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Ray McGovern speaks to Paul Jay about Barack Obama’s appointment of Robert Gates to his cabinet. Though Obama campaigned on a platform of change in the US’ approach to foreign policy, McGovern says Obama’s appointments don’t indicate a change is coming. He says the appointments demonstrate a continuation of the mentality that led the United States into war in Vietnam, Iraq, and now again, in Afghanistan. This mentality has been demonstrated to fail in Iraq by a UCLA researcher who used satellite imagery to show the US’ occupation has favored Shias over Sunnis. This mentality, of going to war to liberate  people, according to McGovern, is a result of a lack of diversity in the kind of advisers previous presidents have chosen to surround themselves with, and he sees it repeated with Obama’s chosen cabinet .

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Obama’s Vietnam?
Paul Jay, Washington, DC

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the next segment of our interview with Ray McGovern. Ray was a member of the CIA for 27 years, briefed presidents, and helped run the analysis division for quite some time. Thanks for joining us again, Ray.


JAY: So in the first section of the interview we talked about Obama’s reappointment of Gates, the secretary of defense, and we started talking about Gates’ history, and we learned you worked with Gates and did his employee approval or assessment.

MCGOVERN: Fitness report.

JAY: Fitness report. And you had some doubts about his fitness, given what you thought was his ambition over good intelligence. And that seems to have had some role to play in the surge itself. So the conventional wisdom is: surge worked. Barack Obama has said so; President Bush has said so; the media seems to say so. But you don’t think so. Certainly you don’t think it’s the way, at least the story that we’re hearing.

MCGOVERN: No, and it’s a function of the lack of objective intelligence or objective information we get from what I call the phony corporate media. What the surge did, it was successful in one sense and one sense only, and that is, it prevented a definitive loss of the war, so to speak, on Bush and Cheney’s watch, and that was its sole purpose, really. Now, when you think of the costs—I mentioned last time that there were over 1,000 US troops killed, not to mention tens of thousand Iraqis, and the last time I checked the Bible, they’re people too, right? But, you know, what it really meant was changing a predominantly Sunni city, Baghad, into a Shia city, and you do that with the kind of cement blockades that you see in the West Bank, in Gaza. They do that by protecting the Shia as they go in and just throw the Sunni out or kill them.

JAY: Now, I suppose the Gates counterargument would be: well, so what, if that’s what it took to have a kind of more, relatively, peaceful situation and have something that approximates a real government?

MCGOVERN: Right. Yeah. And I don’t want to speak for the 2 million internal refugees in Iraq or the 2 million external refugees. I mean, they’re just Iraqis, right? So I don’t like that kind of reasoning if that’s what it takes. The other thing, of course, is that this is all verified by satellite photography. You know, let me explain. There’s a professor in UCLA that used satellite photography to determine what was going on in the Sunni areas of Baghdad before the surge and then after the surge. To make a long story short, before the surge, the lights were on at night; after the surge, there were no lights. So, you know, if you need any intelligence-type of information, the Sunnis were out of there, okay? Now, the other thing, of course, is the Sunnis in Anbar were sort of co-opted into cooperating with us by $300 per person per month, and then the Shia, Muqtada al-Sadr, and so forth, they kept their powder dry.

JAY: President-elect Obama must know all of this.

MCGOVERN: Well, you know, it’s hard to know how much he knows. I don’t know who advised him to say that the surge was successful beyond our wildest dreams or our wildest—. What kind of nitwit would have said that? Now, rhetoric during a campaign, you can’t put much store by it. You know how I feel about that kind of thing. But the question is now.

JAY: Well, it’s turned into more than just rhetoric during a campaign, because that’s what you said during the campaign, except now we’ve got Gates back.


JAY: So it wasn’t just rhetoric.

MCGOVERN: So even before he was officially announced, what does Gates do? He goes up to Canada, right, and he meets with NATO defense ministers who have troops in Afghanistan, and he says, you know, “We can’t avoid it anymore. We’ve got to surge.” Surge—the magic word. “We’ve got to surge troops into Afghanistan.” Okay? Now, why does he say that? Well, all he knows about Obama is the rhetoric, and Obama’s on record as saying at least two more brigades in there. That’s 7,000. So Gates doubles down. He says, “And we need four more brigades in there.” Okay? Now, let me just say that Afghanistan, if Obama does this wrong, is going to be his Vietnam, it’s going to be his Iraq. And unless he convenes a circle—we used to call it a circle of wise men, okay, during Vietnam. We know better now, okay? We know what comes out of a circle of wise men. We need women in there; we need mothers; we need mothers that have children; we need mothers who have children who don’t like to see them killed in unnecessary wars. So you get a wider circle in there. You sit down with Robert Fisk from the—you know, he’s correspondent from Britain—and other people who have been through Afghanistan and know the situation, and you have a bottom-up reappraisal of where the stakes are for us in Afghanistan. And I dearly hope that happens, because he needs people like that, because he’s not going to get that kind of advice from Gates.

JAY: Well, even President Karzai is saying it’s time to negotiate with the Taliban, which is not something we’re hearing from anywhere in the Obama administration.

MCGOVERN: Karzai says, “I can’t understand why, with the entire NATO behind us, the Taliban and the al-Qaeda are still causing such trouble in my country.” And then he notes later that the bombing of his citizenry and, you know, each wedding party that goes out into the open, he says he doesn’t think that’s a good idea. Well, you know, if you put the two together, that’s why. You know? That’s why. Okay? So, you know, it’s really just kind of bizarre that history is just lost sight of in all this. You can’t flatten Afghanistan.

JAY: Well, go back to what this tells us about President-elect Obama, that he has such confidence in Gates. I mean, the idea was continuity was critical, stability was critical, and again that Gates had played more or less a good role in how things had developed in Iraq, and Obama speaks to all of that.

MCGOVERN: Well, Gates has incredible PR in people like David Ignatius and others who’ve been rooting for him for many months now that he’d be able to stay. I was amused at how he spoke at the nomination proceedings when he said, you know, “I wanted to go back home to my lakeside thing, but I’ll do this for [inaudible]” while he’d been agitating for it for a long time. But what Gates has done is put himself firmly behind Obama’s rhetorical position—more troops in Afghanistan. And what’s got to happen is that Obama’s got to listen to his generals, but also to other people who know about Afghanistan, who can talk from history, from the British experience, from the Russian experience, how you can’t prevail in Afghanistan. What are our real aims there? That needs to happen, and Gates is not going to provide that. So the way I look at it, Obama has really missed a good chance to get a thoughtful secretary of defense in there who would be open to new ideas and who would do things right.

JAY: One of the things Obama talked about in the campaign is that what’s needed is a change of mindset in foreign policy, that it’s not just a question of, you know, a tinkering or a change of tactics. By saying “change of mindset,” that suggests change of strategic objectives. And the fundamental strategic objective is dominance in the region. It’s been that way for decades, and it’s not been paying off very well, one would think. But do you see any suggestion of change in basic assumptions?

MCGOVERN: Not yet. Not yet. And that’s the problem. None of the appointments would suggest that. In other words, they suggest just the opposite. So it’s really a matter of how strong a person is. You know. You can’t really expect a lot from a secretary of defense. I’m thinking back to when John Kennedy died. And early ’64, okay, just months after John Kennedy was killed, we were sort of involved in Vietnam. To his credit, Kennedy had already withdrawn 3,000 troops, and that was the way things were going to go. Okay? LBJ looks at the situation and he says, “I can’t lose a war. I can’t lose America’s first war.” Okay? What does McNamara do, the secretary of defense? He drafts a speech on defense, sends it over to the White House. “Mr. President, I’d like you to look this over.” He gets a call. “Hey, Mac.” “Yes, Mr. President.” “I think you need to say something about Vietnam.” “Sir, I thought of that, but I just don’t know what to say.” “Well, Mac, we’re fighting for their freedom, we’re training them up, and we’re training them up good. Say that.” Boom. It’s on tape. That’s exactly what happened. Okay? Training them up good. Yeah. We trained up the Iraqis good, didn’t we? And we’re going to train up the Afghanis now really good? You know? That’s the mindset thing. The mindset is a secretary of defense that doesn’t have the guts to say, “Well, Mr. President, I’ve consulted with other people who know about Vietnam. They tell me there’s a civil war going on here. They tell me that the South doesn’t have a prayer of winning it. They tell me that these North Vietnamese are more nationalist than they are communist; they’re just by-the-way communists. They tell me that Southeast Asia’s not going to fall if we withdraw. And, you know, why don’t you listen to some of these folks?” That never happens. It becomes a fetish with the president: “I’m not going to lose a war; I can’t lose a war.” So what happens? The end of the story: four years later, Tet—major offensive by the communists, end of January, early February 1968. Four years after all this stuff, Johnson realizes that he’s gone down the wrong path. Not only that, but he needs some help. What does he do? He convenes a wise men’s circle. This time real specialists—weren’t any women, but at least they were specialists—and they tell him, “Mr. President, you’ve got to negotiate this. You’re not going to win it. Despite what those blue-suited guys say, they’re not going to be able to bomb North Vietnam into submission. Yeah. And, by the way, Mr. President, you might want to think long and hard about running again.” And on 31 March, so just, like, a month and a half after Tet, LBJ gets on the television—some of you may be old enough to remember that—and says, “I’m not going to run again in November.” So there’s the destruction of a presidency because of really, really dumb advice or a lack of advice, just going with the old mindset on the part of McNamara and of all the others. And that’s what’s going to happen to Obama if he goes into Afghanistan big.

JAY: Well, speaking of old mindset, old enemies are approaching, according to some foreign policy specialists, particularly McCain, and then perhaps this White House, and that’s Russia. So in the next segment of our interview let’s talk about Georgia, Russia, and what we might expect from the Obama administration. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Ray McGovern.


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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Ray McGovern is a retired CIA officer and was employed under seven US presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.