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Despite soft approach at Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo has shown little interest in diplomacy on issue after issue. We speak to Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Senate confirmation hearings for Mike Pompeo as President Trump’s nominee for secretary of state took place on Thursday. Pompeo would be Trump’s second secretary of state, following Rex Tillerson’s sacking last month. When Pompeo entered the room for his hearing he was greeted by shouting protesters from Code Pink. The hearing went on to cover major hotspots around the world as well as Pompeo’s views on the Robert Mueller investigation and how he would manage the State Department. Here’s a clip from an exchange on the Iran nuclear deal.

SPEAKER: What is your view as to whether America should withdraw unilaterally from the Iran nuclear agreement?

MIKE POMPEO: I want to fix this deal. That’s the objective. I think that’s in the best interest of the United States of America.

SPEAKER: But if the agreement cannot be changed. My question is pretty simple. We’re running very close to a deadline on certification.

MIKE POMPEO: And if there’s no chance that we can fix it I will recommend to the president that we do our level best to work with our allies to achieve a better outcome and a better deal.

SHARMINI PERIES: Pompeo is a member of the Tea Party movement, and is generally viewed as a pro-war hardliner who has previously vowed to cancel the Iran agreement and who denies the reality of global warming. Joining me now to discuss Pompeo’s nomination we have two guests, Medea Benjamin and Phyllis Bennis. Medea is co-founder of Code Pink and author of “Inside Iran: Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Welcome, Medea.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you. Nice to be on.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Phyllis Bennis is fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She’s the author of many books, including “Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis.” Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Great to be with you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, let me go to you first on that clip on Iran of Pompeo wanting to renegotiate the deal. And also, one of the Code Pink protesters at the hearing had said in terms of you are not a diplomat. What did they mean by that?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, let’s just take the issue of Iran, for starters. There he said at the hearing that he would not try to get out of the Iran nuclear deal, that he wants a better deal. But in the past he’s talked about getting out of the Iran nuclear deal. And not only that he said that regime change is the only way to deal with Iran. And as CIA director he also downplayed the CIA’s assessment that Iran was complying with the deal although at the hearing he said he has no reason to deny that Iran is complying. So he says very different things and in different places. But I think his actions and his statements in the past speak louder than the words at the hearing, which were quite deceptive, and he’s trying to win over Democrats. So he was evasive on some of the issues that he has been very clear about in the past, such as striking Iran, North Korea, and certainly he was open about the president’s right to bomb Syria.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Phyllis, as you could hear in that clip, Pompeo said that he would like to rewrite the Iran deal. As you and I and Medea knows that this is not really an option, it’s a multilateral agreement signed by the five plus one. This is also something Trump has suggested, but which U.S. allies such as Germany and France have discarded as a possibility. What does Pompeo’s position mean for the Iran nuclear deal?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It means that Pompeo supports ending U.S. role in the Iran nuclear deal. Because as you say, the negotiations are over. There’s no more room to see if we can get more concessions or make a better language somewhere. The deal is a done deal. It’s been in place now since 2015. And it’s been working very well, as we just heard from Medea. Even the CIA has acknowledged that Iran is, indeed, complying with its required terms. So when Pompeo uses these weasel words about I want a better deal, I’m not trying to get rid of the deal, I want to fix it. There’s no fixing. It’s over. It is what it is. And anybody who tries to tamper with it is saying we should end it, because there are no more negotiations to be had.

So this is a very, very dangerous position, and it’s particularly dangerous if Democrats or Republicans go along with it and accept it as something different than saying I want to undermine this deal, and I want us to get out of it, and I want to move towards a military strike on regime change instead of the deal.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Medea, let’s stay on on Iran for a little bit longer. What options do people have in terms of trying to influence Pompeo and the Trump administration about the Iran deal and keeping it intact?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Certainly there is the Democratic members of the Senate who want to keep this deal, and there are people within the military, such as the Secretary of Defense himself who said it was in the national interests of the United States to stay in the deal, so maybe there will be pressure from inside the Pentagon, as well. But then we have to recognize, as Phyllis said, that this is not just the deal between the United States. And I think pushing our partners in Europe, because there is a division among some of the European countries, not in terms of getting out of the deal, but in terms of imposing more sanctions on Iran for its, quote, meddling in the Middle East, and for its ballistic tests. And there you have some countries that are more hardline, like Germany and France and the U.K., and you have other countries like Italy and Spain who don’t want to see an imposition of further sanctions.

If there are further sanctions, even ones that are not related to the Iran nuclear deal, with the Iran economy already in a very, very difficult place, I would say in a crisis right now, if there are further sanctions imposed this is going to be very critical for the forces inside Iran. The hardliners will have the upper hand, and they might very well succeed in something they’ve been calling for which is that Iran should pull out of the deal.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, let’s, let’s zoom out of Iran, look at the region and go to Syria. On Syria Pompeo says that he believes the president does not need congressional authorization to bomb the country. Phyllis, let me go to you. What is your response to this claim?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, on a certain level Pompeo was right. He doesn’t need, Trump doesn’t need congressional approval because Congress has abandoned the Constitutional obligation they have to hold presidents accountable. So the fact is that many presidents right up until, certainly Trump himself, President Obama, President Bush, the earlier President Bush, President Clinton. They have all waged wars. You could call them White House wars, I suppose, without the approval of Congress, and Congress has largely stood by and allow that to happen without any objection. So in the context of precedent he’s not wrong. In the context of law it’s completely backwards, because they start with the Constitution. Article 2 of the Constitution is very clear that only the Congress, not the president, not the executive branch, has the authority to declare war.

So the notion that somehow because other presidents have done it before that the precedent is what applies here, not the law, really speaks to the question of how Pompeo views executive power as being superior to the rule of law in this country. And that’s before we even get to the question of international law. That’s just speaking to the issue of domestic U.S. law. That’s the constitutional side. If you look at the worst the War Powers Act, of course, from 1973, what you see is that under certain, Very narrowly defined conditions the president could use military force for a very brief moment before having to go back to Congress and get the permission that he didn’t get right away.

But that’s the part that everybody talks about. The part that people don’t mention very often is that it’s a very very specific set of circumstances that would allow the president to go to war without congressional approval under any circumstances. And those are an attack on the United States, an attack on U.S. troops, or an attack on U.S. possessions and territories around the world. That’s it. None of those apply. So any moves towards a White House war here against Syria would be an absolute violation of U.S. law as well as international law.

So I think the the question here is whether this nominee, who’s supposed to be the chief diplomat for the United States, actually believes that the president has the right to go to war because other precedents have been set where the president decided to go to war and Congress stood by and allowed it to happen. If that’s the case for the chief diplomat, we’re in serious trouble. Supposedly, the chief diplomat should be arguing for diplomatic solutions, not military solutions.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Medea, you’ve been doing a lot of work on this, urging Congress to take back their right to a constitutional right to authorize war, and the War Authorization Act rests in Congress. Give us a sense of what the response is and whether Pompeo was even drilled about this issue.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, certainly what Phyllis has been talking about of the right to attack Syria is part of this larger question that the Congress, the last time it had an authorization for the use of military force, there was the one in 2001 and then one in 2002, it has no relevance anymore because it has nothing to do with the dozens of times it has been used since then that were not associated with its original plan to attack either Iraq or al Qaeda and associated forces that attacked us on 9/11.

So I don’t think there’s been nearly enough attention put nor grilling of Pompeo in terms of his position around the authorization of use of military force. But we already know from his position saying that the U.S. has the right to, that the Trump administration has the right to attack Syria, that he doesn’t think another AMF is essential for that.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, speaking of Syria and the tensions that are arising with Russia over the chemical attack that Russia now says, and in fact Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, is on record saying they have information that some one else, some other country, initiated this attack in Syria. This is really a heightening the tension between Russia and the United States. So let me go to you on this, Phyllis, first, and then we’ll go back to Medea. But your take on this rising tension between U.S. And Russia?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: This is a very, very dangerous moment, when we have Trump, with all of his own proclivities towards war and against diplomacy, surrounding himself by what looks like a clear war cabinet. The danger of escalation in Syria is very serious. It could lead to a direct clash between the two most powerful nuclear weapon states in the world, the United States and Russia. You have completely opposite claims emerging from Washington and Moscow, with the U.S. claiming that they know, even though they also agree that they don’t have information, but they know that chemical weapons were used as they were used by the regime in Syria. They seem to know a lot for a government that admits it doesn’t know anything yet.

The Russians, on the other hand, have variously said that another country might be involved. Another Russian diplomat has said that there was no chemical attack at all. So for myself, I don’t actually believe any of these claims by any of the governments. I’m waiting to hear what the report is of the team that’s on its way to D ouma right now, the town outside of Damascus where the alleged chemical weapons attack occurred. The team of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons. That’s the the internationally acknowledged, internationally credible team that will be determining whether or not chemicals were used, what chemicals were used if there were any, who was affected, what delivery systems, et cetera. They are not mandated to determine who fired or who gave the orders to fire. That’s a much more political question that will come back to the Security Council and may stall there, we don’t know.

But at the moment we don’t know at all what happened in Douma on that weekend 10 days ago. So I think that we need to do everything possible to ramp down this level of rhetoric. When the U.S. continues to talk about the inevitability of new strikes against Syria, knowing that this is a direct violation of both, again, international law and U.S. domestic law and threatens the possibility of retaliation against U.S. troops in the region, U.S. warships in the Mediterranean, U.S. warplanes in the skies, and, most importantly, threatens the possibility, the likelihood, of killing more Syrian civilians. We are facing a very, very urgent crisis even before we get to the possibility of serious escalation.

So this is something that Congress needs to take very seriously. And unfortunately in what we’ve seen in the Pompeo hearing there was simply not enough, not enough pushing for this candidate to be the supposed leader of diplomacy in the United States, to push him on the necessity not of saying well, we hoped that we could have a diplomatic solution, but if not well then nothing is off the table. That’s not OK. That’s not acceptable to the U.S. chief diplomat. And we are simply not hearing enough pressure to make that position known.

SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, let me give you the last word here. Give us your take on the last few days of these hearings, and what you as an activist is bracing yourself for. And then finally, what can be done about stopping this warmongering kind of secretary of state that we are going to have as a top diplomat for the country.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it’s very hard to talk about deescalating the situation when you have not only Pompeo, and of course we want to keep fighting so he doesn’t get confirmed. So that would be the number one thing that we can do right now, put pressure on the senators. You know, there is a possibility that he will not get a favorable vote in committee, and that hasn’t happened since 1925, but his nomination can go directly to a floor vote in the Senate. And so I think there’s still a very important fight that we have ahead of us to be pushing particularly the Democrats in the Senate to vote against Pompeo.

But I was going to put it in the context of remember that we have Bolton as the national security adviser, who did not have to have a confirmation hearing. This is why somebody like Jeff Merkley, a senator from Massachusetts, came out and said he will not vote for Pompeo because he recognizes it as part of this larger cabinet, that this is a war cabinet, and therefore a vote for Pompeo is a vote for war. So I would say continue the fight not to get a confirmation for Mike Pompeo.

SHARMINI PERIES: Phyllis, is that even possible?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Absolutely. And it’s crucial. This is exactly what we need to be focusing on right now. The way the votes come down, it’s very, very tight. There are at least, at least one Republican, Rand Paul, who has said he will vote against Pompeo. It looks like McCain will not be there because of his illness. That cuts out two votes. So it’s certainly a possibility. But it’s going to take an enormous amount of work. Enormous numbers of phone calls and visits and protests and threats of not voting back those members of Congress who, who would go ahead and vote for this person as being the new head of diplomacy. This is as urgent as it gets.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Phyllis. I thank you so much for joining us. Phyllis is with the Institute for Policy Studies New Internationalism Project. And Medea Benjamin, thank you so much for joining us. And Medea’s from Code Pink. Thank you both.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She has been organizing against U.S. military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. Her latest work includes an effort to stop CIA drone attacks, and she is the author of a new book, "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection"

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.