We are living in a political world that seems turned on its head, with Democrats voting to stay in Syria and Republicans wanting to get out–but neither side is getting it right.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.
It does appear from a former special ops chief, Admiral William McRaven’s New York Times op-ed that called Trump, “unfit to lead,” to a former Ambassador William Taylor’s testimony verify the quid pro quo in Ukraine, to a former defense secretary General Jim Mattis’s take down of Trump in front of television audiences that the military and diplomatic establishment see Trump as a real danger to our country.
So many might argue that Trump does threaten the established order, but why are they so concerned now? The contradictions abound from Democrats voting against Trump to remain in Syria with Republicans appearing to be anti-war all of a sudden, and/or blindly following Trump, and then watching the Democrats vote to end our support in the Saudi War against Yemen and the Houthis. What is this complex dynamic we’re facing right now? What are we seeing at work in our country?
Let’s attempt to parse through it all with our guest. Major Danny Sjursen is a Truthdig regular contributor, a retired US Army officer and former a history instructor at West Point and tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir called… I mean, which is a critical analysis of the Iraq War called, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians and the Myth of the Surge. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas. You can follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet, which he is, and check out his podcast, Fortress On The Hill. He joins us now.
He also wrote this piece that we’re going to talk about today. It’s called The Stunning Hypocrisy of Congress’s Syria Vote that appeared today in Truthout, originally published in antiwar.com. Danny, welcome, good to have you with us.
Danny Sjursen: Oh, thanks so much for having me on, plenty to talk about.
Marc Steiner: One of the things that has really struck me here is, was McRaven’s piece in The New York Times. This is where this started for me and is when I wrote to you at first about joining us here.
At the bottom of his article, he writes, “If our promises are meaningless, how would our allies ever trust us? If we can’t have faith in our nation’s principles, why would the men and women of this nation join the military? And if they don’t join, who will protect us? If we are not the champions of the good and of the right, then who will follow us? And if no one follows us, where will the world end up? And if this president doesn’t understand their importance, this president does not demonstrate the leadership that America needs both domestically and abroad, then it’s time for a new person in the Oval Office, Republican, Democrat or Independent.” So he says, “The fate of our republic depends on it.”
And so when you compare that with this piece that we want to play for you right now that shows General Mattis blasting Trump. Let’s watch this and then comment on what this all might mean.
General Mattis: I do stand before you, as was noted here, really having achieved greatness. I mean, I’m not just an overrated general, I am the greatest, the world’s most overrated. So I would just tell you too that I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep and overrated actress, so I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.
And some of you were kind during the reception and asked me, you know, if this bothered me to have been rated this way based on what Donald Trump said? I said, “Of course not. I’d earned my spurs on the battlefield, Martin, as you pointed out, and Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”
Marc Steiner: So while that is humorous in some levels, let’s talk a bit about what we’re seeing here, both with the news this morning about Ambassador Taylor and people defending him as a man of his word, about the quid pro quo in Ukraine. And it does appear that the military and diplomatic establishment and the intelligence establishment are kind of turning on Trump and really worried about what’s happening to what they consider the establish order, so let’s start there.
Danny Sjursen: Well, let me start out by saying that everything that follows must keep in mind that I am not a fan of President Trump. I voted against him proudly. In many ways, I think he’s unfit even to lead a real estate organization rather than the presidency.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Danny Sjursen: However, this is really profound and disturbing what’s going on with these generals. There is a degree of hypocrisy in it, which I’ll get into. Why are they speaking out now? Why only with Trump? Why not with some of Trump’s predecessors like George W. Bush or even Obama, and why not some of Trump’s earlier actions?
It would be an exaggeration to call this a coup, but it does have a slow boiling coup feel. It’s this sense of national security state officials, unelected national security state officials, very prominent ones at bat, undermining the presidency of Donald Trump. And whether you like Trump or not, that can be disturbing. Let’s just look at McRaven’s comments that you had posted up.
Marc Steiner: Yeah.
Danny Sjursen: There is two things that he assumes that I would take issue with. One, that the United States has always or is usually a force for good in the world. Ask an Iraqi if that’s true. In many cases, we’ve been a force for shattering and destabilization in the Middle East and in West Africa through our military interventions. The second one assumes that this is somehow new, abandoning allies. Well, we’ve abandoned the Kurds before.
And let us be clear, the mission in Syria was never about protecting the Kurds. That just became the cudgel, the excuse with which to justify forever war in Syria. Now, I actually happen to have a lot of sympathy for the Kurds and think that we should debate as a nation in Congress whether we should stay and fight for the Kurds. But if that’s the case, then I want to see Congress declare war or at least give us an authorization for the use military force. Okay, so those are the two things.
Now here is what scares me about McRaven’s comments, okay, this is the guy who takes credit for having taken down Osama bin Laden. This is a guy with a lot of credibility in the mainstream media. And he said, “Not only is the President United States unfit for duty, but that he should be out of office sooner than later.” Think about that. The implication is he’s coming out for impeachment. Sooner than later is sooner than 2020. I think that’s the implication here. He might dispute that, but he knew what he was doing.
Now, let me pivot to Mattis. I have spent a lot of time and a lots, many thousands of words criticizing Saint Mattis, as I believe the media would like to dub him, okay. That burn of his at the Al Smith dinner-
Marc Steiner: Yeah.
Danny Sjursen: … it was brilliant. It was funny, and it was accurate and Trump deserved it. But the problem is hidden behind Trump’s ridiculous hyperbole, obviously Mattis isn’t the worst general in the world, right, he’s not the most overrated in the world, okay, General Sisi in Egypt is a dictator, obviously there are worse. Number two, what’s lost behind Mattis’s great humor is the fact that Mattis is an overrated general at some level. And I’ll tell you two levels within which he is overrated.
Marc Steiner: Okay.
Danny Sjursen: These are important.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, yeah.
Danny Sjursen: These are important.
Marc Steiner: Yeah.
Danny Sjursen: Number one, he’s strategically overrated. He hasn’t won a single war. Not once, in fact, did he go to a commander in chief or senior officer and say, Hey, this is not winnable. This is ill-advised. This hasn’t been sanctioned by Congress, and thus it’s unconstitutional. So he’s never done that.
The second thing is morally. We are taught that first and foremost, Jim Mattis is a man of integrity and I’m sure on some level he is. But remember what he chose to resign over. He chose to resign in December because Trump hinted, just hinted at removing some troops from Afghanistan and all the troops from Syria. Notice Jim Mattis did not resign over 85,000 children starving to death in Yemen, tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians being killed with American bombs from Saudi planes that were refueled by American planes, even though that had not been sanctioned by Congress, so he had no problem with that. So he has qualms with the Kurds being possibly massacred, but it was okay with taking actual part in massacring Yemeni civilians.
And then finally there is this issue of, he never seemed to mind that these wars weren’t sanctioned, okay. The Constitution mandates that Congress must sanction war before his boys are sent into battle. He took his oath to the Constitution not to the president, so he should have been the first one yelling when the Constitution was not followed in this case in Yemen.
Marc Steiner: So let me ask, before we jump into the heart of what you wrote for Truthout in your most recent article today, and also hear another clip from Trump from the press conference that he did on the day that we’re taping this, I wasn’t going to go here, but you set up a contradiction here in my own mind as I was listening to you and I want to ask you your thoughts on it. So I can’t disagree with anything that you posited about, about Mattis and the others. I’ve been really wrestling in watching and talking what’s been going on with the diplomatic intelligence and military establishment and why they’re turning at this moment so publicly?
But having said that, it’s also in contradiction to what progressives and others were worried about with Donald Trump, which as this, who is a president, who has got this, for one of a better term at the moment, it’s kind of white nationalist right-wing takeover of the executive branch, changing our court system completely upside down to pushing it way further to the right, and all this is really worrisome for a lot of people, and somehow these two things are dovetailing. They’re interconnecting. Is there interconnectedness here of all this for you, and what does that mean?
General Mattis: Well, there certainly is. I mean, empire ultimately comes home. It always does, whether it’s the British or the American Empire, okay. So in that sense, there is a direct line in the sand between walling off and barb wiring off neighborhoods in Baghdad and Afghanistan and doing the same thing at our Southern border, right. There is a direct line between war crimes that are racially motivated by our soldiers overseas, and the white nationalist attacks that we see on immigrants. Meaning, these things do connect.
But what’s fascinating here is, the progressive are allying with these pretty central right generals, right, these moderately conservative generals and the establishment, and they’re choosing this to be the thing that they fall on their sword about, this to be the issue that they’re going to most critique him on, stopping one war. Now, of course he’s not really stopping it. He’s going to leave some guys, he said, to guard oil fields and he’s sending the rest to Iraq and he’s escalated all these other wars.
Marc Steiner: Right.
General Mattis: But even the hint of getting out of the establishment interventionist status quo is terrifying to these generals, terrifying to these former intelligence officials from the Obama Administration who seem to live on MSNBC now. I just find utter hypocrisy in it because not one of these generals has spoken out in the past to end a war. Not one of these generals has says, you know what, my soldiers shouldn’t be dying for a war Congress didn’t sanction. My soldiers shouldn’t be dying in a war that’s ill-advised and potentially immoral and because it’s not sanctioned, illegal. In fact, that’s a violation of my oath of responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution. I mean, I just think it’s wildly hypocritical what we’re seeing here.
What’s happening is we’re finding something out, which is that the generals, the intelligence community, they want to work for a Mitt Romney or a Hillary Clinton, okay. They don’t care which party, so long as the person in charge is a hawk, so long as the person in charge keeps funneling money to the military industrial complex defense contractors that all these generals have gone to work for, including Mattis, right. They don’t care whether it’s Romney or Clinton. They don’t care about that. What they don’t want is a Trump. And I fear what they also don’t want, and you may find out, is a Sanders.
Marc Steiner: That would be interesting conversation to have. I think that could be very real. I think that is very real in many ways. So let’s go [inaudible 00:11:51] to your article a moment before we watch this last clip from Trump and conclude. Part of the heart of your article is talking about the contradictions between votes in the Congress over Syria and over Yemen and how you view those contradictions. They loosened up a lot of very strange things. I mean, you could make it appear as if Republicans were all of a sudden anti-war, or the people who are reluctant to want to go to war are now voting to stay in, so talk a bit about your analysis here.
Danny Sjursen: Okay. The key point or the key thesis of the article is that the Congress has failed us again and maybe we should never look to them again when it comes to warfare. In a vote of 354 to 60 Congress has attacked Trump’s Syria withdrawal and essentially it’s assumably want to stay longer, maybe perennially because they haven’t given us any other alternatives. That shows us that the last bipartisan issue in America today is warfare, forever warfare. Okay, so here is the thing to keep in mind, this same House of Representatives never sanctioned this war in Syria in the first place.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Danny Sjursen: Never. They never even voted on it. But now suddenly when a president attempts to even modestly, even maybe, even inconsistently end it, now they want to chime in? They’ve never chimed in when we started. I can name seven wars at least that we are engaged in, or conflicts we’re engaged in that they never authorized.
Marc Steiner: You can start with Vietnam.
Danny Sjursen: They have nothing to do. I mean, I meant today. But you’re right. I mean, in fact, this reminds me of the Gulf of Tonkin vote and the fact that it’s overwhelming. So let me just break down the Republicans and Democrats, okay.
There is two ways to look at this, okay. There has only been two votes on either ending or keeping a war going recently, okay. The vote against Yemen, which barely passed, and said that Trump should stop supporting the genocide against the Yemeni people. And then there is this one that says, he shouldn’t leave Syria because we should protect the Kurds. Now, the voting was very different on both sides, okay. Not a single Democrat voted with Trump on Syria. All of them, including the purportedly anti-war squad, AOC and company, all of them voted to stay in Syria even though all of the squad voted to leave Yemen.
So that makes me think, okay, there has to be one of two motives here. Either this is about getting out of wars or, both votes I mean, or it’s about protecting a minority against genocide, right, because both of those could be possible. Now if it’s about ending a genocide in both cases then the Democrats are actually fairly consistent because they wanted out of Yemen because it’s causing a genocide and they want out of Syria because it might cause a genocide, right.
But if it’s about ending war, which they often use that same rhetoric, then it’s the Republicans who are the hypocrites, okay, because if it’s about ending war, then why are the Republicans against ending war in Yemen, but they’re for ending war in Syria because 60 of them voted for that. Now let’s take other 100 Republicans who apparently if it’s about genocide only care about Kurd because a 100 of those Republicans in the House, and I know I’ve done a lot of analysis on this and it took me a long time, but it’s worth stating, a 100 Republicans said that we should continue to bomb Yemenis, but that we should do everything in our power to stop Kurds being bombed.
So I guess there’s Kurds have more value in the world than Yemenis. I mean my point in this article is, I can slice it 30 different ways and show you massive hypocrisy in the House of Representatives, but the main hypocrisy is voting to keep a war going that was never sanctioned in the first place.
Marc Steiner: So as we dive into these contradictions, let’s look at this clip. This is Donald Trump from a press conference today talking about Syria and watch where he takes this. And let’s talk about the massive contradiction we’re facing and how we should respond to things like this and everything you’ve been writing about.
Donald Trump: We have spent eight trillion dollars on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars. But after all that money was spent and all those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded, so many, the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began. The same people pushing for these wars are often the ones demanding America opened its doors to unlimited migration from war torn regions, importing the terrorism and the threat of terrorism right to our own shores.
Marc Steiner: So there are contradictions all around here.
Danny Sjursen: Two parts of Trump’s speech, the first clause, right, his first half of it taken without understanding any of his context is perfect. I agree with everything he said in the first half. Now, of course I say lacking context because what I know is that even though we pulled like 50 troops out of Northern Syria and may pull 1,000 out of Syria, I also know he’s actually sent way more than that to Saudi Arabia. I know he’s talking about holding onto the oil fields. I know that he’s drumming up a war with Iran, so I don’t buy his anti-war posture completely, okay.
But, taken out of context what he said, if a progressive who has been… If Bernie Sanders said it I’d say, great. That’s consistent. I would say that the same things. I have said the same thing. Now that second clause is troubling because he correctly notes that American military intervention, not by itself, but has contributed to the further destabilization in Middle East. Check out an article I wrote on Truthdig, How the US Shattered the Middle East. I agree with him.
Now he’s saying that the reason to get out of the Middle East is because by shattering it, we create all these brown refugees and many of whom are Muslim, right. And we don’t want them coming to our shores and Europe doesn’t want them coming across the Turkish Bosporus Strait. And then he links that to the brown folks in South America who are fleeing other countries in Central America that we destabilized. And so the reason I find contradiction in that is, I agree that we shattered the Middle East, but there is part of me that says if we did shatter it then doesn’t there have to be some sort of humane moral reparation, which I know that’s a dirty word on the right, where we say maybe we should take in some more refugees? After all, Sweden takes and way more than us despite a small population, right, et cetera.
So I think that’s one of the most heartless ways to argue against war. If what he’s saying is shattering a region is bad, not just on the surface, as long… If we shattered a region but they stayed in the Middle East, he seems fine with it. But the problem is that’s more brown people who are coming across our shores. And then of course he links it to his utter nativism and his utter racism and bigotry on the Southern border. So the thing is, we have to be very, very careful about how we take Trump.
My final point on this is, he is not alone. There is historical precedent for this. The Anti-Imperialist Movement from 1898 to 1902 was the strongest in American history. They said, we shouldn’t be in the Philippines, we shouldn’t be in Cuba, we shouldn’t be in Puerto Rico, right. But remember, 50% of those anti-imperialists, the reason they gave was not that it’s wrong to conquer people, not that it’s bad that America is killing innocent civilians, it’s that we don’t want to have to make them States because we don’t want a whole bunch of brown people, some of whom are of different religions, who don’t fit within Anglo America.
That’s something that’s forgotten about, the Anti-Imperialist Movement. For every Mark Twain who was pretty progressive, there was a William Jennings Bryan who said, we don’t want brown people in America and also voted with the Ku Klux Klan at the Democratic National Convention.
Marc Steiner: Well, Danny Sjursen I really, I always appreciate your clarity and when we pick up another conversation, I’d really like to explore how we all think that progressives in this country, people who have a different vision of who our country is that includes all of us, this great heterogeneity of ours, how do we respond to this? But we’ll do that next time and I really want to look forward to that conversation with you, and thanks for what you write and thanks for all you’ve done.
Danny Sjursen: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I’m glad to do it.
Marc Steiner: Good to talk to you. We’ll continue talking to Danny Sjursen in the coming weeks because he has a lot to say and we want to hear what it is. I’m Marc Steiner here for the Real News Network. I want to thank you for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.