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Panel discussion with Gareth Porter and Lawrence Korb

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to the continuing coverage of The Real News and the Democratic National Convention from Denver, Colorado. Joining me just minutes after we’ve heard from Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden is Gareth Porter, a historian and investigative journalist, and Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Both our guests join me from Washington. Gareth, what’s your reaction to Joe Biden’s speech? It was supposed to be a foreign policy speech. There was at least—not much foreign policy in it, but there was a little. What did you make of it?

GARETH PORTER, US FOREIGN AND MILITARY POLICY ANALYST: Well, you’re right: there wasn’t very much. And I found myself feeling the heavy hand of the structure of American politics on this speech, and not just on the speech but really on the entire Democratic ticket’s approach to foreign policy in this electoral campaign. What he did, essentially, was to position the Obama-Biden ticket to the right, in a very important sense, of John McCain. And, of course, there was a series of sort of “gotcha” moments, where he said that John McCain’s judgment was terribly flawed, was wrong on a series of national security, foreign policy issues, and Barack Obama’s judgment was right on. But when it came to making the ultimate foreign policy point, it seemed very clear to me that there was a deliberate decision made to, as I say, position Obama and Biden to the right of McCain.

JAY: What’s an example of that?

PORTER: Well, specifically, I mean the penultimate point—or the ultimate point was the point that John McCain fails to understand that the center of the war on terror, the central front of the war on terror, is Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the United States must have more troops in Afghanistan. So, in effect, he’s portraying John McCain as weak on the war on terror compared to the Obama-Biden ticket. And I must say it’s more than a little reminiscent of the positioning that John F. Kennedy made in 1960, just to the right of Richard Nixon. Of course there are other examples as well, but that’s the one that sticks in my mind.

JAY: Larry, what did you make of Biden? And what do you make of what Gareth is saying?

LAWRENCE KORB, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Well, I think Senator Biden was trying to show that it’s not just how long you’ve been doing something but whether you have the right judgment. And then the other thing is that the Democrats are not going to shy away from defending the country. I don’t agree with Gareth in the sense that I think the shift to Afghanistan was basically something Obama has said for quite awhile, because he said that was the central front, we took our eye off of the ball by going to Iraq, and therefore he has urged to cut down in Iraq so you can give more attention to Afghanistan. I don’t think sending two to three, you know, brigades, which is what Obama has said, is, you know, going to change the number dramatically. I mean, that would be maybe about a 10 percent increase. And interesting enough, McCain has also embraced that; the only thing is he’s going to wait till he can cut down in Iraq.

JAY: But Gareth, a couple of brigades probably won’t make that much of a difference, which means that if there is going to be a difference on the ground there, it’s going to take a lot more troops than that.

KORB: —so that they won’t allow a haven for a Taliban and al-Qaeda in what they call the federally administered tribal areas.

JAY: Gareth, how do you answer that?

PORTER: Well, there’s no doubt that, you know, a couple of brigades is really quite a small addition in comparison with what most military people really feel they would need to have in order to have a much greater impact on the strategy. And by that, I think, you know, Larry’s absolutely right that they need more troops in order to reduce air power. But from what I’ve seen, the figures that have been given are, you know, that there would be a multiple of two brigades that would be required in order to ease off on the air power. And my view of, you know, what we have in Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan, on that front is really a crisis in strategy. And I’m really disappointed, although I must say that I’m not surprised, that the Democratic ticket is really embracing simply the position that we need more troops, rather than raising more fundamental questions about the strategy itself. And Larry has correctly pointed to the overuse of air power. In fact, the dangerous use of air power, which was just in the headlines in the past two days, two or three days, where the result of that has been massive civilian casualties in a very major incident. The United Nations, investigating it, has contradicted the position of the US military. And this is just once again an indicator of how the US role in Afghanistan is in danger of really repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. I mean, what we’re seeing—

JAY: Larry—.

KORB: —is, you know, large-scale civilian casualties. Karzai, president of Afghanistan, has called attention to this in the past. It really has not been addressed adequately. We’re really in a strategic crisis there, and I would really like to see the Democratic ticket take that on. I’m afraid that is not the way American politics operates.

JAY: Larry—.

PORTER: —an indicator of how the US role in Afghanistan is in danger of really repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. I mean, what we’re seeing—

JAY: Larry—.

KORB: —is large-scale civilian casualties. Karzai, president of Afghanistan, has called attention to this in the past. It really has not been addressed adequately. We’re really in a strategic crisis there, and I would really like to see the Democratic ticket take that on. I’m afraid that is not the way American politics operates.

JAY: Larry, one of the things that Obama does to differentiate himself from McCain and Bush is that he says he’s far more committed to multilateralism and working with countries and regions. But in terms of Afghanistan, I have not heard Obama or Biden articulate any kind of a strategy that would involve the countries of the region. And there’s also been, some people say, provocative language about an increased use of targeting al-Qaeda and other kinds of what they call “high targets” in Pakistan itself, which some people say inflames opinion in Pakistan. So what do you think of Gareth’s statement that there needs to be a new strategy and we’re not hearing it?

KORB: Well, again, I think there needs to be one, but basically what Obama has said all along: you’re so focused on Iraq that you can’t even devote the time to Pakistan. And one of the things he quoted McCain in saying, you know, Afghanistan is already won. And so, you know, you’re going to have to emphasize it more. And I think the whole idea of working with other nations, I mean, it’s implicit that we’re not there alone. There are 37 other countries, including, you know, troops from Canada, that you would have to work together so that the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts, which is not the case now, because basically you’ve got three separate commands over there and everybody kind of doing their own thing.

JAY: One thing, Gareth, that Biden did state quite clearly which, I think, does distance Obama and Biden from McCain is he reinforced his position about negotiations with Iran. And he said it without any kind of this, you know, “Only in my time and my place.” He defended the very basic principle of negotiating itself. Don’t you think that’s meaningful?

PORTER: Well, absolutely. There’s no doubt that on the issue of Iran, there’s a clear distinction between Obama and Biden on one side and McCain on the other in terms of their fundamental approach. And that certainly is a point to be welcomed and celebrated as far as the Democratic ticket’s position is concerned. I mean, they’re very clear that they favor negotiations; they feel that war against Iran would be a disaster, as Biden said publicly. And I think we have to recognize and applaud that position. I’m afraid that there’s nothing in the public record so far that would indicate that Joe Biden has a clear conception of how to negotiate a settlement with Iran, but I do believe that once the United States and Iran were to sit down together with good will on both sides, that that problem would not be an overwhelming one, would not be an overwhelming obstacle to an agreement.

JAY: Larry, Biden just went to Georgia and came back talking not so differently than what we’ve heard from McCain, although I think McCain is perhaps—you know, it’s hard to get more aggressive than McCain’s been on Georgia, but Biden came back sounding somewhat similar. What do you think of the Biden and Obama position on Georgia?

KORB: Well, I think Biden said it, and he said, you know, “We’re going to stand up for Georgia,” but he didn’t say that we’re going to have a war with the Russians on there. And you go back to the earlier point about, you know, working with other nations and not ignoring the problems. I mean, he mentioned that McCain, basically, and Bush have not recognized that Russia and China and India are going to be world powers that you’re going to have to deal with.

JAY: But he used a very strong phrase; he talked about not just rebuilding Georgia, but he talked about holding Russia accountable, which is quite strong language.

KORB: Well, it is, but, I mean, “accountable” [means], you know, they have to live up to agreements that they make. I mean, I think that’s the position of the United States and NATO allies is that they agree to a ceasefire, they agree to, you know, basically, you know, restore the status quo before the war, and they haven’t done that.

JAY: Right. Gareth?

PORTER: Well, on Georgia, I think the problem that I see in the Biden message here is that it does not really address what is a fundamental problem in US relations with Russia, which is the intention of the United States, which the Democratic ticket now strongly supports, to extend NATO membership eventually, at least—no timetable at this point—to Georgia, right on the Russian border, in a situation which clearly is unstable. And, you know, I understand that there’s sufficient ambiguity there for one to argue that, well, you know, we’re not committed to doing this until the problem is solved, but the background of this, as we all know, is one of the Bush administration pushing for NATO membership for Georgia in a situation which was clearly provocative because it encouraged the government of President Saakashvili to use force to try to reclaim those territories, or at least to isolate Russia in the hopes that that would somehow help his case. And I’m afraid that the problem of the provocative nature of NATO membership under those circumstances is being swept under the rug, and I think a policy that is really nuanced in terms of, you know, relations with Russia would take that more seriously.

JAY: Larry, are you concerned at all that there’s been not any hint of critique of the Bush administration coming from Obama or Biden on Georgia? For example, the missile agreement with Poland, people from [as] far afield as George Friedman from Stratfor to Pat Buchanan have been very critical of, certainly, McCain’s camp, of Randy Scheunemann having lobbied for Georgia and being a foreign policy advisor for McCain. That, one would think, would be a natural thing to criticize, but we haven’t heard much critique of any of this out of the Obama or Biden camp.

PORTER: Well, I think if you take a look at the missiles in Europe, I mean, what Obama has said and Biden has said is that there was no rush to do it. Now, once the Russians go into Georgia, then you have a different situation, because then you don’t want to look like you’re backing down in the face of, you know, Russian pressure. And, of course, the Poles, they were not quite sure they wanted it; then right after, of course, the Russians go in, and of course they want to move in that direction. My understanding is, though, that basically Biden and Obama had said, “What’s the rush? What was the rush to do it when you did it at that particular time?”

JAY: So, Larry, if you were to say in just one final word what will be new about an Obama-Biden foreign policy, what would it be?

KORB: Well, basically, the Bush policy is unilateral if we can, multilateral only if we must. I think the Biden-Obama policy would be multilateral if we can, unilateral only if we must.

JAY: Same question to you, Gareth.

PORTER: Well, I think what we could hope for is certainly some negotiations with Iran, and that would be, certainly, a breath of fresh air. But, again, I’m afraid that what we’re looking at here is a United States which is headed towards more disaster in the Afghanistan-Pakistan front. The question of whether the policy trajectory that the United States is on and which the Obama-Biden ticket now appears to be strongly supportive of, of increasing the US military commitment in Afghanistan and possibly even, you know, supporting some sort of operation in Pakistan, is courting disaster in a situation where the population of the large parts of those countries are more and more anti-American. And use of military force has clearly caused that to intensify; that problem is intensifying because of that. [inaudible]

JAY: Right. That’s a long word.

PORTER: It really needs to be asked whether these are winnable and whether they are wars that—both the war in being and the one that is being contemplated, certainly, by the CIA, are wars that would be further disastrous for the United States.

JAY: Larry, do you want to answer, just quickly?

KORB: Well, basically, I think that the difference would be, basically, to focus on the real threats to your security. We can talk a long time about the right strategy in Afghanistan, but the fact of the matter is we took our attention off it before the job was done, and we’ve got to get back to that, and we can’t do it by ourselves. I think that’s the main message.

JAY: Great. Thank you very much for joining us, both of you. And thank you at home for joining us. And please stay tuned to The Real News Network for continuing coverage not just of the Democratic National Convention but of the Republican convention, and of course of all the major foreign policy issues. Thanks for joining us.


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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.

Lawrence J. Korb is the Director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Senior Adviser to the Center for Defense Information. Korb served an advisor to the Reagan-Bush election committee in 1980 and was then appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics) from 1981 to 1985. In that position, he administered about seventy percent of the Defense budget. For his service he was awarded the Department of Defense’s medal for Distinguished Public Service.