Is Congress’ Call for ISIS War Debate a Sham?

December 1, 2014

In the wake of continued airstrikes in Syria, critics say most members of Congress are on board with ISIS battle since it marries the liberal interventionist and neocon agenda of regime change in Syria

In the wake of continued airstrikes in Syria, critics say most members of Congress are on board with ISIS battle since it marries the liberal interventionist and neocon agenda of regime change in Syria



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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: The battle against the Islamic State has been going on for the past four months, and it’s already cost taxpayers up to $1 billion. And on Thursday, Republican Senator Rand Paul attempted to attach an amendment to an unrelated bill in order to force Congress to vote on a war declaration against ISIS before the end of Congress’s session.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): We have a very docile Congress that we may not even ever have a vote on a use of authorization of force for the new war. And so I recently introduced a declaration of war, which hasn’t happened since 1941, to try to shake them up a bit, to say, hey, guys, this is our responsibility.

DESVARIEUX: But what exactly will Congress be debating? Critics have pointed to the debate glossing over the fundamental question of whether or not to engage in military action in the first place. But instead, the debate has focused on the duration of operations. Rand Paul’s proposed declaration of war would give the president authority to use military force for one year. Then, at said time, Congress would have to revisit an extension. But the administration has emphasized that in order to degrade and destroy ISIS, it could take years.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: This is going to be a long-term campaign. There are not quick fixes involved. We’re still at the early stages. As with any military effort, there will be days of progress, and there going to be periods of setback. But our coalition is united behind this long-term effort.

DESVARIEUX: This long-term effort is being shaped by Washington centers of influence like think tanks.

We spoke to two experts in the field of Middle East foreign policy and asked them what the president should be doing about the situation in the region.

One is from the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, or AEI. It was the home of more than a dozen neoconservatives who were appointed to senior position in president George W. Bush’s administration, all of whom were strong supporters of the Iraq invasion in 2003 to spread democracy to the region.

The other foreign-policy expert is from the center for American Progress. This self-described progressive public think tank houses fellows note for the humanitarian interventionist perspective, otherwise known as liberal interventionists.

Both experts label themselves as pragmatists or realists over anything.

MATTHEW MCINNIS, RESIDENT FELLOW, AEI: That’s part of my biggest concern about President Obama’s policy right now is that I don’t have a clear sense–degrade and destroy ISIS? If you’re going to do that, that’s a very serious commitment, and that requires–and everyone knows it requires someone’s boots on the ground. I think there’s a general recognition of that. And if you’re not going to be realistic about whose boots on the ground that will be, it’s a very fundamental flaw.

HARDIN LANG, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Once we start seeing significant damage inside of Iraq, once we see Mosul fall, I don’t think there was any other choice but to get more seriously involved.

I lived in Mosul for about six months in 2003, 2004, and we were really at a point–once Mosul falls, in terms of U.S. strategic interests in the region and in Iraq, it’s hard for the president to sort of hold off at that stage.

What’s hard about this, though, is there are a lot of moving parts in the fight. I mean, obviously, ISIS is a non-state actor. They’d like to be a state actor, but they’re a nonstate actor. And we have a set of partners on one side of the border, in Iraq, that are different from the set of partners we’re trying to develop on the Syria side of the border. And so there are a lot of moving parts. And the arithmetic, if you will, of the equation is quite complex.

So it’s going to be a long slog, a long effort, but I don’t think the president had much of a choice but to move.

DESVARIEUX: These two think tanks represent Washington power centers. Lang recently published a report titled “Supporting the Syrian Opposition”. The report practically is a mirror image of the president’s policy.

LANG: We put out a paper–I want to say in June of this year–sort of setting out generally where we thought we should be going. And it’s not completely out of sync with where the president ended up.

I think it’s hard right now, given what’s happening with ISIS, that the U.S. doesn’t become more deeply involved in the way we’re seeing with airstrikes and in some funneling of money to the opposition groups.

I’m not interventionist in the sense that I think we need to put a large number of ground troops to try to solve the problem, whether it be for humanitarian reasons or for national security reasons. But that has more to do with the fact that I don’t think they would be effective.

You know, at the end of the day, I don’t think there’s anyone who wants to see Assad continuing to govern the country. But the question is: how do you effectively–how is he removed in such a way or how does he leave the scene in such a way that it leaves Syria a more stable place? And I’m not too sure that large-scale intervention is a way to achieve that.

DESVARIEUX: Not an interventionist, but like the majority of voices in Washington, both Lang and McInnis have been in favor of arming so-called moderate factions in Syria.

The Real News spoke with journalist Patrick Cockburn at the onset of the bombing campaign in Syria about these so-called moderate rebels.

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DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, you’ve done a lot of reporting on the ground in Syria, and these so-called moderate Syrian rebels that President Obama keeps on referring to, I need to get a sense of who they are. Who are they, actually?

PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: Well, they aren’t is the answer to that. They scarcely exist on the ground. That’s one of the extraordinary thing about the plan that was announced this week to combat ISIS, the Islamic State, is that in Syria the main opponent of the Islamic State is to be the Syrian armed moderates. But nobody can find them on the map.

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DESVARIEUX: Another policy supported by Lang and McInnes was President Obama’s decision to bomb Syria, especially if it leads to the overthrow of Assad, a position that President Obama has stood by.

Officials have turned to the mainstream media to make the link between the fight against ISIS and overthrowing Assad. Some hawkish neoconservative senators, like Republican John McCain, have even called for boots on the ground in Syria.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): The object of warfare is to defeat the enemy. And the president has said our goal is to degrade and defeat ISIS. I don’t see, right now, a strategy that would achieve the goal that the president said. And so we need more trainers, we need more forward air controllers, we need more special forces, and we have to understand that ISIS covers both Syria and Iraq, and to have one war in one part of that caliphate that they have established and another kind of strategy in the other one, it just doesn’t work.

DESVARIEUX: And on the side for liberal intervention, ambassador to the UN Samantha Power recently said at a defense summit that arming the rebels and bombing Syria was in order for them to overthrow Assad.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UN: Now, because of the strikes against ISIL in Iraq, and also in Syria, our hope is coupling that with the train-and-equip program, getting that off the ground as quickly as possible, that they’ll start to get some relief from the ISIL part, that sort of two-front war, and then better be able to protect themselves against the regime.

DESVARIEUX: Investigative journalist Robert Parry has written extensively about this connection between neocons and liberal interventionists. He said the language may be different, but both sides’ arguments boil down to regime change, which is, ironically, one of ISIS’s principal goals.

ROBERT PARRY, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND EDITOR, CONSORTIUMNEWS.COM: I think the distinctions between neocon and liberal interventionists are almost evaporated. In fact, Robert Kagan, in his New Republic article that received such attention earlier this year, was saying that he does not consider himself a neocon anymore; he considers himself a liberal interventionist. So you have, I think, this merging of these two groups. And in some ways the neocons always would have argued that they were more from the Wilsonian traditions of U.S. intervening around the world in support of democracy, as they would put it. So I think there’s always been this connection. But in recent years, some of the human rights groups–Human Rights Watch, for instance, and others–have sort of essentially merged in any meaningful way with the neoconservative organizations, groups like Freedom House, for instance.

You also have the National Endowment for Democracy, which has been around since 1983, which is run by Carl Gershman, a major neocon, and it has been funding both Republican and Democratic institutions with its $100 million a year that it gets from Congress. And so the people who take that money–and there are fairly prominent people in both parties doing so–they tend to become supportive of that agenda, which is to–what they would call the democracy promotion agenda. Well, what that really comes down to is often destabilizing governments, even governments that are democratically elected.

DESVARIEUX: In this BBC documentary, you can see the Bush administration’s former U.S. assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle. He was, quote, “the study group leader” of a 1996 policy paper entitled A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm. This paper was written for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign for prime minister back in the ’90s. The message was simple: contain, stabilize, and roll back regional threats.

In this video recorded in 2007, former four-star general and NATO commander Wesley Clark gave a speech mapping out the neocon plan to invade seven countries in five years.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FMR. NATO COMMANDER: An officer from the joint staff called me into his office and said, I want you to know, he said, sir, we’re going to attack Iraq. And I said, why? He said, we don’t know. And about six weeks later I saw the same officer. I said, why haven’t we attacked Iraq? Are we still going to attack Iraq? He said, oh, sir, he says, it’s worse than that. He said–he pulled up a piece of paper off his desk. He said, I just got this memo from the secretary of defense’s office. It says we’re going to attack and destroy the governments in seven countries in five years. We’re going to start with Iraq, and then we’re going to move to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.

DESVARIEUX: Many of these countries listed both liberal interventionists and neocons have been at the center of calling for military intervention against them. Last year, groups like the Center for American Progress called for action against Syria after an alleged Syrian gas attack by the Syrian military. And, of course, there was the military intervention in Libya back in 2011.

But investigative journalist Robert Parry points to repeated failures of intervention, especially humanitarian intervention, in places like Libya, where it’s become a haven for Islamic extremists.

PARRY: The U.S. interventions have often had terrible consequences for the people of the various countries. Of course, one of the major early CIA, quote, successes, unquote, was the overthrow of the Mosaddegh government in Tehran. Here was an elected government that simply was trying to take action to secure the resources of Iran for use by the people of the ran. There was an effort to essentially nationalize some of BPs holdings. And that was considered radical by the United States and Great Britain.

So they conspired, using the CIA, to build up what appeared to be a popular movement of opposition to Mosaddegh while it was privately being funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, and succeeded in driving him from power and putting the Shah of Iran back on the peacock throne. And that had horrible consequences for the people of Iran, in the sense that the Shah maintained his power through very brutal means. He ran a police state until 1979, when he was then overthrown by another radical movement, the Khomeini efforts to establish an Islamic state. So, in many ways, instead of having a moderate nationalist government like Mosaddegh represented moving forward through Iranian history, what we ended up with was both a repressive regime under the Shah, and then a radical, a more radical reaction to it.

DESVARIEUX: Iraq is another country on that failed intervention list, said ex-CIA analyst Paul Pillar. He said the Islamic State was able to flourish after the chaos that was ensued when troops invaded Iraq in 2001. Since the onset of the war, more than a million Iraqis have been killed, and the country is split into sectarian battles. And even despite the surge of more than 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Paul Pillar says it didn’t lead to a more stable country, and any strategy that has boots on the ground should be questioned.

PAUL PILLAR, FMR. CIA ANALYST: The surge failed in the more fundamental task and objective of providing political space for the different contending factions in Iraq to reach an accommodation. They never did that. And so if we couldn’t do it with 168,000 troops and we couldn’t do it with eight and a half years of military presence, the question that needs to be answered by our friends who’ve criticized the administration for what they did is: okay, just how long and how many troops would do the job? And what exactly is the dynamic here? Are we holding some kind of military threat over the head of the Iraqi prime minister? Or, if we’re going to use troops to fight against that regime’s foes up in the northwest, isn’t that what we call moral hazard? We’re simply doing their job for them. And how that’s supposed to pressure the regime in Baghdad into making nice with people of different religious sects, I find it hard to see.

DESVARIEUX: But in the case of Syria, what’s at the heart of the neocon liberal interventionist agenda?

PARRY: They want Assad overthrown. And just last year, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, gave an interview with the Jerusalem Post in which he was arguing that the Israeli position was that he would prefer to have the bad guys not associated with Iran take over Syria rather than the bad guys who were associated with Iran. And he said that even implied if the bad guys–those bad guys not associated with Iran included al-Qaeda. So you had the Israeli ambassador, who was very close to Netanyahu, saying that the most important thing to Israel is to shatter this arc, this so-called Shia arc, that stretches from Tehran through Damascus to Lebanon. And the Israelis see that as their primary strategic threat and something they have to deal with. So they even at that point were saying that if Syria had to fall to al-Qaeda, that would be a preferred situation to having Assad continue in power.

DESVARIEUX: It’s become more dangerous and more violent as airstrikes continue in Syria. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to vote on authorizing the use of force against ISIS in this coming week, an action some say will cement the U.S. back on the path of endless war.

For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.

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