We speak with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), a leading advocate for a single-payer healthcare system, about healthcare reform on Capitol Hill. McDermott also speaks about his recent trip to Afghanistan and his thoughts on President Obama’s escalation of the war. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: At today’s news conference at the G20 summit in London, President Obama also spoke about the situation in Afghanistan.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We also discussed the progress that was made yesterday at the Hague, where more than seventy nations gathered to discuss our mutual responsibilities to partner with the Afghan people so that we can deny al-Qaeda a safe haven. And in the days ahead, we’ll consult further with our NATO allies about training Afghan security forces, increasing our civilian support, and a regional approach that recognizes the connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: After the G20 meeting, Obama is heading to Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany, where he will take part in a major NATO summit commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the alliance. Afghanistan is expected to be at the top of the agenda, and Obama is expected to ask for NATO’s support for his escalation of the war. Obama has said he plans to send an extra 17,000 soldiers and 4,000 advisers to Afghanistan.
Congress member Jim McDermott recently traveled to Afghanistan as part of a congressional delegation. He’s a Democratic [representative] from Seattle, joining us now from Washington, D.C.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Congressman McDermott.
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Hi, Amy. How are you?
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, we hear that there was a secret meeting between the House Democrats and President Obama before he left, the topic being Afghanistan. Is this true?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: I was not in the meeting, so I don’t know if it occurred or not.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you just came back from Afghanistan. What is your assessment of the Obama administration’s policy to expand the war there?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, I think it’s almost larger than the Obama policy, but I am very worried about any escalation that we do in Afghanistan. We went roaring into there nine years ago and dropped bombs all over [Tora Bora] and did all kinds of things and put on this big effort, and then it didn’t work. We didn’t get rid of Osama bin Laden, and we didn’t get rid of the terrorists. And so, we moved onto Iraq and just left it to fester.
Now we’re coming back, eight years later, having continued to kill civilians and create enormous animosity toward Americans. And the history of the Pashtun people — there are 40 million Pashtuns who live in an area that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — they threw out the British on two occasions in the 1800s, and they threw out the Russians a few years ago. And my belief is that we are going into something that we really don’t understand.
AMY GOODMAN: What is that?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, we have some idea that we’re going to make it a peaceful, quiet place that it has never been. There has been fighting in that area for over a thousand years, and the tribal areas are so tumultuous that Pakistan has never tried to exercise any governmental control of those areas. They’ve just ceded it to the local tribes. And for us to think that we’re going to go in there and be more successful than the Pakistan government is, when we don’t speak Urdu and we don’t speak Pashto and we don’t speak Balti and we don’t speak all the languages, we don’t know the customs, is simply to get us enmeshed in another quagmire, similar to what we got into in Vietnam, when we didn’t understand what we were dealing with.
And I think that the issue here — if you read a book called Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, he talks about how you get to know the people, how you sit down, how you learn, and he winds up building schools. He’s built more than a hundred schools for girls in that area. But it requires listening to the natives, not coming in with a fixed idea that as an American you know what’s best for them. And I’m afraid that our leadership is barging in there again, thinking we know what’s best for them, and this is how we’re going to do it. And every time a drone bombs a wedding party, we make more enemies for ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman McDermott, you took a trip to Iraq in 2002 before the invasion, which you were criticized for by those who supported the Bush administration. You were opposed to the war in Iraq. So was President Obama. He spoke out in 2002. Why do you think he has taken this different tack with Afghanistan?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, I think the President of the United States is always caught in the pressure between what might be good public policy, seen from a civilian side, and what the military says is a good policy. The President of the United States has the responsibility to protect the American people. That’s his first, first responsibility. And as happened to John Kennedy, they got him in office, and they said, “Hey, look, we’ve got this problem in Cuba. Let’s go down there, and, you know, in an afternoon, we can wipe out the Cuban resistance and get rid of this guy Fidel Castro.” That led to the Bay of Pigs debacle.
And the military answer that Americans tend to favor, that is, if we have strong arms and we have bombers and we have all this kind of stuff, that somehow that will prevail, has proven wrong over and over and over again. And the only way we’re going to really solve these situations is with soft power, that is, with diplomacy and economic aid.
And I think that President Obama is right now listening to those military advisers in ways that I think are, in the long run, not going to be good for the country and not good for his presidency, frankly. I worry about him. I want him to succeed. I want him to be the best president we ever had. But I’m worried that he’s listening to the wrong people. He’s not listening to enough people who say, “Take a cup of tea and listen to these people and figure out what needs to be done.”
AMY GOODMAN: You’re not far from the Canadian border, when you’re back home in Seattle. President Obama’s first foreign trip was to Canada. Canada is pulling out their troops from Afghanistan. Then he met with Gordon Brown, the prime minister of Britain, in the White House. Many were surprised they didn’t hold a joint news conference. They sat there taking a photo op and ended up extending it to more than twenty minutes. It looked like it was sort of a sort of flub of the Obama administration, since the British leader had always been treated differently in the past. The Brits are very much — the population — opposed to war in Afghanistan. Why do you think it is Obama is taking this different tack? I mean, when it comes to the other countries in the world, it seems that the US is once again, as with Iraq, trying to pull other countries along, and they’re resisting, they’re pulling out.
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, I think the President, when he came into office, one of the charges that was constantly railed against him was he’s not going to be a good commander-in-chief, he’s not going to be strong, he’s not going to protect us, he’s going to be weak, he’s going to capitulate to our enemies. And again, as I said about John Kennedy, John Kennedy was under the same kind of criticism as he came into office. And I think the President is responding to that by trying to be a strong leader. And if you listen to his speeches, he keeps talking about protecting the American people, protecting the American people.
George Bush, in his attacks on Iraq and on Afghanistan, did not make us safer in the long run. We have two festering wars now in the Middle East and maybe a third one in Pakistan, if you want to look at it that way. And that kind of advice that your answer is to march out and bomb people and use guns and tanks and all this military hardware is hard for a president not to react to. Otherwise, we’ll call him weak, and we’ll say, “Well, he gave in, and he lost the first war,” all that kind of stuff. And a president doesn’t want that kind of image. So I think the President is caught in a very tough situation, and I think it’s important for him to know there are people like me and many of my friends in Congress who are interested in supporting him in adopting a much more diplomatic approach to what goes on in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: And how much access do you have to President Obama?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, at this point, they’re sailing in one direction. But I think as they go down the road and need votes, they’re going to have to listen to people who don’t agree with them on the idea of expanding the war. I mean, 17,000 troops and now 4,000 troops, that’s mission creep, in my view. We’ll have everybody that we take out of Iraq in Afghanistan if we’re not careful, and we will have not brought the troops home, which I think ought to be our main goal, and we will not have established peacefulness in that area.
So, I think as things develop — remember, the President has only been in office for sixty days. So let’s — I’m willing to give him some time. I’m worried, but I’m willing to give him some time to get his feet on the ground and figure out what’s going on and actually assess it for himself, because he’s very smart and very thoughtful and asks hard questions, and I don’t — I haven’t given up at all on him. I think he’s going to be a good president. But it’s — I just worry, from my own experience.
I mean, I was in the Vietnam thing. I was a physician in Long Beach who took care of casualties coming home. So I know what war is about. And war is never glorious. It’s never an exciting thing to get involved in. It seems exciting when you’re a long way away. And all those chicken hawks in the Bush White House looked at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan as somehow glorious and wonderful, and we’ll just go over there and whop ’em. And, of course, it didn’t work out that way. And that’s what always happens to people who have not had the experience of being in it. Now, President Obama has not been in the military, but he can learn from some of us who’ve been there and understand what the real costs of this are going to be. And I think there’s a better way to make the American people safe than to use weapons of destruction all over Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Jim McDermott, I wanted to turn to another key issue of our day. It’s the issue of healthcare. You’re a doctor. I mean, in the lead-up to the March 5th healthcare summit at the White House, in the corporate media there was almost no mention of single payer, which in some polls is the number one approach that Americans support, except a mention by those who slammed it. You are one of the advocates of single-payer healthcare. So is Congress member John Conyers. You’ve both introduced bills. What are these bills? What is single payer? What are its chances?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Basically, a single-payer system, which is what every industrialized country in the world, except the United States, has adopted, is a system in which you guarantee a set of benefits for every citizen of the country. No matter how much money, where they live, what color they are, what ethnicity they are, whatever, everybody is entitled to the same generous benefit package. And that’s true in France, and it’s true in Germany, and it’s true all over the place. The French, for half the money that we spend, are getting, by the World Health Organization, the best healthcare in the world.
Now, the second thing that you have to have besides a generous benefit package is a single-payer system. And you can put the money together through the government, or there are a lot of different ways it’s done in all the countries of the world, but when a patient goes into a hospital in Canada, they hand a card in for the national plan, and that’s the end of it. And you are not threatened with bankruptcy in Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Italy, Spain. None of these countries can a citizen be bankrupted by their illness. But it is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States, because we have put the emphasis on individuals doing it.
A single-payer system is a common good way of dealing with risk that none of us know when it’s going to hit us. And I think that it’s what this country needs, but unfortunately, we have a large health insurance industry that is fighting back, tooth and nail, to prevent that from coming into existence. It’s going to be a tough battle. This is not going to be something that’s easily put together.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play what President Obama himself said about single payer before his presidential campaign. This is what he said back in June of 2003, before he was elected even to the US Senate.
STATE SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I happen to be a proponent of single-payer universal healthcare coverage. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent — 14 percent — of its gross national product on healthcare, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that’s what Jim’s talking about when he says everybody in, nobody out: a single-payer healthcare plan, universal healthcare plan.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, there you have it. That was the state legislator Barack Obama speaking in 2003. Congress member Jim McDermott, he has now said, at least those in his administration have said — Max Baucus, the leading senator on healthcare, along with Senator Kennedy, have said that it’s off the table. It took a lot of pressure to even get one single-payer advocate. And then, finally, it was two at the healthcare summit. Then it was John Conyers.
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, clearly, the economic forces, the medical-industrial complex in this country, is bigger than the military-industrial complex in this country. And people don’t recognize that, but it is a huge industry that is resisting change. The medical-industrial complex basically wants to keep the system the same, except for the fact they want to shift some of the cost off onto the government.
And I think that the fight is going to be around a central issue when we get to the debate in the Congress, and that is whether — because the President has said, “We’re going to keep the private insurance industry as it is. If you’re in it, fine, don’t worry about it. You can stay right where you are. You’re not going to be forced into anything. But we’re going to give you a public option, and you can move to that public option.” Now, the question will be, is that a good public option? Is it a less expensive public option? Because it should be less expensive than something provided by the insurance companies. And if it is, will people move into that ultimately, and we will wind up with a basic system that’s run through a public option?
AMY GOODMAN: Like Medicare for all?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: It could well be Medicare for all. That’s what —- you know, Pete Stark and John Conyers have been talking about that for a long time, and that’s one way to do it. There are a number of ways. But a public option, some people say it should be the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, the program that I’m in as a federal employee. I put some money in, the government puts some money in, and that provides my healthcare benefits. And we ought to open that up to everybody in America. Let that work -—
AMY GOODMAN: A new — a new development now is that Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced the American Health Security Act of 2009 in the Senate. Is this your bill from the House?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: It’s exactly the same. Bernie called me up and said, “Jim, do you mind if I put my bill — your bill in in the Senate?” And I said, “Of course not, Bernie.” It’s good have allies, because Bernie is a good advocate. And this issue has to be on the table. Right now, we spend — in our healthcare dollar, about sixty cents of every dollar is federal money in Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, military benefits, Indian health, public employees. All this is already paid for in the public. So it’s not as though we don’t have a public option. We have just kept people out of that public option and kept them out there either on their own or in their employment insurance. And we’ve got to open it up to let them into the federal system.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you’re going to be a columnist for now the online Seattle P-I, Post-Intelligencer, which folded recently. Now, Seattle Times, the only major paper in Seattle. You have said that newspapers should be bailed out like AIG was bailed out. Your position now?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Well, here’s my feeling. The thing that we lose with newspapers are investigative reporters. We don’t need the editorial page, where they tell us what they think or what they, who they think we should vote for. What they need are investigative reporters who go out and probe and find out what’s going on.
The blogosphere helps some, but the fact is that you need people who will go and stick their finger in the chest of people like me and say, “Why are you doing that?” and make us say, so that the people can make an informed choice. Democracy is based on an informed electorate. And as you lose those investigative reporters in newspapers, the people will be more and more in the dark, and they’ll be subject to television news coverage, which is a minute and a half at the most on any subject, and you do not get any in-depth view of what’s going on. So we need newspapers from that standpoint, and I don’t know how we get them, but that’s — I think that we ought to be thinking very much about losing our democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you support this approach to have them — this new nonprofit option that has been introduced into Congress?
REP. JIM McDERMOTT: Yeah, Ben Cardin from Maryland has put a bill in in the Senate. I looked at that. The Manchester Guardian is a nonprofit, and so is The Independent in Great Britain. So it is possible to run a newspaper as a nonprofit. They would have to give up their editorializing about which candidates you should vote for. That kind of stuff would have to go. But otherwise, I think it’s a good option, and I would like to see some of these newspapers take that role. Unfortunately, the corporations who own them have a viewpoint that they want to go through the editorial page, and it would be hard for them to give that up. So it’s going to be a real test of whether newspapers are for getting people information or influencing public opinion.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Jim McDermott, I want to thank you for being with us, Democratic congressman from Washington state, also a doctor and now a columnist for the online Seattle P-I.