Ida and the Cycles of Violence and Forgiveness

Have you seen the film Ida?

It is a Polish film from last year that is a powerful, brilliant piece of filmmaking. I use those words powerful and brilliant, because, 48 hours later, I am still contemplating and dissecting the movie; I am still in meditation over its meaning and in awe at how the film has stimulated my own thoughts and tested my beliefs.

The story is a road trip in the early 1960s in Poland between a young woman, brought up in a convent and on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, and her aunt, a once leading figure in Poland’s post war Communist Party and now a judge. The young woman has no worldly or sensual experiences and is about to begin her adult life by joining the once almighty, but now politically bankrupt, morally spent, and intellectually disregarded Church. The older woman with her life ending professionally, and judging by her alcohol consumption, physically and emotionally as well, belongs to the new order, the new way of the world, the post war communist party promising brotherhood, meaning and purpose in the years after the cataclysms and holocausts of WWI and WWII. It is a political and philosophical movie, but it is also a deeply personal movie, as two individual life stories, differentiated by commitments to competing ideologies and life’s purpose, commitments that dominate and control their lives because of circumstance and history, more than by individual choice, are forced to look past the veneer and trappings of their costumes and titles, to examine who they are and why they are.

As I watched Ida the same challenges arose in me, and as a testament to the great storytelling of the film, are still resident with me. Most concerning, about 2/3rds through the film, I said to my girlfriend, “if I were them, I’d take that shovel and split his head”. It was an honest and true feeling. I was not acting or parading as some phony tough guy or a has-been Marine, but my visceral, gut reaction at that time, during that scene, was that I would commit violence and I would revel in it to assuage my anger and celebrate revenge. But, as the film went on, and as I reflected on those emotions, spurned by the actions of the characters, I realized how wrong, how foolish and how weak such a sentiment and desire was and how embarrassing my utterance.

In the scheme of the movie, killing the man would have been possible and it would have fulfilled some form of duty or obligation to my family, my community and my people, as well as fulfilling a duty to my own image of myself and my need for vengeance; vengeance based on personal, cultural and institutional values. However, taking myself away from that scene, watching the characters and applying my own life’s experience participating in and around the violence of war, I grudgingly recognize and must accept the futility of such violence. I say grudgingly, because violence and revenge is such a part of our identity and our culture that I am loathe to give it up, I am afraid to move on, and to recognize the myth of redemptive violence, as exactly that, a myth constructed primarily for the purposes of national, ethnic, sectarian or religious hegemony, dominance and absolution.

But if I had killed that man, if I had split his head with that shovel, seen death overcome him and gain the satisfaction of such grisly passage of state, what would come of it, what events would I now own? His wife and children, as innocent of crimes as those in whose name I murdered, would be widowed and orphaned on a struggling farm. His sons, would they not seek revenge and in time come for me and my family? Would not the children of my family, the next generation, be butchered in turn? My actions, murder and the infliction of suffering on the innocent, would begin a cycle of violence, an uncontrollable, bloody cycle without end, the likes of which we see in our wars overseas and in the wars in our own cities. And for me? My own experiences in war, my own and personal struggles with moral injury, is that not instructive to me? What would become of my mind and my soul after killing the man?

To move on and say nothing to the man is an option and a better one than violence. However, it is an incomplete option, leaving a chapter of life open ended and without closure, in essence running from a problem and not attempting a resolution, but it does not require the strength needed for a third, and rightful, option. Imagine saying to the man: “I forgive you” and giving him your hand and your blessing. How hard that would be! It seems nearly impossible to me and such a thought, such an option, which leads to an involuntary reflex and rejection within me, would stop the cycle of violence and lead to peace, both within me and my community.

The choice of mercy, of forgiveness, is anathema to my sense of manhood and my obligation for revenge and justice; but what would come of such forgiveness, besides a rejection of cultural and institutionalized violence and loss of personal pride, if I had the courage to enact it? A man would be given mercy and his family spared, and perhaps nothing more than that, but, with deep consideration, is anything else truly necessary? Breaking the cycle of violence is enough. Quite possibly, and maybe very likely, the man would be changed and his family enlightened, hell, maybe his daughter would grow to be the second coming of Mother Theresa, but such achievements or results would not be necessary to validate or vindicate the forgiveness proffered to the man. Stopping the cycle of violence is enough, the peace that would come to my mind and to my community would be enough.

I like to say that one of my favorite quotes is from Saint Francis de SalesNothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. Yet, how difficult to turn such an outlook into an attribute, even when through personal experience you have seen the glaring failure and horrific counter-production of violence and have been affected so forcibly by grace, kindness and forgiveness as I have.

So please give Ida a watch. It’s a wonderful, well done, contemplative film and I trust it will challenge something in you.

*For another excellent film that takes on the myth of redemptive violence and exposes it for the tragedy it really is, please watch Blue Ruin. Both films are available on Netflix.

Whistleblower Panel in Oslo with Daniel Ellsberg

A panel I took part on while I was in Oslo last month. Daniel Ellsberg skyped in and I joined Coleen Rowley, Kirk Wiebe and Norman Solomon, as well as Arne Ruth, a very preeminent Swedish journalist. Only the first few moments are in Norwegian 🙂

“Political Leaders Who Made Them Sacrifice For Nothing”

An interview I did with RT in London on Afghanistan regarding President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to the UK and assessing our war in Afghanistan and its long term effects.

Veterans Day Interview with Amy Goodman Part 1

I did a lengthy interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now on a number of issues, some of it very personal, for Veterans Day. This first part deals primarily with our current intervention in the Iraqi Civil War:

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the nation prepares to commemorate Veterans Day, President Obama has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq. The plan will more than double the current U.S. force in Iraq and will reportedly cost $5.6 billion. At a news conference Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby announced the decision.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: The commander-in-chief has authorized Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to deploy to Iraq up to 1,500 additional U.S. personnel over the coming months, in a noncombat role, to expand our advise and assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces. Secretary Hagel made this recommendation to the president based on the request of the government of Iraq, U.S. Central Command’s assessment of Iraqi units, the progress Iraqi security forces have made in the field, and in concert with the development of a coalition campaign plan to defend key areas and go on the offensive against ISIL.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby. In a significant expansion of the U.S. military campaign against ISIS, military advisers will reportedly establish training sites across Iraq. The request for $5.6 billion will reportedly be presented to Congress during the lame-duck session that begins this week. In an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation broadcast Sunday, President Obama said the increased troop deployment to Iraq marks a “new phase” against Islamic State militants—an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.
AMY GOODMAN: The timing of the announcement has raised questions about whether the Obama administration waited until after the midterm elections in order to shield Democratic candidates from war-weary voters. The antiwar group CodePink has criticized Obama for sending more troops to Iraq, saying in a statement, quote, “For months we’ve been hearing ‘no boots on the ground’ over and over from the administration … When will we learn from our mistakes and stop repeating history?” they wrote.

Well, for more, we go to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’re joined by Matthew Hoh, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, former State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over the U.S. policy there in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh served in Iraq. From 2004 to ’05, he worked with a State Department reconstruction and governance team in Salah ad-Din province. And from 2006 to ’07, he worked as a Marine Corps company commander in Anbar province.

Matthew Hoh, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you share your response to the increased boots on the ground?

MATTHEW HOH: Hi, good morning, and thank you for having me on. My response is, as many people, I think, in the United States, scratching their head and wondering: What are we doing? What does the United States government really think it’s going to accomplish by putting more American troops into the middle of the Iraqi civil war and into the middle of the Syrian civil war, particularly coming off of 13 years of war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Somalia, in Yemen, etc.? So, my response, Amy, is more or less the same as most people’s, of a—very concerned and, you know, lack of a better phrase, this is crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation, President Obama insisted U.S. troops will focus on training Iraqis to fight ISIS and coordinating airstrikes, rather than engaging in active combat.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What hasn’t changed is, our troops are not engaged in combat. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking four training centers, with coalition members, that allow us to bring in Iraqi recruits, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting ISIL, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics. We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offense against ISIL. But what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama refused to rule out further increases in U.S. troops in Iraq.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As commander-in-chief, I’m never going to say never, but what, you know, the commanders who presented the plan to me say is that we may actually see fewer troops over time, because now we’re seeing coalition members starting to partner with us on the training and assist effort.
AMY GOODMAN: That is President Obama on CBS’s Face the Nation. Matthew Hoh, do you believe what he’s saying?

MATTHEW HOH: No, I don’t. And I think it’s very easy for us to revisit this in a few months’ time, just as now we’re revisiting this from several months ago, and see the increase, the graduation of entry of American forces back into the conflict. But I think it’s a slippery slope—excuse me—and that very quickly this will spin out of control for the United States. What happens when American troops are killed? What happens when we lose several young men to a suicide bomber? How is the president going to react to that? How is the United States going to react when our troops are in combat and we only have 3,000? And the president, who can’t seem to face down the same critics in Congress who are always demanding for war, the John McCains and Lindsey Graham, how is he going to face them down then, if he can’t face them down now? So, I don’t believe his words, and I think that this is going to be the beginning of an unfortunate and tragic re-entry of America back into this civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the fate of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Iraqi officials claim he was wounded in an airstrike on ISIS leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province, Anbar province where you were, Matthew Hoh.

MATTHEW HOH: It may be true. I mean, certainly it could possibly happen, but I don’t put much stock in that having a great effect on the Islamic State. They’ll just get another leader. Look, Osama bin Laden has been dead for three-and-a-half years, and the administration is citing how dangerous al-Qaeda still is, in order to justify spying on Americans or justify bombing in Syria. The precursor to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which didn’t exist, of course, until we invaded Iraq, but al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State, their leader, al-Zarqawi, was killed in 2006, and here we are now in 2014 facing an even stronger, more dangerous, more barbaric force in the Islamic State. So, I don’t—if he’s dead, you know, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in the mid or long term in terms of what’s occurring in Iraq, what’s occurring in Syria, because the issues here go well beyond one man or one group. It goes into issues relating to sectarian violence, that has been fostered and pushed by policies from the United States, from the West, from the Gulf nations, that have created this Frankenstein, ISIS, and that have enabled the environment for civil war to flourish.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about that, how ISIS was created, its support, and what you feel is the alternative?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure. Well, the Islamic State, as I just mentioned, came from the al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was an organization that sprang to life after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the things that—when I was there in Iraq, as well as in the State Department and the Pentagon in D.C., one of the things we always noticed about it and one of the things that we saw was that it was—while it had a number of foreign fighters in it, a number of young men who were coming from other Arab nations to fight against the Americans in Iraq, very often, though, the—or I should say, the majority of the constituency of al-Qaeda in Iraq were Iraqis in 2006, 2007, because so many people were supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq based on sectarian reasons. So, basically, what was occurring in Iraq was you had this civil war, so the Sunnis in Iraq were supporting al-Qaeda because they had no other choice.

In 2006, 2007, we made a deal with the Sunnis. We gave them money. We brought them back into the power structure. We pulled Shia forces out of the Sunni areas. And so, the Sunnis then turned on al-Qaeda. What happened after that was, when the United States left in 2011, the Shia government in Baghdad, which is incredibly corrupt, relentlessly went after the Sunnis. They persecuted them to an extent that I don’t think people realize the violence behind that. This wasn’t just excluding the Sunnis from government, this was actively killing them, actively chasing them from their homes, actively mass arrests—actively arresting them in mass numbers, to the point that the Sunnis have revolted and have thrown their weight behind this group, the Islamic State, which is the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq. So what you see here is this horrible group, Islamic State, that’s very barbaric. They have this extreme religious fanaticism and ideology behind them. But they are receiving the support of many Sunni Arabs in the area, in Iraq and Syria, because of the alternatives to the Islamic State are government forces that the Sunnis see as much worse to them than the Islamic State.

My alternative to the U.S. bombing campaign, to the U.S. military intervention is this. This is the consequence of decades of United States policy in the Middle East that has played one sect against the other. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein of our creation. And as horrible as it is, the purposes behind the United States policy in the Middle East must change to be one of preventing conflict rather than fostering conflict. For decades now, we have supported various regimes in the Middle East that have been despotic, that have been dictatorships, that have oppressed their people, or, in the alternative, we have supported these groups that have then morphed into these organizations like al-Qaeda, like the Islamic State. And it’s now out of control. And so, for me, the alternative in Iraq is to stop supporting a Shia government that is horribly corrupt, that is persecuting its own people, stop buying their oil, stop selling their weapons. Look, Amy, when we—as the United States, when we sell the world 70 percent of its weapons, we have to take responsibility for the havoc that’s going to result from that. So, a lot of this, to me, is not so much what do we do now. What do we do over the next decades to disengage ourself from this policy where we have created these Frankensteins, we have created conditions for civil war, where we have set one group, whether it be by religion, by sect, by ethnicity, against the other? And how do we walk away from that? How do we back out of that and become a much more responsible partner in the world? And how do we seek to actually bring about justice, bring about stability, rather than fostering either war or oppression?

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, can you describe your own transformation, how you came to the position you have? You fought in Iraq. You served in Afghanistan. You quit as a State Department official in protest of the war in Afghanistan. Explain the trajectory you took over the years.

MATTHEW HOH: Well, I think, for me, it begins in 2002 when I’m stationed in the Pentagon. I was put in a very senior position. Just happened—just happened I worked directly for the secretary of the Navy as a Marine Corps captain. And so, in the run-up to the war, the Iraq War, and during the initial phases of the Iraq War, I was very close to the decision making, the policy making. I could see how things were done, how decisions were made, how assessments were conducted. And I could see very quickly, particularly once the war began in Iraq and once we started receiving our communications from our forces in Iraq, our classified communications detailing what was occurring on the ground, the dissonance, the disconnect between what policy was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., what assessments were being made, what statements were being made, and what the reality was on the ground.

Of course, when I got there in 2004, 2005, I saw that firsthand. I saw how our presence was fueling the occupation, how we were setting one group against the other, how we were aiding corrupt and thuggish militias in power in Iraq. The same thing, too—I came back to D.C., worked in the State Department again on the Iraq desk and again, in an inter-agency process, saw that disconnect between what’s occurring in Iraq and what we’re actually saying, and the refusal by people in the administration, by people in the military, in the government, to acknowledge that our policies weren’t just harmful, but they were malignant, that they were causing further violence, they were causing groups like al-Qaeda to gain support.

And so, this continued until finally I was in Afghanistan in 2009 and seeing all the same things again, seeing the narrative that we have the white hats on, that American troops are dying to protect us, to keep us free, seeing that really what we were doing in Afghanistan was taking part in a civil war, our presence was fueling the insurgency, we were propping up a corrupt kleptocracy, and that al-Qaeda had left Afghanistan years before. I decided at that point in 2009 I no longer could take part in it. And, you know, here we are five years later.

With American Help Iraq’s Cycle of Violence Spirals

I published this last week in the Huffington Post:

Amnesty International published a report yesterday on Iraqi Government and Shia militia war crimes against Sunni populations in Iraq. This important piece of documentation helps to illustrate the cycle of violence that has been devastating the people of Iraq for 11 years and why US military intervention, on behalf of the Shia government and against the Sunni population, is not working, will not work, and will only prolong the suffering of millions of Iraqis.

Over the last several years, since the US military withdrew in late 2011*, the Shia government in Baghdad has persecuted the Sunni minority population relentlessly. Persecution against Sunnis has included killings, disappearances, mass arrests, indefinite detainment without charges or trial, torture, and exclusion from national, provincial and local political, security and revenue structures.

The result has been Sunni alignment with the Islamic State and organized revolution against the Shia dominated government in Baghdad with the all too predictable accompanying sectarian slaughter. Mass Sunni retaliation against non-Sunnis, led by the Islamic State, highlighted the news cycle this summer, although this type of bloodshed was nothing unique or new to the people of Iraq. The cycle of violence continues as Shia forces, now with American military support, engage in retribution against Sunni civilians.

This cycle of violence started with our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and while it diminished for a period of time from 2007-2011, it has since been progressing steadily. Nearly 10,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence in 2013, and, if nothing changes, at the current rate, nearly 20,000 Iraqis, maybe more, will die this year.

What can and should be done?

Address the political grievances of the Sunni population. Give the Sunnis a reason not to support the Islamic State. Right now the Sunni population of Iraq is choosing to side with the Islamic State because that is a better option than to further acquiesce to the Shia government in Baghdad. To accomplish Sunni rejection of the Islamic State pressure must be put on the government in Baghdad to reform by incorporating Sunnis back into the security forces, into the political system and into the revenue streams, as well as removing Shia dominated security forces from Sunni areas. Greater autonomy must be given to Sunni areas; note this is not a Sunni only demand, but the government in Baghdad is so corrupt, that the Shia province of Basra in southern Iraq wants autonomy too.

The government in Baghdad will not reform or stop its persecution of Sunnis while we provide it with unconditional support through weapons sales and the use of the American air force or while we allow the continued sale of Iraqi oil. With no reform and no negotiation the Sunnis will remain attached to the Islamic State. With no political efforts the Islamic State will continue to grow stronger.

Sound familiar? Like our misadventure in Afghanistan? The greater we supported the corrupt government in Kabul and the more American troops we sent, the more the Taliban prospered. A similar dynamic is at play in Iraq. Consequently, without a change in American policy the cycle of violence in Iraq will continue its ghastly spiral, Amnesty International will find cause and need to publish more reports, and parasites of war, like the Islamic State and American defense companies will be the sole beneficiaries.

You may find the Amnesty International report here.

*This is not an endorsement for US forces to have remained in Iraq, but rather acknowledgment of one of the consequences of massive policy folly and foolishness. Despite a revisionist view currently circulated by hawks in D.C. and on TV, the prospect of American troops staying in Iraq past 2011 was wildly unpopular with a majority of Iraqis and would have led to a re-opening of the Iraq Civil War, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces once again killing American troops in large numbers. One of the foremost lessons that somehow, amazingly, we have not learned as Americans, is that once war has begun, war is impossible to control and there may be no options that result in anything other than death, maiming and destruction.

Part Two of Interview with Bill Moyers

Here is part two of my interview with Bill Moyers.

http://billmoyers.com/2014/09/26/web-extra-americas-return-war-middle-east/

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Here is the transcript:

BILL MOYERS: Jonathan, you were as I said one of the few reporters who got it right in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion. Do you see any similarities today?

JONATHAN LANDAY: No, except for the involvement of the United States military. This president, as opposed to George W. Bush, basically had to be dragged kicking and screaming into intervening in Iraq and now Syria. He campaigned on a promise to get America out of Afghanistan and out of Iraq.

And the US intelligence community had been tracking the threat by the Islamic state for several years and warning the administration that this was a grave threat, this was a growing threat to the region, not just to Iraq, not just to Syria but to the region. And yet this president resisted and resisted and resisted doing anything beyond trying to get the former Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki to try and respond in a forceful way and failing to do so because Maliki simply was not going to listen to the Americans anymore.

And eventually the Americans even knew three days before the Islamic State’s offensive across the border from Syria into Mosul in northern Iraq and then down into sort of to the doorstep of Baghdad. Three days before they launched it, the Americans knew this was going to happen. Tried to get Maliki again to respond and he didn’t.

BILL MOYERS: Where were you in 2003?

MATTHEW HOH: I was actually in the Pentagon in 2003–

BILL MOYERS: And what–

MATTHEW HOH: –working directly for the secretary of the Navy.

BILL MOYERS: And do you see any similarity between now and then?

MATTHEW HOH: Yes, in a sense that for decades now we’ve had a policy in the Middle East where we play one sect against another. I have friends who served 20, 30 years in the military, and they will all say, I have spent half my career in the Middle East. And what’s come of it? I see us having a policy that again for decades has been a military first policy that has either rewarded despotic authoritarian regimes with arms sales or facilitating the purchase of their oil or the regimes we do not agree with, facilitating sectarian unrest sponsoring rebels, sponsoring groups that have then morphed into a Frankenstein like the Islamic State.

And so certainly I see in Iraq now, one, the cause of the conflict or our invasion of 2003, our subsequent occupation. I would say in Iraq we have the world’s largest embassy. But yet as Jonathan was saying, we did nothing to stop what was coming. My view is a little more harsh in terms of putting the blame on the government in Baghdad and their repression of the Sunnis. If you have a government that is repressing one of its minority sects, stop selling them weapons. Stop facilitating the purchase of oil, don’t turn a blind eye. What happened in Iraq is in the summer you had the Iraqi army collapse and then the Sunnis fill that void just as the Kurds filled the void in the north as well. And so this is certainly something that we should’ve seen coming and certainly the parallels to previous experiences there as well then to our policy is what has put much of this in place.

JONATHAN LANDAY: The sale of weapons to the Maliki government was something the administration resisted for quite a while.

BILL MOYERS: The Obama administration?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely. They were asking, there was this incident and a lot of people didn’t pay attention to it. I believe it was back in March of 2013. There were a whole bunch of Syrian soldiers who ran across the border from Syria, into Iraq, seeking refuge and sanctuary from an attack by the Islamic State.

The Iraqis brought these guys, put them on busses the following day and took them, were taking them back to Syria to another border crossing when they were attacked inside Iraq by the Islamic State, killed more than 40 Syrians. That incident, following that incident, Maliki’s office asked the United States, please we need air strikes, we need weapons. As far as we could tell that was one of the first times they asked for it. And they were not forthcoming. They, Iraqis, we sold the Iraqis, concluded contracts for the sale, I think, of F-16s and helicopter gun-ships, I think the F-16s in 2011. They still have not been delivered.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think was the decisive tipping point that turned Barack Obama around and prompted him to order the bombing this week?

JONATHAN LANDAY: I think this assault first of all on Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi army and an army that we had poured billions of dollars into in weapons and training that just collapsed overnight. Four divisions just collapsed and their officers took off allowing the Islamic State to sweep down literally to the doorstep of Baghdad.

What that did was essentially end up trisecting Iraq into a northern part where the Kurds were able to hold onto their piece, although they were under attack by the Islamic State, a middle part, a “Sunnistan,” if you will, where there’s no resources, where you have this minority who join, a lot of whom joined the Islamic State or supported, allied themselves, creating this potential space where the Islamic State could plot and plan attacks elsewhere and push out from. And then in the Baghdad south you have this area dominated by Iraqi Shiite majority. So the United States looked at this and said, we need to be able to keep Iraq together because if this place falls apart, we’ve got an even bigger crisis in the Middle East. And so you saw–

BILL MOYERS: Another vacuum like Afghanistan–

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: –in the ’94, ’96 when the Taliban moved in?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Russians left, the United States was not there–

JONATHAN LANDAY: That’s right. And you already had that situation in northern Syria let’s not forget. There’s this gigantic ungoverned space where you had–

BILL MOYERS: Ungoverned space?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Ungoverned space except you had Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official Al Qaeda syndicate in Syria, and the Islamic State, which once upon a time was part of Al Qaeda, controlling these pieces of territory already in Syria. Then you had the potential collapse of Iraq as a state that we’ve known since the end of World War I.

And then, and so that’s when you started seeing the air strikes. But what I think really turned him into this, you know, brought us this phase where he is now backing this huge international, or leading this huge international coalition was the switch in American public opinion. You had American public opinion which was dead set against any kind of intervention in Syria or Iraq and turned because of the videos of the beheading of two American journalists.

BILL MOYERS: But it was only when two American journalists were beheaded that the public woke up, right?

MATTHEW HOH: Absolutely. Last year in 2013 almost 10,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in bombings. This year over 12,000 have been killed–

BILL MOYERS: Suicide bombings–

MATTHEW HOH: Suicide bombing, car bombings, gunfights, bombs put in marketplaces, but 10,000 in 2013. So I think the important thing for people to understand about this conflict and, of course, the Syrian conflict, is that this didn’t just begin this summer. This is something that’s been going on for a long time.

The government in Baghdad is very corrupt. And to show how corrupt the government in Baghdad is, and this is a Shia-dominated government, but at least two provinces in southern Iraq that are Shia, including Basra, have also made noises about secession. So this is not anything that we should be surprised how the state of affairs in Iraq.

We should not have been surprised that the Sunnis are not allying themselves with the Islamic State. This has been coming for years now. The question to me is what do you do? How do you how do you rectify this? And how do you stop and halt this cycle of violence? Because this year it’ll be, you know, if the numbers keep up, it’ll be 20,000 civilian dead in Iraq. Next year it’ll be 30,000. We have to remember that in Syria over the last three years you had 200,000 dead. How do you stop the cycle of violence?

BILL MOYERS: Why do so many people ignore the fact that air power didn’t win in Vietnam and it didn’t win in Afghanistan where you were in the foreign service. It didn’t prevail in Iraq recently. You don’t think air strikes are going to resolve this crisis, do you?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Not air strikes alone. I’ve got to go back to something though you said earlier. And you brought up the period in Afghanistan beginning in 1994 with the emergence of the Taliban who then went on to conquer Afghanistan and create essentially what was, I mean, they governed it, but it was this space in which Al Qaeda was able to come, get sanctuary and plot the 2001 attacks on the United States.

I think that there were a lot of, there were people within the military, within U.S. intelligence that were looking at northern Syria and the fact that you had exactly the same kind of situation take place there with the defeat of, in a lot of these rural areas abutting Iraq, of the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad and the conquest of these areas by Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, by the Islamic State, by other Islamist groups. And I think they looked at that and drew a parallel between what could happen there and what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s and said, we cannot allow that to take place.

Now, originally, you know, the idea was we’re going to help Iraq do this, we’re going to reconstitute the Iraqi army, good luck with that, and you know arm the Kurds and get them to be our ground forces. And there is a model for that. It is Afghanistan 2001 where yes, it was U.S. air power and some special forces on the ground. But the United States actually had ground troops there. They weren’t Americans, they were the Northern Alliance.

And they swept out of the north, backed by American air power, and drove the Taliban out of the country. Subsequently we see there were enormous policy missteps and mess-ups that failed to crush the Taliban. I don’t know if it could ever happen. But that’s a model I think they’re looking at.

BILL MOYERS: But Matthew resigned from the foreign service because he said the war the American war in Afghanistan was only making the situation worse.

MATTHEW HOH: I still hold that conviction. I, you know, you look at the state of Afghanistan after we’ve surged 150,000 foreign troops into Afghanistan. You have a Taliban that is stronger, they launch more and more attacks every year, they control a large part of the terrain. You have a political process in Afghanistan that’s completely broken. You have this unity government that has come out of an election that was so fraudulent that no numbers can be released from it. The only thing that has, the only thing that has done well in Afghanistan has been the drug trade.

Every year there’s record poppy and opium exports out of Afghanistan. And so what has that achieved? And on top of that, Afghan civilians have paid the cost. And for me I look at this and I say you have these schisms in this country. We are supporting one side against the other. By doing so in 2009, I felt our policy was military victory first. I actually had experiences in Afghanistan in my post where we had the insurgency come to us, want to negotiate, want to talk and we were instructed not to speak with them, that we were going to–

BILL MOYERS: By your superiors?

MATTHEW HOH: –win militarily, yes, that was our policy.

BILL MOYERS: Who told you what?

MATTHEW HOH: We were going to, this is not, we are not in the business of reconciliation. And you’d see this then echoed through statements by Secretary Clinton or General Petraeus or others in the Obama administration that we are going to drive the insurgents, we are going to drive the Taliban to the negotiations table. And of course that didn’t happen.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think the president, when these air strikes fail to solve the situation, will send troops?

MATTHEW HOH: The, I think there’ll be a lot of pressure. I think you’re seeing members of Congress already make noise about having ground troops. You’re seeing think tanks in Washington, DC put out numbers at 25,000 ground troops would be appropriate. And so I feel and I fear that there’s going to be a lot of pressure put on the president to send troops back into it. I think that would be a horrible mistake. You, if, in my opinion, if you want to stop this conflict, in Syria, I think we may have missed that window. For years in Syria, we refused any meaningful negotiations. We, our goal in Syria was Assad’s removal. So in any of these peace talks in Syria, we always limited the options Assad had.

We refused to allow the Iranians to participate, which is Assad’s main ally. So we always stacked the deck in these negotiations so that it was never going to be an outcome that– where you would get some negotiated settlement where each side would give up something and get something in return. In Iraq, I still think there’s time. And Iraq, but I think you have to hold the gun to Baghdad’s head, not the Sunni’s heads. For as long as it–

BILL MOYERS: That didn’t work with Maliki.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Right. And I have to say–

BILL MOYERS: He’s gone now because it didn’t work.

JONATHAN LANDAY: And I have to say, I don’t think it was just the Americans that stacked the deck in the negotiations. There was no way Assad was giving up, the Assad family’s going to give up 40 years of power. No way. And let’s not forget, I mean, do you really negotiate with a guy who’s allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people? I mean, some of the atrocities that have taken place, not just at the hands of the Islamic State, but at the hands of these of Assad’s forces, are just unbelievable. So I don’t think it’s just the Americans that were preventing, you know, the, I don’t think these negotiations were going to work one way or the other.

I think, you know, after 40 years, and let’s not forget, this isn’t the first time that the Sunnis in Syria have fought the Assad family. It’s not. You know, remember what Bashar’s father did in 1982, in Hama where between 20,000 and 40,000 people killed in the space of several weeks. I mean, these are grievances that have built up over decades and pressures that have built up over decades. In Iraq, you know, I agree, I don’t know how they’re going to, you know, the I don’t even know if it’s possible to put it back together in Iraq. The Kurds, for the time being, have given up their demands for independence.

And I remember meeting with a very senior Kurdish official in Washington, was there to basically tell the White House, yeah, we’ll participate in a post-Maliki government, but only to negotiate the terms of our divorce. We are going to hold a referendum and we’re outta here. That’s gone away. And I can see the, you know, the behind-the-scenes negotiations, if you want us to stage air strikes to prevent the Islamic State from overrunning your capital Erbil, you better give up this referendum. And they have for the time being.

MATTHEW HOH: But we have to start pulling back out of these affairs. We have to start trying to become a more neutral arbiter.

BILL MOYERS: How do you do that though without creating the vacuum that you say emerged in Afghanistan, and caused so much grief?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely. And, you know, and I just have to say also, I think Afghanistan’s still a work in progress too. You know, I’ve been going there since 1986. The first time I went there was with the mujahideen. I crossed the border during the Soviet occupation. And then I went legally in 1987, the first time I was allowed in. And I have to say, the contrast between the Afghanistan that I saw then, and the Afghanistan I see now, with all the attendant problems that Matt has talked about, there is an unbelievable difference.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think it?

MATTHEW HOH: Certainly in certain parts of the country, absolutely. I mean, so how do, you know, in the north, in the west of the country, in, certainly of the urban areas in Afghanistan, absolutely. But when you go to the south and the east where the fighting is, and it’s hard. It’s horrible. I mean–

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely.

MATTHEW HOH: –I mean, so how do you answer grievances, how do you get to a point where these groups aren’t at each other’s throat, where there isn’t a fighting over resources where there isn’t a fight over population centers–

JONATHAN LANDAY: But I also have to say that there are, you know, I’ve gone back and I I’ve looked at places where we’ve intervened militarily. There aren’t a lot of successes out there. There’s Grenada, there’s Panama, there’s Kosovo, and there’s the Balkans, writ large. And you know, yes, there are real problems in Bosnia because of this political system that the United States cooked up to try and put that place back together again. But it did stop the war. And, you now, have Croatia is part of the EU, Slovenia is part of the EU, Bosnia is looking to get into the EU and looking to get into NATO. Serbia is looking is on the track for the EU and looking to get into NATO. Kosovo, the same thing. Macedonia, the same thing. So you got to say to yourself, well, is it possible? Yeah, maybe.

BILL MOYERS: How does the president do that? Very quickly, both of you.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, I think we see where he’s trying to go, which is this idea of American air strikes in conjunction with the creation of some moderate Syrian force that will fight ISIS, and then perhaps after that, go fight Assad. Come, and you put that together with this effort to try to put together a more representative government in Baghdad. You know, all these financial measures to try and stop the flow of money, stop the flow of foreign fighters, but again, you know, go back to my original point, how do you deal how do you stop all of this without dealing with the, addressing the underlying problems of that region, that I don’t see the local leaders trying to deal with, the lack of jobs, the fighting the corruption, the lack of representative government, the lack of accountability. You know, lack of educational opportunities, healthcare? Unless somehow that is tackled, we could find ourselves continually trapped in this cycle.

MATTHEW HOH: How do you break the cycle? I mean, I hate to say it, I mean, as Jonathan was saying, like, how do you negotiate with either sides? And now it’s so far gone, and the violence is so revenge oriented and sect against sect, even among the moderate Syrian forces, their hatred of the Shia and the Alawite people is clear in their messaging and what they say. And in Iraq, my view is, hold the gun to the government of Baghdad. Iraq is basically filled now to its borders within the country, by the various ethnic groups. The Sunnis have their area, the Shia have their area, the Kurds have their area. Hold the gun to Baghdad’s head economically, because Baghdad will not reform as long as we’re, as long as we’re their air force.

Why would they? What incent do they have to meet any Sunni grievances? And at the same time, the Sunnis won’t divorce themselves or split from the Islamic State when they see no other alternative. And that’s what’s so horrific about the situation in Iraq, is that the people talk about the Sunnis, they’re going to wake up to the fact that the Islamic State is a bad thing. I’m pretty sure they’re aware of that already. But and so the scary thing is, in spite of that, they have aligned themselves with the Islamic State, because the Islamic State’s barbarity, their grotesqueness is a better option for the Sunnis right now than anything else they see. So how do you change that? And to do that, you have to have serious reform in Baghdad. You have to answer the Sunnis’ grievances, the Shia need to make concessions.

I think the Kurds in the north have to make concessions. Remember that when this happened this summer in Iraq, the Kurds enlarged their territory by 40 percent. They took control of most of the northern oil fields. So now the Sunnis in a different, in addition to the mass arrests, the mass killings from the Iraqi army, the Shia army that they’ve been dealing with, now they’re looking at economic existential danger from the fact that they no longer have these resources up there.

The Kurds control all the oil. So again, what do you give the Sunnis to make them break from the Islamic State and how do you beat down this organization that’s doing so well propaganda-wise? You know, Haaretz, the Israel daily, reports that 6,000 foreign fighters have joined the Islamic State since the United States began bombing. So how do we defeat that propaganda, how do we take away that recruitment potential, how do we stop validating their narrative that they’re defending the Islamic people, and particularly, the Sunnis, against the crusaders and against the apostate Shia and Kurds?

BILL MOYERS: You’re the one who said to us earlier this week, this is the nightmare of Groundhog Day. Exactly what does that mean?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, I mean, it’s the cycle that we keep getting trapped in. And we keep repeating a lot of the same mistakes. You know, I look at what 12 years, I think it has been in Afghanistan, and sort of the campaign that we launched into Pakistan’s tribal area to degrade and destroy Al Qaeda. We certainly have degraded them. We certainly have not destroyed them. Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda Central, as it’s referred to, just announced the creation of an India wing of Al Qaeda. So but, and so yeah, I know, you know, it is, it’s the nightmare of Groundhog Day, because we keep going finding ourselves trapped in this endless cycle. But perhaps that’s the curse of being the country that we are. The country we have been since World War I where, you know, we, as much as President Obama wishes we weren’t the world’s policemen, perhaps we are. And there’s no escaping that curse.

BILL MOYERS: This has been a wonderful conversation, Jonathan Landay and Matthew Hoh, thank you very much for being with me.

MATTHEW HOH: Thank you.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Thank you.

Interview with Bill Moyers

It was an honor to do an interview with the legendary Bill Moyers. It was also very cool to be a guest along with the excellent and courageous Jonathan Landay.

http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-americas-new-war-middle-east/

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Here is the transcript:

BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…

MATTHEW HOH: Is this really our model for the Middle East that we are going to bomb countries, continuously, take part in civil wars, sometimes supporting one side, maybe supporting the other, with no means or no real desire or effort to achieve a peace?

JONATHAN LANDAY: As much as President Obama wishes we weren’t the world’s policemen, perhaps we are, and there’s no escaping that curse.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Here we go again.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH on January 16, 1991: As I report to you, air attacks are underway against military targets in Iraq.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON on December 16, 1998: Good evening. Earlier today, I ordered America’s armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH on March 19, 2003: My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA on August 7, 2014: To stop the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city.

BILL MOYERS: Over 23 years, four consecutive presidents have ordered the bombing of Iraq by U.S. forces. It’s what one of my guests calls the nightmare of Groundhog Day – facing the same problem, over and again. Just a year ago Barack Obama told the United Nations that he was determined to end America’s perpetual war footing in the Middle East region. But this week the President returned to the UN to announce – not yet! And to assert that the US intends to unleash more airpower to defeat the Islamic militants who have swept across large areas in Iraq and Syria. With a first round of drones and missiles unleashed inside Syria even before he spoke at the UN, the president has plunged America into the midst of a civil war that involves over one thousand different militia. You need a mighty big scorecard just to figure who’s on whose side.

We’ve asked a couple of experienced hands to help us do just that. Jonathan Landay is a senior national security and intelligence reporter for McClatchy newspapers. He’s also an unsung hero of Washington journalism. During the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Landay and his colleague Warren Stroebel dug deep to find evidence refuting the Bush administration’s case for going to war. You can see Landay and Stroebel at work in our documentary “Buying the War,” at BillMoyers.com.

Matthew Hoh fought in Iraq as a Marine Corps captain. He then joined the Foreign Service and became the widely praised senior American civilian in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, that’s a Taliban stronghold. He resigned in protest when he came to believe the war was making things worse and American soldiers should not be dying in what was a long-running civil war. Matthew Hoh is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.

Welcome to both of you.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: Let me read you something one of your colleagues, Ryan Cooper, wrote this week in TheWeek.com. “Who’s ready to squander billions of dollars on yet another pointless, almost-certain-to-backfire war in Iraq? The mainstream media for one,” he says, “… which for weeks has been shamelessly fearmongering the supposed threat … by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria … Many Republicans, meanwhile, insist that ISIS represents an ‘imminent threat’ to the United States, which, strangely enough, is just how George W. Bush justified his war of aggression against Iraq in 2003 … Let’s get one thing straight: … ISIS poses ‘no specific, credible threat’ to the U.S … Indeed, ISIS’s slickly produced beheading videos are quite obviously designed to bait the media into stoking a panic — and it has succeeded spectacularly.”

JONATHAN LANDAY: See, I disagree with that interpretation because I think the point of those videos was to try and undermine that turn in American public opinion. Don’t come back here. Don’t get–

BILL MOYERS: Really?

JONATHAN LANDAY: –involved. This is what’s going to happen to your soldiers. Look what happened to your soldiers before. You have to look at some of their previous videos where they show American tanks being blown up, American soldiers being killed. Don’t get involved here. And I think that that’s what– I don’t see them being able to bait, at least at this point, Obama into coming back, because he, you know, beyond special forces I don’t think there’s any way he’s going to introduce American forces on the ground at this point. I don’t think he wants to. He may have to.

BILL MOYERS: At this point.

JONATHAN LANDAY: At this point. He may have to. We’ll have to wait and see. But I’m not–

BILL MOYERS: But is– go ahead.

JONATHAN LANDAY: I’m not sure that, again, I’m not sure that that was the point of the videos, to suck Americans in, and in fact, in one of the videos after the Steven Sotloff beheading, the executioner turns to the camera and says, back off. Leave us alone.

BILL MOYERS: So what do you think the Islamic State wants?

MATTHEW HOH: They subscribe to a form of Islam where they believe there’s only one authority within Islam. And they want to form a caliphate and they want to have that one authority that all Muslims follow. They attract, I think a wide group of followers. Some are people who’ve just been dispossessed, some are people who, many of whom I think have been caught up in this cycle of revenge, of killings, of retribution that have been wracking the Middle East for decades now and specifically in Iraq for 11 years now.

You have some who are, I think, adherents to this religious philosophy. And then you have some quite like the British gentleman who murdered Sotloff and Foley, who are psychopaths. But you also have to remember that throughout history there’s always been people who want to go fight, who like the romance of war, who are looking to fulfill something deeper, some purpose.

I will say with the beheading videos, I do believe they were bait. I think this is– they want to validate their narrative that the Islamic State is the protector of Islam, that it is protecting the people, the faith, the culture of their lands from the quote, unquote, “crusaders,” for lack of a better term.

JONATHAN LANDAY: I think there’s a deeper problem here, and it’s one that I haven’t– that the president has touched on. He touched on it in his speech to the UN General Assembly. And I think it’s one that could really prove to be the undoing of this campaign that he’s unleashing. And that is the immediate threat is the Islamic State, but it’s a phenomenon. It’s a consequence of decades, centuries of despotic rule in that part of the world by dictators, by kings who have provided no semblance of responsible governance, no accountability.

If you look at what’s going on in the Middle East today, you have enormous poverty. You have this huge youth bulge, the enormous number of young men between the ages of 17 and 30 who are underpaid or have no jobs, you know, lack skills. You have this massive corruption that favors a very thin elite in all of these countries. And now the United States, you know, I remember when the newly elected Obama went to Cairo for that historic speech.

BILL MOYERS: 2009, right.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Exactly, where he delivers this speech and he’s says, you know, we’re not– no more business as usual by the United States. We’re not going to align ourselves with these regional despots. We want to see reform, we want to see democratic reform. And what has he done now is he’s re-aligned himself with these regional powers, with these regional despots, including the guy who this administration condemned for the coup that he staged in Egypt, overthrowing an elected government, albeit, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood and I’m talking about Egyptian President Sisi. I mean, he is now counted as part of this coalition. So if you are one of these young men who are looking at all of this and seeing and listening to the propaganda about Islam being under threat from the west, this Islamic State thing has an appeal. And if somehow Obama succeeds in degrading and eventually destroying the Islamic State, something will come along to replace it because those problems that create this phenomenon are not going to go away.

BILL MOYERS: But meanwhile the Islamic State is a threat to Saudi Arabia, a threat to Jordan, a threat to Qatar, a threat to Bahrain, those autocratic regimes you were talking about, a threat ultimately possibly to Egypt. So why isn’t it an option for the president to have said or to say this is your doorstep, if you don’t put billions of dollars you’re earning from oil and all of those young men who are available into the fighting of the Islamic State, we’re not going to be there. This is your fight.

MATTHEW HOH: Because our priorities for decades have been on military first solutions, not on political solutions. We have, as Jonathan said, we’ve embraced dictatorships. Backing ourselves out of those relationships is very hard in a Washington, DC where the climate of politics overwhelms everything else.

So you see President Obama, and I’m reminded of an article you wrote, Bill, five years ago on Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War and how Johnson at that point felt that there was no good was going to come out of that escalation, that there was no purpose in it. But how could he face down these senators if he didn’t stand up to– and I feel that President Obama has the same challenge. How does he not come across as being weak-willed or not tough on terror? The other thing, too, is that again we, for decades now this has been our policy. So how do you extricate yourself from that policy? We spend a trillion dollars a year on national security in this country.

And when you add up to the Department of Defense, Department of State, CIA, Veterans Affairs, interest on debt, the number that strikes me the most about how much we’re committed financially to these wars and to our current policies is we have spent $250 billion already just on interest payments on the debt we’ve incurred for the Iraq and Afghan wars. So we’re in this system that how do you start to break down, how do you start to dismantle, because the result has been these Frankensteins like the Islamic State.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s the dilemma. The whole world has seen what ISIS is doing now. When you see evil playing out in front of your eyes: rape, beheadings, whole villages wiped out, don’t you as a human being, as a free nation have to do something?

MATTHEW HOH: You have to remember that this is not a singular unique event occurred this summer, that all sides have been guilty of atrocities in this conflict. Half a million Iraqis have been killed in the war since 2003. To put that in perspective, in World War II, the United States lost 400,000 people, killed.

So if you look at the conflict now in Iraq and understand it as this continuing cycle of violence, this continuing cycle of retribution, this continue cycle of sectarian hatred that groups like the Islamic State ,which I characterize as a parasite of war, benefit from, how do you stop that cycle? Because as horrific as the killings have been this past summer, remember 10,000 civilians were killed in Iraq last year. How do you stop it from 20,000 next year?

JONATHAN LANDAY: When we look at the situation there and the utter horror with which, you know, we’re focused on two videos of two Americans being killed. But there were other videos. There were videos where they killed 600 people. 600 young Iraqi, young Iraqi men. They’ve slaughtered men from a tribe in Syria that tried to resist them. Hundreds of them. And you say to yourself, as a human being, can we allow this to go on? And I think, you know, we’re talking about the complexity of this. But it’s really hard to put yourself in the shoes of the president of the United States who commands the only military in the world that’s capable, perhaps, of stopping this.

Here you have this horrendous civil war in Syria, and I’ve been there twice now this year. And I have, you know, and I’ve covered a lot of war. I have never seen such urban destruction anywhere. Anywhere. I don’t know how they’re going to rebuild that country.

BILL MOYERS: Two to three million refugees, Syrian refugees and six and a half–

JONATHAN LANDAY: That’s just outside of the country.

BILL MOYERS: –million inwardly–

MATTHEW HOH: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: –displaced people–

JONATHAN LANDAY: It’s nine million people displaced. But beyond that, and you see, like, street after street, town after town, just completely devastated. Infrastructure, bridges, roads, hospitals, schools, how are they rebuild that? How are you going to repatriate the two to three million people who are living outside of Syria?

I think something like 20 percent of the Lebanese population is Syrian now. How are you going to put that all back together again? If you allow that to continue, then you’re looking at something that perhaps a disaster on an even greater scale.

So here you are as the president of the United States, preaching human rights, trying to repair as best you can this unbelievable damage that was done to the United States’ reputation and its ability to wield soft power, diplomatic power, by the invasion of Iraq, by Guantanamo, by Abu Ghraib, by the CIA’s torture program. And you say to yourself, I may– I need to do something because you got the pressure on you as the only commander of a military in the world that can do something about it.

BILL MOYERS: But is it conceivable that the president, looking at the situation there, thinks that air power, that you can bomb the Islamic State into submission and oblivion?

MATTHEW HOH: I don’t think he believes that. And I think he’s said as much when he says that there’s no military solution, only a political solution to these conflicts. However, I unfortunately, I feel that’s just lip-service. And unfortunately, I feel that we are going to join in the violence in Syria without any end state. Without any goal. Without any ability to finalize some type of agreement that is going to bring about an end to the killing.

One of my favorite lines I’ve heard about our Syria plan is that it’s not a strategy, it’s a spending plan. That we are going to– we have authorized $500 million to train 5,000 Syrian rebels, moderate rebels. And you’ve been in a lot of combat zones, and have you ever seen anything moderate in combat? You know, I mean, like–

JONATHAN LANDAY: No, there’s no–

MATTHEW HOH: I mean, like, because I don’t know where this term comes from. But this moderate– and now we’re going to train them at a cost of $100,000 for one guy, it’s going to cost to train. $100,000 per person. And we’re going to send them to Saudi Arabia, the people who have been training and fostering and helping a lot of these groups, like al-Nusra, which is the Al Qaeda organization, or the Islamic State that are now out of control, in response to a beheading video. Which to me makes no sense because Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people in August.

BILL MOYERS: This past August?

MATTHEW HOH: Yes.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Yup.

BILL MOYERS: For–

MATTHEW HOH: One was for witchcraft or sorcery, several for drug possession. In Saudi Arabia, you can be beheaded for a whole list of offenses, including adultery and homosexuality. And–

BILL MOYERS: But these are our good allies in this–

MATTHEW HOH: These are–

BILL MOYERS: –new coalition.

MATTHEW HOH: And this is where I think a lot of us say, what are we doing here? This makes no sense. All we are going to achieve is perpetuation of this conflict. Now at least I think the Pentagon and the White House has been honest about that, this is going to take years. But what’s going to be achieved? How are we going to achieve it? Are we just going to bomb? I think it’s quite striking that the president said the model for these operations will be Somalia and Yemen. And then almost as soon as he said that, Yemen descended into utter chaos. Hundreds are dead on the streets of the capital of Yemen. The prime minister forced to abdicate.

And that’s the model. So is this really our model for the Middle East that we are going to bomb countries, continuously, take part in civil wars, sometimes supporting one side, maybe supporting the other, with no means or no real desire or effort to achieve a peace?

BILL MOYERS: What are the options in Syria? I mean, I just wrote down what seems to me to be the conundrum. The jihadists want to control Syria, which is 70 percent Sunni, so they should have a natural constituency there, since they are Sunni.

To stop ISIS, mustn’t there be a truce between President Assad and the rebels who are trying to bring him down and given the mutual hatred between Assad and the rebels, between the Sunnis and the Shiites, how can that political solution be found?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely and I think that’s what kept Obama out of there for so long. You know, how do you deal with this incredible tangle of not just sectarian hatreds, but there’s ideological differences between these groups, there’s personal differences, that’s why eventually I think the administration has all, despite what it says, all but given up on this moderate political leadership that it helped– it crafted and has been living in– on our tab in Turkey, has basically given up on this central command of the Free Syrian Army and has bypassed–

BILL MOYERS: I literally saw a reference in some major newspaper story the other day, said the moderately extremist militia–

JONATHAN LANDAY: Yeah, that sounds right.

BILL MOYERS: I’m serious.

JONATHAN LANDAY: And no, and again, I really think that that’s what’s kept him from intervening in Syria. And how he’s going to be able to create these buffers between, okay, so we’re going to bomb the Islamic State, but we’re not going to help Assad by doing that. And we’re only going to help these moderates.

And you know, I understand the conundrum. But then if you’re looking at that part of the world, you’re looking at the potential collapse of Iraq into this absolute chaos where this group is going to be able to expand, recruit, let’s not forget its goal is not just stopping at Iraq and Syria.

They want Lebanon. They want al-Sham which is this region of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. But they have also said, they have also said before the Americans got involved, that eventually, they plan to go after Western targets too, Americans and Europeans. Let’s not forget–

BILL MOYERS: You don’t doubt that, do you?

JONATHAN LANDAY: No, not at all. In fact, we’ve seen evidence of this already. There– I forget what the– I think the latest estimate is 15,000 foreign fighters now are in Syria and Iraq, mostly fighting for the Islamic state, over a hundred Americans, over a thousand Europeans. I forget exactly what the number, the Brits are talking about, something like 400. They all have passports.

There is evidence indeed that this group is, if not planning, at least encouraging its foreign supporters to stage attacks. Now are these existential threats to the countries in which they’re taking place? No, I think that has been so overblown.

The idea that these Islamic terrorists are an existential threat, particularly to the United States. No. They’re more of a threat to the politicians who are in power who fail to stop these attacks. And yet, nevertheless the duty of these leaders are to protect their citizens. And I think that also to a certain extent drove Obama.

But you know, it’s hard to put yourself in his shoes. He ran for election to be the leader of the United States. As a leader, you have to make some incredibly difficult decisions. Whether he’s made the right ones in this case, we’ll have to wait and see.

BILL MOYERS: Has he?

MATTHEW HOH: No, I think this is a very tragic mistake the president is making, intervening in these conflicts. I think it’s giving the Islamic State exactly what they want. I go back to some of the guiding strategy that Osama bin Laden had. And bin Laden said, all we have to do is send two Mujahideen to the farthest point East, raise the flag of Jihad and Al Qaeda, and the American generals will come racing and exhaust themselves economically, militarily, politically. And I think that strategy has been successful. We’re– that cost for these wars are already totaled at $6 trillion at our lifetime.

We have suffered casualties much greater than I think the American people understand. There is the 7,000 dead, the 50,000 wounded, but of the two and a half million veterans who served, including myself, a third of us suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other type of mental health injury. We also have 250,000 veterans and service members who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.

So I don’t think people understand the level of violence that we were talking about in these conflicts. And I think by jumping back– let alone, again, the half million Iraqis killed, the tens and ten thousands of Afghan killed, the spillover effects with the war in Syria. So I think jumping back into these conflicts is a very tragic mistake. A very shortsighted mistake. And I think it plays right into the hands of groups like Islamic State that need sectarian tension. That’s why I think jumping in on one side of the conflict is– it makes the– exacerbates the problem.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I’m not sure this conversation was a good idea, because listening to you, both of you, I think, aren’t we crazy to think we can untangle a mess like this and bring peace on Earth, good will to all men?

MATTHEW HOH: I think this is the lesson we learn from it. So stop our policy of trying to play one group against the other. I mean, this has gone back for decades. This is policy under Kissinger, under Brzezinski, of playing one ethnic group against another, playing one religion against another.

And for me, it’s stop trying to pick sides in these conflicts. Stop rewarding one side with a lot of American cash at the expense– I look at it this way. If you went into Kentucky and West Virginia, or wherever the Hatfield and McCoys were and you back the Hatfields, what would the McCoys do? They’d fight harder and they would try and find some other– I mean, so stop– and you don’t even know why the Hatfields are fighting the McCoys. And so, I mean, it’s a very simple way to say it, but stop getting in the middle of all these conflicts.

JONATHAN LANDAY: I think that, you know, to a certain extent, he’s right. Matt’s right. But I agree, the odds that we’re going to be able to put, you know, to bring peace to the Middle East, no. But I don’t even know if that’s really, underneath everything, the goal. I think right now perhaps the goal is, let’s just try and contain it and stop it from spreading. If we can do that, perhaps we can call that a success.

BILL MOYERS: We’re out of time for the broadcast, but we will continue this conversation online. Matthew Hoh, Jonathan Landay, thank you very much for being with me.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Thanks for having me.

MATTHEW HOH: Thanks, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, more on the Islamic State and the international response. And our documentary, “Buying the War.”

My Response to the President on Iraq and Syria

Here on Huffington Post.

Perpetual War, and Shame, Is Our Policy

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. — President Barack Obama, Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009

The United States’ official policy in the Middle East is now perpetual war. What has been known for some time, including by those of us who have served overseas, by the millions who have suffered through our bombs and our bullets, and, of course, by the hundreds of thousands whose lives have been ripped from their families and from any promised futures, President Obama solidified last night.

The United States, by agreeing to airstrikes without end in support of a corrupt and sectarian government in Baghdad; by championing a Shia and Kurdish invasion of Sunni lands; and by promising arms, munitions and money to rebel groups in the middle of the Syrian Civil War, the same groups that sold Steven Sotloff to his beheading, has adopted a policy that will exacerbate the civil wars in both Iraq and Syria and deepen the nightmare existence of their people. President Obama’s speech will be remembered as a mark of moral shame on the United States, so very opposite and so very contradictory to the courage shown by the president five years ago in Cairo, Egypt.

Today, on the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is clear to me that the cowardice evinced by the president is directly proportional to the never-ending 9/11 fear mongering that continues to paralyze and retard this country. In reply to the deliberate provocation by the Islamic State through the ghastly executions of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the United States has fulfilled the Islamic State’s wishes by committing to add more violence to the uncontrollable cycle of violence that has already authored the deaths of 700,000 Iraqis and Syrians.

Pressured by the panicked and hysterical cries of members of Congress, President Obama offered no solutions to the underlying political causes of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, instead he obligated the American public to a renewed partaking and sharing in the bloodshed and slaughter along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

Towards Iraq, the president offered familiar axioms about the necessity of a political resolution, but he gave no assurances that Sunni grievances would be addressed nor did he explain how the United States would force the government in Baghdad to make much needed concessions in order to achieve political order. Rather, the reality of what America has pledged to do in Iraq is to assist in Shia subjugation of the Sunnis by U.S. bombing of Sunni villages, towns and cities. The American military will also ensure the Kurds keep the oil fields they seized this summer in Northern Iraq, effectively strangling the Sunnis economically. In turn, the Sunnis, in existential desperation, will give full support to the Islamic State. How this does not bring Iraq back to the violence of 2006, or worse, I do not know.

With regards to Syria, the president did not even attempt to make comments towards a political process to end the fighting and the killing. The United States will simply add more to Syria’s death and destruction. Yes, that is all; we will simply add more to it.

Whatever remaining partitions separating the wars in Iraq and Syria will soon disappear. When that occurs, I am unsure of how a political solution appears that will not require a re-drawing of boundaries and the creation of new states. Sadly, with the president’s plan, I do not believe such a political solution will be available until murderous exhaustion has overcome the belligerent sects and ghostly no-man’s lands delineate the end of one people and the beginning of another. Through all that, as long as the United States is shackled with the debilitating psychosis of 9/11 and the resultant moral weakness of our elected officials, the Middle East will be full of targets for our bombs, Iraqi and Syrian mothers and fathers will raise children destined to kill and be killed, jihadist narratives of Crusaders will be validated, and our perpetual war will be as boundless as our shame.

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Tattoo as Therapy and Testimony

It’s still a little red and raw in this photo, but here is my new tattoo:

IMG_5131

When I worked reconstruction and, because of the very large amounts of cash I possessed, conducted political efforts in Iraq in 2004, my chief engineer, an Iraqi about my age, very bright and my friend, devised a seal for our operations. The Iraqi date palm with two crossed shovels or a crossed shovel and a hammer, I can’t clearly remember. Symbolic of rebuilding and hope in a new Iraq, the reality of  what came was destruction and horror. So an ax is more appropriate and a blood drop or a tear drop, I’m not sure which, is necessary.

I have no idea if my friend is still alive and certainly I know too many who are no longer living or whose lives in Iraq have been subjugated and imprisoned by terror and suffering. Ten years later and it seems to be all that matters to me.

Others have done it and say it helps, so by writing what is inside of me on my body, telling essentially who I am and what haunts me, I hope to find some relief and keep testimony with the broken and shattered lives of people who were my friends and, more importantly, believed in what we had promised them and have had to live with what we actually delivered to them.

Thanks to Ray Alexander at Blue Flame Tattoo in Raleigh for the design, the tattoo work and the therapy.

Peace