When I spoke over the phone recently with former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer [See his home page ], it became immediately clear to me this award winning war correspondent doesn’t cover Washington, or go on power runs with four star generals or hobnob with Tampa socialites; he’s more interested in journalism. Kinzer has spent the bulk of his reporting career, after all, hiding in bushes while being shot at, beaten by police, tear-gassed, bombed from the air, and even jailed while covering over 50 countries in five continents.
After spending over 20 years with The New York Times, mostly as a foreign correspondent, which included tours of duty in Nicaragua as bureau chief (1983-1989), chief of Times’ bureau in Germany (1990-1996; Berlin is where he met his wife), and chief of the newly opened bureau in Istanbul, Turkey (1996-2000), he decided to leave the newspaper business in 2006 to teach and devote more time to his real interests in hot spots spanning the globe.
Asked the biggest reason for leaving the Times, Kinzer said that he was unhappy and uncomfortable with the way the American press during the Iraq war was ``cheering up’’ the war effort. At least in the early stages of the conflict, Kinzer thought the media coverage was ``one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press. We became handmaidens of power. We let Washington set our agenda for us, which I hate.’’
The other reason Kinzer left was that he was at the point in his career that he didn’t like getting bogged down in having to report on the flavor of the day; he was more interested in writing about what most interested him, which is incompatible with today’s journalism. So when he was offered a teaching position at Northwestern University, he thought the stars were perfectly aligned for him to begin a new chapter in his career.
And that he did.
In 2006, Kinzer published ``Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq’’ , which recounts the 14 times the U.S. has tried to overthrow governments. He's also written, ``All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror’’ ; and most recently, ``Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future’’ , which sketches his vision for rebuilding America's strategic partnerships in the Middle East.
What Kinzer finds most troubling with so many news organizations shutting down foreign bureaus is that we seem to be only reporting on American foreign policy. ``Covering what’s going between the Pentagon and the State Department and the White House is one thing’’ Kinzer points out, ``but that’s not covering the world.’’
And speaking of covering the world, what does he think is the United State’s biggest foreign policy challenge as President Obama prepares to begin his second term in office?
Kinzer contends East Asia is where we ought to be focusing our attention. ``It’s going to be very difficult for us to deal with the rise of China,’’ Kinzer warns. ``China is not our enemy, God forbid that it would ever become our enemy’’ he explains, `` it’s not really an ally. This might the biggest foreign policy challenge the U.S. has ever faced. We are not able to focus on it to the extent that we should because so much of our diplomatic and political focus is on the Middle East.’’ He believes strongly that the U.S. needs to lighten its footprint in the Middle East.
In the Greater Middle East or Central Asia in particular, Kinzer, like many other harsh critics of U.S. foreign policy, argues that not only was little accomplished by the U.S’s efforts in Afghanistan, but we ended up with a situation which is far worse than when it started. Kinzer has vehemently argued in the past that our biggest mistake or ``original sin’’ in Afghanistan was in arming and training jihadis to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which ultimately created the Taliban as we know them today. `` We effectively created the momentum that produced September 11th and Al Qaeda.’’ ``Afghanistan’’, Kinzer argues, ``is a great example of how we [U.S. government] do things that might feel good in the short run, but actually undermines our national security in the long run.’’
So if he had President Obama’s ear, what diplomatic efforts should take priority in the international arena?
``It would be great if there could be another effort in the Middle East’’ Kinzer told me. `` We have to resist temptations to go back into Iraq and Afghanistan, those are bad temptations. I would like to see some new effort made on the Israel Palestine issue. There’s even been talk that Bill Clinton would be a good negotiator for that, which I think is probably true. ‘’ Most important, Kinzer maintains, it’s incumbent upon the U.S. to exhibit some prudence and lower the heat level in our rhetoric about Iran and not follow the war path like so many people in Washington.
With Susan Rice facing blistering attacks about her initial assessment of the deadly attack on a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, I asked Kinzer about the U.N. ambassador’s diplomatic skills. When asked if Rice would eventually be confirmed as the next secretary of state, Kinzer said simply, ``I hope not.’’
``She [Rice] is the hectorer in chief’’ Kinzer says. `` There isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t have some other country to criticize. One doesn’t do enough for human rights, one is involved in sexual trafficking, another one is not doing enough to combat the drug trade, another doesn’t have enough religious freedom.’’ Rice’s diplomacy, according to Kinzer, is a classic example of someone exhibiting an American-centric view of the world.
Our conversation briefly turned toward the U.S. budget deficit.
With exploding debt to contend with, the White House and Congress are on the verge of approaching the dreaded ``fiscal cliff’’ unless a compromise is reached. The tone of the debate, as widely reported, has reached fever pitch over which programs will absorb the brunt of the budget cuts. In 2011, 20 percent of the U.S. budget, or $718 billion, paid for defense and security-related international activities. Interestingly, according the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the same percentage, another 20 percent of the budget, or $731 billion, paid for Social Security, which provided retirement benefits averaging $1,229 per month to 35.6 million retired workers in December 2011.
Asked whether he thought the U.S. was overextended militarily, Kinzer answered with a resounding yes. ``We have over 700 military bases around the world. We have way too many troops. We have way too many troops abroad. We have 60,000 troops in Germany; for what? What are we protecting them against?’’ `` We have 11 aircraft carriers’’, Kinzer calls attention to, `` no other country has more than one--and the personnel to run a single carrier group is larger than the total number of diplomats at the State Department.’’ According to Kinzer, we [the U.S.] need to make significant reductions abroad, which would probably increase our security rather than harm it.
What grade, then, would he assign President Obama on his foreign policy initiatives up to this point? ``An incomplete,’’ Kinzer says.
As we wrapped our conversation, I asked this former newspaper veteran who spent over 20 years at a daily newspaper how disheartened he’s become witnessing so many print newspapers struggling to survive as the migration to the Internet picks up steam? ``There’s no reason to become emotional about it’’, Kinzer told me, ``because it’s a reality.’’
`` My general view’’ Kinzer explained further, `` is the delivery of news is changing in dramatic ways, and will continue to change into ways we can’t even predict.’’ ``At the end of the day’’, Kinzer stressed, ``there is still one function of journalism that cannot be computerized and that is reporters. You’re always going to need reporters. Reporters are going to have to maintain the same kind of standards and the same kind of interests, the same kind of work ethic. The fundamentals of what journalism is about don’t necessarily change. What will change is the delivery of news.’’
Before joining the Times as bureau chief in Nicaragua in 1983, Kinzer was a Latin America correspondent for the Boston Globe. He ended up writing two books about the region, ``Blood-Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua and co-authored ``Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala''
In 1988, Columbia University awarded Kinzer its Maria Moors Cabot prize for outstanding coverage of Latin America; and in 2009, Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, awarded him an honorary doctorate. The University of Scranton additionally awarded Kinzer an honorary doctorate in 2010.
Kinzer and his wife Marianne, who have a grown daughter, live in Boston, where he now teaches in the Department of International Relations as a visiting professor at Boston University with a specialization in International Journalism, Intercultural Communication, U. S. Foreign Policy, and the politics of Turkey, Iran, Rwanda, and Central America.
In addition to writing books and teaching, Kinzer contributes articles to the New York Review of Books, The Daily Beast, and writes a world affairs column for The Guardian.
December 3, 2012