U.S. warmongers are in panic mode. The end of the longest continuous war on the planet, the Korean War, may be in sight. This week on Intercepted: As TV pundits gasped at the sight of the North Korean and U.S. flags side by side and Trump treating Kim Jong-un as an “equal,” a solid majority of Koreans supported the summit. UC Santa Cruz professor Christine Hong talks about the significance of this moment, how the U.S. has sabotaged peace in the past, and what an end to the war might look like. Tom Engelhardt, editor of TomDispatch, shares an essay on American militarism from his new book, “A Nation Unmade by War.” Journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal explains why the U.S. health care system is so bad and how Trump and the Republicans are trying to make it even worse. Musical artist Yasmine Hamdan shares her thoughts on war, the Middle East, and Trump, and we hear her groundbreaking music. Plus, Trump stops by Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
President Donald J. Trump: I think within the first minute, I’ll know. Just my touch, my feel — that’s what I do. You know the way they say that you know if you’re going to like somebody in the first five seconds. You ever hear that one? Something good is going to happen.
Fred Rogers [as “Mr. Rogers”: All right, Trolley. Neighborhood of make believe.
DJT: It’s my honor today to address the people of the world, following this very historic summit, with chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
FR: If you can do something with angry feelings, then you don’t have to feel so angry anymore.
DJT: Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.
FR: There are many healthy things you can do with your anger, things that don’t hurt anybody.
DJT: We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.
FR: Let’s have some make believe now.
DJT: Be nice. Be respectful. I don’t want to be threatening.
FR: Getting to be friends is like building bridges.
DJT: We had a great conversation. It was a very heartfelt conversation.
DJT: I did it because nuclear is always number one to me. Nuclear is number one.
FR: Some people think that friends are always happy.
DJT: That’s what I do. My whole life has been deals. I’ve done great at it.
FR: Always having fun.
DJT: We call them war games, and I call them war games, and they’re tremendously expensive. We fly in bombers from Guam. I know a lot about airplanes.
FR: Well, that’s not true. Friends often have hard times and sad times.
DJT: I haven’t slept in 25 hours, but I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, “Hey!”
FR: But friends can come together again, and again and build a stronger and stronger friendship between each other.
DJT: As an example, they have great beaches. You see that, whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? They really enjoyed it. I believe. K?
So I’m going to head back. I don’t know about you folks. But it’s been a long time since I’ve taken it easy.
FR: Please, won’t you be my neighbor?
DJT: You never know, right? We never know.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 60 of Intercepted.
DJT: And I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to do from the beginning. We stopped playing those war games that cost us a fortune. You know, we’re spending a fortune. Every number of months, we’re doing war games with South Korea.
And I said, “What’s this costing?” We’re flying planes in from Guam and we’re bombing empty mountains for practice. And I said, “I want to stop that, and I will stop that.” And I think it’s very provocative — especially, George, since, we’re getting along.
JS: The bi-partisan war party is in panic mode. The longest continuous war on the planet, the Korean War, may — may — be on the path to ending. Donald Trump is certainly one of the most unreliable, untrustworthy and just plain awful people to be in the command chair for this, but — to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld — you hope for peace with the president you have, not the one you want. I punished myself during the Trump/Kim summit by watching U.S. cable news. I bounced from CNN to Fox to MSNBC, and on and on and on. Fox, of course, was on its own planet, cheering on Trump, because Fox is a privatized version of state media.
Sean Hannity: — how political opponents of the president are purposely trying to create artificial, unrealistic expectations so that they could, “Aw, this is a failure,” when we’ve gotten so much out of this already, before it even started. No one predicted that these talks would immediately result in the complete and total denuclearization of North Korea. This is going to be a process —
DJT: The hypocrisy was certainly thick on Fox News, which has consistently, for years, agitated for obliterating North Korea. Its pundits ridiculed Barack Obama for suggesting he might be willing to meet with the leaders of North Korea or Iran. But, you know what? Hypocrisy sometimes has its virtues. If Trump can make Fox News get on the side of peace in Korea, we should all take that. But on the respectable networks, CNN and MSNBC, there was a lot of this:
Chris Cuomo: Just having parity — look at the North Korean flags, right next to the American flag. I mean, whoever thought we would see that?
Brian Williams: Of the two flags together, it’s diminishing to the U.S. side.
Jeremy Bash: In fact, I would say it’s somewhat disgusting. It is actually a debasement of the American flag. This is a despotic regime that murders its own citizens, and so we’re putting him on the same stage as the American president.
JS: The North Koreans want to be treated as equals. Gasp! The American flag next to North Korea’s. The horror! And the conventional wisdom repeated by many many pundits was that Trump was giving away the war farm. The message Trump sent by ripping up the Iran deal and then immediately meeting with the North Korean leader sent a message to the world that achieving nuclear weapons status protects you and prevents you from going the way of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
Now, I don’t deny that that is part of the message. At the same time, what about the context of all of this? Why did North Korea pursue nuclear weapons in the first place? Was it to be a global menace? Was it to change the regime in the United States? Or was it because of the threats from the U.S. and its allies?
The U.S. committed systematic war crimes against North Korea in the 1950s; nearly 3 million people were killed in that war, the overwhelming majority of them Koreans. The U.S. conducted scorched earth bombing, wiped out entire cities, used Napalm and other chemical weapons. The U.S. refused to recognize a North Korean government. It has regularly — for decades — threatened to invade North Korea, overthrow its government, obliterate the country, wipe it off the map. The U.S. stages nuclear war games, has 30,000 troops positioned on North Korea’s border. And, that war, the Korean War, is still not officially over. And the reason it is not over is largely because of the posture and actions of the United States.
President Ronald Reagan: The communist system to the North is based on hatred and depression. It brutally attacks every form of human liberty and declares those who worship god to be enemies of the people.
President George W. Bush: The United States condemns this provocative act. Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond.
President Barack Obama: The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them. As we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.
JS: The problem is that, in U.S. media, the world is almost always presented through the lens of America first, American exceptionalism. And that necessitates buying into the lie that the United States is actually an honest broker, the human rights respecter, the leader of the free world.
As journalist Allan Nairn observed on Twitter: “The establishment Democrats & MSNBC have achieved the remarkable feat of coming across as more militaristic than both Trump & Kim Jong Un.” Here is retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Forces, and one of the names that was floated back in the 2016 election campaign as a possible Hillary Clinton running mate. Here he is speaking to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC defending U.S. imperialism, and actually attacking Trump for suggesting he might withdraw U.S. troops from Korea.
Ret. Admiral James Stavridis: Our troops are there not as an act of goodwill to South Korea. They’re there to enhance U.S. influence in the region, to ensure that we keep those sea-lanes of communication open, that our trade can flow freely, that we have a voice in the events there, for the exact same reason that we still have about 50,000 troops in Europe. They’re not there as an act of goodwill. They’re there to accomplish U.S. national security objectives.
So, we draw them down at risk to those objectives, and it is very shortsighted to say, “Oh, yeah, this will be a twofer, we can reduce tension and save some money by getting our troops off the peninsula.” Not the right way to think about this one.
JS: Add to these types of statements that were made on MSNBC, the discredited Never-Trumpers and neocons and others and the parade of former heads of the CIA, and the DNI, and you get a good sense of what I mean when I say the War Party.
In reality, throughout history, the U.S. has been the aggressor toward North Korea. I defended Barack Obama when he said he would meet with leaders of countries we are told are our enemies. I defended him when he said he would do it even without precondition. I believe that is one of the only ways we can achieve any meaningful peace in the world.
DJT: Chairman Kim has told me that North Korea is already destroying a major missile engine-testing site. That’s not in your signed document. We agreed to that after the agreement was signed. That’s a big thing for the missiles that they were testing, the site is going to be destroyed very soon.
JS: If Donald Trump can fumble and misspeak his way through a process that leads to an ending of the Korean War, that is a good thing, regardless of the character of the man responsible for kick starting the process. Who are we to stand in the way of the wishes of a majority of people on the Korean peninsula? More than 80 percent of South Koreans supported Trump’s summit with Kim. Even more South Koreans back their own president, Moon Jae-in. There are even some polls indicating that as much as 70 percent of the American public supported Trump meeting with Kim. The people who seem most passionately against this process are the Democrats and Republicans who constitute the War Party.
Yes, there are some dissenting Democrats. But what about the leaders? Senator Chuck Schumer is now threatening more sanctions. Neocons are high-fiving the establishment Democrats over their common position that boils down to supporting hostility, hard lines, and ultimately a continuation of the world’s longest war.
Senator Chuck Schumer: Any agreement between the United States and North Korea must be permanent. Let us hope this isn’t the final chapter in diplomacy with Pyongyang. President Trump and his team must take stock of what’s happened, what North Korea has achieved, what we have yet to achieve, and pursue again a tougher course.
JS: Let’s stop with all the pearl clutching over Trump meeting with a dictator. U.S. presidents do that all the time. Look at the disgusting love fest we were subjected to recently when Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, visited Washington. Heinous, anti-democratic, human rights-abusing monarchy. Or the Egyptian dictator, General el-Sisi. The U.S. meets with dictators all the time — and, worse: it gives them weapons, intelligence, aid. It normalizes them in from of the world. Let’s not act like any of these objections are really based improving human rights for the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in labor camps or dungeons. Or the hundreds of thousands of others who have no basic human rights.
Americans need to take off the exceptionalism goggles. We need to understand that the people who have the most to gain or lose from all of this are ordinary Koreans. And they overwhelmingly want this war to end. That is what matters here. With Moon Jae-in in power in South Korea, that peninsula has its best chance in decades to end a war that the United States played a central role in starting and continuing. Yes, Trump is a clown. He made an ass of himself on multiple occasions at this summit.
DJT: Getting a good picture everybody, so we look nice and handsome and thin?
JS: Trump public shared his dreams of opening resorts and hotels in North Korea.
DJT: They have great beaches! You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, “Boy, look at that — wouldn’t that make a great condo.” And I explained it. I said, “You know, instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world right there.” Think of it from a real estate perspective. You have South Korea, you have China, and they own the land in the middle. How bad is that, right? It’s great.
JS: At the same time Trump was making these ridiculous statements, he also spoke some truth about the U.S. hostility toward North Korea.
DJT: It’s a very provocative situation, one when I see that, and you have a country right next door, so under the circumstances that we’re negotiating a very comprehensive, complete deal, I think it’s inappropriate to be having war games.
JS: In a way, this reminds me of that now-infamous interview — you’ve heard it a few times on this show that Trump did with Bill O’Reilly, where he said there are a lot of killers in the world.
DJT: There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?
JS: Sometimes Donald Trump is accidentally right —often for the wrong reasons. But if he can pull all U.S. troops from South Korea, that’s a good thing. Especially if it is done with the support and counsel and involvement of President Moon.
The U.S. has tried belligerence. It’s tried threats. It’s tried permanent war. It’s tried apocalyptic war-gaming. Now, let’s try something different. Let’s actually defer to Koreans on what they want and how they believe this war can finally end and how they believe that the real threats can be eliminated.
At the end of the day, Trump is sort of a means to an end for many Koreans who have spent their lives fighting to end the scourge of war, fighting to be reunified with their families. It is not our place to stand in the way.
JS: Joining me now to discuss the Trump-Kim summit is Christine Hong. She is associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and an executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute. Christine, welcome to Intercepted.
Christine Hong: Thank you.
JS: First just your reaction, what is the significance of not only this meeting but the document that they signed?
CH: You know, I mean a lot of people are saying in the media that this document is really flimsy, but I have to say that this is historically momentous. Never before has a sitting U.S. president had a meeting with the North Korean head of state. And so even in terms of the symbolism of it all, it’s hugely important.
But the other thing that happened was that Donald Trump actually made some pretty serious structural concessions and — so this is just to back up a little bit — in the lead-up to the summit North Korea took a number of good-faith measures. Not only did North Korea release three Korean Americans who were imprisoned in North Korea for committing hostile acts but also it destroyed its nuclear testing site in Punggye-ri. It effectively placed a moratorium on all of its nuclear testing.
CNN Will Ripley: I’m here at North Korea’s nuclear test site, at Punggye-ri, a place where foreign journalists have never been allowed before. We are here, the North Korean government says, to witness the destruction of this site. They say it will never be able to be used again.
CH: And so we should realize that throughout the Barack Obama presidency, North Korea put forth a measure which has been wrongly attributed in the mainstream media to China and Russia of a freeze for a freeze proposal. And it proposed to the United States during the Obama administration that if the United States suspended its large-scale war games with its ally South Korea, that North Korea was willing to suspend its nuclear testing.
And we have to understand what these war exercises are. Chuck Hagel, under Barack Obama, who claimed that these war exercises were just business as usual. And these war exercises which are staged annually, they’re the largest in the world, they simulate the invasion and occupation of North Korea. They simulate a nuclear-first strike against North Korea. And they also practice the decapitation of North Korea’s leadership. And we cannot imagine the United States being fine with Cuba and Russia conducting these kinds of war exercises off the United States coast and, historically, North Korea has said these are incredibly provocative. They’re just a hair’s breadth away from the actual prosecution of war. The United States has poo-pooed these kinds of claims.
All the sudden, we see Donald Trump in a kind of tit-for-tat measure, meaning good faith measure with good faith measure, indicating that he’s willing to suspend these war games. And he actually called them provocative.
JS: When I was watching Kim Jong-un act somewhat deferential to Donald Trump and then talking to Korean friends, what I learned was that what Kim Jong-un was doing is actually the culturally appropriate manner to behave with someone who is older than you. And I was so impressed by Kim Jong-un’s statement when he sat down with Trump and was speaking where he said: “It has not been easy to come to this point. For us, the past has been holding us back, and old practices and prejudices have been covering our eyes and ears, but we’ve been able to overcome everything to arrive here today.”
If that was an accurate translation of what he said, that is more articulate than any sentence Trump has ever uttered probably in his life.
CH: I mean you’re absolutely right. There is a kind of respect for one’s elders that is part and parcel of Korean culture, whether you’re from the north or the south, and you could say that when Kim Jong-un met with Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, you could see similar sort of patterns and, you know, a kind of behavior of respect toward one’s elder.
You know, when Kim Jong-un was speaking, he was speaking as the head of a society that has only known one policy from the United States, and that has been an unceasing policy of regime change. And we have to recall that, you know, he’s sitting across from the person who threatened just last year to rain down fire and fury like the world has never seen before on North Korea.
DJT: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.
CH: Who stood before the United Nations, you know, stated that he was willing to totally destroy North Korea. Of course, you know, human rights experts who were there in the audience understood this to be a crucial statement of intention, which is essential for understanding the legal definition of genocide. And so they’re sitting across from someone who didn’t seem to have any historical awareness, who actually had the prerogative and the privilege of amnesia with regard to what the United States actually did to North Korea in the middle part of the 20th century, which is to say that the United States which commanded control of the skies over the Korean Peninsula rained down fire and fury like the world had never seen before on North Korea.
JS: And, of course, as you well know, Christine, at the time of the what is called the Korean War, there were half a dozen to 16 or 17 cities that had been established in what is now North Korea and all of them were entirely obliterated by the United States. The U.S. was by far the greatest aggressor in that war; 70 percent of North Koreans killed in that war were civilians. And as I watched the media coverage in the United States, you would think that the opposite was true. You would think that it is North Korea that has been threatening regime change, that it was North Korea that had committed massive war crimes against the United States — and there were war crimes committed against U.S. personnel — but my God, who was the greatest victim of that war? Ordinary North Koreans. Who was the great aggressor of that war? The United States.
Absolutely. I mean, you bring up a number of really critical points. You know, I mean the fact of the matter is that North Korea, to borrow a phrase from Arundhati Roy, is a country that was sculpted from the spare rib of America’s aggressive foreign policy. And we have to recall, like, you know, you’re saying, like 70 percent of the Koreans who were killed, north or south, during the hot fighting period of what we call the Korean War were civilians, as you said. And with regard to North Korea, the estimates are staggering. I mean there was nothing left to bomb; that’s what the bombers actually stated. Civilian infrastructure was totally taken out. That’s against the laws of war. And, you know, on Pyongyang alone, that was a city that only had 400,000 occupants at that time. The United States unleashed over 420,000 bombs on that city. That’s more than one per person. That’s the very definition of overkill. This is what the historian Bruce Cumings calls a bombing-Holocaust. You cannot go to North Korea and meet anyone whose family wasn’t personally impacted by the aggressive war violence of the Korean War that, at the Nuremberg Trials and also in the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court, the crime of crimes held above genocide, held above crimes against humanity, is aggressive war or war against the peace.
This is a kind of crime that powers that are historically imperialist, including the United States, these wars of intervention, are almost always crimes against the peace. But there is a culture of impunity about them.
JS: How long has that bipartisan sort of love affair with the idea of total destruction of Korea been in place?
CH: We’re stretching back to Truman. We’re talking about Truman who, as an explicit part of his war policy against North Korea, slapped sanctions three days into the Korean War on North Korea. We’re talking about Truman, who entertained the possibility of nuclear annihilation, you know, against North Korea multiple times. The United States has threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation on countless occasions.
So I would say that the apocalyptic American imagination toward North Korea, it goes back decades. And if we’re going to talk about sort of more recent times — I mean, you could just see that recently it was something like seven Democratic senators issued a statement protesting Donald Trump’s efforts to sort of move from war-footing, fire and fury-footing, to peace-footing. And there’s something so incredibly ridiculous about this. When you’re talking about this bipartisan consensus, I mean we have to recognize that Trump has a businessman’s approach to the military industrial complex and there are structural contradictions that complicate the prospect of peace even being realized; one of them is the fact that Trump has basically an austerity program when it comes to any kind of social spending. He, like his predecessor Barack Obama, supports the trillion-plus dollar renovation of America’s nuclear arsenal. All of these things make the prospect of meaningful denuclearization, as something that is a reciprocal obligation, complicated.
You know, Barack Obama, who came into office promising that he would reach out a hand if America’s historic foes uncurled their fists and he, you know, did so, we could say to some degree with regard to Iran and Cuba. But with regard to North Korea, he maintained a studiously hard line. So let’s get cynical and ask why that was? Well, actually, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, viewed the Asia-Pacific region as the signature arena of their foreign policy and their foreign policy was a pivot policy to Asia and the Pacific. And what it entailed was, in viewing Asia as America’s economic future — this is a very old imperialist fantasy — you know, they basically authorized the relocation of 60 percent of American naval power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And they basically, like, almost every single document that was released by the Pentagon authorizing accelerated weapon sales, any kind of agreement that was made between the United States and its regional allies for bilateral, trilateral, multilateral war exercises, any kind of deployment of any kind of military defense system, the stationing of nuclear aircraft carriers, et cetera — all of that was done during the Barack Obama era in the name of a hostile and nuclear-armed North Korea.
JS: Just to add to that.
JS: And Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate released a very belligerent statement threatening more sanctions and denouncing the Trump-Kim summit.
CH: It doesn’t surprise me at all. So there’s this kind of liberal consensus around the prospect of war with North Korea. And so, interestingly enough, we have this kind of situation in which North Korea, which had no possible room for maneuver in terms of diplomacy, because there was no diplomatic channel as an option during the Obama era. It basically took to the pathway of a nuclear deterrent — and let’s recall that also during the George W. Bush era North Korea was placed on a short axis of evil list of permissible nuclear first strikes.
GWB: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.
CH: So from the axis of evil era to Barack Obama, North Korea has not been able to come out of the cold. Interestingly enough, Trump who has an ego investment in reversing his predecessor’s policies, has actually — and even on the campaign trail, there’s a certain kind of consistency — he’s been open to the prospect of some kind of hamburger diplomacy with North Korea.
And, of course, as you’re saying, why isn’t this a good thing? The other thing that I’m going to mention too — you mentioned this kind of cynical use of human rights. You know, the fact of the matter is, let’s be real about how that human rights industry consolidated around North Korea. You know, in the post-Cold War era, these organizations that had during the late Cold War period brought defectors from the socialist bloc to the United States. And, you know, the legal scholar Samuel Moyn states that in the late Cold War period what happened was U.S. human rights as a state discourse was basically anti-communism by another name. And so these kinds of like Cold Warrior institutions were renovated as human rights institutions, and under the axis-of-evil policy of George W. Bush, they took a very hard line. And what did they advocate for? These so-called human rights organizations, and there was a bipartisan consensus, it was, you know, Democrats and Republicans alike, they were basically advocating for fortified sanctions, sanctions that were meant at targeting the livelihood of people. Right?
I mean, sanctions are not meant as a surgical blow against the leadership of any country, they’re meant as a sort of general destabilizing strategy, soft-war strategy that’s aimed at making life so unlivable, that in theory they might rise up against their leadership. And so basically sanctions are a humanitarian catastrophe.
JS: When you look at sanctions that target leaders or powerful business people in countries, those kinds of economic sanctions are, in fact, targeted at powerful people. But the kind of sanctions that you’re talking about and that were applied to North Korea, as they’ve been applied to Iran, as they were applied to murderous effect in Iraq, the idea is a strangulation policy and it’s totally bankrupt. It’s the bankruptcy of the entire Cuba policy, too — the idea you can starve, blackmail, threaten, punish people into rising up. There is no evidence that that is an effective policy and a lot of evidence that it’s actually a criminal policy.
CH: So-called human rights advocates in their desire to ascribe singular blame to the North Korean leadership, they never take into consideration hostile war policy and how that impacts the livelihood of more North Korean people.
JS: Well, and of course we saw John Bolton who has been one of the absolute most belligerent Americans on Earth toward North Korea. When Kim Yong-chol visited the White House recently, one of the most senior and high-ranking officials in North Korea, John Bolton, we understand, was not allowed into that meeting, but Bolton certainly was sitting there with Trump and Kim Jong-un and there was some speculation that both he and Mike Pence sought to derail this whole process by raising the specter of Libya, and engaging in somewhat outright hawkish rhetoric.
But does it concern you that there seems to be this radical disconnect? You have Trump, who seems to be going in one direction, and then you have John Bolton, who is his national security adviser and one of the most sort of villainous hawks, pugnacious individuals in the world on North Korea.
CH: Also seated at that table was Choe Son-hui who is North Korea’s [vice] foreign minister. And what she stated in a statement that actually just sort of enraged, initially, Donald Trump was basically that Mike Pence was a political dummy and that the discussion of, you know, the Libya model was meant to derail any sort of discussion of denuclearization and peace.
The fact of the matter, though, is if we were to put ourselves and North Korea’s shoes, who would you rather have at the negotiating table? Would you rather have someone who has no power whatsoever, like Rex Tillerson, who doesn’t command the confidence of the American president? Or would you rather actually have your worst possible enemy? You know, and North Korea in just recent weeks has actually referred to Bolton as repellent — you know, a kind of characterization that I think that many Americans would agree with. But they would rather have that repellent member of Trump’s war cabinet there at the peace table than someone who can’t make anything happen.
JS: Right and the role of Moon Jae-in —
CH: Oh, yeah.
JS: — is very seldom discussed or gone into in detail in U.S. news coverage that I’ve seen. I mean, I was up all night during the summit watching this and it seems to me that Moon Jae-in should be getting a tremendous amount of the credit for even getting the world to a point where an American president can be talking to the leader of North Korea face to face, something that has never happened in the history of these two countries.
CH: This is not the first time that we’ve seen the leaders of the two Koreas when there’s been a liberal in the blue house in Seoul. It’s not the first time that we’ve seen an attempt by the leaders of Korea to actually effect some kind of rapprochement, to affect some kind of reconciliation, to actually march toward peace, only to be stymied in obstructed by the United States. So there’s always been this triangulated relationship. And let’s keep in mind that South Korea is semi-sovereign at best. In times of heightened war crisis, South Korea actually doesn’t even command its own military forces; they go under the command-control of the United States.
Also, according to the terms of the Korean War Armistice Agreement, all foreign powers were supposed to remove their forces within a reasonable window of time. China removed its forces within about five years time. The United States, to this day, stations roughly 30,000 forces south of the DMZ. It operates approximately 80 military installations. According to a series of mutual defense treaties and a Status of Forces Agreement, the United States can, at whim and at will, use any South Korean base. And so South Korea is really semi-sovereign at best, but we see the South Korean leader moving forward as a proponent of peace and we have to ask why. Well, we have to realize that his neo-conservative and corrupt and neo-liberal predecessor, who basically wielded this draconian national security law in South Korea against the South Korean people, who basically pushed through a series of neoliberal policies that placed the South Korean people, their lives at risk, made them vulnerable en masse, and who also, in lockstep with Barack Obama, who is friends with every single hawk in the Asia-Pacific region, actually maintained a hardline posture toward North Korea. What happened was the South Korean people in 2016 took to the streets in millions in these candlelight protests. They filled the streets and they called for her ouster.
CNN Paula Hancocks: This place is packed. Here in downtown Seoul, there are people of all ages. You have families, you have children, you have a remarkably large amount of high-school students and university students. And, then, of course, going all the way up to the elderly. They’re all ages, with just one simple message: Down with Park.
CH: She was ousted, she’s now sitting in prison. And in the snap election, Moon Jae-in was elected. He was elected to push for peace. He has an 85 percent approval rating in South Korea for his North Korea policy.
When Donald Trump was even entertaining the possibility of a bloody nose strike against North Korea, when he was entertaining the possibility of any kind of military option toward North Korea, South Koreans also understood that any anti-North Korea policy on the part of the United States and any military option is effectively an anti-Korean policy and it would mean — you know, it’s basically a kind of policy that demonstrates that Korean lives don’t matter.
So, you know, Moon Jae-in has the popular authority, unlike this wave of right-wing populism that you see around the world, he actually has progressive populist authority to push for peace. And so the thing that I think is important to watch for is that a number of South Korean labor unions have come forward and what they’ve stated is that it’s not enough for the leadership of the Koreas to declare a kind of peace process, but that the peace process has to involve workers, and that workers are essential to any kind of vision of reunification and peace.
JS: Christine, thank you so much for the work you’ve done and for joining us on Intercepted.
CH: It was a pleasure.
JS: Christine Hong is associate professor at UC Santa Cruz. She’s als an executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute.
JS: One of my favorite big-picture thinkers on issues of war is Tom Engelhardt. He is the editor of the popular website TomDispatch.com. He publishes many authors, some of which you have heard on this show — among them Professor Alfred McCoy, military historian Andrew Bacevich. Tom also edits books and he writes them. And he has a new book out just in time for summer. It is called “A Nation Unmade by War.” In it, Tom argues that despite having a more massive, technologically advanced, and better-funded military than any other power on the planet, the United States has won nothing — and that includes in the past decade and a half of unending war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Tom argues that these constant U.S. wars have only contributed to a world growing more chaotic by the second. We asked Tom to adapt the introduction of his new book into an essay for us.
Here is Tom Engelhardt:
Tom Engelhardt: The cost of America’s war on terror from September 12, 2001 through fiscal year 2018: A cool $5.6 trillion.
On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.
In reality, the costs of America’s wars are incalculable and still spreading in the Trump era. Just look at photos of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria, Cirta in Libya or Marawi in the southern Philippines, those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt. Try to put a price on them.
And how could you even begin to put a dollars and cents value on the larger human costs of those wars? The hundreds of thousands of dead, the tens of millions of people displaced in their own countries or sent as refugees fleeing across any border in sight. How could you factor in the way masses of uprooted peoples in the greater Middle East and Africa are unsettling other parts of the planet? In the end what might be the cost of that?
Jim Lehrer: How would you project us around the world as president?
GWB: It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. So I don’t think that they’ll look at us in any way other than what we are. We’re a freedom -loving nation, and if we’re an arrogant nation they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.
GWB: Today our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack, in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.
TE: America’s never-ending 21st century conflicts were triggered by the decisions of George W. Bush and his top officials. They instantly defined their response to the attacks of 9/11 by a tiny group of jihadis as a war —
GWB: The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorist who committed these acts and those who harbor them.
TE: — then proclaimed it nothing short of a global war on terror, with dreams of dominating the greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, as no other imperial power had ever done.
GWB: Saddam Hussein is harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror, the instruments of mass death and destruction.
Vice President Dick Cheney: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.
Donald H. Rumsfeld: Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
TE: Their overwrought geopolitical fantasies and their sense that the U.S. military was a force capable of accomplishing anything they willed it to do launched a process that would cost this world of ours in ways that no one will ever be able to calculate.
GWB: We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
GWB: The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.
TE: In the aftermath of those decisions, who could begin to put a price on the futures of the children whose lives would be twisted and shrunk in ways frightening even to imagine? Who could tote up what it means for so many millions of this planet’s young to be deprived of homes, parents, and educations — of anything approximating the sort of stability that might lead to a future worth imagining?
Though few may remember it, I’ve never forgotten the 2002 warning issued by Amr Moussa, then-head of the Arab League. That September he predicted that an invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell.”
Amr Moussa: But we’ll continue to work to avoid military a confrontation or military action, because we believe that it will open the gates of hell in the Middle East.
TE: Two years later, in the wake of the actual invasion and the U.S. occupation of that country, he altered his comments slightly. “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”
His assessment has proven unbearably prescient, and one not only applicable to Iraq: 14 years after that invasion, we should all now be in some kind of mourning for a world that won’t ever be. It wasn’t just the U.S. military that passed through those gates to hell — in our own way, we all did. Otherwise, Donald Trump wouldn’t have become president.
I don’t claim to be an expert on hell. I have no idea what circle of it we’re now in. But I do know one thing: We are there.
If I could bring my parents back from the dead right now, I know that this country in its present state would boggle their minds. They wouldn’t recognize it. If I were to tell them that just three men: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett now possess as much wealth as the bottom half of the U.S. population, of 160 million Americans, they would never believe me.
How could I begin to explain to them the ways in which money flowed ever upward into the pockets of the immensely wealthy, and then down again into what became 1 percent, elections including one that would finally ensconce a billionaire and his family in the White House?
How would I explain to them that leading congressional Democrats and Republicans couldn’t say often enough that this country was uniquely greater than any that had ever existed, but none of them could find the funds, some $5.6 trillion for starters, necessary for our roads, dams, bridges, tunnels and other crucial infrastructure — and this on a planet where what the news likes to call “extreme weather” is increasingly wreaking havoc on that same infrastructure.
My parents wouldn’t have thought such things possible. Not in America.
I’d have to explain to them that they had returned to a nation which has increasingly been unmade by war, though few Americans realize it.
The conflicts Washington’s war on terror triggered have now morphed into the wars of so many and have, in the process, changed us.
Such conflicts on the global frontiers have a tendency to come home in ways that can be hard to track or pin down. After all, unlike those cities in the greater Middle East, ours aren’t yet in ruins — though some of them may be heading in that direction, even if in slow motion.
This country is, at least theoretically, still near the height of its imperial power, still the wealthiest nation on the planet — and yet it should be clear enough by now that we’ve crippled not just other nations but ourselves in ways that I suspect we can still barely see or grasp.
DJT: The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets. What, you think this is going to cause a little more anger? The world is an angry place. All of this has happened. We went into Iraq. We shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. We shouldn’t have gotten out the way we got out. The world is a total mess.
TE: Give him credit where it’s due. It took Donald Trump to make us begin to grasp that we were living in a different and devolving world.
Without the invasions Afghanistan and Iraq and what followed, I doubt he would have been imaginable as anything but the host of a reality TV show or the owner of a series of failed casinos.
And none of this would have been imaginable if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and co. hadn’t felt the urge to launch the wars that led us through those gates of hell. Their soaring geopolitical dreams of global domination proved to be nightmares of the first order. They imagined a planet unlike any in the previous half-millennium of imperial history in which a single power would basically dominate everything until the end of time.
And here was the result of their conceptual overreach: never has a great power, still in its imperial prime, proven quite so incapable of applying its military and political might in a way that would advance its aims.
It’s a strange fact of this century that the U.S. military has been deployed across vast swathes of the planet and somehow, again and again, has found itself overmatched by underwhelming enemy forces and incapable of producing any results other than destruction and further fragmentation.
In the end, the last empire may prove to be an empire of nothing at all. The only thing our leaders in generals have seemed capable of doing starting from the day after the 9/11 attacks is more or less the same thing with the same dismal results — again and again.
The U.S. military and the national security state that those wars emboldened have become a staggeringly well-funded blowback machine. In all these years, while three administrations pursued the spreading war on terror, America’s conflicts in distant lands were largely afterthoughts to its citizenry
Once the invasion of Iraq occurred, the protests died out, and ever since, Americans have generally ignored their country’s wars, even as the blowback began.
Someday, they will have no choice but to pay attention.
JS: Tom Engelhardt created and runs the TomDispatch.com website. It’s a project of the Nation Institute, where Tom is also a fellow. He is the author of “The United States of Fear,” “Shadow Government” and “The American Way of War.” His latest book is “A Nation Unmade by War.” All of those are published by Haymarket Books.
JS: Remember back in December, the Republican tax bill eliminated Obamacare’s individual mandate? But GOP leaders are far from finished.
In their enduring pursuit to completely kill Obamacare, the Trump administration argued in a court brief that was filed last Thursday that a “ban on insurers denying coverage and charging higher rates to people with pre-existing [health] conditions” is unconstitutional.
That popular provision under the Affordable Care Act was aimed at stopping insurance companies from denying or stripping the health care benefits of people with pre-existing conditions. It also sought to protect people from being charged higher premiums if they’re sick.
Upwards of 130 million people under the age of 65 have pre-existing health conditions and they could lose access to their health coverage if Trump and the Republicans prevail in court. According to the non-profit health care policy group the Kaiser Family Foundation, this lawsuit suit creates more uncertainty for insurers who may respond by increasing premiums.
Already, Americans pay two to three times more for healthcare than other industrialized countries. As a nation, we spend nearly 20 percent of our GDP on healthcare. And while the U.S. dedicates more economic resources to healthcare, every year we seem to get less and less for what we pay.
To talk about all of this and the horrid state of healthcare in the United States, I’m joined by Elisabeth Rosenthal. She is the editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News. She is also the author of “An American Sickness: How Healthcare became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back.”
Elisabeth Rosenthal, welcome to Intercepted.
Elisabeth Rosenthal: Thanks for having me.
JS: You know, I have been trying to find for years an example of another nation, an industrialized nation on earth that has had demonstrations against health care as we’ve seen in this country.
[Shouts of “Kill the bill.”]
JS:Have you ever found another example of a so-called civilized society demonstrating against health care?
ER:[Laughs.] Well, people from other countries look at what’s going on in the United States and they just can’t believe it in terms of health care.
They say: Why do you guys put up with this? Shouldn’t healthcare just be like water and air and electricity?
So I think, yes, there’s a kind of sense of disbelief in the rest of the world about how we treat health care. But I think what we saw after the elections last year was that people are not so much demonstrating against health care, and this is I think part of the problem with our narrative, that they say, “Well, we don’t want to be forced to buy insurance, we don’t want to pay for health care.”
That’s not true! Everyone wants health care. When you’re nine months pregnant, you need to deliver a baby; when you’re having crushing chest pain, you need to have an emergency room and potentially surgery. But we don’t want the kind of crazy health care system we’re engaged in today. And it’s so politicized that we’re confusing like, “Are you right or are you left?” with “Do you want health care?” People want health care.
JS: Then why do you think people seem to be against Obamacare writ large? I mean, but, if you break it down into individual pieces, it seem like there was a lot more support for aspects of it when it was removed from the name Obamacare or was removed from it’s the Democrats’ health care plan? What is the issue that you see many people being nervous about or against that drives that?
ER: Well, I think it’s a lack of understanding largely. I mean, what’s happened over the last 25 years as our health care system has become so complicated and so messy and so expensive, that people don’t understand really how it works. So they don’t understand, you know, when there was this whole narrative about: “We’ve got to, you know, repeal and replace Obamacare with something better,” a lot of people who were like, “Yeah! Do it!” didn’t understand that their health insurance was coming from Obamacare, right?
So it’s such a convoluted system that people don’t know either who to blame when it doesn’t work or who to thank when it does. And, of course, part of that is caught up in the partisan politics in the U.S., where everything connected to Obama was negative for certain group of people. So, you know, when the ACA was enacted and when it went out and when Medicaid was expanded in a number of states, and a lot of people got insurance for the first time, literally tens of millions of people, even the Obama administration was a little reluctant to kind of label it Obamacare for fear that people would react badly to it.
So, again, you know, what we saw in those town hall meetings last year was people standing up and saying, “Oh, wait a second: Yes, I voted against it, but I didn’t understand that my Medicaid expansion or my insurance subsidy, that’s Obamacare, too.”
TK: Your constituents do not want you to repeal ACA. When you have the guts to go against the Republicans in your party and the president and stand with us, and say, “No!”
TK: I am on Obamacare. If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we wouldn’t be able to afford insurance.
TK: I can put all my trust in someone saying, “We’re going to make a plan, but we’ve had six years and we don’t have a plan.” [Murmurs of agreement.]
ER: So, we need a lot of depoliticization of health care in this country, because ultimately it’s not a political issue, it’s a rights issue or it’s just a need issue — you cannot do without health care.
JS: What are the main forces that are driving up the cost of prescription drugs, health care in general? You write in your book about the cost of hospital stays just going up somewhat exponentially. What’s driving all of this?
ER: Well, we trust in the market to price health care in this country and it isn’t a market. You know, we like to say it’s a market, but of course you look at hospital bills — $3,000 for a screw, $15,000 for an infusion of an antibiotic, basically so there are no downward forces on the price of prescription drugs, the price of hospitalizations, the price of devices, the price of everything. And I think that’s partly why I wrote the book, which is because people want a bad guy. They want to say, “Oh, it’s pharma” or “Oh, it’s the doctors” or “Oh, it’s the hospitals.”
And it’s everyone — everyone is feeding at this trough of a healthcare industry that’s hugely profitable, that’s hugely powerful because lobbying in Washington comes from them. And guess what? The food in that trough is our health and that’s not OK by me.
JS: What’s the status of the Republican/Trump administration effort to totally demolish Obamacare? Because they weren’t able to run the deck completely, but it seems to be something that many Republicans on the Hill and within the Trump Administration are interested in. What’s the status of that?
ER: You know there continue to be a lot of efforts to kind of kneecap the Affordable Care Act in different ways. There’s a lot of promises to, “Well, we’re going to do something different and better about controlling prices with transparency,” putting, for example, prices on drug ads that we see on TV — they’re trying to move towards a more market-based approach, they’re trying to undo some of the subsidies and the mandates that went with Obamacare. I think time will tell how successful that effort at piecemeal deconstruction is. It’s not going to go away and what we see is that as the federal government says, “Nah, you know, we’re not going to make people buy insurance,” a lot of states are saying, “Wait, we are. We’re going to reinstate that because it is crucial to making an effective health insurance system work in this country.”
Now, I don’t know that it’s going to be enough, because even with the mandate, even with all the rules that went along with Obamacare and the preventive care that had to be covered, things like that, it didn’t really tackle this pricing issue head-on. I’m a little skeptical that without further measures we’re going to get to where we need to be, and we are paying two to three times more for health care than every other developed country, so you know we can do a lot better.
JS: Yeah, in fact, in “An American Sickness,” you write: “In the past quarter-century, the American medical system has stopped focusing on health or even science. Instead it attends more or less single-mindedly on its own profits.”
Expand on what you meant by that.
ER: Well, you know, I trained as a doctor about 25 years ago, so I care deeply about this profession. And what I saw after I left many years ago for journalism was kind of slow conversion to a business. Medicine has always been a little bit of a business, right? You had to keep your office open. But the health issues were on the front burner; what was right for the patient was on the front burner.
But in my days of training, I started seeing these kinds of business consultants coming into the hospital. There was the HMO era in the 90s where hospitals were feeling kind of squeezed, and that’s when we saw really the wholesale movement of business into health care. So you had consultants from Deloitte, from McKinsey moving into the healthcare arena and coming into hospitals and saying — you know, and these were not health care people, this could have been a chicken processing plant. They just said, “Well, how can we make more money doing what we’re doing?” And basically, what the consultants said was, “Well, you can just bill differently.” Right? “Why are you giving away that time in the recovery room for free? You know, you could bill by the minute. Why are you charging only, you know, five cents for the Tylenol or giving it away? You can charge $17 for it.” There was no rationale for what things were charged or billed.
And then, of course, you know that kind of spiraled in an atmosphere where in earlier days, if you were lucky enough to have employer-provided insurance, your employer was paying most of the premium. There wasn’t a lot in the way of co-pays and deductibles, so we didn’t look at our bills and we didn’t notice that inflation going on. And now what we have is this hugely inflated pricing system. You know, we’re paying our premiums, we’re paying those deductibles and co-pays and what’s most worrisome to me and where I concluded in the book was that now the values of business are on the front burner and the values of health care are on the back burner. So what do hospitals look at when they’re evaluating their CEO now? It’s not infection rates, it’s not cure rates — it’s return on investment. It’s profit, which in the nonprofit world you call surplus instead of profit. It’s efficiency, and you know what? Those are not the values of health care. Those are the values of business and so when I say, you know, the subtitle of the book is “How Health Care Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back,” when I say “take it back,” what I mean is we’ve got to reverse that and have the values of health care on the front burner again.
JS: How would a single-payer system address some of the problems that you’ve identified with the cost of pharmaceuticals and the, you know, extreme for-profit nature of the health care system in this country?
ER: You know, where it’s used it works quite well to control costs. But it’s not the only option. I mean, basically the way it works is to say, OK, if there’s one big payer, the government — or maybe we could even look at a kind of modified single-payer in Medicare — they have incredible bargaining power, so it brings down the price of pharmaceuticals. It also brings down the prices of things like hospitalization. I mean Medicare has set rates for hospitalizations and they are far, far lower than what’s paid in the commercial market. You know, hospitals may say, oh, they don’t pay us enough, we can’t exist this way. You know, Medicare says, well no, we’re paying you cost-plus: We’re paying you what we think it costs to deliver the care, plus a profit.
So, you know, where between those two extremes will a single-payer would fall, I’m not quite sure. On the other hand, when hospitals say to me: Oh you know, we’re losing money or we’re troubled, we need to be paid much more — go into your local hospital. Look at the marble in the lobby and the art. For the most part — there are struggling hospitals — but for the most part our big hospital systems do not look like struggling institutions, they look like good businesses, which they are.
JS: Right. One of the striking parts of your book was you were writing about fees schedules in a variety of countries — Germany, Japan, Belgium — and this is a quote from your book: “It is efficient. In the United States, doctors spend one-sixth of their time on administration and medical practices to hire extra staff, to wrangle with insurers. A sonogram of the heart costs anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000 in the United States. The 2014 negotiated fixed price in Japan and Belgium was under $150.”
Talk about that system and how it could work in the U.S.
ER: [Laughs.] The divergence is so striking. I mean, so many things that in our country have literally like doubled, tripled, quadrupled in price have gone down just manifold in other countries. And why is that? It’s because in a lot of other countries — and I’ll point out that these are not all single-payer countries, Belgium is not, but there is price setting. Japan happens to be a single-payer country, and this just shows how meaningless the word is in and of itself. Japan is single-payer, but hospitals and doctors are private. But what those two countries have is some form of massive price setting and price negotiation, and they use some pretty interesting logic in that.
For example, in Japan they’ll say: OK, if something new whiz-bang technology comes on the medical market, you can charge a lot for it. We’re going to discuss with you what it’s worth, and negotiate a price, but you can get really good money for that. But guess what? As it gets older, it has to go down in price, because that’s the way markets should work. Because an MRI or a sonogram of a heart, which was, you know, revolutionary when I was training — eh, they’re pretty commonplace now. You can do them by the bedside.
And so, yeah, maybe there are some machines that are the newest iteration, but most people don’t need those, so we’re not going to pay for them. And I think that’s something we have been allergic to doing in this country. And just that notion of as drugs get older, as technology gets older, the price should go down, as it does in every aspect of our lives, the opposite happens in American health care and that makes us exceptional, unique and kind of suckers, I think.
JS: Given that you’ve studied this for so long and you yourself went to medical school, what would be a plausible scenario for U.S. health care, understanding the politics in Washington, that would make the biggest impact for the better in your view, or that would improve the quality and cost of health care for a lot of people in this country?
ER: I would say the first thing I think we could potentially tackle is drug pricing, because, you know, in polling, that’s what people feel they want the government to do something about drug prices. Personally, I think it will be a winning issue for either party if they do it.
You know, we have seen bipartisan bills that, for example, would allow importation from Canada. We’ve seen a lot of state bills bubbling up now saying: We’re going to allow our citizens to import from Canada, we’re going to review drug price hikes and try and see if we feel they’re justified. Again, these are kind of fledgling efforts. But they’re gathering steam.
There are so many different ways we could move. We could, for example, start lowering the age of Medicare. That would work. People by and large are satisfied as patients with Medicare and they don’t have these extreme, out-of-pocket costs. Doctors traditionally didn’t like Medicare payments; we crossed a bridge last year when the majority of the doctors for the first time said they could live with a Medicare buy-in or Medicare-for-all system. You know, so we could go that route.
I predict that the next thing we’re going to see, which I would love to see way more of is more transparency. And I want to emphasize that that’s not an answer in and of itself, but it’s a tool through which we can start to rationalize pricing. So, if all hospitals have to tell me: “This is what we’re charging for a colonoscopy, this is what we’re charging for an appendectomy,” and give people estimates, which they do in a lot of other countries, right? Then no hospital would put up in the lobby, “Hey, we’re charging $15,000 for a colonoscopy and $40,000 for an appendectomy.” Because people — insurers, companies would be running in the other direction.
So I think we’re going to see a lot of disruption through transparency, but it’s not enough. It’s a starting point. You really need state legislators, people in Washington to demand that transparency. Right now, hospital prices are guarded — and here we go with the business of health care narrative again — as a trade secret, right? We don’t want to tell others what we’re charging, because that’s our proprietary information. I’m sorry, can my contractor say that if I want to redo my kitchen? No! So I think that first step of mandated transparency will be really important, but it’s only a first step. It will allow people to shop a little more. Companies, it will help them to be smarter purchasers of health care for their employees. We’re wasting so much time, money, effort to give substandard health care. So we can do a lot better.
JS: Indeed — well, Elisabeth Rosenthal, thank you very much for your work, not only at Kaiser Health News, but also, before that, deep investigations at the New York Times. I encourage everybody to read that series: “Paying Till It Hurts.”
Elisabeth Rosenthal, thank you very much for joining us.
ER: Thank you.
JS: Elisabeth Rosenthal is the editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News. She’s also the author of “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back.”
JS: To end today’s show, we are going to hear from one of Lebanon’s most celebrated independent musicians. I’m talking about Yasmine Hamdan. She is something of an icon in the Middle East, ever since the days of her hugely popular band Soap Kills, which she co-founded the late 90s in Beirut at the end of that country’s civil war. Her indie band was one of the first in the region to experiment with combining traditional Arabic music with electronic, pop and folk music.
And you may have seen Yasmine Hamdan in a memorable scene in the Jim Jarmusch film, “Only Lovers Left Alive.”
[“Hal” by Yasmine Hamdan plays.]
Her latest studio album, Al Jamilat came out last year. And just this month, she’s released Jamilat Reprise; it is a collection of reconstructions and remixes made by close collaborators — all of them distinguished artists and producers.
JS: Yasmine, welcome to Intercepted.
YH: Hi, how are you?
JS: So, I want to start by asking you about the video of “Balad” and have you explain it, because obviously the region of the world where you’re from and, in fact, the country where you grew up is involved with the war in Syria, is also dealing with the refugee situation and this video is very, very powerful.
Explain the idea behind the song and the video.
YH: It’s inspired by conversations I had with taxi drivers and it’s kind of talking about the intelligentsia, about the status quo in our country, like the corruption, eventually, and the tribal mode.
[“Balad” by Yasmine Hamdan plays.]
YH: Because in Lebanon the government is not so present, so you have those families that’s been around since years. And, you know, funny enough people who made the civil war 40 years ago, they’re still in power, so these people are sucking the blood of the citizens.
And so this song is about that, but it’s also about a global situation. It’s not about only Lebanon. It talks about this microcosm that is somehow in power everywhere and that controls the resources of countries. It’s a global thing. It’s something about the world today.
JS: So I wanted to ask you about your song “Douss” and just share with our listeners some of the translated lyrics: “That war was thrown upon us, enmity you and I did not seek, wallowing in bitter strife, the spring for Arabs is here, feeding us slogans lies and deceits, all of which you and I did not see.”
[“Douss” by Yasmine Hamdan plays.]
JS: Talk about what you’re saying in this song.
YH: Well, I’m talking somehow about myself. I’ve only known war and difficulties. I mean my country has always lived so many dramas. And I’ve been hoping for a better future, and every time you hope and you are deceived, but somehow I always search for hope. So this song is about hope. It’s about finding the light in the middle of this darkness.
I hate people that are in power in our countries. I really have no respect for them. I think they are corrupt and they are vampires, and all of them are thinking about their own interest. Nobody’s doing anything for the country or for the people. So I don’t know where to start — like the whole system, the way the country functions is wrong. But there are so many amazing and beautiful individuals and so this song is more talking about this Spring, this hope.
JS: You, when you talked about the Spring, I know a lot of people in the Arab world and in Muslim countries were very, very excited and energetic, and so many young people came into the streets.
As you look back now, you know, seven years or so removed from the beginning of these uprisings in the Middle East, it seems like many countries have either gotten worse or they’ve been destroyed by war, violence or authoritarian governments.
YH: Yeah. It’s sad. It’s very sad to see the outcome of those, at least for now, of those movements and oppositions to governments that time led to wars and conflicts, but I guess we need more time. People have to be more educated about their rights, about their responsibilities, about what it is to be a civilian, what it is to have civic rights and also how to absorb minorities. And I when I say minorities, you know, I’m referring to women and LGBT et cetera, and, I mean, we are struggling to be all united and work together in order to create change and I don’t think change is possible without everybody involved. And so what I see today is a struggle between people who want change and who are working for constructing a better future, and other people who just are regressing. And we have a lot of men in power today in the Middle East and that is a problem.
JS: As you watch from the other side of the ocean that I’m talking to you from, and you see what’s happening in the United States with Trump, what are your thoughts about this moment? Because Trump is sort of — when he went to Saudi Arabia and he was touching that big glowing orb with all of those royals, I was thinking: Trump is sort of — he’s just like them. They’re all the same kind of person in a way, and he feels very comfortable, it seems, around despots, dictators, royals. But how does Trump seem to you?
YH: Of course. He is like an African dictator. I mean, he’s nuts! I don’t understand, I mean, where he comes from, but what I see is a guy whose heart is somewhere not existing somewhere — I have no idea why he was elected. And some people explain to me, sometimes it’s surreal, it’s like a TV reality show. I follow him as if he was a comedy actor.
I mean, but I also have a lot of fear of the consequences of his actions. When I saw him in Saudi Arabia doing this thing, it looked like, I don’t know a futuristic, bad series B movie, but I knew that this was going to bring bad things in the region and it was right.
I mean, a few weeks later, you know, we had problems and you had the Gulf crisis.
Fox News: President Trump has sided with Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners against Qatar in a diplomatic dispute there is isolating Qatar and threatening Gulf cooperation.
YH: But, you know, every American president has been a discovery for us. Like, each time we’re hoping that this guy is not going to be worse than the previous one. But then it’s always worse.
There’s something that people don’t understand that we are all linked, and that Trump and before Trump, I mean, Americans have always had their hands on the region and they’ve always tried to influence and there’s always this unequal and disrespectful relationship to the Middle East and to the Arab world, and so it created a lot of bad feelings.
And so sometimes Americans don’t realize how much harm the American policy has done to us. Our lives don’t matter, really — I mean, no one cares and the Americans just don’t — we’re like dehumanized, and that’s that creates a lot of problems, you know?
JS: Talk about how your childhood shaped your music and who you are.
YH: There was no narrative in my childhood. So I didn’t go to one school, I didn’t grow up with a bunch of kids and I don’t feel like I belong to only one place. I’ve always felt like somebody who is an insider/outsider coming in like a guest, living, adopting things, that allows me — when I sing and compose my music — to feel the need to bring into my music different influences and different people.
I also don’t like it when it’s just precisely like, when you feel the identity of the music. I mean, at least for me, I feel like I want this to be a little bit more abstract. I want people to guess: Is this Arabic? Is this not Arabic? Is this this or that? Because the fact that you can question also allows you to have different people from different culture to eventually be able to project themselves or identify to this music, and this music can have different colors.
[“K2” by Yasmine Hamdan plays.]
JS: When you get on stage and you are performing, you know I’m sure it’s different in different places, but what is the vibe, the environment that you try to create in your performances?
YH: Like, I don’t try to create anything. I’m just — it’s a process. It’s something very personal and I like very much being on stage because I get to challenge myself and get out of some comfort zones and I also like to connect with people and many times I do perform and in front of audiences that don’t understand Arabic and I never felt that the language is a checkpoint. I’ve always felt that it was, in a way, something that is about transmission. It’s about communication.
[“Al Jamilat” by Yasmine Hamdan plays.]
YH: Actually I never listen to music by listening to the lyrics. I listen to the emotion. I listen to what it gives me. It’s a sensual thing, so I try to communicate this sensuality through the music and through the artistic proposition.
When I perform in front of audiences that speak Arabic, OK, there’s the dimension of lyrics, and I do have a lot of hints, a lot of humor, and I do mix politics, sexuality, et cetera — things that really I care about. And I also have a lot of inspiration from all over Arab countries, Arab cultures. It makes me travel and I want people to travel with me.
JS: Well Yasmine Hamdan, we all really appreciate your music and also your ideas, your creativity and your principles. So thank you so much for being with us.
YH: Thank you.
JS: Yasmine Hamdan is a much-celebrated international artist, singer, songwriter. She is originally from Lebanon, but she has lived in many countries. Her latest albums are “Al Jamilat” and “Jamilat Reprise.” Make sure to check out her work.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. Once again, remember: Thursday, June 21st, 7 PM, we are having a live edition of this program, Intercepted. It’s at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. More information can be found on that at theintercept.com/tickets. That’s theintercept.com/tickets.
If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log on to theintercept.com/join. You can also check out our Twitter feed, which is simply @intercepted.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We are distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Emily Kennedy does our transcripts.
Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.