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Glen Ford: Obama avoided bellicose language towards Iran and Syria but defended drone killings and remains committed to US role as the dominant global military power

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech Tuesday night in Washington. And while most of the speech was about the economy, he did end with some statements of position on international affairs. Here’s what he had to say about Iran.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.


JAY: Now joining us to talk about President Obama’s foreign policy statements in this speech is Glen Ford. Glen’s the cofounder and current executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He also launched and produced and hosted America’s Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated black news interview program on commercial TV.

Thanks for joining us, Glen.


JAY: So we’ll talk a little bit about some of his other foreign policy positions, but let’s start with Iran. It seems to me it’s interesting what he didn’t say, in the sense that it wasn’t any kind of rallying public opinion for military attack or even threats of such against Iran. What did you make of it?

FORD: It is refreshing not to hear bombast coming from a United States president when referring to Iran, not a lot of heat. What was kind of interesting—funny, if you will—was his insistence that Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, as if Iran has not been asking for a diplomatic solution to whatever is bothering the United States for decades and decades. But I guess that’s just standard posturing as being the reasonable person. And then, after that, of course, he tells Iran that the United States will do whatever is necessary to prevent it from getting an atomic weapon, which Iran insists it’s not trying to get. It sounds like a threat of war, if you read the words, but, again, not as bombastic as usual.

JAY: And there are meetings coming up in Kazakhstan very soon, where there could be some serious negotiations, if in fact—I think, if most people follow this, if the United States is willing to negotiate, ’cause Iran essentially has said, start dropping some sanctions and we can start making agreements with you. And given that even the American intelligence agencies are saying that there’s—Iran has not made any plans for building a bomb, one would think it’s the American position that has to shift.

FORD: Yeah. And then people don’t remember that in fact that has been the position of all of the U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously, that Iran has not embarked upon building the bomb. So for a U.S. president to say we will do whatever we would need to do to prevent you from doing something that your own intelligence agency says you’re not about doing is really on its face quite unreasonable. But at least he wasn’t yelling.

JAY: And also, when Netanyahu won in the last election, one of the first things he started talking about after winning, just a few—a couple of weeks ago, was again Iran as the existential threat, and with all the—with, as you say, bombastic rhetoric. So Obama’s tone is quite radically different than we’re hearing from Netanyahu.

FORD: And this may have something to do with the situation in Syria. The United States finally seems to be getting the message that the people that it thought were its allies, these Salafists, the same ideological entities that the United States backed to the hilt in Libya (and many of the Libyans are now in Syria), are not necessarily going to do what the United States wants them to do in the world or in Syria, and that the U.S. is not in control. And that would give the Americans a bit of a pause when they’re dealing with Iran.

JAY: We’ll play a very quick clip here of what President Obama had to say about Syria. And again, note its brevity.


OBAMA: We’ll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.


JAY: And that was it, one sentence about Syria, which lends some credence to those—some of the analysts that have been on The Real News that the United States actually—as Israel secretly or not so secretly probably prefers Assad in power, and so do the Russians, and it seems like what their plans for Syria are is don’t tip the balance in either direction, which means a horrible situation for the Syrian people, with endless civil war.

FORD: Yeah. And that would be a formula that the United States could tolerate and might even prefer. A long chaos has long been U.S. policy in Africa. Possibly they thought they could keep it to or just under a boil in Syria. But, you know, people on the ground have a habit of not cooperating with these fine-tuned formulas that the imperial power wants to impose. And I think that the United States now understands that it’s not in control, that the people it thought were its minions in Syria are going to take independent actions on their own, which may not be in what the U.S. perceives as its interest.

JAY: From the analysts I’ve been talking to, perhaps also some division with the Saudi agenda, ’cause the Saudis seem to be gung-ho about arming the Salafists and the jihadist forces, where Qatar apparently is backing off some, and some split amongst these allies about what they want out of this situation.

FORD: They’re confused as well. You know, these royal thieves that the United States is now more closely aligned with than ever, more dependent upon, in fact, since the Arab Spring, these are really the desperate, most fearful fellows in the Middle East. The Salafists don’t like them much either. And how they maintain some kind of control is really a big question mark. I think that they’re in much more trouble in the short run than the United States.

JAY: Now, President Obama kind of indirectly referred to the drone program and talked about more transparency. But what did you make of his comments or lack thereof?

FORD: I didn’t make much of it at all. We of course know that there are two rules in the drone program. One is for the U.S. military—there are certain rules they have to follow; and ones the CIA—in which there are no rules at all, and in fact, at least formally speaking, we’re not supposed to know about the CIA’s drone programs. That does not seem to be a policy that’s going to undergo a change with the new director, his ace buddy from the White House, Brennan, in charge. Now, I think that we may be reading too much into the mildness, into the blandness of his words.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, Brennan’s the one that sat there and decided who they would kill with drones. But if we watch Brennan’s hearings, it was really revealing, I thought, just how—not little—zero oversight the Senate Intelligence Committee has over the CIA. If anything, it’s the CIA seems to have oversight over the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the fact that the legal basis for these drone killings gets delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee the night before the hearing—they don’t have time to read it. But it means in the last four years, they haven’t been provided with the legal basis for the killings of many, many people, including Americans, although that’s only American citizens seems to be what anybody wants to talk about.

FORD: Yeah. And as close as Brennan has been to Obama, it appears, maybe, a kind of relationship of dependency. One can’t imagine the CIA being in a less influential position in this administration with Brennan at the head.

JAY: In terms of Africa, almost nothing—one mention of Egypt and a little mention of the al-Qaeda activity in Mali, and that’s about it.

FORD: Yeah. Just a mention of the word Mali and a mention of the word Africa and some bland statements, oh, that he’s going to stand by the people of Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. And I guess stand by is a euphemism for drone.

JAY: That seems to be. And, of course, the real foreign-policy or military and foreign-policy agenda of the Obama administration he doesn’t even mention, unless I missed something here, which is the Asia pivot, the whole point that the U.S. wants to reassert its power in Asia, over the energy supplies of Eurasia, the whole question of encircling China. I mean, that is the real centerpiece of his foreign policy, and unless I was out of the room at the time, I didn’t hear him say a word about it.

FORD: Not a word. It was as if the pivot never happened, as if a state of turmoil between the U.S. ally Japan and China is not existent, yeah, like maybe he’s pivoting and we’re not supposed to be looking where the pivot is going.

JAY: That seems to be what the whole—what his smarter foreign policy seems to be—don’t talk about it. But they have some plans, and certainly the only thing he did reassert many times in the speech, or at least several times, was the military is still going to be the greatest army in the history of the world.

FORD: I think that’s obligatory. It comes with the job.

JAY: But I think he means it, too.

Any final comment on the speech or in general in terms of Obama foreign policy?

FORD: Oh, I mean, he’s told us once again that at the end of next year, the United States is going to be totally in a state of peace in Afghanistan, which is one of the biggest lies ever told. The U.S. military is still negotiating with the Afghans. I don’t know what those kind of negotiations sound like, but they’re still on. And the last I heard, the choice is somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 U.S. troops remaining.

Now, these troops, of course, will not be designated as combat soldiers, although a huge proportion of them will be special forces. I suppose special forces will just be designated as trainers. Well, of course, the U.S. special forces consider taking Afghans along on their kill missions to be a training mission—they learn on the job.

So it’s just a total farce—and the U.S. corporate media are quite aware—to say that the United States is militarily—excuse me—that a state of nonwar is going to exist for United States military personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, that we also have no status of forces agreement with the Afghan government for what that unknown number of soldiers, what relationship they’ll have to the government and people of Afghanistan. And we know that there is no provision for the drones to stand down in Afghanistan. And it’s not clear to me that the manned air force, that they must withdraw from the Afghan skies either.

But, you know, with President Obama you really can’t trust the words, because he has redefined war. Well, when he came back from eight months of bombing Libya, along with the rest of NATO, in 30,000 sorties, 10,000 of them with bombs, he told the Congress that this wasn’t a matter for the War Powers Act because there wasn’t a war, and there wasn’t a war because no Americans got killed. So he’s redefined war, and I really don’t trust him whenever he refers to war and peace, because we don’t speak the same language.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Glen.

FORD: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Glen Ford is a distinguished radio-show host and commentator. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced and hosted America's Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. In 1987, Ford launched Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated Hip Hop music show, broadcast on 65 radio stations. Ford co-founded the Black Commentator in 2002 and in 2006 he launched the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.