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Week of 6.6.08

Transcript: Dialogue with Dictators? & The Power of Populism

BRANCACCIO: Two things that now seem very clear at this juncture...Senators John McCain and Brack Obama will be the ones. And America's role on the global scene will be a key issue at the center of their debate. More specifically, should America talk to its enemies? Let's consult with one of this country's toughest warriors; the admiral who was overseeing both of America's ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. William Fallon resigned his command this spring, after an article in Esquire magazine suggested Fallon was more interested in tough-minded negotiation then executing the bush administration's war policies.

BRANCACCIO: Admiral Fallon, thank you so much for joining us.

FALLON: David, it's a pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: So, what do you say, Admiral, to those current and former military officials who, without giving their names in print, criticized you, in print, as having a non-warrior approach to handling things? Like, for instance, Iran's involvement in Iraq?

FALLON: I think everyone's entitled to opinions. And if I spent my day—
listening to all these opinions and—looking in the rearview mirror, I wouldn't get anything done. When I took the job at Central Command, we were faced with a couple of major challenges. First and foremost, Iraq and Afghanistan. My view is, from the get-go was, if we're gonna fix Iraq, we have to work it very hard, inside the country. Which we did. But, it seemed to me that we weren't likely to solve this problem in and of itself. That, the reality today is the neighborhood plays a big role.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, the U.S., or the U.S. military could not solve the
problem in and of itself.

FALLON: First of all, the U.S. military was not gonna solve the problem,
period, of itself. And second, the U.S. was unlikely to be effective, as we'd like to be, without help from the neighborhood.

BRANCACCIO: So, the neighborhood means, you gotta meet with the

FALLON: Well, you have to engage with the neighborhood. There are a lot
of neighbors. And they had different views, of course, and different—courses of action that were being undertaken. We had to deal with a couple of tough realities. Syria, on the one hand, Iran on the other.
There's some things we ought to be able to share in common. There are a lot of people in this country that are Iranian by birth who have strong ties back to the country. And the feedback that I get is, there's a lot of good will that still remains between people, we gotta figure out how to—how to get to the government.

BRANCACCIO: Remarkable talk, coming from the man who would have supervised the invasion of Iran, if it had been ordered. But Admiral William Fallon is not your typical warrior. He gained a reputation for aggressive diplomacy while heading U.S. forces in the pacific... pushing for a more candid relationship with the Chinese military. That didn't make him too popular with U.S. hardliners... and this headline probably didn't help either: "U.S. rules out strike against Iran," that after Fallon met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The final straw leading to his resignation at central Command was that profile in Esquire, which claimed Fallon was, quote, "the man between war and peace" in Iran. Fallon says the article was "poison pen stuff"... but engagement with the world is still his philosophy.

FALLON: We use the term "engagement." What does that mean? It means
being there. It means talking to people. It means doing the things that would be helpful to gain the confidence of others so that ultimately they trust us. And this is something that you can't just turn on and off. You can't just say, "Well, we've got an issue here and we'll just go do this." You build this up over time, just like any relationship.

BRANCACCIO: But just saying that is, in a sense, controversial, in this
presidential campaign now. I got one of the candidates, at least, saying that there's a role for dialogue, even dialogue at senior levels, with regimes who support terrorism. And that was seen by other candidates as a na´ve position, or a weak position.

FALLON: Well, I'll—I'm not a politician, so I won't—I'll try not to venture
too deep into those waters. But I'll give you my opinion that it's a complex world. We need to have multiple approaches to be able to solve problems. What we've learned many times over the years is that the military component of that is only one of the tools. And in fact the one that's often least in demand to really solve the problems that exist in
these places in the world. You need to play, in my opinion, in the economic sphere, the political sphere, the social areas, as well as the military.

BRANCACCIO: Even if it means reaching out at some level to people who's
behavior is sometimes reprehensible? People who might at some level, their policy might support terrorism for instance?

FALLON: Well, I believe that people, the world over, are fundamentally the same. We have good people, of course, and we have bad people unfortunately. But at the same time, you've got to talk to people. You just—people in the street. The two of us, sitting here. If we're going to really get on the same wavelength, we're gonna have to have a dialogue.

BRANCACCIO: Make no mistake... Admiral Fallon is no dove. He's very concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and the U.N.'s recent charge that Iran is holding back information about its nuclear program.

FALLON: These are tough people. We've had a difficult relationship with
'em. They have aspirations, in my mind, to expand their influence in the region. And exactly what steps they are prepared to take to do that, we don't know. So I think it requires some question, and we need to be doing this with our eyes wide open and recognize that we have to be coming into this from a position of strength.
The other thing that makes this challenging is that I don't personally understand all that I'd like to about how decisions are made inside of Iran. Exactly who calls the shots at what level, to do what, to affect policy.

BRANCACCIO: And P.S., it's a little depressing. How much am I paying as a taxpayer for all the intelligence agencies that don't know much about what's going on in Iran? But, it sounds like the fact of the matter.

FALLON: Well, were it all so easy. But the—the facts are that it's very
difficult to determine exactly what's going on in lots of places in the world, whether it's Iran, or someplace else.
I also think that fundamentally the situation now is probably, and we're guessing, I would I'll admit this is a speculation. So, the Iranians are probably sitting back and maybe saying, "Well, we may just wait this out, and lets see who who we may have comin' up the end of the year."

BRANCACCIO: Oh, for the U.S. president.

FALLON: Because we've—we've tried as you are aware I'm sure, some nego—some discussions in Baghdad. And the topic was Iranian activity in Iraq. And I think that was a pretty appropriate forum. We certainly had high interest, I did. And General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, in our government—and those things kind of tailed off. My sense was the Iranians kind of lost interest in doing this, certainly as a priority.
But it's gonna be tough to get started. I think we oughtta just take a look around, see who it is that might be able to help us in this. Maybe that's one way to do it. And then doing this with a clear-eyed understanding that it's gonna be difficult.

BRANCACCIO: President Bush gave a speech not long ago, and he said that people who negotiate with terrorists and radicals are like, Nazi appeasers, was his implication. Many figure this is aimed at the Democrat's presumptive nominee Senator Obama. But then, you have General David Patreaus on the record as saying that the U.S. supports engagement with international and regional partners to find the right mix of diplomatic, economic, and military leverage to address the situation in Iran. I read stuff like that from General Patreaus and wonder why you had to retire early, Admiral. You were saying the same thing, it shouldn't have been controversial.

FALLON: Well, it was a little more complex situation. And the fundamental issue was that there was an ongoing swirl of perception that persisted for some time that came to a point with the magazine article —

BRANCACCIO: Esquire magazine.

FALLON: And the perception was that I was in conflict with the President and the policies of the country. That was not true. But the fact that that perception persisted and the fact that attention was being focused on me and that issue as opposed to the real priorities. And the priorities were, should have been, still are, the couple hundred thousand men and women that we have in uniform that are engaged in conflicts in Iraq, in
Afghanistan, and in this region.
And the other aspect to this is that in the military we put a premium on the chain of command. And the idea that I might have been subverting that chain of command, not true. But if that perception was out there, and that got into the minds of our people, my subordinates, this was not, not an appropriate place to be.

BRANCACCIO: But, you're very clear, you didn't see it as a difference in policy, even now that you're out of uniform, you're retired, you—

FALLON: Of course I'm not gonna if I were to publicly challenge the President, I needed to be gone. That is I shouldn't allow myself and wasn't gonna put myself in that position. Did I have strong opinions about policies? Did I have strong opinions about actions that might have been considered, or weren't being considered? Of course, and those positions were made very clear, because I'm not a very shy guy. And I believe that one of the reasons that I was put in this position of responsibility was to give my best assessments and my candid opinion about whatever the issues were that we had
to deal with.

BRANCACCIO: Well, retired Admiral William Fallon, former head of U.S.
Central Command, thank you very much.

FALLON: It's been a pleasure being with you, David.

BRANCACCIO: After a primary season that seems to have lasted forever, now you know who will be on the ballot in November...flick the lever, press the button...change the world. Not so fast. Political columnist David Sirota says lasting political and social change is driven by real people—not politicians—who keep the pressure on way beyond election day, and he's been chronicling what he sees as the seeds of a new populist revolution.

BRANCACCIO: Well, David Sirota, good to see you.

SIROTA: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: Quite a week in the presidential primary, but even beyond Obama, Clinton, McCain, after months of you traveling around the country, it's your considered opinion that there's a—a revolution afoot?

SIROTA: An uprising.


SIROTA: An uprising is basically the state between disengaged chaos, where people just don't really care what's going on, and I would say a—a full-fledged social movement. Some of which, of course, have—have brought revolutions. An uprising really is this momentary upswing in—in anger, in political engagement. In—in—in participation. Both in elections and in direct action.
You know, there's a difference between electoral engagement and direct action. We—we're—we're taught through a lot of the media to think that the only way we can make change is to be involved in helping an election, voting in an election. But as the book shows, that's only one half of this uprising. The other half is direct action. Taking matters into our own hands. So when I—for instance, went out to Seattle and I met with workers who were trying to unionize Microsoft, that's direct action.
When I snuck into the Exxon Mobil shareholder meeting, where shareholder activists were trying to force that company to change behavior through shareholder resolutions. Again, direct action. When I went to the California minute—California—Mexican border and met with the minute men who are angry about immigration policy, who are purporting to guard the border, that's again, direct action. So, that's what we're seeing. An uprising in both electoral participation and direct action.

BRANCACCIO: Among the people who are standing there with—pitchforks and flaming torches, with this uprising, are those minutemen, who are very anti-immigration. That's gotta be unnerving for you, as you—you—you may embrace some of the ends here, but—perhaps some of the individual opinions aren't exactly what you would support.

SIROTA: Well, that's exactly right. And—but I—what I tried to ask in the book is what motivates people's engagement in this uprising.
And what I found is, it's actually—at least with the minute men, it was a lot of other things. It's fear. There is a deeply seated fear in this country about terrorism. There is a fear that—that—things are out of control. And so—as—as it relates to the Minutemen, they are, in many cases, reacting to that fear by saying I wanna do something. I'm gonna go do this. But, the issue is, is that these people are taking action.

BRANCACCIO: When you take a look at some of the—factors that have allowed these uprisings to flourish, one of them that has to come to mind is new technology and the Internet. Because people's voices can bubble up without being screened by the elite establishment media—

SIROTA: Right.

BRANCACCIO: —As they might put it. So, you look at a candidate like the presumptive democratic nominee now, Barack Obama. He has revolutionized, and his people have revolutionized, the way money is raised for a political campaign. Much more populist. Lots of little donations via the Internet. But the big question is, if a guy like him got to power, does policy become populist because of the source of the funding?

SIROTA: I certainly think it can be. And I certainly think it offers a bigger opportunity for—for—populist policies to be championed with a populist fundraising base, than with a typical fundraising base, which is, you know, a few small donors with a huge amount of—a huge campaign contribution. Big industries funding candidates. So, I think there's that opportunity. I don't think it's a guarantee. Because Washington is still controlled by big money. And this populist uprising that I described, is, at its heart, in all different kinds of ways, against that moneyed control of Washington. So, that will be the open question for Barack Obama.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, will the lobbyists swoop in. Will the fat cats swoop in once the guy's in power, or anybody else who's raised money using lots of small donations from the Internet.

SIROTA: And remember, he needs the Congress. The Congress is another source—another place where big money goes to stop things. And we have a Congress that has—been in the business, in the last many years, of stopping everything good. So, so certainly, it's a—it's a really, really big question about what happens next. What I worry about with the presidential race, actually goes beyond fundraising. What I worry about is that people think that Barack Obama is an uprising unto himself.

BRANCACCIO: What do you think?

SIROTA: I don't think he is. I don't think any politician is. I don't think any candidate or party is. Candidates, parties, and politicians, these are vehicles for uprisings and social movement. They are not ends. They are means to an end. And what I worry is that people think they're gonna go to the polls on election day, and vote for whoever they wanna vote for president, and think that—that—they've made change. When in fact, as exhausted as we'll be, that's the moment that change starts. That's the moment when we have to start becoming a movement to pressure that candidate.

BRANCACCIO: That we're only politically engaged citizens once every four years. Or really, in—in this case, it's been an especially exciting election, once every other generation, when you get a presidential election like this.

SIROTA: That's right. And also, that we—we are trained to think that the only place where change happens is at the presidential level. And there's something very subversive about that message in the media. What we're really being told by the establishment is, is that the only place to make change is in the arena of presidential politics. The arena which is the hardest arena of all to actually make change.
We are led to forget that there are all sorts of other ways to make change. Electorally, you can focus on your state legislature. You can focus on your city council. These are areas of enormous power. You can go outside the electoral system. You can unionize your work place, You can organize around issues in your community through the Internet. So, we're being shown only a very limited piece of what you can be involved in.

BRANCACCIO: There are a lot of public policy issues though, that are really not that amenable to populist input. Let me give you an example. This is the week you and I are talking that there have been some articles about negotiations over what to do about global warming. U.S. policy.
One idea is cap-and-trade. And so you have some environmental groups and you have some businesses trying to work this stuff out. If you just like asked me and asked other regular people about what to do, I want low gas prices right now. Global warming's gonna require all sorts of expensive sacrifices. That's not really an issue that is best led by, you think, a populist movement?

SIROTA: Well, I—I—I think populist impulses can play a very positive role. I think that—that—it's up to movement leaders and it's up to people in their community to educate each other about these issues. Look, you say that—that folks want low gas prices.
They also don't wanna live underwater if the Earth warms and the seas raise—rise. We need to use real information and real facts to create a populist cause out of an issue like global warming.

BRANCACCIO: Now, if you wanna really take on global warming, it may not be something that can just be imposed by elites. You do have to have the discussion.

SIROTA: Absolutely. If you do not have public participation, if you do not have a groundswell of popular support for a real solution to an—issue like global warming, then guess who's gonna dominate the debate? The elites. The oil industry elites.

BRANCACCIO: Well, if you look to the—the history. At the turn of the last century in California, this guy named Hiram Johnson became governor in reaction to the perceived evil power of the railroads out there and political corruption. And his populist revolution out there changed the state forever. All those—referenda that they can do in California. And recall politicians. They're all part of that.

SIROTA: Absolutely. Look, American history is the history of populist uprising. It was—it was—Franklin Delano Roosevelt who said famously, and I'm paraphrasing here. He said, when people came to ask him for the Social Security, labor reform, the basic tenets of the New Deal, he said, "Okay, look, you've convinced me. Now go bring pressure on me." And that is how change has been brought about in this country throughout our history.

The new deal, the great society, Medicare, Social Security, the war on poverty, every major change in this country has happened because a populist uprising, which oftentimes becomes a full fledged social movement, ends up forcing change upon politicians who oftentimes don't want to embrace that change in the first place.

BRANCACCIO: That means there's a lot of work to do for people who want change in this country. You can't just look toward the—first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

SIROTA: And you have to be willing to be non-partisan in your activism and your advocacy. We are told—told in this country that, you know, one party is good and one party is bad. A lot of us think that way. One—my party is good and the other party is bad. When, in fact, in order to really bring about change, we have to organize around the issues. You have to be willing to, if you wanna end the war, you have to be willing to bring criticism, pressure, and accountability on both Democrats and Republicans.

Even if you go into the voting booth and tend to vote democratic. And, I think we've been missing that kind of movement psychology, and we—it's been supplanted by a partisan psychology. And that's not what's gonna bring about change.

BRANCACCIO: Any hope of that? Given the partisanship that we're seeing in this campaign?

SIROTA: Well, I think so. Because I think that we're having a convergence of crises right now. You know, we have a—a—a very severe energy crisis. We have a national security crisis. A potential food crisis. We've got a healthcare crisis. A crisis of confidence in our government. And these crises have happened in a—accelerated way. And so I think that people are realizing, "Hey, maybe this isn't just a problem of one party or the other." That it's a problem of the system, and the system itself needs to be changed and we're gonna organize around those issues.

BRANCACCIO: Well, David, thank you very much.

SIROTA: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: David Sirota. Columnist, blogger, political analyst, is author of "The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt that's Scaring Wall Street and Washington."

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And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.