On Tuesday, CBS News hosted the latest Democratic debate in South Carolina. Described by mainstream media outlets as both “feisty” and “chaotic,” the debate was largely characterized by efforts by other candidates to put heat on the current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. It noticeably touched more on foreign policy than previous debates, with questions relating to Russia, China, Syria and Israel.
While some may have welcomed the return of U.S. foreign policy issues to the Democratic debates, many of the questions were structured in such a way that suggested that anti-interventionist policies do harm to U.S. national security and that framed militaristic responses to foreign policy dilemmas as favorable.
To discuss the framing of foreign policy at the most recent Democratic debate, MintPress News recently spoke to Sam Husseini, senior analyst with the Institute for Public Accuracy and contributor to The Nation. Husseini argues that, in general, primary debates hosted by corporate media outlets often promote militaristic and even xenophobic approaches to foreign policy and that these outlets often leave journalistic principles by the wayside out of fealty to the aims and prevailing ideology of the bipartisan, pro-war foreign policy establishment that has long dominated US politics.
MintPress News (MPN) | Polls in recent years have shown that a majority of Americans oppose endless wars and U.S. intervention as the go-to solution for foreign policy dilemmas. Yet, the most recent Democratic debate hosted by CBS asked several questions that framed forever wars abroad as key to U.S. national security. How do you explain the apparent gulf between the CBS perspective and popular opinion regarding existing U.S. foreign policy and forever wars?
Sam Husseini | I think fundamentally that major media don’t reflect popular opinion, but they instead try to mold it. Sometimes, they make allusions to the public voice, usually through a corporate partner like Twitter, Facebook or Apple News or something. But, the issues, the framing, the questioning — that is all determined by corporate media and I don’t think they seek to reflect public opinion, but they are out to mold it. That’s very dangerous. They mold it on a regular basis through their media coverage and newscasts and so on, but it reaches a new height when we are talking about the debates.
The airwaves belong to the public and should be used in the public interest, but these outlets regularly don’t do that. The whole structure of these debates is that they are corporate-run in effect, with some cooperation or collusion with the DNC. So, the DNC sets the criteria and, when they want to, change the criteria to determine which candidates are allowed in. They changed the criteria to allow Bloomberg into the most recent debates after he facilitated an influx of cash to the DNC, whereas the DNC didn’t change their criteria to include other candidates like Gravel, Castro, even Harris and Booker, and Gabbard.
MPN | Some debate observers on social media commented that, in regards to foreign policy, many of the questions asked at the South Carolina debate could have just as easily been asked at a Republican primary debate. What does this say about the foreign policy of both major parties?
SH | That’s a tricky question in a way, since sometimes they even come at the Republican party from the right as well. For example, during one of the 2016 Republican primary debates, a right-wing radio talk show host asked Ben Carson, if he [Carson] — as a doctor — was able to kill people, which he [the radio host] argued is something the president is supposed to do. Of course, a mild reform would be to have a left-wing broadcaster as part of a Democratic party debate and that, of course, doesn’t happen. A low-hanging fruit would be that ABC News has Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation on as a commentator sometimes, but they don’t bring her into the process to ask Democrats questions [during the debates]. That would just be an obvious reform in terms of the asymmetry we are discussing here.
I think that they [corporate media] tend to ask more hawkish and interventionist questions of both parties and that the media are sort of the constant in this equation and they are pushing both parties in that regard. Trump, because of his brash manner, was able to distinguish himself by posing as an anti-interventionist to very good effect for his own candidacy by playing to isolationist tendencies in the U.S. public. That helped his candidacy a great deal, but I don’t think he was helped in that by the major media.
MPN | You have argued that CBS and other corporate media outlets that have hosted Democratic debates thus far asked questions that perpetuate the views of the U.S. foreign policy establishment at the expense of journalistic principles. Can you elaborate on this point and explain how CBS may have violated journalistic principles during the most recent South Carolina debate?
SH: Well, all of CBS’ questions were from a interventionist, right-wing or xenophobic perspective. For example, if you withdraw troops, aren’t you endangering national security? All the questions were framed as the president being commander-in-chief of the whole country as opposed to just the Armed Forces. Another question was about whether Chinese companies should be allowed to build our infrastructure. They were all from that interventionist perspective. Or, in terms of Israel, one question asked Bernie Sanders about his making pro-Israel people nervous.
These questions come from the pro-interventionist and fundamentally pro-war camp and represent a failure to scrutinize the foreign policy establishment that is the “elephant in the room.” There is virtually no questioning of the prerogative of the U.S. to use violence around the world. Quite the contrary, there is at least an implicit critique of anybody who even seems to deviate from that, even if they don’t really deviate from that. There’s a push in that regard.
So, it’s not a journalistic enterprise, I’d argue, as it’s about how to find a way to cast someone who seems to deviate from the U.S. establishment in terms of foreign policy in a negative light. That’s where most of these debate questions [related to foreign policy] are coming from.
MPN | Do you think the framing of foreign policy questions by CBS, and previously by other outlets during the debates of this election cycle, is related to the ownership and/or investments of these news outlets and their parent companies?
SH | Possibly, and also to the advertisers, some of which are major military contractors and so on. There’s an entire foreign policy establishment that is in part based on ideology and in part based on corporate interests and interlocking directorates at the highest level. I’m not sure how much intervention is necessary to keep the current structure [of mainstream media] in line. I think that those structures definitely matter, but there is an overlying simple ideology of nationalism and militarism that I think is the overriding factor.
MPN | As you touched on earlier, during the 2016 election, Donald Trump posed as an anti-interventionist while Hillary Clinton largely defended such policies. Do you think Democrats risk repeating the outcome of 2016 if they nominate a candidate closely aligned with the U.S. foreign policy establishment that Trump still claims to oppose?
SH | I think that’s definitely true, but I do think that gets somewhat complicated because I think even progressives are under-estimating that you have an incumbent president seeking re-election without a recession, and those types of presidents almost always get re-elected under those circumstances… I think any Democrat or any challenger to Trump has an uphill battle just because of that historical tendency.
But, I also think that, given the repeated failures of centrists or establishment Democrats like HIllary Clinton and John Kerry to get elected in recent years, this makes it obvious that the best possible bet would be to choose someone with a populist appeal, which is what Bernie Sanders is trying to do.
MPN | Do you think the questions on foreign policy asked during the recent debate perpetuated the so-called “Cold War 2.0” that has grown precipitously since the 2016 election? If so, which questions/topics do you think were the worst offenders in promoting a black/white and hawkish foreign policy approach?
SH | Well, I mean right from the top they framed it as “Russiagate 2.0” by framing Russia as wanting Sanders to be the nominee and eventually become President. Then, that was followed up later in the debate with a question that argued that, if the Russians are interfering in our election, shouldn’t we conduct cyberwarfare against them, as if the United States is typically a reactive or defense actor in such situations, when it obviously isn’t.
I think those questions had the most brazen framing [during the last debate], especially when Russiagate has been mostly directed at Trump and to get Democrats to buy into this “Cold War 2.0” as well as to cast the US as a benevolent force on the world stage, which I think has been its primary purpose.
Feature photo | The Democratic presidential candidates, stand on stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. Matt Rourke | AP
Whitney Webb is a MintPress News journalist based in Chile. She has contributed to several independent media outlets including Global Research, EcoWatch, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has made several radio and television appearances and is the 2019 winner of the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism.