Obama Still Has No Strategy

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Hamid Dabashi says President Obama’s plan to use air power against IS will create more barbarism and further destroy and disintegrate Iraq

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Story Transcript

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

On Wednesday night, President Obama laid out his plan for what he calls degrading and destroying ISIL, the Islamic State. Here’s some of what he had to say.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve. First we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I’ve made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

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JAY: Now joining me to discuss President Obama’s speech is Hamid Dabashi, who joins us from New York. Hamid is a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University. He’s written in many publications. He’s been a regular on The Real News. His forthcoming book is Can Non-Europeans Think?. And that’s a very intriguing title, but we’re going to talk about that another time.

Thanks for joining us, Hamid.

HAMID DABASHI, PROF. IRANIAN STUDIES AND COMPARATIVE LIT., COLUMBIA UNIV.: My pleasure. Anytime.

JAY: So what do you make of the beginnings of President Obama’s speech?

DABASHI: If you go through the four items, Paul, they’re not new. There’s nothing new. He has been doing all of these four items that he mentioned in this speech. The air attack has been going on since early August, helping local forces, by which he means Iraqi and Kurdish forces. He has been helping them. And also going into Syria, that has also been already mentioned by Chuck Hagel and others.

Perhaps something that has not been articulated was the counterterrorism element, which is cutting their funds, which means he is talking more seriously to people in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states that have been funding these terrorists. And also humanitarian aid, by which he means, of course, the help to the Yazidis. So all of these items actually have been in operations for two weeks at least.

JAY: Well, perhaps what’s a little bit new here is that he has now, in the part that we just played, came out and said he is going to bomb in Syria. That I don’t think was so clear up until they started releasing the speech.

DABASHI: That is true. That is true. For me, Paul, the most significant aspect of this talk is for domestic purposes. If you recall, about a week ago he inadvertently said we don’t have a strategy. And now, in this speech, he emphasized, that is our strategy. This to me is for his Republican criticism that has been coming his way. And there is a midterm election soon coming. And he wants to come across, as he has been systematically criticized by the Republican and others that he has been not been asserting–including by Hillary Clinton, who is getting ready to run for election. So he wants to come across as assertive and knows what he is doing and has a strategy. But basically, other than, for example, forcing Turkey to not allow for the influx of these international mercenaries to go into Syria, there is nothing really new in this speech that he made today.

JAY: It seems to me when he said there was no strategy, that was probably a more honest reckoning of what the United States actually can do here. What is the strategy? If they’re successful in what he’s saying–and, actually, let’s play a little bit more of the speech, where he gets more specific, what he’s planning to do in Iraq. Here’s another clip.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Second, we’ll increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.

As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission–we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence, and equipment. We’ll also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control.

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JAY: Well, let’s say, for the sake of argument, he’s successful, the Americans are successful in standing up Iraqi and Kurdish forces and giving air support and actually start to defeat ISIL in Iraq. Well, what happens is what American military commanders have been saying on television is that IS simply goes back into Syria. And then what’s the strategy? ‘Cause there is no Syria strategy.

DABASHI: With the added effect, Paul, that the fragmentation of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni forces will be even exacerbated. Keep in mind that it is now a known fact that ISIL would not have been so successful if the former elements of the Ba’ath Sunnis of the Iraqi military of the Saddam Hussein period had not been incorporated into this organization.

It’s a peculiar organization. It’s not a typical terrorist al-Qaeda operation. It has a military apparatus which has already incorporated Saddam Hussein’s military into its operation, which means what President Obama is doing is in fact exacerbating the fragmentation of Iraq.

This phony unification of the Iraqi government after Maliki was forced by President Obama to go–and there is now a new coalition–is phony. It does not stand. The fact is that the Sunnis do not trust the Shia supported by Iran. The Kurds are grabbing land. And because of this recent operation, they have been even more strengthened. PKK, which was up until recently declared a terrorist organization, is now at the forefront of fighting against ISIL. And as a result, the declaration of a victory, that, okay, now ISIL is defeated or degraded in Iraq–forget about Syria, because Syria, as you said, is a whole different story–means further fragmentation of Iraq. That is the problem that the region faces and Obama doesn’t want to address.

JAY: Alright. Let’s play another clip from President Obama. This is more about what they’re going to do in Syria, because I think, again, if they’re successful–and there’s certainly no guarantee they’ll have such success in Iraq, but if they are and IS simply goes back into Syria, what are they going to do? Well, here’s President Obama’s answer to that.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people–a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.

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JAY: What possible strategy is this? There’s only one armed force right now that could possibly fight IS in Syria, and that is Assad and his army. There’s nothing much left, as far as I can understand, of any other force. So who the heck is he talking about arming? And he still wants to overthrow Assad.

DABASHI: He knows very well he’s on very murky ground. ISIL emerged from the militarization of the Syrian revolution, for which militarization and, of course, Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime is chiefly responsible. However, ISIL did not come from the–fall from the sky, nor did it grow like a mushroom. ISIL is the result of the militarization of a peaceful Syrian revolution by United States and its European allies and its regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Kuwait and Turkey and so forth. And as Iran and Russia were helping Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, all of these forces were arming the so-called opposition. And within this opposition, ISIL has emerged as this monstrosity. There is no way.

What American people have to understand, Paul: there is no way that you can sort of draw a line and say, these are good opposition and these are bad oppositions. It cannot happen. The same military aides that now he says is going to strengthen the opposition to Syria will end up in the hands of this ISIL. It is important not to fetishize.

ISIL is not a unified organization. It is a very amorphous organization. People can shift from, for example, in Iraq, from the Sunni /basi/. Former Iraqi officials joined ISIL and leave ISIL. ISIL is like an amoeba: it doesn’t have a central organization that can have a claim over any sort of authority. The same is in Syria. We cannot make a distinction between legitimate opposition, that you’re going to arm it, and then illegitimate opposition, that you’re going to bomb them. It is simply delusional.

JAY: But what are they left with except some kind of alliance with Assad in one way or the other? Because if–.

DABASHI: Yeah, that’s the irony of it, isn’t it, that now, in fact, Hezbollah, Islamic Republic of Iran, Bashar al-Assad, and the United States are now collaborating in order to take care of this monstrosity called ISIL.

JAY: So where is Russia in all of this? Because if anyone has any influence over Assad, it’s the Russians and the Iranians, but I would think particularly the Russians. But how does Obama make some kind of coordinated effort with Putin when they’re confronting Putin in Ukraine?

DABASHI: Well, in my opinion, Paul, some of this flexing of military muscle against so-called ISIL, whatever ISIL is, is a repercussion of what was happening in Ukraine and Putin bringing his nuclear arms for a spin. So there is something not exactly of a Cold War, but something of a proxy war between Russia and United States happening over this business. And right now Putin appears to be quite legitimate, because he has been saying that, no, we should not depose Bashar al-Assad, and has been supporting Bashar al-Assad. And actively, United States and Iran are actually collaborating, not just in Iraq; potentially also in Syria.

So to me the extension of this militarization of operation in Iraq and Syria is not to end the ISIL, but is an extension of ISIL. ISIL is the over-militarization, brutal militarization, of a legitimate revolutionary uprising by Syrians that was degenerated by U.S. and its European and regional allies into this monstrosity that now we see. To go to attack ISIL, you’re not going to destroy or inhibit or prevent that further over-militarization or the revolution, but you’re going to exacerbate it.

And what is happening, beginning with the militarization of the revolution and arming of the opposition, United States and its European and regional allies wanted to micromanage these revolutions. They endorsed the coup in Syria, they endorsed the Saudi invasion of Bahrain, and they also tried to micromanage the events in Syria, and this monstrosity has appeared from the midst of it.

So this, to me, if you zoom back to 2011, 2012, is the extension of the same futile attempt by United States and European allies and regional allies to posit a counterrevolutionary force to a sustained momentum of peaceful revolutionary uprisings that began in Tunisia and Egypt and so forth. Libya is degenerating. Yemen is degenerating. Bahrain is boiling in another uprising. And they think by just flexing military muscle now against this fiction–it’s not a fiction, is a reality, but is a phantom that has been generated out of all of this militarization of an otherwise entirely peaceful uprising, for which, of course, we have to hold responsible people like, Bashar al-Assad, people like Hosni Mubarak. All of them still are in operation.

JAY: And in that context I think when we talk about the barbarism of the Islamic State, it’s nothing compared to the barbarism that’s been committed by the United States in Iraq going back Clinton’s sanctions and Bush’s war.

DABASHI: Yeah, of course. There are–half a million kids were killed during President Clinton’s embargo of Iraq, according to social workers, the School of Social Work at Columbia, my own university. Isn’t that barbarism? Israel was just slaughtering Palestinian civilians left and right for five weeks. Mum was the word. In fact, Obama increased the military aid for the so-called Dome. Wasn’t that barbarism?

JAY: Okay. One final question. The object of all of this is supposed to be make America safer, because if they don’t do this, these attacks on the Islamic State, then these fighters may come back to Europe and to the United States and Canada and cause havoc. So you think a year from now we’re going to be any safer?

DABASHI: It has nothing to do with we are safe or unsafe. Has nothing to do with that. In fact, any amount of over-militarization of the involvement of United States anywhere abroad is actually going to compromise the safety of Americans when they travel, or even at home. This is going to exacerbate the situation. But keep in mind–and this is a point that President Obama made, and he’s absolutely correct–the primary target of ISIL is not actually Americans, but are Muslims in Iraq and Syria, or Christians. But Shias, for example, they hate Shias more than they hate Christians, etc. So their primary target and the terror that this organization and this apparatus is posing, is positing, is actually for Arabs and Muslims in the region.

JAY: Alright. Quickly, if President Obama–what would you have liked to have heard him say? I mean, I know he doesn’t listen to what we say, but what would you like to–what should he have done at this point?

DABASHI: Listen, at this point, again, it goes back to a question of Libya. This is of monster that he has been instrumental in creating, and he is now exacerbating it. And when you have Yazidis trapped on top of the mountain that he was now using as the great sign of how humanitarian he is, that you have to just zoom back and say, what, who created the condition? It is not a love of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was a criminal. But Saddam Hussein was keeping all of these things intact. At least there was a country, there was a state. Now the Kurds are going one way, the Sunnis are going another way, and the poor and defenseless Yazidis are left, and the United States that couldn’t care less about thousands of Palestinians being slaughtered suddenly now appears as a great savior of humanity. This is the condition we are.

What would I have liked him to say? I would have liked him not to exacerbate the conditions that he inherited from Bush. But he did, systematically.

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

DABASHI: Sure. Anytime.

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

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