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Paul Jay speaks with Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies about the impact of US presence and departure from Iraq. At some point the Americans are going to leave and Iraqis are going to have a right to determine their own future. But the US owes reparations and more, but this can only be acted on after military occupation is ended.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in a sort of makeshift studio in Maryland, and I’m talking to Phyllis Bennis from her home in Washington, DC. Phyllis is the author of Ending the Iraq War: A Primer, and she works for the Institute for Policy Studies. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.


JAY: What do you make of the argument that these different sections of the elite—Shia elite, Sunni elite, Kurdish elite—that they’re all biding their time for the Americans to leave to have it out about who’s going to control Iraqi oil, and so that in that sense, the fact that American troops are there does play a kind of a stabilizing role? And I guess what they’re hoping is the faction of Iraqi elite that they like will be strong enough to be dominant when they leave.

BENNIS: I think that’s exactly what the plan is. The problem is, whenever they leave, they’re going to have to leave at some point, and whether it’s now, as I advocate, or in 18 months and then 3 years, as President Obama is pledging, or whether it’s 10 years from next [inaudible], as some would like to say, or 100 years, as John McCain said, at some point they’re going to have to leave, and at some point Iraqis are going to have to get the right to determine their own future. Now, I don’t believe that’s going to be a very nice future for Iraqis, for the region, or for the world; I think it’s going to be a messy future. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of democracy, but I don’t think there’s a lot of democracy there now. And I think the question is: what’s our obligation? The cry “you can’t just cut and run,” I think, is absolutely valid. We cannot simply walk away. We owe an enormous debt to the people of Iraq. We have ravaged that country. But we can’t begin to make good on that obligation for reparations, for compensation, for real reconstruction support, for support for international peacekeeping that has legitimacy there, that’s not an occupying army. We owe all those things, but we can’t begin to make good on those obligations as long as we are militarily occupying the country. That has to end first. Then we can begin to play that other role.

JAY: There’s a referendum coming this summer in Iraq, where the people of Iraq are supposed to decide whether they agree with this withdrawal agreement with the US or not. If that referendum passes, does it (1) legitimatize the US troop presence until 2011? But does it also seal the issue that they have to get out in 2011?

BENNIS: Well, I’m not sure either one actually happens. Certainly if the referendum takes place is the key question. The “if” there—it’s a very dicey “if.” We heard in President Obama’s speech that he wants to make sure that US troops in large numbers are in Iraq through the period of the elections, the parliamentary elections that are set for next December. We heard nothing, not a mention, about the referendum that’s planned for the summer and what role the US troops or the US might take vis-à-vis the plans for that. They may try and stop it from going forward at all, not because it could legitimize the exit timetable of the agreement that was signed between the US and Iraq, but precisely because the Iraqi people may say, “We want you people out tomorrow. We want you out in a month.” It may not be enough to say, “Two-thirds out in eighteen months, and the rest out maybe at the end of 2011.” They may have a very different agenda, one that’s much more rapid in demanding withdrawal. And then what will the US do? This is a very serious question. If they do allow the referendum to go forward, and if in that referendum the Iraqi people vote overwhelmingly to keep to this timetable, it will give it a certain kind of legitimacy within Iraqi politics. That doesn’t change the fact of international law. At the end of the day, this invasion and occupation of Iraq violated international law. And, frankly, even if the Iraqis wanted it to continue, that doesn’t make it okay. That can’t be our only basis for decision-making. We never allowed the Iraqis to have a voice in whether we were going to invade in the first place, whether we were going to overthrow their government, whether we were going to dismember their military, whether we were going to slaughter their population, kill their children, foul their waters, and destroy the country. We never asked them any of that. Why are we so interested all of a sudden in being bound by what they say that might allow us to stay a little longer?

JAY: But a referendum will tell us something about what Iraqis think, because it may be that the war was illegal at the beginning, but it may be that a certain number of Iraqis want some kind of time period in order to have this transition. So I guess we’ll find out.

BENNIS: I have no doubt that’s the case. I imagine there are probably many Iraqis, and particularly those in the government who have a particular interest in wanting the US troops to remain. But I’m sure there are others who do as well. I think the problem is at some point US troops will be gone, and what happens to Iraq is something that Iraqis themselves are going to have to take responsibility [inaudible]

JAY: Obama says that as well, and he says in 2011 is that’s going to happen. I guess the question we’re going to find out is whether that can happen if what’s left behind doesn’t fit with US strategic interests in the region.

BENNIS: Exactly. And the question still is: Obama said he has the intention. Intention is not commitment; intention doesn’t mean he can do it. If the generals don’t want him to do it, how is it going to happen? He says he commands the generals, and he will give them orders regardless of whether they like it or not. I don’t anticipate that US generals would rise up and refuse an order from President Obama, their commander-in-chief, but I don’t think they will necessarily make it very easy for him, either.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis.

BENNIS: Thank you.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.