Interview with Op-Ed News and Joan Brunwasser

From Op-Ed News earlier this week:

Matthew Hoh with More on Hagel’s “Forced Resignation”
By Joan Brunwasser

My guest today is Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. A former Marine who served on US Embassy teams in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Hoh was the highest ranking official to explicitly resign because of US policy in Afghanistan. Welcome to OpEdNews, Matthew. Everyone’s abuzz regarding Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s resignation. What do you make of it?

Hello, Joan. Getting past the name calling and the personal attacks on Hagel by anonymous officials in the White House, which is often the case when the White House has something to hide, I think what this ultimately will be about is that Chuck Hagel did not want to go along with the re-escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which is the most unpopular war in American history, or the involvement of American forces in the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars that will not work.

I haven’t spoken to Chuck Hagel directly in the last two years, during his time as Secretary of Defense, but I have known him for five years now, and his views of the wars prior to his appointment as Secretary of Defense were that they were reckless and counter-productive. So, it wasn’t a surprise to me that he is leaving the Administration, particularly in light of the emphasis on the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan; wars that will prove counter-productive and morally and politically disastrous. I expect, in time, that Hagel’s resignation will be seen as an act of personal integrity in regards to disagreement with perpetual war.

Before we delve into Hagel’s positions on the subject, I’d like to go back your comment about the war in Afghanistan being the most unpopular war in American history. Is that really true? Is your statement based on a single CNN poll? I’ll tell you why I’m asking. I was around during the Vietnam War, and that felt very different to me: there were numerous well-attended rallies and demonstrations, a lot of media coverage. The anti-war movement was energetic and very visible. This just doesn’t have the same feel. Am I misremembering or way off-base here?

Here is the Gallup poll information. Here is data from Pew. The BBC has the most recent poll I could find. And here is a Washington Post article comparing polling data on previous wars, leading to the classification of our war in Afghanistan as America’s most unpopular war.

It makes sense why the White House kept silent its decision to re-escalate the war in Afghanistan until after our mid-term elections. What doesn’t make sense is our congressional leaders silence on it.

So, help me understand, please. Admittedly, I haven’t been following this closely. But I thought that we were actually winding down. Now, we’re escalating. Why? How did this come about? And why is Congress holding its collective tongue on this? There are many mysteries to unravel.

This weekend, The New York Times revealed that several weeks ago, President Obama signed a secret order to re-introduce American troops in Afghanistan back into an active combat role. Over the last couple of years, American troops have withdrawn from direct combat with the Afghan insurgents, focusing on training Afghan Army and Afghan Police forces (which should not be viewed as an inclusive national force as Pashtuns in the south and east of the country are very much under-represented in the Afghan Security forces and over-represented in the insurgency hence the nature of the war in Afghanistan as a civil war and one that has long needed a political solution and reconciliation).

For what I believe to be primarily domestic political reasons, President Obama has ordered American troops to once again kill and be killed in an Afghan Civil War that dates back to the 1970s. President Obama has bowed to hysterical pressure from hawkish Republicans and Democrats over the violence in Iraq and Syria. To protect himself from criticism that he is prematurely (after over 13 years!) ending the war in Afghanistan, and to prove that he is as tough as his critics, President Obama has committed American troops to combat, once again, in Afghanistan.

This move by President Obama also belies the notion that America’s war in Afghanistan, so publicly embraced by Presidential Candidate Obama in 2008, has been successful in militarily defeating the Taliban as a path to peace and stability in that part of the world. Rather, we have seen that America’s escalation of the Afghan War in 2009 has only produced greater violence, more corruption and a larger insurgency with no end in sight to the war or to the suffering of the Afghan people.

As for the silence of members of Congress, the words craven and corrupt come to mind. Members of Congress are terrified to speak their minds on the war, afraid of being accused of not supporting the troops, not being tough or not being patriotic. Additionally, with a $1 trillion a year national and homeland security Leviathan, members of Congress are ensconced in a cocoon like cycle of war-policy chasing war-money and war-money chasing war-policy. So, members of Congress see no political, policy or financial advantage in questioning the war, even if they believe the war to be wrong, misguided or failing.

And essentially, the fact that this war is exceedingly unpopular makes absolutely no difference, in terms of form or substance, in terms of derailing this juggernaut? Where does that leave the American public? And what does this portend in terms of a state of perpetual war? This is very very bad.

I think we should look back a year and look at the groundswell that came from libertarian and progressive organizations against American involvement in the Syrian Civil War that was pursued by the Obama Administration in the summer of 2013. A concerted and unified opposition by the American public to US bombing in Syria took the Obama Administration by complete surprise and derailed efforts to begin American intervention in Syria. This was a real success for not just the anti-war and peace movements, but also for American Democracy. It is important to remember that the system can be responsive and responsible to the citizens and so we should not lose hope, even when we are up against such an overwhelming force as the American war machine.

However this lesson was not lost on the Obama Administration and so, this year, when the opportunity came for the United States to insert itself into the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the Administration was much better prepared to sell the war. The Administration was also more inclined to demonstrate patience and not offer a rush to war. Through a very effective public relations campaign, in many ways similar to the public relations campaign utilized by the Bush Administration to sell the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003, the Obama Administration has been able to manipulate the American public into fearing the Islamic State and demonstrating a need for American intervention (again, this is very similar to the public relations tactics used by the Bush Administration in 2002/3). This lesson is as important for us to remember as the lesson of success we had in 2013 in stopping American entry into the Syrian Civil War.

Those of us opposed to the state of perpetual war that we find our country committed to, and in many ways dependent upon, must understand the environment and dynamic that we must work with: public opinion, media and narrative. These elements are fluid and alive, but are also very susceptible to manipulation by the US government. To engage against the wars we must be robust in our work, learning from past experiences, anticipating future events and making sure that we utilize the greatest strengths of our movement: that America’s war in our modern age, despite US government narratives to the contrary, have nearly all been immoral and counter-productive.

You’re right, understanding tactics and history is undoubtedly important. But, how exactly do we join forces to mobilize in an effective way? What resources are there to utilize against this huge government/military machine? Can you give us anything more concrete?

Communication and education, of course, are paramount. However, I think we are too often entrenched in partisan or identity politics to build momentum. For instance, look at how many members of the Democratic Party were against the warrantless wire tapping program conducted by the Bush Administration, yet how many members of the Democratic Party were ok with the same spying on American citizens by the Obama Administration. We are a nation that divides and then further divides ourselves into artificial and ultimately meaningless sects; so reaching across these lines is key. Without dissolving these divisions, the wars at home and the wars abroad will continue and those in power will remain in power.

I also see greater need for non-violent civil action and disobedience, but this must be well-led and appeal to and not threaten other segments of the public. The Occupy Movement captured attention and sympathy from both the public and the media, but I believe their lack of leadership and lack of organization failed to capitalize on that media and public attention. Additionally, the civil action must be inclusive and welcoming of others, and must do all it can to make people want to join and support it. I think many who were at first open to Occupy quickly soured on it and came to view it as a collection of professional agitators and protesters. Whether or not that is the case, the perception became reality for the public and the media and the Occupy movement failed to maintain the widespread support it initially received.

Finally, I will say that what we are up against is well organized, well funded and very, very media savvy. Our movement will never be able to match those resources head to head, but we must be aware of the strengths of our opponents and counter or diminish those strengths. We must find the resources to build and sustain organizations capable of operating in the media, in Washington, DC and in local communities. What Occupy tapped into we must follow up on, because the people in the United States know the wars overseas are wrong and they know the divisions in our country are wrong. What the people need is someone to lead on these issues.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Matthew. I learned a lot. I’m looking forward to getting the backstory in our next go-round. I went to your blog last night and see that there’s been a lot going on. People need to hear that, too, it’s all part of the larger picture. Thanks so much for what you’ve done.

I’m happy to do another interview in the future. Thanks, Joan!

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