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Clinton favors war and regime change over negotiations and diplomacy says Phyllis Bennis, author of “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.”

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HILLARY CLINTON: We have a lot of work to do with Iran before we ever say that they could move toward normalized relations with us. BERNIE SANDERS: We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do. But I recall–Secretary Clinton ran against then-Senator Obama. She was critical of him for suggesting that maybe you want to talk to Iran, that you want to talk to our enemies. I have no illusion. Of course you’re right. Iran is sponsoring terrorism in many parts of the world, destabilizing areas. Everybody knows that. But our goal is, in fact, to try over a period of time to in fact deal with our enemies, not just ignore them. SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: That was a bit of the exchange between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on foreign policy in the debate held in Milwaukee on Thursday, February 11. Joining me now to talk about all of this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow directing the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and she’s the author of Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Phyllis, as always, thank you for joining us. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Phyllis, what did you think of that exchange on Iran between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? BENNIS: Well, it’s very interesting. It’s a moment when Bernie Sanders was able to point to the longstanding Clinton resistance to talking to diplomacy, to negotiations, and her preference for war. That’s really what he was pointing out. In my choice it might have been a little more direct. But it was, for a presidential debate it was pretty direct that that’s what he was getting to. The victory of diplomacy over war that’s symbolized in the success of the Iran nuclear deal was not sort of front and center of the, of the talks last, on Thursday night, as it should have been. But nonetheless there was a very clear sense that we’re dealing with two very different approaches to perceived opponents of the United States. Now, given that it is a presidential debate they’re competing with each other, and clearly Bernie Sanders is concerned about both his relative lack of experience, despite his having, as he puts it, better judgment. But also the fear that he will be viewed as soft on military issues in some, his own words about Iran being a sponsor of terrorism, being the key sponsor of terrorism, destabilizing around the world. Which is sort of interesting, when you look at who they’re actually supporting around the world. If you look at Iran’s support for the government in Iraq, that’s the government we put in power. We pay the bills, we bring the arms. But Iran supports them. And Iran is opposing ISIS, which I would think most people in this country if you ask them, would say if you said, you know, who’s the biggest terrorist threat, nobody would say Iran. I think pretty much everybody would say ISIS. Maybe a few would say al-Qaeda, but it would be one or the other, both of which are ardently opposed by Iran. So that was a bit of a, I think a very good jab from Bernie Sanders to the Clinton campaign, that’s tried to say, this is all about my experience. And he’s pointing out once again that she has lots of experience, but in most cases she was on the wrong side of these foreign policy debates. PERIES: Now, Phyllis, one of the other heated topics were, of course, regime change. And particularly in relation to Libya, Bernie Sanders went after her. Let’s have a look. SANDERS: But the point about foreign policy is not just to know that you can overthrow a terrible dictator. It’s to understand what happens the day after. And in Libya, for example, the United States, Secretary Clinton as Secretary of State, working with some other countries, did get rid of a terrible dictator named Gaddafi. But what happened is a political vacuum developed, ISIS came in, and now occupies significant territory in Libya, and is now prepared, unless we stop them, to have a terrorist foothold. But this is nothing new. This has gone on 50 or 60 years, where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments. Mossadegh, back in 1953, nobody knows who Mossadegh was. Democratically elected prime minister of Iran. He was overthrown by British and American interest because he threatened oil interests of the British. And as a result of that the Shah of Iran came in, terrible dictator. As a result of that you had the Iranian revolution come in, and that’s where we are today. Unintended consequences. So I believe, as president, I will look very carefully about unintended consequences. I will do everything I can to make certain that the United States and our brave men and women in the military do not get bogged down in perpetual warfare in the Middle East. CLINTON: Two, two points. One, Senator Sanders voted in 1998 on what I think is fair to call a regime change resolution with respect to Iraq, calling for the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He voted in favor of regime change with Libya, voted in favor of the Security Council being an active participant in setting the parameters for what we would do, which of course we followed through on. I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016. It’s very important we focus on the threats we face today, and that we understand the complicated and dangerous world we’re in. When people go to vote in primaries or caucuses, they are voting not only for the president, they are voting for the commander-in-chief. And it’s important that people really look hard at what the threats and dangers we face are, and who is best prepared for dealing with them. As we all remember, Senator Obama, when he ran against me, was against the war in Iraq. And yet when he won he turned to me, trusting my judgment, my experience, to become Secretary of State. I was very honored to be asked to do that, and very honored to serve with him those first four years. SANDERS: [Inaud.] if I, if I can. There is no question, and Secretary Clinton and I are friends, and I have a lot of respect for her, that she has enormous experience in foreign affairs. Secretary of State for four years, you get a bit of experience, I would imagine. But judgment matters, as well. Judgment matters, as well. And she and I looked at the same evidence coming from the Bush administration regarding Iraq. I led the opposition against it. She voted for it. But more importantly, in terms of this Libya resolution that you’ve noted before, this was a virtually unanimous consent, everybody voted for it, wanting to see Libya move toward democracy. Of course we all wanted to do that. That is very different than talking about specific action for regime change, which I did not support. HILLARY: You did support a UN Security Council approach, which we did follow up on. And look, I think it’s important to look at what the most important counterterrorism judgment of the first four years of the Obama administration was, and that was the very difficult decision as to whether or not to advise the president to go after bin Laden. I looked at the evidence, I looked at the intelligence, I got the briefings, I recommended that the president go forward. PERIES: Phyllis, I guess we’ll have to rely on you to set the record straight. What do you think of Hillary’s attack on Bernie, here? BENNIS: Well, I think there were a number of important points here. In Iraq in 1998, the resolution before the Congress did not authorize the use of force. That’s very important. Force was already being used. It was used by Clinton, President Clinton, back in those days, and it was a separate call for, you know, it was a sort of Saddam Hussein must go kind of resolution. It did not specifically authorize military force. Having said that, I think what’s clear here is that there is somewhat of a difference between the explicit principle that Bernie Sanders has articulated, which has been so important in this campaign, where he’s said very explicitly that one of the big differences between his campaign, or between him and Secretary Clinton, is that she is much more open to regime change, and he would be very, very cautious. He hasn’t said he would never under any circumstances support it. And I think it is important to recognize that there is somewhat of a contradiction between his claim to be very resistant to the idea of regime change, while at the same time his actual call for a policy in Syria does include regime change. Now, it’s different than Clinton’s, but it’s not completely different. Essentially what Clinton calls for in Iraq–sorry, what Clinton calls for today in Syria, she says we must go after ISIS and we must go after Assad. We can go after both. We should be about ending the rule of both of them. What Senator Sanders says is we should be going after ISIS, because that’s the real threat. But then he adds, then we can go after Assad. So the implication is that the real difference between his position and that of Secretary Clinton is one of sequence rather than of substance. So he would support regime change, apparently, in Syria. But not until ISIS has been dealt with. And that’s–in my view that’s a very problematic position. Now, it is important that he kept the focus very much on Libya, which although it’s true, he did vote for it, there is no question that as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was the real cheerleader in a very reluctant administration to go to war in Libya. And aside from what was left behind, the kind of utter destruction of the country, destruction of the entire governing capacity, the opening up of massive arms depots that are now wreaking havoc throughout the region as far down as central Africa and beyond, it’s also true that the situation in Libya was very different than what was called for in the UN resolution. The reason that the UN resolution passed in the Security Council, and what was stated later, particularly by the Russians and especially most importantly by South Africa, which changed its vote and supported the resolution, and they said, whether or not it’s true that they were, as what seems naïve as this, they say that they believed the language was very explicit in narrowly defining the military role to that of protecting civilians at risk. And not regime change. Now, many of us at the time said, this resolution is all about regime change, and if it passes that’s what will go forward. We were right. And I think that the fact that Hillary Clinton, whose team helped draft that resolution, knew full well that it was exactly a resolution calling for regime change, where the official language of it did not and the discussion in Congress implied that it did not. So there is a difference between the role they played on the Libya regime change campaign. PERIES: All right. Phyllis, we’re going to now take a look at one of the most controversial points that came up in the debate, and that is Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton referring to him as one of her mentors, and Bernie took this up. Let’s have a look. SANDERS: She talked about getting the approval or the support, or the mentoring, of Henry Kissinger. Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive Secretaries of State in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, wherein the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger. PERIES: Now, Phyllis, according to Greg Grandin in the Nation, Hillary Clinton’s progress as a public figure and politician can in fact be traced back to Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. So give us a sense of what you think of Hillary holding Kissinger up in this way, and of course Bernie’s attack on it. BENNIS: Well, I find it shocking, as well. Bernie didn’t use the word shocking, but I imagine he did feel shocked, as I think everybody did who heard Hillary Clinton bragging about having support from someone who much of the world views as a war criminal. To me the only controversial part of this discussion, if you will, at the debate, was the fact that as a candidate running right now Bernie Sanders had to be very, what’s the right word, cautious, I suppose, in stating the Henry Kissinger was perhaps the most destructive Secretary of State. But he did not call him a war criminal. He kept his critique to Kissinger’s role in the invasion of Cambodia, which of course set the stage for the Cambodian genocide. He didn’t talk about Kissinger’s direct role in supporting brutal, absolutely brutal dictatorships through Latin America throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The so-called dirty war. The regime of General Pinochet in Chile. We know now that he actually knew that the Chilean regime, that the Pinochet regime, was responsible for the assassination of my colleagues here at IPS, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, in Washington in 1976 in what was then the worst act of international terrorism ever committed in the United States. So he didn’t raise those things. But I think that it was very, very important that Bernie Sanders took on this notion that Henry Kissinger is the, the great eminence grise of foreign policy in the United States, and we must all bow down before his importance, because his importance is that of being a very, very important war criminal. And while that may not have been stated in the debate, I think that the vehemence of Bernie Sanders’ resistance to the idea that Henry Kissinger should be held up as some kind of model, or some kind of mentor, and say I am proud that he is not my friend and he will never be my mentor, that’s very, very powerful. That’s where you get to this question of judgment being more important than experience. PERIES: Phyllis Bennis, I thank you so much for your analysis on the debate last night, and I hope to have you back very soon. BENNIS: Looking forward to it. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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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.