WASHINGTON—Walter Pincus is an award-winning columnist and journalist for the Washington Post, well known for his coverage of national defense, intelligence, and foreign policy. His writings are filled with insight into the way Washington operates and the pitfalls our political leaders fall into.
His awards include the George Polk Award, a television Emmy, a Stewart Alsop Award, a Pulitzer Prize (shared with other Post reporters), and in 2010, the American Academy of Diplomacy awarded him the Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis on Foreign Affairs.
Because of his long and distinguished experience in national security issues and reporting for 46 years, the Center for National Policy invited Pincus, 79, to discuss what is commonly called the “fiscal cliff,” coming this December.
It was expected Pincus would also say something about the 2012 elections. However, the host, president of the Center for National Policy Scott Bates, said that he was just fine with his distinguished guest talking about anything he chose to talk about.
Pincus said that the 2012 election will have little to say about foreign policy. “This is a domestic election,” he said.
He passed along some advice that he received when he conducted two investigations for Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) in the 1960s and 1970s. Fulbright told the young Pincus that we cannot have a realistic foreign policy “unless we understand the domestic policy of the country’s leaders that we are dealing with,” according to Pincus.
Throughout his talk, Pincus came back to this rule. When he spoke about the Arab Spring, he used the example of Iraq, a country with a bloody past. It has historically three different groups, presumably the Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurds, “who don’t like each other, and the only way it has been held together in the past is by a dictatorship.”
It’s folly for the United States to think it could “plant democracy” in Iraq, Pincus said.
He added that the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when 52 American Embassy staffers were taken hostage for 444 days, was about an internal battle between the mullahs who had been living in exile and installed in Khomeini’s cabinet versus the mullahs who were in Iran fighting the Shah. The latter used the hostages as leverage against the former. After they rid the country of their opponents, they settled the crisis.
“We thought the hostage-taking was about us, but it wasn’t,” Pincus said. The press and the politicians are looking at the behavior without understanding it in the context of domestic politics, according to Pincus.
He also said that when there is some foreign power the United States does not like, we make a caricature of it; that we do not look at the country rationally. “We pick out what someone says in a foreign country that we don’t like and use it, and they do the same to us,” Pincus said.
For example, there was a common belief in the 1950s that the Soviet Union could not be trusted with nuclear weapons. Experts said that they were preparing for a nuclear first strike because they had established an elaborate civil defense system, whereas the United States had little in the way of preparation for a nuclear attack.
Later, when China became the threat, people said, “We could count on the Russians,” implying that the Chinese are not rational and the Russians were, according to Pincus. Now we hear that the Chinese are eager to attack because with their 1.3 billion people, they think they would survive a nuclear war and “they are crazy enough to do it,” said Pincus. Again, this kind of analysis of a nation’s motives is not rational, Pincus said.
According to Pincus, all the things said about the “fiscal cliff” in December are true. It means, first, the end of the Bush tax cuts; second, sequestration; and third, hovering over the above is the debt limit coming due in early January, he said.
The combination of massive tax increases and spending cuts could drive the nation back into a recession in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
“December will set the pattern,” said Pincus. We have to find a way to get rid of the sequestration, he said, adding that no one wants it to happen or expected it to happen, but right now, he does not see how it is going to be resolved.
He paraphrased former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who said that he did not see any adults stepping forward who are able to make the kind of compromise within their own party to find a settlement.
No one wants to talk about solving the problem, said Pincus.
He criticized the media for not covering two recent bipartisan panel discussions on the fiscal course of the nation, with two more planned. Pincus was displeased that the press ignored the first panel led by former Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin and former Secretary of Treasury and of State Jim Baker.
Pincus said, “This country needs a crisis to take on issues they don’t want to deal with.” Something will have to “trigger it” for the politicians to find a way to cut expenses and raise revenue, and, according to Pincus, if nothing is done, then perhaps a big stock market loss will act as a trigger.
“Otherwise, there’s nothing to bring people to the edge. They somehow think this is all a game, but it really isn’t,” he said.
‘Don’t Count on the Press’
An audience member from the military spoke of the gross management inefficiencies if the sequestration goes forward. He asked what the press could do to inform the people that their representatives are about to fail us. Pincus’s response was, “Don’t count on the press.”
Pincus explained how the approach taken today in reporting differs from in the past.
When Pincus was younger, he said that a journalist might question something the government was doing, write a report, and include the government’s point of view. Today, “one has to get the other side, whether there is an accurate other side or not.” Pincus said that we had become a “PR society.”
In December, something is going to happen to stop the sequestration, maybe kicking it down the road, he said. “The hope is that the president—I think it happens only if the president wins—he will then have enough leverage to get some kind of revenue [inaudible] that will bring about some kind of compromise.”
“The press is not going to solve it,” said Pincus.
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