a lot of money back then.

Nima: Massive. So, and then you saw it, you know, December 18th, 1953, this is also The Times, the headline, “NATO to Get New Look,” subhead, “Paris Deliberations Show Alliance Plans to Modernize Armed Services.”

Adam: December 20th, 1972 — you noticing a trend? All this happens in December because that’s when typically military budgets are done. December 20th, 1972, “Air Force Seeks to Modernize and Strengthen U.S. Defense Systems.” So this is always framed to the media or the media always frames it to the public as this is all public relations, right? That Congress and military contractors, you have to report on the fact that they’re increasing their budgets by 5, 10 percent or that we’re building new airplanes or new warships or building sophisticated software. But you don’t want to say we’re bloating our military budget cause it’s so cartoonishly large. If you say we’re modernizing and you’re like, ‘oh you got it, you got to modernize, you don’t want to be pretty modern.’ And so, and then you see this again March 1st, 1980, “Navy Plans to Modernize World War 2 Battleships.” By the way, that was us retiring World War II battleships and building more battleships. And building more of them by the way, not not just replacing the old ones, but increasing them in the run up to the sort of eighties cold war posture. So you want to be modern, everybody wants to be modern. You want to wear the latest thing, the hottest shoes, you know, you can’t go out there with some rinky dink nuke, you need the best one.

Nima: Well, and, and again, if, you know, if contractors are going to be selling this shit to get sign off on the budgets they want, how do you sell that? You don’t say, ‘well yeah, we’re just going to keep doing the same old shit.’ It is ‘no, we’re going to revamp, going to upgrade, we’re going to, you know, give you all the new latest stuff because you are the cutting edge empire.’ So you got to modernize. We’ve gotta be modern. Moving on number eight, “muscular foreign policy.” So this is an amazing one. I’m a big fan of this particular phrase, the, the muscular. I think just because it’s so kind of blatantly chauvinist to add, it’s like a bully, it’s some jerk off just being like, ‘hey, we gotta be muscular.’ ‘Our foreign policy has to be, has to be muscular,’ which really just means like violent and threatening. So the, the term was used by neocon foreign policy writers, uh, back in the ‘80s here and there. And then it was kind of really embraced by Clinton and the media during the ‘90s.

Adam: The new Democrats were huge fan of “muscular foreign policy.”

Nima: “Muscular, muscular foreign policy.” And then it really spiked considerably as you would imagine after 9/11. The years 2002 through 2007, think about who was in office, was peak muscular foreign policy time.

Adam: It’s still used quite, you can actually see a chart. We have a chart of hits which we’ll have in the show notes that the shows how it sort of spikes right after 9/11. Muscular foreign policy was really all the rage. It’s a term thrown around a lot today. NPR was describing Trump’s multiple war crimes in Mosul, Iraq. And they used some pretty um, pretty egregious euphemisms. They said, “The stepped-up use of American military muscle in multiple conflicts in the Middle East is a risky move by Trump.” And then they went on to say, “U.S. ramps up fight against Yemen.” And then this, this is the same article by the way, “Now it appears Trump is giving his generals more room to run.” They would go on to say in another article, “Ramping up U.S. military engagement,” just room to run. Jamelle Bouie was doing a really lame like sort of lazy pro-Clinton process piece in September of 2015 the headline, “The Wise Hawk: Hillary Clinton is offering voters a more muscular version of President Obama’s foreign policy.” In which again, there’s about 10 different of these euphemisms in this article about how she’s going to basically be killing more brown people.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Neocon weirdo Jamie Kirchick said in 2018, “As is always the case when the West takes military action, the epithet ‘warmonger’ is being bandied about…By flinging the term at anyone who advocates a muscular response to terrorism and dictatorship, those who lob ‘warmonger’ are faithfully carrying on the tradition of fascists and communists.”

Nima: So here, here’s the thing. Here’s the thing about muscular. The unspoken reason to use the word muscular is what it conjures on the other side of it, is the notion of what is not that. And what is not that is weakness and is flabbiness and is, you know, this idea of just being walked all over. If you’re muscular, you can stand up for yourself, you’re aggressive. But if you’re not, it is this idea of the United States being a pushover, not being muscular enough to impose its will over countries around the world, impose its will at diplomatic summits, impose its will over the economy. It needs to be muscular. But again, you know, when you say Clinton’s going to have a more muscular foreign policy than Obama, I mean Obama drone murdered thousands of people, was militarily engaged, I’m using engaged from our first episode, engaged conducting military attacks in at least seven Muslim majority countries at that time, that was Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria. This is not muscular enough, right? This is not aggressive enough and therefore you need to be more muscular.

Adam: So yeah in 2009 Clinton’s PR flack Philippe Reines actually pressured The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder into using the term muscular. There was a 2012 FOIA that Gawker did with the State Department. I actually later, personally, was part of that lawsuit. Long story, we won’t go into it, but this revealed internal communications between Secretary Clinton and the media. And Reines emailed him. This is July 15th, 2009, there was a huge controversy because Ambinder was giving basically quote approval beforehand, but it really showed the way the sausage is made. It said, this is the email, “Re: Do you have a copy of HRC’s speech to share? 3 [conditions] actually.” So this is him responding to The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder before the speech. Some conditions for him to have this speech in advance. He says, quote,

“1) You in your own voice describe them as “muscular”

2) You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys — from Holbrooke to Mitchell to Ross — will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something

3) You don’t say you were blackmailed!”

As a sort of joke. One minute later Ambinder responds, “got it.” And then The Atlantic piece in 2009 would go on to describe her foreign policy as muscular. So, of course they were all just running for the White House in 2016 at this point and they wanted her to be tough for whatever, whatever sort of euphemism, so muscular was the decided word choice, which again shows you how, how power serving this term is. It’s actually something they actively want to be known as doing because you want to be muscular. You don’t want to be flabby, fat, skinny piece of shit. You want to be ripped, you want to be jacked.

Nima: Right.

Adam: You want to be the rock.

Nima: Number nine: “stability.” This is a another favorite of Brookings Institute speak. “Stability” and the description of countries as stable as opposed to those that are unstable or those that are problematic or those that are troublemakers or bad apples. The stable ones are without a doubt always those countries with an ongoing U.S. military presence and quite often if not always, those where the United States is propping up dictators.

Adam: Yeah, stability is used a lot, also domestically. Jared Ball, who was a guest on one of our first shows, one of our first 10 shows, he has a great line in a speech he gives where he says ‘African American young men in the ‘hood shooting each other: stable. African American men in the ‘hood, walking around with their fists in the air: unstable. And thus not good.” It’s sort of predictive violence, it’s violence and oppression and suffering that is on the ledger before the year starts. It’s factored in the actuaries, the accountants, have already said this is okay. There’s a certain set amount of deaths that are okay. That’s stability! Stability is sort of factored in, normalized violence that’s seen as a law of nature or at the very least an acceptable cost.

Nima: Stability is one of the most favorite terms for U.S. State Department officials, presidents as well, but also State Department officials because it speaks to the relations that the United States has with other countries. That some are stable. They are seen as being a stabilizing force and so you see this all the time. For instance, January 26, 2011: there are Egyptian protesters pushing out the Mubarak government all over Tahrir Square and you see State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, so you see him go on TV and he repeatedly refers to the Mubarak government, the government of Egypt, longstanding dictator propped up by the U.S., but that is not what he says. He says that the Mubarak government is quote “an ally and a friend of the United States” and of course, what else quote, “it is a stabilizing force.” He goes on to describe the Mubarak government as, quote, “it’s an anchor of stability in the Middle East.” The reason why this particular phrase is so important to call out is that it is very similar to the phrase that President Jimmy Carter had uttered 33 years earlier with regard to the unflinching U.S. support both vocal and material that the U.S. provided to the Shah of Iran’s brutal dictatorship. Carter in Tehran speaking at a New Year’s Eve state dinner, this is 1977 called the Shah’s Iran quote, “an island of stability in an otherwise turbulent Middle East.” You hear this all the time, that there is a regime or there is a government in place in a turbulent, tough neighborhood, in a place that is volatile and hostile, but that they are stable and they are always the ones —

Adam: Just full of hot headed Arabs who mindlessly hate Israel for no discernible reason.

Nima: (Laughing) Of course, and this is at a time when Carter describes the Shah’s Iran as “an island of stability,” just like Crowley describes Mubarak’s Egypt as an “anchor of stability.” This is at a time where dissent is being ruthlessly suppressed. People are being tortured, there are political prisoners, there are secret police disappearing people and so the idea that these places are stable is not only ludicrous but speaks to a real concerted effort to obfuscate the truth. There’s a reason why these regimes are deemed ‘stable’ just at the point before they are overthrown by their own people who have been oppressed by these governments, knowing full well that the U.S. is supporting their oppressive governments.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, toast at a State Dinner in Tehran on New Year’s Eve, 1977.

Adam: Yeah. With Saudi Arabia this is used a lot. Al-Monitor Bruce Riedel in 2018 wrote, “Saudi Arabia is at its least stable in 50 years.” Thomas Lippman, an Op-Ed contributor to The New York Times the year before said quote, “The End of Saudi-Style Stability.” The suppression of the Shia minority, the antisemitism, the hatred of anyone who isn’t very strict brand of Sunni, the leveling of entire cities. That’s stability.

Nima: Right. Now they’re not stable.

Adam: Right, as long as long as it’s factored in.

Nima: Right.

Adam: But now that they’re having some palace intrigue, now it’s unstable.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: You want predictive violence against people who you don’t really give a shit about.

Nima: Right. Post-Khashoggi they are unstable. Um, previous, uh, century of oppression supported by, supported by colonial and imperial powers: stable.

Adam:The last one —

Nima: Number 10!

Adam: Number 10 —

Nima: With a bullet!

Adam: “Liberal, rules-based order” or “retreating from the global stage” or “the world stage.”

[Begin Clip Montage]

Woman #1: Do you feel like we are at a pivot point in world history, in terms of the Western liberal order?

Man #1: Crisis of liberal order and of the liberal intellectual tradition.

Woman #2: I think we learned about the essential fragility of the liberal order.

Man #2: You write the United States inventor and guardian of the liberal order-

Man #3: Staying on the, on the liberal order for a second, what are the main institutions that make up the liberal world order?

Woman #3: How grateful Canada is for the tremendous role the United States has played over the past 70 years in building this rules-based liberal international order.

Man #4: Um, maintaining U.S. international engagement and how do we uphold the liberal rules-based international order?

Man #5: What we’re doing this week is taking on a big subject: the American led liberal order of the last 72 years.

[End Clip Montage]

Adam: When Trump came into office and he kind of gave up on all the human rights posturing and sort of said we’re scumbags, we’re going to blow people up, sort of cut out the bullshit, there was and continues to be a collective freak out over this that he’s somehow undermining the liberal rules-based order. “The Trump Doctrine is Winning and the World is Losing,” wrote Kori Schake who is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a huge weapons funded think tank. He wrote, “Decades from now, we may look back at the first weeks of June 2018 as a turning point in world history: the end of the liberal order.” News Analysis, “The Post-World War II Order is Under Assault From the Powers That Built It.” Peter S. Goodman, a reporter for The New York Times wrote, he was quoting the dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard when he said, “But the solution is not to throw out the liberal order. It is to complement it with government policies that allow people to share in the benefits.” Once again, Roger Cohen at The New York Times wrote, “The ideas that gave the United States purpose in the postwar decades, from the spread of liberty to a rules-based international order.” So there’s this constant fixation with liberal rules-based order that we are somehow retreating from-

Nima: Post-World War II, there’s this new order in place, right?

Adam: Yeah. But of course it ignores the fact that the actions we did in Vietnam were never legally sanctioned by any liberal order, global order. We killed 3 to 4 million Vietnamese and several hundred thousand more people in Cambodia and Laos. We of course invaded Iraq that was not legal, had no legal sanction, killed 500,000 to a million Iraqis. So this is a complete fucking fiction to say nothing of the fact that the liberal orders that do exist, the U.S. doesn’t follow at all.

Nima: Right. So for example, the United States, supposed champion of the liberal world order that it helped create and maintain, seen as the, the world’s cop, the world’s policemen, making sure everyone stays in line, doesn’t cross red lines. Right? This is the same United States of course, that still has not ratified its membership to the International Criminal Court.

Adam: And has in fact passed a law in 2002 that said if an American is ever arrested by the ICC that Congress has mandated to invade, literally invade the Hague and rescue them like fucking Rambo 2.

Nima: The United States also has not ratified the Convention on Rights of Children. It has not ratified the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It has not ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions. I mean, this is to say nothing of our best, bestest, bestest friend in the world, Israel also deemed to be a, you know, island of stability.

Adam: And a beacon of liberal rules-based order, liberal rules-based international order. Rules-based.

Nima: Rules-based. A bulwark against barbarism. And so Israel also is not a party to, oh, I don’t know the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty otherwise known as the NPT, the Missile Technology Control Regime, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Also not a member of the International Criminal Court. Also not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions or the Chemical Weapons Convention. And so you have, yeah, other regimes, right? Regimes, bad guys are rogue. They go rogue. They cannot be trusted. They are bad apples in bad neighborhoods, tough neighborhoods in hostile regions. They break the law. They can not be trusted to uphold international law or basic norms of human decency. Meanwhile, the United States and its best friends uphold the rules, right? They are rule followers. They are rule makers and never is it considered that the United States above every other country in the world is probably the leading rules breaker.

Adam: Right. There’s no legal international sanction to any of the bombings we’re doing, whether it’s in the Iraq, Syria, there is no liberal international order mandate here. Like what they mean is just the arbitrary assertion might makes right of the United States empire. But that’s by definition not rules-based. That’s completely capricious. It’s whatever the president decides. And it’s not that liberal, I mean you could argue it is liberal imperialism, but it’s not liberal in the sense that it’s not motivated by liberal democracy, it is motivated by the assertion of capitalism and really what they really, you know, one of the factors they really mean aside from arbitrary, clandestine and military assertion of power is the economic system of debt peonage from the poor countries. It’s IMF and WTO, economic restructuring. It’s the trillions of dollars of interest and outflows from the Global South to the U.S. and western white majority interest. That’s the liberal order. They’re trying to preserve not some precious fucking definition of democracy and liberalism.

Nima: And yet you will hear this all the time, especially as Adam mentioned, in light of what we are to believe Donald Trump is now destroying these rules. He doesn’t abide by them. He doesn’t care about these rules.

Adam: Which, what he’s doing is he’s not running through the rhetorical motions. It’s mask off 2019, that’s what we’re calling it. Like we’re not even, we’re not even bothering to try to be his brain-wormed, addle-minded, overly tanned idiot. I mean he can’t comprehend these public relations ideas and he’s also just a naked bully who likes to be a dickhead. So the idea that he would fane some outrage is literally not in his constitution.

Nima: Because it’s not getting back to number eight it’s not muscular enough.

Adam: Right. He’s cutting out the middleman and going straight to the arbitrary exercise of violence. So.

Nima: Yeah, those are numbers six through ten. One through five are on the first episode. We’re now going to go to the second half of our conversation with Janine Jackson, program director for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, and producer and host of the syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Stay with us.


Adam: This kind of real time moral report card where if you fall below a certain grade, your delegitimized, some sort of combination of illiberalism or authoritarian, whatever that word exactly means, like we could do a whole show on that word, is something that even supposed or at least self proclaimed leftist, left-wingers now do. It’s sort of this, this sense that you can’t really talk about Venezuela without doing the obligatory ‘Madura is evil routine.’ You can’t talk about any regime without kind of preemptively delegitimizing them and providing what I would argue is the most essential axiom to regime change, right? Which is that the government is not a government, it’s a band of thugs who are illegitimate. But the criteria for this is never quite clear. And the idea that we somehow have this authority to make these ad hoc moral determinations and again, with a rubric that’s never really laid out. Like it’s, it’s not at all consistent or objective. It’s just, um, yeah, there was some issues with their democratic properties and we’re not going to put that in the broader context of any kind of imperial seizure. And he sort of, you know, whatever the CI busy bodies or economic warfare, everything exists in this kind of frictionless vacuum. And if you violate this boutique definition of democracy you are therefore illegitimate.

Janine Jackson: Beyond that Adam, I would even say the very fact that you’re thinking about it and talking to your friends over lattes about it now, is just because The New York Times wrote about it.

Adam: Exactly.

Janine Jackson: These are people who couldn’t find Venezuela on a map a month ago. Right? But now they care about it. Now they care about it because The Times

Adam: There are dozens of countries with illegitimate governments. The reason we’re talking about this one now is because the CIA and the Donald Trump said we should care about it.

Janine Jackson: And these very criteria that we’re supposed to be observing. Oh, well what about if we applied them to Saudi Arabia? ‘No, shut up. No, we’re not doing that.’ You know, like, Philippines. ‘No, no, no.’

Adam: What if we applied them to us? I mean?

Janine Jackson: What if we applied them to freaking us?

Adam: You have people going around talking about political prisoners, you know, we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population, I mean, where did we get off? I mean, sorry, I just-

Nima: (Chuckles.)

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson: Honestly, to me the thing is it’s because I, I really am on some level, I think if The New York Times and The Washington Post and all of these corporate elite media outlets would say ‘we think the United States right or wrong deserves to rule the world, it doesn’t matter how we do it and so that’s our worldview and that explains everything we’re gonna say, okay go.’ But they don’t and I always wonder why they feel a need to refer to kind of, you know, objective principles of diplomacy and of, you know, egalitarianism and try to give their maneuvers the cover of that rather than simply saying what they are. So I feel as long as they are going to refer to these principles, we get to compare what they actually support against these principles that they claim they’re in aid of, you know, I mean as long as they feel they need to cover things in terms of having some kind of sense making, you know, overarching idea then we get to call them on that. If they would just say, ‘Hey, U.S. über alles,’ you know, ‘United States, whatever we say, doesn’t matter we can kill who we want to kill.’ Then we’d at least know where they stand. But they don’t say that. They don’t say that. They cloak it in these terms. And in this view that makes it sound as though we just want the best for people. We just want everyone to be healthy and happy and you know, and that’s where I get so infuriated because they are not misinforming, they’re dis-informing. And that makes me think, you know-

Nima: Maybe they’re not on the level?

Janine Jackson: Maybe.

Nima: Maybe they’re not consistent in their ideology and how they apply what they do.

Janine Jackson: And maybe we ought to consider, I mean take the largest grain of salt, maybe we ought to consider everything that we read from corporate media as coming from a particular point of view and unpack it and compare it to other more independent sources of information.

Adam: That’s what makes this Venezuela thing so bizarre because unlike other incursions, whether it be Libya — and I’m even encouraging them using that term — even other violent kinetic actions, Libya, you know, CIA arming rebels in Syria, Iraq, like those were done with some degree of sophistication. You had your kind of top brass public relations people. You had your surrogate NGOs, you’re thinly veiled CIA front groups that were all kind of working the dial. But this Venezuela thing is so out in the open, I mean we have Elliott Abrams, we have all these washed up neocons, Trump is going on, you know, he went to a rally for two hours in Miami and didn’t mention the word human rights once. They’re not even trying and yet it’s still working.

Nima: It’s actually impressive in it’s confidence.

Adam: It’s still working. I mean those dipshits at Pod Save America had an episode where they’re like, ‘oh, it turns out The New York Times reported that the humanitarian aid thing, they lit their on trucks and fire and actually’ and they acted shocked by it. I’m like, how did you not know this? Like it’s fucking John Bolton. Like what did you? Do you want it tattooed on your forehead?

Janine Jackson: You know what is amazing to me is how The New York Times can do a story that says ‘yes, everything the media were saying three weeks ago was an absolute lie’ and somehow the fact that they expose it later, even though people were saying it, Max Blumenthal, Boots Riley, Glenn Greenwald folks were saying it in real time, that this is not what happened, with the burning of the trucks on the bridge, The New York Times story that exposes it later somehow serves as an inoculation?

Nima: Yeah.

Janine Jackson: That means that because corporate media acknowledged that they pushed a blatant lie around the world, that means that they would never, that’s not a thing they would ever do again.

Nima: Yeah. And now that they’re really heroic.

Janine Jackson: They’re freaking heroes and the folks who were right in real time, just like with Saddam Hussein and WMD and Gulf of Tonkin for Pete’s sake, the folks who were right in real time because they were critical and asked questions of U.S. officialdom, they’re still as marginal as ever. They’re still not at the table. They’re still not going to be listened to. And the folks who lied and lied and lied and lied and lied are still going to be our main go to source. And somehow we’re supposed to think that that’s good?

Nima: Well, so when we’re talking about language Janine, are you at all hopeful that there is a way to shift the way that words are understood and used and not fall into unfortunately, what is deemed, you know, this kind of Chomsky-speak maybe, right? Where you’re deemed to not be serious. Like what is the way to shift that?

Janine Jackson: Well, I mean clearly you don’t want to respond to ergo, you know, with counter-ergo, you know, then the idea isn’t just to use other terms that are winks to people that understand what you mean by them, you know? But where my hope lies is I just feel that people are on to them. I just feel that people are, and it’s not just young people, I just feel that people are onto corporate media in a way that they weren’t even 5, 10 years ago. I think that people have arguments, they have a whole counter narrative built up within their community or however they got it. You know, that says, ‘yeah, we’re not falling for that.’ You know, like ‘yeah, we don’t, we don’t buy that’ and they don’t feel as cowled, you know, like, um, ‘well you’re obviously not a serious person who deserves to be in the conversation,’ which used to kind of shut folks up I think. I feel like folks anymore understand that reality is reality. Whatever words we use, you know, if we have millions of Americans who don’t have healthcare and they have to choose between buying their insulin and paying the rent, that’s just real. You know, and I think that in 2019, we have more folks aware of that kind of reality. They can look at photos from a school bus strike in Yemen and see what actually happened. They just seem less willing to accept whatever the BS rhetoric is that’s coming from U.S. officialdom. I just feel like people are more onto it. I don’t feel like the government is doing it any less or doing it any more poorly. I just feel like people are cleverer about unpacking that kind of language and not being so swallowed up by it as perhaps we were in the past. I also think that as leftists we have a job of not using terms that folks might not understand or terms from grad school, you know, but just using language that you would use to anybody that you would speak to and the ideas are the ideas. And when we talk about the humanitarian populist ideas, progressive ideas versus the ideas of killing people and starving them and not giving them healthcare, you know, it’s kind of clear what people are more willing to support. You know? It’s not really a, it’s not really a matter of wrapping it up in particular language. If we can make the ideas clear, then people know which side they’re on.

Nima: That is incredibly optimistic for someone who’s been following this shit and exposing it for as long as you have.

Janine Jackson: Well, I gotta tell you, it depends which day of the week you, you wake me up on whether I feel happy or skeptical.

Adam: Oh, I have these conversations with Jim sometimes where he’ll say, you know, Jim’s an editor at FAIR, uh, works with Janine and he’ll say, yeah, ‘we should write this.’ And I say, well, you know, I feel like I already wrote that. And he says, ‘yes, but you know, something to the effect of a fireman keeps putting out fires, like, it’s what you do.’

Nima: Today is a new day.

Adam: And it’s not futile because at some point, by definition, I think everyone, unless you’re a red diaper baby, anyone on the left who has opinions that are separate from those they were born with was converted by someone somewhere.

Janine Jackson: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Adam: Um, and you know, whether it’s again, reading Chomsky in college or reading FAIR or CounterSpin. I mean, I was a huge fan of, now this is me sucking up to you, I was a huge fan of, of, of CounterSpin before I even got into media criticism. And to what extent that gave me a different perspective I don’t know. That way you don’t feel like you’re banging your head against the wall. Before you go I do have one question. We want to, we want to do a quick little vote here. It’s a little hacky. It’s a little bit like a Craig Kilborn bit, but we’re going to give you our top 10 rhetorical terms we used and I want you to tell me which is your favorite and by favorite I mean, I mean the worst.

Janine Jackson: Got it.

Adam: Um, so we, we have, in no particular order, number one we had “engagement,” which I love. We need to “increase engagement with the Middle East.” Quote unquote “put pressure or robust sanctions on country X.” Three “do something” or “the U.S. stood by and did nothing.” This kind of Rwanda narrative. “Limited kinetic airstrikes” or “limited military coercion.” Number five “no fly zone.” Number six “all options on the table” as a sort of veiled mafioso threat. Number seven “modernize” as in modernize the military or modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons fleet. “Stability” or finally “liberal rules-based order” or “to retreat from global stage” which I’m pretty sure it’s where Shakespeare had his plays performed. But, um, what, um, of those, which is your favorite? You have to decide.

Janine Jackson: It’s a tough call between “did nothing” or “stability,” but I’m going to go with the “stability.”

Adam: “Stability?” Wow.

Janine Jackson: I’m going with “stability.” I’ll tell you why. And it really is because you could have a situation in which, you know, a horrific leader had a country full of serfs and had them all working to produce cell phones, you know, for Samsung and the United States government would call that stability.

Nima: Oh yes.

Janine Jackson: You know, and I feel that we need to understand what it means for something to be stable. If the status quo is horrific, do we want it to be stable? Is that what we’re really calling for? But the very language, the word “stability” suggests that, ‘oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t disrupt.’ And that is really the big question in terms of corporate media. If you think the status quo is great and everyone’s doing basically as well as they can do and everything’s fine then you want stability. The vast majority of the world’s people who are suffering, who are in difficulty, who need a better life, don’t want things to continue stable-y along. And so for corporate media to say that stability is the big goal in this country or in any other country is a way of saying whatever horrors are existing, we’re going to support their continued existence. And when you put it that way, people are against it. But when you call it stability, it’s essentially a warning that says if you try to make change to make things better, then things are going to be really, really bad for you. And that’s just a way to frighten people away from trying to change their lives.

Adam: Yeah, it’s, it’s like when people do this thing about people starving in Venezuela, and I think of what Bruce Cumings said where he said extreme childhood poverty in India on a year to year basis is worse than it ever was at the height of the famine in North Korea in 1994. But that’s just factored in. It’s India stable, which is to say that it has cheap labor in a more or less a very capitalist economic system. So it doesn’t really matter. There’s not a, there’s not a moral panic. There’s not, you know, AP and Reuters photographers going and taking pictures of people eating trash and turning into this, into this kind of do something Rwanda narrative. It’s, it’s, it’s just the way it is.

Janine Jackson: Right. There’s no need for change. There’s no need to change that. And so you have to ask, what is it really that they think we need to change? And it is, it, is it really what, you know, a lot of folks just in their homes think about needs to change in the world. People shouldn’t be hungry. People shouldn’t not have healthcare. People shouldn’t be in, you know, in situations of violence. Hmm. That’s not what it is that they’re saying needs to change, you know? And so you have to recognize and it’s difficult. I understand that it’s difficult, you know, to think, wow, the friendly guy on the nightly news really doesn’t have my interests at heart? Hmm. No, no, no, he doesn’t. You know, and so we have to wake up to that and deal with that difficulty day by day, the way that the vast majority of the world’s people do.

Nima: Well, you heard it here first. “Stability,” boom goes the dynamite, that’s the number one said by Janine Jackson, program director at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, producer and host of the most destabilizing, syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. Janine, it is always so amazing to have you on the show. Thank you so much again for joining us on Citations Needed.

Janine Jackson: It’s been my absolute pleasure.


Adam: Yes, that was fantastic. That was a lot. Um, I think that sort of got a lot off our chest. I know these are all different things we wanted to talk about. So we put it in this mega episode.

Nima: That’s right. We did consider doing one episode on each of these and figured we would, we would put them all together.

Adam: Yeah. Because it definitely is its own distinct thing. Foreign policy-speak is its own internal language that people go to these schools, what we generally call the Raytheon School of Oriental Meddling, you know, you’re sort of King’s College London, Georgetown, uh, CSIS, uh, you know, all these weapons contractors, spook show, you know, foreign policy and they’re all serious and they have blue check marks, but they never say anything interesting and they have seven followers, but they’re all super serious. And um-

Nima: And they know the jargon.

Adam: They know the jargon. They got, you know, they’ve got a PhD, which, you know, not always, but usually means that society has beaten them down enough to where they’ll just play ball because they’re in so much, you know, they’re sort of so invested in the ideology of empire that they’re not really gonna criticize it. Because at that point you really can’t. And these terms sort of allow all the morality to sort of be glossed over. And I think when you hear these terms, what we would submit and what we usually try to do is just, you know, think critically about what they mean and to try to replace them with terms that actually describe what’s really going on.

Nima: Right. People are dying under bombs.

Adam: And a good rule of thumb is to try to avoid, you know, try to avoid cliches, try to say something in an original way. This way you will avoid these, these well-worn phrases. And I think, for people who are thinking about getting into that world or getting into quote unquote “foreign policy” — again itself a euphemism — thinking about getting into diplomacy — again itself a euphemism — uh, to really think about what these terms mean and what’s really being proffered by these institutions that have traditionally been aligned with the interest of American imperialism.

Nima: Whether it’s “engagement” or “retreating” or “doing something” or “not doing enough” or “limited military coercion,” “all options on the table,” “modernization” and “stability,” whatever it may be, pay attention to the way that these words are used because they do so much work in making us all so complacent and missing out on the critical component of all of these things, which is the harm done to other people made palatable and completely hidden from view when discussed by our politicians and our pundits. So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed on foreign policy-speak, part two of our two-parter. Thank you everyone for joining us. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, you can become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help there is so appreciated and none more appreciated are our critic level supporters. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, April 3, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.