The Quest for Truth and Peace: A Conversation with Gareth Porter

gareth porterGary Corseri: Gareth, it’s almost exactly 5 years since we last met and talked formally… and, a lot has happened in the world, and there have been significant developments in your life as well.  I know that you’ve been awarded the distinguished Gellhorn Prize, and that you have a new book coming out.  So, I’d like to talk about where we were five years ago, where we are now, and where we may be 5 years from now. … Let’s start with the Gellhorn Prize. First of all, hearty congratulations!  Tell us about this.

Gareth Porter: Thank you.  It’s kind of you to mention it.  I was thrilled to be recognized by the Martha Gellhorn Trust—the family and friends of the American/International journalist.

GC: She was Hemingway’s third wife, I believe.

GP: I think that’s correct. But, I’m honored to be associated with Gellhorn, who was a major force in journalism, and someone who cared about finding the truth. The reason that this award is something I’m very proud of is because it is specifically for journalism that uncovers the truth in the face of government lies and propaganda. It was my work, particularly on Afghanistan, about the lies that the US military has told, especially about Special Operations Forces–night raids and the way in which they target suspected Taliban insurgents—my work in that area brought this recognition.

GC: And this is a prize that’s awarded in England, not in the US.

GP: Right. Because Martha Gellhorn moved to the UK fairly early in her life.

GC: And it’s my understanding that it was John Pilger, the noted Australian/British journalist, who recommended you for this.

GP: John Pilger is a member of the Gellhorn Trust Board, and is one of the judges, and he encouraged me to apply, to send my stories in for this competition.

GC: Do you think this will give you more credibility as a writer/journalist?

GP: Well, that question of credibility is always related to one’s politics. With regard to people who are Progressive, who may not have been aware of my work before—perhaps their attention will be drawn to my writing now; for others, I don’t think it makes much difference!

GC: Obviously, you’re a man interested in foreign affairs, interested in American policy in regard to war; particularly, our policies in Afghanistan and that part of the world. … What about your new book? Can you tell us the subject matter?

GP: I just signed with Just World Books, which is a small, but mighty, publishing house in Washington, D.C., run by Helena Cobban, to write a book–the title of which (tentatively, at least) is, MANUFACTURED CRISIS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE IRAN NUCLEAR SCARE. This is going to be the first full account of the real history of the Iranian nuclear program—on the one hand—and the effort by the US and Israel to stop, to destroy, to get rid of, that program–and to use the accusation that Iran intends to, and is, in fact, covertly working on getting nuclear weapons as the device with which to force the issue of ending the nuclear program.

GC: Now, I’m sure many people wonder: Why does Iran need a nuclear program if it has no interest in building nuclear bombs?

GP: The problem in understanding this question of the Iranian nuclear program is that—the way the issue has always been posed by the US and other governments seeking to force Iran to abandon the program–is that either it is specifically for nuclear power, or, it has to be for nuclear weapons. And, if they can find some argument that would show that the case that Iran needs this development for nuclear power—that it’s a weak argument—then they yell,“Gotcha!” this has to be for nuclear weapons!”

But, the fact is that there was, and is, a case for Iran to use uranium enrichment for nuclear power. To reduce it to simplest terms, Iran needs to be able to export its oil to the maximum in order to be able to maintain a flow of income—basically foreign currency. And, in order to do that, it must give up some of its domestic consumption. For Iran to have the requisite sales of foreign oil, and to maintain a minimum of domestic consumption of oil, it’s going to have to have additional power resources for its own economy. And that’s where nuclear energy comes in.

GC: Eventually, all of us run out of oil. So, they’re thinking ahead. …

GP: They’re thinking ahead. But it’s also far in advance of running out of oil. It’s an economics question. They’re calculating that they need nuclear power to fill the gap between the oil they would continue to export and what they will need domestically. This is not a conclusion that people vaguely interested in the Iranian nuclear program have come up with. This is the conclusion of the Baker Institute at Rice University, supported by the major US oil companies, and they have made the same analysis—they say it’s a perfectly legitimate analysis for the Iranians to make. Beyond that, there are other reasons why Iran wants to have a nuclear program—other than weapons. National pride is a significant element. Being a nuclear country–part of the world that has nuclear power and has mastered the fuel cycle—will give them prestige in the world. And nobody disagrees with that!

There’s another point that is hardly ever mentioned in the news media, and that is that having enriched uranium gives Iran bargaining leverage with the US, without which the US has no interest in negotiating with Iran. Bear in mind that Iran has been subject to far-reaching economic sanctions from the US since the mid-1990s—the US imposing financial sanctions on Iran, preventing them from being able to get the requisite foreign technology and investment in their energy industry for some 15 years now. And, to free themselves from those sanctions, Iran needs to negotiate with the US; and, in order to negotiate they have to have leverage—and that’s what the enrichment program gives them. So… for the US to demand that Iran give up enrichment means that they’re demanding that Iran give up any possibility of negotiating a settlement with the US.

GC: The US would simply like them to surrender!

GP: Exactly.

GC: And, isn’t the US being hypocritical about this. Doesn’t Saudi Arabia have a nuclear program—

GP: Not Saudi Arabia. It’s one of the arguments the US has been using—that if we allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, then the Saudis and everyone in the Middle East will also want them—Egypt, Turkey, and so forth. But, that’s subject to critical analysis. A number of analysts who have looked at this think that’s not the case!

GC: You’ve said that having a nuclear power program will give Iran bargaining leverage. Is that because… once they have such a program and can easily convert this nuclear capability into weapons—is that the fear that Americans would have? Like Japan, for example… they could convert all of their nuclear facilities into weapons-producing facilities… and rather quickly!

GP: The nuclear facilities that enrich uranium give a country the ability to enrich that to a weapons-grade level. That has always been the argument that the US and Israel have used to say that Iran must not be allowed to have a nuclear program. All that is true, and, at the same time, irrelevant because many other countries, as you’ve indicated, have had nuclear programs that have not gone to nuclear weapons; and, it is the absolute right of any member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty; or, indeed, as is the case with Israel—a non-member of the NPT—to have a nuclear program. The Israelis have not only had a nuclear program, but have had nuclear weapons as well. So, it is, a legal right; and what the US has been doing for 30 years—intervening politically and diplomatically, and threatening to use military force—is illegal under international law.

GC: Doesn’t this all go back to the old question of the balance of power—maintaining this old equation about the way Imperialism works? It’s not really a balance of power so much as it is a much-skewed equilibrium favoring the imperialist power, whose major check against aggression is the cost such aggression would incur. We’re simply repeating this old dynamic about maintaining our power in that part of the world, like the British before us—and Israel’s power, too—and we don’t want to see Iran coming up and challenging that.

GP: This is the issue that I think is behind this: the US desire to keep Iran from achieving its full potential as a regional power; and, also because the US has a strong animosity towards Iran and, as the National Security State, has profited by having Iran as an enemy. Of course, as you suggest, Israel’s part in this is to maintain their hegemony as the dominant military power in the Middle East. From the Israeli point of view, they don’t want Iran to have the knowledge that would make it capable of challenging them.

GC: Maybe you address this in your book, maybe not: Last time that we talked—five years ago—you predicted that a Democrat would be sitting in the White House as a result of the next election, and you said that that Democrat would continue Bush’s policies. … Thinking back on that, you were very prescient—this is exactly what we have with Barack Obama. … Now, let’s see if you can be just as prescient—and we won’t know for another five years, perhaps—but, ah, where are we going? Does your book address any questions like this?

GP: No, the book does not. It doesn’t attempt to peer into the future with respect to US policy towards Iran–except in so far as it has an analysis of the way in which the US has made policy and, to some extent, that does serve as a guideline for what to expect. In that regard, we face the daunting prospect of more years of US-Iranian animosity, of a continuation of maneuvering, and a failure to resolve this problem through diplomacy. I would say, based on the past, that the interests that have been built around the animosity between these two countries—as well as Iran’s relationship with Israel and the charge that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism–all those things are vested interests in the political elite and in the National Security State of this country. And that’s why I say that it’s most likely that this policy will continue.

GC: We have a Cold War with Iran. And that will continue to be our reality!

GP: Yes. And, I don’t expect a “hot” war as a result of deliberate US—or Israeli—policy. I don’t think the Israelis are going to attack Iran. As I’ve written in the past year, I think the Netanyahu government has been bluffing—not just this year, but for many years, about an attack on Iran–despite the fact that Israel has never had a genuine military option that they believe could be effective against Iran. That’s the assessment of political leaders and military and Intelligence officials in Israel—and has been for years.

GC: Because Iran could strike back!

GP: Because Iran could strike back. And the military and Intelligence leadership of Israel does not believe that the Iranians are irrational, nor that it’s necessary to strike Iran; they do not believe that Iran has made a decision to develop nuclear weapons.

GC: You have just been talking about reality and appearance. And that gets into the issue of propaganda. … I want to ask you: How difficult is it to discern the truth when covering issues that are the subject of an endless barage of propaganda?

GP: The answer is that it depends on the issue. Particularly in the last few years, as related to the US-Iran policy, it has been surprisingly easy to spot the lies that have been told by the United States and Israel—once you establish the reality based on past history. I point to things like the US claim at the end of the Bush administration that the Iranians nearly started a war in the Straits of Hormuz in January, 2008. I think I was the first journalist to write an expose showing how that was a propaganda theme developed in the White House and the Department of Defense, deliberately put forward and picked up by the news media to suggest that the US and Iran were almost on the verge of a war when, in fact, nothing of the sort had happened. And then there are plenty of lies having to do with the Iranian nuclear program which are pretty easy to spot once you’ve gotten into the details of this.

I think the most difficult issues to discern the truth about are those that have to do with what is happening between the President of the US and our military leadership—or different factions within the US administration. In those situations it can be very difficult to figure out what is really going on. Is the President really trying to pursue a different policy from the military; or, is the military forcing the President to adopt a more militarist solution on Iraq or Afghanistan; or is the President really willing to go along, and, in fact, more complicit than he would like the American public to believe he is? You can see the difficulties that arise because of the interest of the White House in selling to the public one point of view while, at the same time, leaking to the news media—or allowing it to be reported—that the military point of view has some merit. And this was the situation we saw with Iran and Afghanistan; and, I think I may have given Obama too much credit early on for resistance to the military. Not because he didn’t understand that what they were proposing was unnecessary and stupid, but because he is a weak leader and prone to basically going along with the military because he thinks that’s the best way to maintain his political status—his credibility on national security.

GC: Of course, you get into this subject of internal conflicts within a nation’s leadership in your first-rate book, PERILS OF DOMINANCE. … Now… you’ve just called Obama a weak leader, and that’s going to provoke some people. Can you be specific?

GP: I think the main problem with Obama-as-leader is that he has bought into some fundamental myths about military force and its role in national security. He has bought into that far more than is consistent with leadership in opposing what the CIA, the Defense Department and the military want and need for their own institutional interests. That’s why you get Obama making speeches in which he sounds like someone who is profoundly influenced by American “exceptionalism.” The idea that the US has this mission in world history to be the leader! So, I think that disarms him in a way. A really strong leader is the kind required to keep the US from doing what it did in Afghanistan–which was to double-down on the Bush mistake of sending troops to Afghanistan and occupying the country–instead of figuring out a way to get out of Afghanistan!

GC: Has there been a US president since George Washington who has not espoused the idea that we are an exceptional people?

GP: Probably not. I would say that John F. Kennedy may have come as close as anyone.

GC: And look what happened to him!

GP: Well, that, obviously, is a question that many people have posed. And I would say that the saving grace of John F. Kennedy was that he was extraordinarily skeptical of mind, and, particularly in the early months of his presidency, received such a shock in the way that he was lied to by the CIA and the military on Laos and Cuba that he was very much on the alert for being misled and manipulated by the military on Vietnam. Thus, as I’ve indicated in PERILS, he made an effort to undercut his own administration’s policies—the policies he had previously determined, when he realized they were a mistake in terms of carrying out the counter-insurgency war in Vietnam.

GC: As we are speaking, the next election is a few days away. Will it make much difference whether Obama or Romney is elected?

GP: It will certainly make a difference in terms of the budget. I think that’s the most profound difference between what kind of presidency we can expect from these two men. With regards to Obama: I think he’s aware of the dangers of trying to maintain the status quo in the budget, particularly in terms of military spending. He has agreed that there have to be significant cuts–even though far too small. Romney, on the other hand, is an entirely un-reconstructed militarist who is determined to increase military spending, which is going to come at the expense of social spending. I suggest that Romney is determined to set up a dystopian, militarist society in the United States.

GC: Quite a suggestion! Strong words!

GP: But in terms of other policies–of what each of them would do in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc.—it’s less clear. The differences would be more subtle.

GC: It’s less clear. … And the argument against Obama is that he says one thing and does another. He promised to close down Guantanamo and to stop torturing.

GP: All of these share a common characteristic: Obama essentially accommodated the interests of the National Security State, what I call the Permanent War State, both in terms of Civil Liberties issues and in terms of budgetary and policy issues. …

GC: You have a penetrating mind… and I wonder if you ever feel that you did not penetrate the fog of propaganda?

GP: I would say that it was on those issues early in the Obama administration where I was somewhat misled by very clever manipulation by the White House, suggesting that Obama was headed in a certain direction in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. But, within a matter of months it became clear to me that Obama was lying. When he promised that he was going to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq in mid-2010, he was lying to the American people. And, I’m proud of the fact that I was the only print journalist who wrote about the fact that Obama planned to keep at least 7 full combat brigades in Iraq and that they would continue to fight.

GC: I remember from our last interview, you said that a president is almost obligated to lie to the public–because of this conflict within an administration between military leadership and the president.

GP: Exactly! And we’re seeing this play out again in Afghanistan. The President is doing roughly the same thing that he did in Iraq–which is that he has been assuring Americans that the US combat mission in Afghanistan will end in 2014 and that most troops will be out even sooner. But, the fact is that it is established Obama administration policy that the US will leave at least 10,000 special operations forces who will continue to kill and detain Afghans and suspected Taliban for years into the future–unless something happens to change the plan. That could be a collapse of the Kabul government–the Karzai administration; or, less likely, some kind of settlement. Most likely, the US military will continue to be engaged in Afghanistan for some years after 2014.

GC: And, no matter what the numbers are, we’re probably going to be increasing our drones, and we’re going to continue to technologize these wars. And that becomes an even greater danger in the future!

GP: One thing we can be cconfident about is that the next administration—whether it’s Obama or Romney—will be focussed on these wars involving special forces and drones– that that will increasingly be the face of US militarism in the world; that we are not going to see, for the foreseeable future, any more Iraqs or Afghanistans. And the reason is quite clear: the US military has been seriously worn-down by fighting two wars over the last 10 years. They don’t like to admit it, but, very quietly, that is what the US military leadership is saying. The human cost, in terms of wounded in Afghanistan is so much greater than has been reported by the national news media that this is a major part of the story of US militarism; that we have incurred a much higher level of basically life-altering casualties on the part of the US military. Over the last three or four years, we’ve had something on the order of 17 or 18 thousand wounded. We don’t know how many of those involve loss of limbs or permanent brain damage. But the number is quite large.

GC: And what about those involving post traumatic stress?

GP: Even a larger number. We don’t know the number. But it is enormous!

GC: Well, that takes me to what is probably our last question: What can we—and I’m happy to include you in that pronoun—what can we as peace activists do to further the cause of peace at this time? What keeps you going? When you see all the lies and propaganda, the vested interests… yet, you are a man who has hope, and you inspire hope in others, your work inspires hope (I think that was a major reason you were awarded the Gellhorn Prize). … So, tell us what keeps you going… and what’s ahead for the Peace Movement.

GP: What keeps me going personally is the quest for truth. On the larger plane of what peace activists can do, I think that the first order of business is to get organized. Unfortunately, we’ve seen over the past decade the collapse of the peace movement in the US. It’s an unprecedented collapse. And it demands our attention to try to understand what happened. I think–what we’ve seen is the demobilization of the anti-war movement by successive administrations which have deliberately propagandized to convince people that their views won’t make any difference—that they cannot change what the US will do. That’s been a very deliberate effort on the part of the Bush, and then the Obama, administrations. I also think that, because of the deteriorating social and economic situation, people have been called to a lot of local issues, social and economic issues, that do demand activism. And, what I think needs to be done is for people to re-evaluate the reasons that they’ve moved away from a focus on militarism and peace… and ask themselves the question whether they are not, in fact, assisting militarist forces when they fail to be more activist against this Permanent War State.

GC: We need to prioritize!

GP: We need to prioritize, and we need to analyze the linkages between militarism and war on one hand and the issues of society and the US economy on the other.

The one other thing that I would add is the importance of people who care about these matters to come together around the country in small groups, and then to gather in a larger congregation, to unify their analysis of how we got to where we are. Because that is what has been so terribly missing in the politics of the opposition to the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. We have so many different ways of understanding—it has been shattered into a thousand pieces. And, to some extent, that can never quite be repaired without generational changes and so forth, and—

GC: It’s true that we live in that kind of world today; it’s a very fragmented world.

GP: It’s a fragmented world! And I think understanding has been fragmented in a way that is unprecedented. But, I think that a smaller sub-group can begin to unify their understanding, to come up with an analysis that can serve as the basis for a strategy. My candidate for that analysis is to look at the Permanent War State as a congeries of special interests—institutions that have their own vested interests; and we should know that that’s not the exclusive reason that we’ve arrived at this state, but I think that it’s the most important reason. And we need to focus on that as a target, a counter-strategy, for how to defeat the Permanent War State–to recapture the Pentagon, to recapture the policy of the US in terms of the question of war and peace.

GC: I totally agree. … Now, how do we propagate such an idea?

GP: We need some money–money to convoke some meetings; and to organize. We need to organize on campuses. I think campuses are more open to this today than has been the case for a while. We need to have a campaign. We need to have campaigns around these issues. And that’s not happening.

GC: And, except for the so-called “fringe” parties—what an demeaning term!—we don’t have an anti-war candidate running this time. I mean, both the Left and the Right have produced anti-war candidates who were excluded from the national debate. How do we back such people, how do we unite Left and Right in an anti-war campaign?

GP: I’m glad you’ve posed that question. One of the things that we need to be aware of is that there has got to be a Left-Right coalition. I would argue that the most coherent group of anti-militarists in the contry now are what might be called the Left Libertarians, followers of Ron Paul. They are much more focused on that issue than most people in the Progressive movement who are spread across a lot of issues and tend to focus much more on domestic issues than on militarism issues. So, I think it’s very important for the Left anti-militarists to be getting together with the Left Libertarians—who are a very important source of potential power in regard to this issue.

GC: How do we bring them together?

GP: Again, we need somebody to sponsor some conferences. We need to raise money for this from sources that are going to have to be different from people who fund the think tanks in Washington, or self-fund it. People are going to have to reach into their pockets and pocketbooks and come up with small amounts—10,000, 100,000 people, say—to make this happen.

GC: How promising a likelihood is it that at this time of economic crisis people will reach into their empty pockets?

GP: I agree that this is a tough time! On the other hand, I think that we’re being pushed, in this crisis, towards desperate measures.

gareth porterGareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. foreign and military policy who received the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He contributes his articles regularly to Inter Press Service, which are published widely on the internet, and he writes longer investigative pieces for Truthout, Al Jazeera English, The Nation, among other publications. He appears regularly on Al Jazeera English and Russia Today. Porter was the Saigon Bureau Chief for Dispatch Service in 1971 and was Co-Director of the Indochina Resource Center in Washington, D.C. from 1973 through 1976. He is the author of four books on Vietnam, most recently, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam. He is now working on a book on the Iran nuclear scare. …

Gary Corseri

Gary Corseri has published and posted his work at hundreds of venues worldwide, including, DissidentVoice, The New York Times, CounterPunch, and Village Voice. His dramas have been posted at Hollywood Progressive, and produced on Atlanta-PBS. He has published two novels, two collections of poetry, and edited the “Manifestations” literary anthology. He has taught in prisons and public schools in the US, and at universities in the US and Japan, and has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. Contact at

Published by the LA Progressive on October 30, 2012
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About Gary Corseri

Gary Corseri has published novels, collections of poetry, and his dramas have appeared on Atlanta-PBS and elsewhere. His work has appeared at periodicals and websites worldwide, and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library.