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Phyllis Bennis is a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, and is the author of Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis, of Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power, and of Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer.
Bennis has in the past argued for US reparations to be paid to Iraq for the years of US occupation and the destruction and damage inflicted on Iraq and the country’s peoples by the 2003 invasion and the occupation.
In an interview recorded Tuesday with Real News CEO Paul Jay, Bennis analyses Obama’s Oval Office Address on Iraq, August 31, 2010, talks about how Obama has adopted the Bush narrative about Iraq, and touches a bit on Iraq’s future and on the future of US foreign policies in the region, as well as somewhat about how those policies affect Iran and Afghanistan.
Real News Network – September 1, 2010
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington on Tuesday, President Obama announced what he called the end of “combat mission” in Iraq.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Tonight I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country. This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.
JAY: Now joining us from Washington, DC, is Phyllis Bennis. She’s with the Institute for Policy Studies, and she’s the author of Ending the Iraq War: A Primer. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you.
JAY: So mission Iraqi Freedom is over, and now it’s a new dawn for the Iraqi people and the world, we are told. So, Phyllis, did you hear anything new tonight?
BENNIS: I heard one new thing, Paul, and that was President Obama’s acknowledgment that this is now a trillion-dollar war in Iraq. That’s the first time, I think, that he’s publicly acknowledge that. And it is important, because one small part of his speech did focus on the costs of war. A great deal of it focused on the price that’s been paid by the US troops, but for almost the first time, he did speak of the economic cost and the need to rebuild this country. For some months now, US troops have not been taking the lead in combat operations, but they have been engaging in whatever combat they choose anywhere in the country.
What we didn’t hear tonight from President Obama, and I think ultimately it’s probably more important than what we did hear, was about the nature of the 50,000 troops that are being left there now. Those 50,000 troops are combat troops. They are rebranded (the military, the Pentagon uses the term re-missioned) as training and assistance brigades, but these are combat brigades.
President Obama referred specifically to the 4th Stryker Brigade, the last combat brigade, as he put it, to leave Iraq, and he spoke quite poetically about it. But what he didn’t talk about, again, was the 3rd Armored Cavalry [Regiment] from Fort Hood in Texas, Killeen, Texas, who just deployed to Iraq a week ago last Sunday. So in that context, this is a new deployment, 3,000 combat troops going to join the ongoing deployment in Iraq.
So the notion that this is somehow the end of combat, this Orwellian term they’re using now-this is now called New Dawn, Operation New Dawn, instead of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Well, it was never about Iraqi freedom, and it’s not about a new dawn. Among those 50,000 troops are 4,500 special forces, and they’re a particular concern, something we did not, again, hear President Obama refer to.
Those 4,500 troops have two jobs. One is horrifying. They go around the country with a list of names, and that list of names are those who they are authorized to, quote, “kill or capture”. It’s known as the “kill or capture” list. Anyone whose name happens to be on that list, regardless of where that information, where that intelligence came from, if it was-well, we know all the ways in which it could be wrong, but they are authorized to kill or capture them. Their job goes on without any change. Their second job-and they’ve been doing it for the last year or more, but they will continue now-is training up the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, also about 4,500. They started training them in Jordan; now they’re training in Iraq. And these guys are accountable only directly to Prime Minister Maliki. They are not accountable to the military command. The Iraqi Parliament has no control over them. And the American general who’s training them, who also worked earlier in El Salvador and in Colombia, has said that the El Salvador model is something that he’s proud of and that the kind of training that the US did in Latin America is very transferable to Iraq. That means he is training up a death squad.
That’s what we’re leaving behind. So I think that we are in for a very serious year and a half before the ostensible withdrawal of troops. And even that-something else we didn’t hear from President Obama is that at any point, the Iraqi government, which of course remains thoroughly dependent on the United States for its very survival-right now, of course, the government is a caretaker government. There is no government yet, six months after the last election. But whatever government is in power as we get close to the end of 2011, that government can simply ask the US to renegotiate the agreement, and that renegotiation will be answered with a resounding yes. My guess is that if the Iraqi government does not request an extension of the US troop deployment in Iraq soon enough, US officials will request that they make that request.
JAY: Have any of the American bases actually been handed over? Obama talks about that they’re going to be.
BENNIS: There are several bases, several dozen bases, actually, that have been closed. I’m not aware of any that have been handed over to the Iraqi military directly, but of course once the base is closed and the US military pulls out, the Iraqi military could certainly take them over. The US is keeping somewhere close to 100-I think it’s about 90 bases-intact, and there is still construction going on at some of those bases. So the notion that the intention is to pull out of all of them by the end of next year simply doesn’t seem to jive with reality.
JAY: He seemed extremely uncomfortable making this speech. This is not Obama in his skin. This is Obama acting a part and quite disingenuous, I thought, in how he told the history of the Iraq War. Right from the beginning, he says this was a war to disarm the Iraqi state, which we know there were no weapons and it’s all clear now. It’s such a disingenuous history, right up to complimenting Bush. He’s incorporated the entire Bush narrative, in fact, what the war was about.
BENNIS: Well, he’s also-in that context, as he incorporated Bush’s narrative, he’s abandoned his own. If you remember, Paul, when he was still a candidate, and even when he first took over as president, he was talking about Afghanistan as the good war. He made clear, I am not against all wars, speaking of Iraq and Afghanistan, but I am against stupid wars. Iraq, for President Obama, was the stupid war. I wanted to ask him, excuse me, sir, at what point did it become not a stupid war? Was it when you took over as commander-in-chief?
JAY: Well that’s sort of what the Republicans are saying, with some justification. After opposing the surge and everything else, now he’s sort of taking credit for it.
BENNIS: Well, I don’t know if he’s taking credit for it. Again, something he didn’t say was the other three reasons why violence went down in the context of the huge sectarian fighting in Iraq in 2006-2007. Of course when you send 30,000 troops, mostly into Baghdad, they’re going to have some impact. But the other three reasons were arguably far more important, one of them the decision by Muqtada al-Sadr to stop fighting. When his militia stands down, that’s a huge reduction of violence. Two, the decision by a number of former resistance fighters, mainly Sunnis, who joined something called the awakening movement, where they decided that it was better to have the US pay them not to fight rather than to fight the US and get paid by someone who wasn’t paying them quite as much. And the third, and perhaps most horrific, but probably most important, was that the violence, the sectarian violence that had a very clear goal of ethnic cleansing block by block, community by community, what used to be, say, in Baghdad, a thoroughly mixed, not divided population, an extraordinary, diverse population of Sunni and Shia and Kurds and Christians and some Jews and others, everybody living all together, that was the goal of that sectarian fighting was to end that, and at a certain point it was ended. And what we see now in Iraq is a city divided with blast walls, with ethnically cleansed communities separated from each other. And, of course, once that happens, the violence has no reason to exist anymore.
JAY: Walls mostly put up by the American forces.
BENNIS: Exactly. Exactly.
JAY: Now, I guess the counterargument that would come from the Obama camp is that he has no choice. Their argument, I suppose, would go: I’ve got to get out, I mean, I’m going to-. (Sorry. I’ll say that again.) His argument would go: I’m managing getting out; we couldn’t go out any faster-it would be destabilizing to the situation in Iraq; there’s nothing gained attacking Bush now, it just makes us look divided; and so on. I mean, do you think there’s any merit to that? Did he have any choice other than to play along this way?
BENNIS: Yeah, he had a lot of choices. He could have said, we are going to start moving out, and we’re going to keep moving out until we’re all gone. He said that would take 16 months, then he changed to 19. But he still is not out in 19 months.
This is not an end to combat in Iraq, and it’s not an end to combat by US troops. He had choices, even at the political level, where he’s coming in as someone who never served in the military-a great deal of skepticism from the military.
He comes into a situation where he thought, whether it was true or not, that he had to have a general backing him up politically, that it would be political suicide if he seemed to go against the Pentagon. The reality, though, that he was dealing with was that the Pentagon was far more divided among themselves than the division between the White House and the Pentagon. He needed a general. Okay, let’s accept that. He chose General [Stanley] McChrystal. He didn’t have to. He could have chosen [Lt.] General [Karl] Eikenberry. General Eikenberry was against escalation in Afghanistan, and it could have been a very different situation. Gen. Eikenberry was the ambassador to Afghanistan. He could have made different choices. That would have given him a far different kind of political cover.
JAY: Does Obama have not the choice to actually say what he really thinks about all of this? I mean, the big elephant in the room that wasn’t mentioned, obviously, is Iraq’s next-door neighbor, Iran, which is what all US policy in the region is really focused on right now.
BENNIS: Well, that’s part of what it’s focused on.
JAY: Well, other than Afghanistan. But in terms of Iraq politics, the issue is Iran. To what extent is the Iraqi government-they’ve, quote-unquote, “stood up” there more in alliance with Iran and the vacuum they’ve created, according to Pentagon-type analysis for Iran, and he doesn’t even talk about that.
BENNIS: The problem in talking about that for President Obama would be that he would have to somehow acknowledge that every time he talks about the problem of Iranian interference, for instance, Iranian interference in Iraq, there’s a lot of talk about the neighbors of Iraq are always meddling, as if somehow the US meddling from 8,000 miles away is somehow more legitimate. But what he would have had to acknowledge is that if there were a problem of Iran’s role in Iraq, it’s kind of undermined by the fact that they tended to support the same side as the United States. The government that the US is backing in Iraq today is arguably politically closer to the regime in Tehran than anywhere else, despite the fact that it’s the US military keeping them in power and they don’t have much domestic support. It’s a very tricky business for him to start making those kinds of allegations.
JAY: And then where are we in 2011 if they’re going to try even more of a full-court press on Iran? Do they actually really get out of Iraq? It’s hard to see.
BENNIS: That’s a very serious problem that President Obama will face. The irony is, by keeping 50,000 troops there for a year and a half longer, he’s not making that decision any easier when he gets to it.
JAY: The thing that strikes me the most is the lack of frankness. He gives this-such a formal speech, it’s almost like something one might read at a-I don’t know why the word a “funeral” comes to mind, but there’s no openness or no analysis about the real situation.
BENNIS: No, and I think that’s why so much of it focused on the heroism of the troops. He referred over and over again to the fact that everyone on all sides, left and right, pro-war and antiwar, everyone supports the troops. That’s how we can come together. That’s his unifying message, and I think that’s all he’s got at this point. The reality is the reason that people support the troops is because many of us believe that accountability for the war crimes that this war involves need to start at the highest level, not at the lowest level. It may well be that individual soldiers are also guilty of war crimes and should be held accountable, but the accountability has to start at the top. So giving a pass to President Bush is a way of saying that he should not be held accountable, and by argument perhaps President Obama is saying, don’t hold me accountable either.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.