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Phyllis Bennis says Obama has been right – in rhetoric – about one thing: there is no military solution to defeating the Islamic State

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of The Bennis Report.

Now joining us is Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is also the author of Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.


WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, let’s start by talking about this really damning New York Times article that was published today that the U.S. military found old abandoned chemical munitions during the occupation of Iraq. What do you think is the significance here of this report?

BENNIS: I think there are several key components to why this is such an important report. One is the focus that The Times itself drew, which is the failure of the U.S. to provide information, particularly to medical workers in the military, that would enable them to provide the kind of treatment, the kind of care for U.S. soldiers who were affected by these leftover munitions that were not viable as chemical weapons themselves, but they had stuff left over, whether it was mustard gas–in at least one case it was sarin gas–that made it very dangerous to handle these weapons. So, in that context it’s particularly important, given the huge scandal around the medical care in the Veterans Administration, the fact that everyone has been saying that at least our active duty soldiers get really good care, it turns out that’s not the case either, that they were told not to admit that they had found these weapons, not to acknowledge that it was mustard gas, when they were facing erupting blisters on their arms and legs, in one case in their eyes. They were told that it was something else. They were not being treated correctly. So this is a huge scandal.

But the scandal goes beyond that, because it goes to the question of what does this mean for Iraqis. This is in areas where civilians go. This is in areas where children could discover these weapons. And there’s been no information provided to this day, as far as we know, to look at what is the impact on Iraqi civilians who have suffered so enormously through these years of war and sanctions and occupation. And now we find out that these weapons have been abandoned knowingly by the U.S. military. So it’s a really shocking exposé.

WORONCZUK: One thing, though, that didn’t seem completely convincing in the article was that they said that this wasn’t linked, at least, as supporting the rationale of invading Iraq for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. They said this was because the weapons were too old and would appear to have been–it would have been, obviously, before 1991. But it seems with all the intelligence manipulation that occurred in the leadup to the war that there easily could have been any manipulation of this to justify that rationale.

BENNIS: iThat’s certainly possible. But I think that part of the problem was it was widely known and quite public before the occupation, before the invasion, by the UN arms inspectors, that there were these kind of old weapons that were not viable as, quote, weapons of mass destruction but were somewhat dangerous. They had testified about that to the United Nations Security Council. Hans Blix on February 14, 2003, the day before the massive global protests against the coming war, had testified to his team’s investigations and said that we found old, corroded mustard gas canisters, but that they were not viable as weapons, which is the case.

I think that given the false claims that had been made, there was some real fear that if they continued to make these kinds of false claims, that it would be too easy to expose them. By suppressing the information, ordering the soldiers at the base level, the sergeants and the privates who were actually exposed, ordering them through their chain of command to remain silent, that was, I think, deemed much safer than trying to use it to post facto justify this illegal invasion and occupation.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And as the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is ongoing, The New York Times also published a study from the CIA that said that past attempts to arm rebels have ended in failure. Do you think that this is going to have any substantive effect on policy or the debate on the ongoing airstrikes?

BENNIS: It’s a little hard to know yet what the effect on policy will be. But I think it’s going to have a big effect on how the public comes to understand what the U.S. is doing. This is something that many of us have been saying for a long time–this isn’t secret–that the U.S. has failed every time it has tried to create a proxy army in its own image that it would arm and pay and build up to fight its battles, whether it was Cold War battles, whether it was the South Vietnamese Army in Vietnam in the 1960s and into the ’70s, whether it was the 1980s smaller wars around the world, where you had the U.S. backing guerrilla forces against progressive governments in Angola, in Mozambique, in Nicaragua, in all these places. And this, again, very damning CIA report acknowledges that these were evidence of failures, that not once did the U.S. manage to build up a rebel army that it could arm and pay and support, whether it was the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, whether it was the Vietnamese reactionaries after the liberation of Vietnam in 1975–all of these failed. All of these efforts failed.

The one example that the CIA points to as a success, interestingly, was the work of the CIA and others in Afghanistan in the 1980s fighting against the Soviet Union and the Soviet-backed government. But the idea that they are actually trying to claim that Afghanistan was a success, given that what resulted from that war was the rise of al-Qaeda and 9/11, I think that’s going to be a little bit tough.

What they’re looking at is this claim that it can never work unless there are U.S. troops on the ground. But even there, if you want to look at Vietnam, you want to call that a success? You know, the fact that they want to claim it again as Afghanistan the one success, where the troops on the ground were not Americans anyway–there were some special forces and some CIA people, but the troops on the ground, besides the Afghan guerrillas, were Pakistani, not American. So it doesn’t even go to this question of there need to be American troops on the ground.

WORONCZUK: Well, the study seems, though, to emphasize, at least at several points, that the reason why these rebel groups have failed is because there was no U.S. ground support for those rebels. And it also seems to sort of come in line with a lot of statements that you might hear from some politicians or leading intelligence officials. For example, you have the Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, who said recently that we can expect situations like that [which] have unfolded in Kobani to occur unless there are troops on the ground. And then you have politicians like John Boehner who are saying that we need boots on the ground take care of the Islamic State. So it seems like this study almost seems to provide–it could provide a rationale for these kinds of arguments for U.S. troops.

BENNIS: I have no doubt that those who support the idea that the U.S. should actually send ground troops into one more war in the Middle East–something that the American people are vastly opposed to, that analysts who understand what the consequences are are enormously opposed to. But nonetheless there are political actors who are calling for it, as you say, and they will no doubt use this as more evidence that it never works unless there are U.S. troops on the ground.

The problem is, number one, it hasn’t worked when there are U.S. troops on the ground. So the argument simply falls apart.

But I think there’s also the possibility that some in the CIA may have leaked this report not as a way of justifying putting more troops on the ground, although that’s possible, but as a way of explaining their inevitable failure, that these air raids are not going to succeed, not because there aren’t also troops on the ground, but because there are no military solutions. This is what President Obama has said over and over again, and it’s the one right thing that he has been consistent about in his rhetoric, and it’s the one thing he has consistently violated in his actions.

There are no military solutions here. And claiming that there are, trying to use military solutions, is inevitably going to fail. It will fail dramatically if it’s only airstrikes. It will fail even more dramatically if it is airstrikes plus U.S. ground forces. There are no military solutions.

And the political solutions that are necessary are not yet being put in place, because all of the focus is going towards the military, despite the claim that the military actions are only one part and we’re really working on the diplomacy, the military actions are preventing any serious diplomatic move from going forward.

What’s needed in Iraq is an end to the understanding of Iraq’s Sunni population that the government in Baghdad, backed by the United States, has no interest in protecting their rights. That’s why they began to support ISIS and organizations like it in the past. The Sunni tribal leaders, the Sunni former generals, and ordinary Sunnis started to support organizations like ISIS because they felt that the government in Baghdad was consistently attacking them through its own sectarian militias and its army, which is really, historically, one more Shia sectarian militia in Iraq, albeit the biggest one.

In that context, every time the U.S. goes in with airstrikes in support of the Kurds and the Shia against ISIS, it’s seen by Sunnis as one more airstrike against Sunnis, and it’s going to undermine any possibility of changing the politics.

WORONCZUK: And there was a recent Amnesty International report that came out–I think it was only a day or two ago–that said that Shiite militias have committed many war crimes against the Sunnis in Iraq during the fight against the Islamic State. Can you talk about who these Shiite militias are? And then, I mean, the other connected issue to this is that the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, says that he won’t permit any airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition to fight against the Islamic State.

BENNIS: Yeah. On the second part, al-Abadi’s position may be based on a recognition that this is going to undermine any capacity that his new government might have to win back some level of support from Sunni Iraqis. So far, that government has not chosen a new defense minister or a new intelligence minister, and it’s those two ministries that have been most responsible for the massive human rights violations that have been taking place against the Sunni population. There was an acknowledgment of it, ironically enough, from Prime Minister al-Abadi just a few days ago, when he said as a promise that there would be no more airstrikes against Sunni villages. He was acknowledging that his own military had been carrying out those strikes, and he was now going to order them not to, which is a good thing, obviously, to say there won’t be anymore, but it’s a very damning acknowledgment that it had been.

[snip] Shia militias is an old story in Iraq. These same militias were part of the uprising against the U.S. occupation for several years of the U.S. war in the mid 2000s, and in the recent period, they have been very involved in attacking Sunni communities that, by their perception, seem to be supporting or backing ISIS or areas were ISIS is thought to be functioning. And the attacks have been brutal. It included barrel bombs that were dropped on Sunni communities. It’s been a terrible level of war crimes, as has been documented by Amnesty International and others as well.

So I think that what we’re seeing is a scenario where the need for political rapprochement in Iraq–the only solution–is being undermined by the militarization of the conflict. The involvement of the U.S. airstrikes, the involvement of the Shia militia and the Iraqi army against ISIS, in using their military capacity, has only escalated the fighting. It simply isn’t working to think that there’s going to be a military solution.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Thank you so much for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: 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.