Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Patrick Cockburn: The Cynical Forces Behind America’s Forever Wars

The journalist examines the disastrous inevitability of America’s failures in the Middle East as the region continues to reel from decades of U.S.-sponsored turmoil.
Illustration by Mr. Fish.

American interventionism in the Middle East has resulted in two of the longest wars in U.S. history, and led to countless deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as widespread instability in the region. Nearly two decades into the so-called “War on Terror,” concerns continue to arise about the U.S. military presence in the Mideast and its seeming inability to extricate itself after all these years. Patrick Cockburn is especially well-positioned to both ask and answer many of the questions stemming from what have become America’s “Forever Wars” as an award-winning, courageous journalist who has spent several decades reporting for the Financial Times and The Independent from the war torn region. In his latest book, “War in the Age of Trump,” he uses his vast experience as a leading war correspondent to analyze the crisis that has continued to unfurl between 2017 and late 2019 in the Middle East. 

Although the book zeroes in on more recent events, to the journalist, much of what he recorded in the years since September 11th in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, had an air of the inevitable when viewed in a historical context he was very familiar with. 

“What’s kind of surprising,” Cockburn tells “Scheer Intelligence” host Robert Scheer in the latest episode of the podcast, “is how many of these lessons are completely obvious to my mind. It should be obvious that intervening in Afghanistan is not a great idea: the U.S. intervened in 2001 against the Taliban, announced it had overthrown the Taliban–and what’s happening now after tens of thousands of people, including several thousand Americans, have been killed? The Taliban are close to taking power again. 

“These lessons are pretty obvious, but they don’t seem to be learned,” he goes on, “particularly by the sort of political elite, above all in Washington.”

Cockburn and Scheer discuss how that in some sense, U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama share a reluctance to escalate and multiply military conflicts abroad, whereas Hillary Clinton and other Democrats who were expected to join her administration had she been elected president, have taken a more hawkish approach to foreign policy overall. As the two journalists trace the history of the Middle East, what becomes clear to them based on their decades of reporting is that while the excuse shifts from one moral crusade to another, the truth behind interventionism is much more self-serving than American leaders, regardless of their party, would like to admit. 

“One is tempted to single out Donald Trump given the title of the book is ‘War in the Age of Trump,’” says Scheer. “But the folly, the wasted death, the destruction, goes through British and U.S. colonial, neocolonial, neoliberal, and neoconservative periods.”

The award-winning British journalist points out that even if figures from George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton frame foreign wars as battles for human rights and freedom, the driving force behind them is domestic. What’s worse is that whatever the ideological reasoning, as the “Scheer Intelligence” host highlights, the results have been horrific for the local communities and have resulted in undeniable losses for the U.S. military. So why go on with these endless, failing wars?

“I think [American leaders] feel that normality was when you could intervene in places, and it kind of worked,” says Cockburn. “All the lessons of the last 25 years are that it doesn’t work. Now, first of all one could say it shouldn’t be done, but could also say it can’t be done, as we see all over the place. And yet that doesn’t stop them trying.”

Cockburn’s book also goes into detail about the fall of ISIS and the Kurds, as well as examines the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, a conflict Israel has played an important role in. When Scheer posits during the conversation that rather than Russia’s Vladimir Putin, it was Benjamin Netanyahu who intervened in the 2016 U.S. election with his congressional speech against the Iran deal, Cockburn adds that in many ways Netanyahu was a “prototype for Trump.” American and Israeli foreign policy have been intertwined for decades, a fact the journalist also believes has led to Israel’s somewhat unfounded position towards Iran.

“It’s always been rather strange the way Israel and Netanyahu have been obsessed with Iran,” says the “War in the Age of Trump” author, “because the Iranians really weren’t doing much to them, or anything to them. So why is there this obsession? Is it to keep the U.S. on their side?”

The British author points at another alarming problem that has exacerbated interventionism: the increasingly unchallenged spread of propaganda. 

“What has also happened is the ability for journalists to fight back against this propaganda is down,” says Cockburn. “Of course the number of newspapers is down, the amount of money is down. You know, if you want to cover a war, it’s a quite expensive thing to do. And yeah, the money that used to go to newspapers through advertising now goes to the internet platforms. So there’s reduced coverage, so propaganda has increased, and the ability to deal with that propaganda and to say what’s really happening has gone down.” 

Listen to the full conversation between Cockburn and Scheer as they discuss the possible upside to isolationism, the military industrial complex and the state of journalism. You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits. 

Credits: 

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Introduction:

Natasha Hakimi Zapata

RS: Right, but it’s a degree of cynicism that escapes us if it’s our team. If you’re a Democrat or you’re a Republican you say, well, this is necessary. It’s like the whole battle with China in the Cold War, and then now they are a factory floor. And you are witness to the carnage that it brings to the lives of ordinary people in these regions that we’re screwing with, is the reality. They are extras in a tragic play, that whether it becomes farce or not, they get hurt, right? You see them, you’re there. And yet we’re using it as some kind of weird game. You know, with no concern, really, what happens to them. We invoke their freedom or our concern, but we’re not really consistent in any way. 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for the Independent in England, formerly with the Financial Times. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he is, if not the leading correspondent in the English language on the Middle East, certainly in a handful of three or four people. He has covered the region, his first visit to Iraq was in 1977, 43 years ago. He’s been spot-on on ever since. And he has a book that connects his own observations of this whole lengthy experience–actually of the whole Western encounter in modern history with the region. And it’s a book called War in the Age of Trump, published by OR Books.

And I want to start with a scene you have in a graveyard for British soldiers who have died in Iraq, that you visit, you say, when you don’t have better things to do on your numerous visits to the area. And you reminisce about sort of the overview–because we think these days a lot starts and ends with Donald Trump. But in that scene in the graveyard, you provide a kind of overview of what I guess can be considered the imperialist folly, Western imperialist folly, in a century of–more than a century of engagement in that region, with the same disastrous results. So just sort of give us the ending of the book [Laughs], the overview.

PC: [Laughs] Yes, it may seem a strange thing to do, but you’re quite right. I have been visiting cemeteries, military cemeteries in Iraq for a long time. Usually rather sort of melancholy places, forgotten. Often the people living around them don’t quite know who’s buried there. But it gives me a sense of different armies that have invaded Iraq, have invaded the Middle East. The number of people that got killed during those invasions, and how they ended disastrously, usually, for those who carried them out. There’s a big one in Baghdad I’ve been visiting for years. It’s in the Waziriyah district of Baghdad, and it’s full of gravestones for British soldiers. The British actually lost 40,000 dead and 60,000 wounded in the First World War in a campaign that nobody in Britain really knows about, and of course the government had every reason to keep quiet about. Curiously, the cemeteries, the only people who really visit them are peculiar people like myself, and witches in Baghdad. Believe it or not, there are witches there, sorcerers who believe if they bury their charms in between the graves of non-Muslims, that they’ll be more potent. Which has made quite a lot of money; it’s quite a big business, you see them advertised around town, any wish that you want to have made.

RS: Well, they are probably the only ones who have profited from all of this foreign involvement and death and destruction. Because at the end of your book–and one is tempted to single out Donald Trump, and the title of the book is War in the Age of Trump. But the folly, the wasted death, the destruction, goes through British and U.S. and colonial, neocolonial, neoliberal, neoconservative. And at the end of the book, you come to the startling conclusion that the main effect, the lasting effect, is that actually Iran–which is the presumed target of Donald Trump, whatever his motivation, and as seen as the bad actor–actually, the influence through, the extension of the influence of the Shia part of Muslim from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, is there’s now a continuous sweep.

 And the big, big result is not really an increase of obviously freedom, stability, well-being. Although you do paint the picture–and I should point out this book is heavily based on on-the-scene reporting, including very recent reporting. But actually your description of Baghdad these days is of greater stability, more focus on delivery of services, and so forth. Syria seems to be becoming stable, another country that you write about quite a bit. And so the outcome of all of this carnage–which produced many more, of course and Arab loss of life, and Kurdish loss of life, than foreign soldiers–nonetheless, what is the result of all this?

PC: Yeah, I mean, it’s sort of–it’s been a peculiar consequence. Iraq is better than it was, but the bar is pretty low. I mean, Iraq has had 40 years of war and crisis. In some ways, things have improved; ISIS, the Islamic State, Daesh, has been defeated. Pretty well everybody has sort of overplayed their hand there. Because Iraq is a place–Lebanon is the same–it looks very easy to invade, and is easy to invade. Because it doesn’t, there isn’t really a sort of state to overthrow. Or at least, you can overthrow the state–you know, as the U.S. and its allies did in 2003 when they overthrew Saddam–but then your problems begin. Because Saddam wasn’t the only power in Iraq. And I remember, I remember just at the moment of the invasion in 2003, talking to an Iraqi doctor I ran into in a hospital. And he was saying to me, you know, that–he said, you know, the Americans coming in, they should really remember that Saddam Hussein was a really tough guy, and he had problems running this country. And of course, he was dead right. 

So all invaders ended up basically failing in Iraq, because power is distributed all over, in different places. Iraqis have a saying that in Iraq there are four paths: the government is one; then you have the Marja’iyyah, that’s the religious hierarchy; then you have the paramilitary, that’s the Hashad; and then you have the tribes. And actually, that’s an oversimplification. Then you’re divided between Shia and Sunni and Kurds. And you know, what gives each sort of power center its influence is that they have their foreign allies; they plug in to foreign powers. And that in the past has always made Iraq unstable. And to a degree, that’s still true; it’s a little better today, but it’s still true. And also, of course, you know, all the oil states have been hit by the decline, or almost collapse, of the price of oil.

RS: But let’s take that idea, because after all, these invasions were justified not to get the oil, even though when they overthrew Saddam they said, oh, but the oil will pay for all this. Of course it didn’t; imperialism turns out to be an economic loser in the long run. But the reality is that there was never any logical connection between the purpose, stated purpose of intervention–no matter what government did it, whether it was the French or the English or the Russians or the U.S. or what have you. It’s always–and your book just documents it with your own writing over the years, and then its conclusion. There’s never any logical–it’s all fake news, actually, from day one. It’s a century of fake news. You’re lying about why you’re there, you’re lying about what you’ve accomplished. 

And you even point out in your book, the ability of journalists like yourself to expose these lies is very much diminished because of the sorry state of media these days. And the, you know, refusal to spend money on journalism and so forth. So our ability to engrasp what’s going on is even far more limited than it ever was, but we never got the story right. We were always lied to about it, and that continues to the current moment. We may go to war over Iran; people are angry about what Russia did, about what Turkey did with the Kurds. And yet, reading your book, it doesn’t seem we’ve got even that story right. I mean, you know, in your book actually Trump doesn’t look so terrible on the relation to Kurds and relation to the Turkish crossing the border and so forth.

PC: Yeah, I think it’s–you know, Trump’s pretty bad in the area. But often those who are criticizing him or saying this is disastrous, you then look at what their policies are, and they’re just as bad, sometimes worse, and also detached from reality. You know, when Trump announced withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria, U.S. forces were, you know, in a bad way there, small players surrounded by bigger players. You know, it was–there was a sort of reason for that. But what you always end up with, to my mind, with the Trump policies is you end up with a compromise between what Trump would like–and often his instinct is crude but acute–a compromise with the sort of foreign policy establishment in Washington, the foreign policy and military establishment in Washington. So you have a sort of compromise between the two, which gets the worst of both worlds. So the U.S. pulled a little bit out of Northeast Syria and then went back again. So it’d had a pretty unstable situation before, and it has an even more unstable one now. You have the same thing in Iraq. You have the same in Afghanistan. But I think this sort of automatic blaming everything on Trump is pretty simple-minded and self-deceiving.

RS: Well, it’s interesting, because it’s in the news right now as we’re talking. You have your former secretary of defense, right, who is very critical of Trump over his handling of the domestic protests. But he broke with Trump, Mattis, he broke with Trump over not being aggressive enough in Syria, right? And you know, it’s really the argument between Trump’s kind of isolationism and reliance on economic advantage, and you know, old-fashioned economic success rather than military. And in a foreign policy establishment which included Hillary Clinton, if she had won the election, and going back to her support of the original war, a foreign policy establishment in Washington that likes these adventures, defends them, justifies them. 

And you know, the title of your book is a little bit–you know, one expects, oh, war in the age of Trump–well, you think it’s going to be even worse. But in some ways it might even be better. Maybe the situation in Syria, for example, which you write about and you have covered, might be better now–fewer refugees. Maybe the Turkish incursion was not the worst thing, even for the Kurds. Maybe there’s a–you know, after all, ISIS was defeated, or ended under his watch. Does not objectivity require challenging this narrative, at least as far as this region, that he has been the great disaster, and if only we had had Hillary Clinton win that we would be in much better shape?

PC: Yeah, you sort of think that, you know, Trump hasn’t actually started any wars. You know, lots of–because of sort of all the rhetoric, the bombast, people forget that. In some ways, part of his policy was actually a bit like Obama. Remember, Obama refused to intervene in Syria in, was it 2013, to launch attacks then, much against the wishes of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, and the same in the U.K. And at the time, I remember he gave a famous interview saying he wasn’t going to just automatically give an OK to the, what he called the Washington playbook, which was always to react militarily. Trump, sort of the same thing. And it’s kind of wise. In fact, it’s almost obvious that this is not a great idea, because we’ve seen what happened in the wars in Afghanistan since the U.S. intervened there in 2001, and Iraq, 2003. And you know, Lebanon, remember the U.S. intervention there in the early eighties that ended with the Marines being blown up. So you know, this is not a stupid policy. And of course, it’s the great weakness of the sort of opposition to Trump in the past, that they’ve sort of pushed intervention in Syria. I would have thought that this should have been extremely obvious after what happened in Iraq, this might not be a great idea. But even so, the sort of people who Hillary Clinton in 2016 appeared to be positioning to be her defense secretary and so forth, all had very aggressive policy positions.

RS: So, you know, it’s interesting. And the book is called War in the Age of Trump. So let’s talk about this president, because you offer, I daresay, a more complex view. You say we underestimate Trump as a successful–what do you call it, part of the sort of Caesarean democracy–is that your phrase, or somebody else’s?

PC: I mean, this is not an advertisement for Trump. But he does have a certain instinct for trouble, and an instinct–I think, you know, I think he’s a genuine, sort of in the tradition of American isolationism. But also an instinct that actually getting involved in a real war in the Middle East is a really bad idea from the point of view of the U.S. or a foreign power. You know, otherwise what he does is very crude; he seems to do exactly what Israel wants him to do; his love affair with the Saudis seems to have ebbed quite a lot, looking to the Gulf monarchies. But his instinct not to get involved in a fighting war is probably pretty sensible, and more sensible than a lot of people in Washington give him credit for. You know, has it been a success? I wouldn’t say it was exactly a success, but it hasn’t been a disaster either.

RS: Well, you’re probably the leading Western expert on the consequences of other recent interventions. So you had Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State, and what is the result in Libya, Syria, and so forth? Was she on the right track? Are the Kurds better off? Are the Libyan people better off? Everybody forgets this was a very aggressive–now, fortunately, President Obama didn’t always listen to her. But you remember, she’s the one who famously said about Libya: we saw, we came, and he’s dead, of Gaddafi, who at that point was pretty much a toothless dictator, at least as far as blowing up planes and things, and seemed to be even getting along better, or at least his son was, with England. And really, what is the comparison of their track record? 

PC: Yeah, this was–you know, the U.S., France, and the U.K. sort of led the way on Libya, but actually it was the U.S. that provided all the muscle for that intervention. And it should have been so obvious what was going to happen. I mean, I was in Libya, remember, during the war in Benghazi. You know, one thing was very obvious, that the opposition were not going to win without massive NATO help, to the point it would have basically been NATO’s war. And secondly, that if they did win, they were completely incapable of taking over from Gaddafi. You know, these were sort of ragtag militias that had been hired by [others] who were providing money to hire them. They even hired my own driver. I know what I was paying him, so if they were paying him more, these were very well-paid guys. And then you had everyone going to the front line south of Benghazi, and there were more journalists there than there were opposition militiamen. And they were guys with sort of pickups, with heavy machine guns in the back, and whatever. It actually was quite dangerous to stand there, because if you stood behind one of their trucks, if a shell went off in the distance they’d immediately try and reverse, and sort of disappear away from the front. 

So it should have been obvious what was going to happen if Gaddafi was overthrown. You’d have this, you know, very–these very ramshackle militias take over, and Libya would be sucked into an endless war. These wars which keep starting in the area, they never seem to end. It sort of used to be we had wars that, you know, you had a beginning date and an end date. But in the Middle East, Afghanistan, the war starts in, I suppose you could say ’79, but it certainly restarted in 2001. It’s still going on. Libya that’s true, Syria that’s true, Yemen; bin Salman, the crown prince, intervened in 2015. So far as I can remember, they called it their operation “decisive storm” or something. You know, they’re still there. It’s not working. 

So you know, I wouldn’t–going back to Trump, I wouldn’t say it’s been a great success. But it hasn’t been a great disaster either, in the way that Hillary Clinton in Libya was a great disaster, or Iraq and Afghanistan were great disasters.

RS: Well, but what the democratic hawks–which is almost all of the leadership–say is, first of all, he turned over the place to Russia, and they got involved with Turkey, and they’ve abandoned the Kurds. That’s something that you discount in your book. And also, it’s interesting, because the big issue now is the influence of foreign powers in our election. And the Russians are blamed by the Hillary Clinton people for the election of Trump. But it seems to me the foreign power that most effectively intervened in our election on behalf of Trump was Israel. And Netanyahu came and did the unpardonable offense of attacking a sitting president, Barack Obama, for his major foreign policy achievement, his negotiation of a reduction of a possible nuclear program in Iran. He did it in real time, he clearly supported Trump. And it seems to me if there’s any logic to Trump’s continuing obsession in the area, it’s with Iran, and threatening to go to war with Iran–which of course has not attacked us in any direct way, the way people from Saudi Arabia did. So isn’t–I mean, your book kind of skirts that in a way, but isn’t this really sort of, again, the folly of using these foreign regions to play out domestic politics and weird agendas?

PC: I think so, yeah. I mean, Netanyahu is interesting because in many ways, he was the prototype of the Trump-type politician, which we have all over the world now. You know, of a nativist, you know, nationalist; I prefer to use the word “nativist,” sort of demagogic leader. The way he operates, you see that sort of–you see it in Hungary, you see it increasingly in Poland, you see it in Brazil. But he was, I think, really the first of them. I was in Jerusalem when Rabin got assassinated in ’95, and there during the rise of Netanyahu. So in many ways, he’s a kind of prototype for Trump. And it’s always been rather strange the way Israel and Netanyahu have been obsessed with Iran, because the Iranians really weren’t doing much to them, or anything to them. And why there is this obsession–is it to keep the U.S. on their side? You know, immediately after the Iranian Revolution, one of the strange things was the Israelis were not as worried, or said they weren’t as worried, as they later claimed. I think it may be that one of the reasons is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a need for a new enemy for Israel, and one that it could claim to be helping the U.S. against. It needed to be sort of an ally of the U.S. in a new Cold War, and to some extent that’s still the case. Netanyahu, by the way, may be keen for the U.S. to fight Iran; he’s certainly not keen for Israel to fight Iran. Much more cautious when you go down to southern Syria and Lebanon, what the Israelis do there, much more cautious than it sounds, what it looks like when you see the newspapers.

RS: So and also, in connection, a big criticism of Trump’s having abandoned the Kurds. But in your book–and I should give the title again, War in the Age of Trump, a terrific blending of brilliant journalism–and I say that advisedly, but you are, for my money, the best journalist on the scene. Writing–not parachuting in and getting out, but you know, over the years with a broad perspective. I’ve actually seen you work in the field in a few cases. And I think the blending of that kind of, in the midst of the chaos and the fog of war, and also having an overview–and an overview, I think, not driven by cynicism, but actually compassion. You are compassionate for the Kurds. You’ve lived among the Kurds, you’ve covered them in times of war. And yet you are not as critical of what happened to the Kurds as a result of the Trump Turkish expansion.

PC: Well, thanks for the kind words. But not quite so critical, because–and not really critical of anybody very much. You know, the Kurds have a problem. They’re a minority, then they ally themselves with the U.S., and then they conquer a third of Syria, far more than they can hold. Without continual U.S. backing, it makes them a lot of enemies; and enemies they already had, like the Turks, hate them even more. So you know, they’re in this very dangerous position that if they stick with the U.S., then they’re going to hold all this territory; this is going to mean that the Damascus government, Assad and the Turks, are going to see them as a threat. But they can’t–sort of without the U.S., they’re done for, you know. So they’re in an incredibly difficult position, and one that may, you know, has produced disasters already; it may produce even worse disasters, with mass ethnic cleansing. So the same is true of the Kurds in Iraq; so long as they have a U.S. alliance, they’ve felt they could sort of expand, but again it made them a lot of enemies, and brought disaster on them.

So you know, looking at all these things, I don’t–one of the problems about media coverage is, first of all, it tends to see these things in black and white. You know, it’s sort of very schematic. It’s like a scene out of that, you know–if you’ve seen the movie Les Misérables. You know, it’s a very sort of naive view of the Kurds, or the Iraqi opposition, or the Iraqi government, or anybody else. These are very, very complicated places. You can figure them out. But what’s striking about foreign powers, not just America but the British and the others, is they invade these places, how little they manage to know about them. You know, they’ve got all these intelligence services, they’ve got all these diplomats. But decisions are based on sort of extreme ignorance about what’s going on in any of these countries.

RS: Well, the ignorance is convenient, or it’s an inconvenient–the reality is an inconvenient truth; why examine it? I mean, the fact of the matter is–and this is characteristic of the Democratic Party, now more than ever–is the identification of a human rights concern with intervention. This has, you know, been driving the policy. We have an obligation to get more involved. We have an obligation to come to, to send–

PC: Yeah, but Bob, you know, in the 19th century it was the missionaries who were the justification, you know. The missionaries weren’t being treated right. Now it’s sort of human rights has become the excuse, although it shoots up and down. Remember that supposedly the intervention, the NATO intervention in Libya was fueled by–why would Gaddafi attack Benghazi, a city in the east of the country, and massacre everybody? I mean, there was basically no evidence this would happen. Great attention to that. Now, what’s happened to Benghazi since, nobody is very interested, but if you–some people have taken some drone footage of it, and I’ll tell you exactly what it looks like. It’s a great heap of ruins. The whole place is gone, due to fighting since the fall of Gaddafi between the different factions there. But no real interest in that. 

So I think that this sort of foreign intervention, you know, why does it happen? It happens for domestic political reasons. That’s why the intervention in Iraq–you know, why did George W. Bush want an Iraqi prime minister to stand in front of Congress and say thank you to the American people. That, you know, that was good come election time. But once an Iraqi prime minister had done that, he pilloried himself back home as being just a foreign pawn. You know, because perception of what was going on there was entirely geared to American domestic politics. 

RS: Right, but it’s a degree of cynicism that escapes us if it’s our team. If you’re a Democrat or you’re a Republican you say, well, this is necessary. It’s like the whole battle with China in the Cold War, and then now they are a factory floor. And you are witness to the carnage that it brings to the lives of ordinary people in these regions that we’re screwing with, is the reality. They are extras in a tragic play, that whether it becomes farce or not, they get hurt, right? You see them, you’re there. And yet we’re using it as some kind of weird game. You know, with no concern, really, what happens to them. We invoke their freedom or our concern, but we’re not really consistent in any way. 

And reading your book–and I remind people, the book is War in the Age of Trump, but it could really be “the folly of war anytime,” would be a title I would give it. You know, you really describe the waste of life, the waste of resources, the messing around with people. And you make a very interesting point. The emphasis recently, more than ever, is on keeping down our own casualties, the invading foreign power. But the carnage to ordinary people, of the massive bombing–you make a point: unless the Russians got involved to help Assad, then Assad is going to lose troops. You know, well, the same thing is true on the side of people we support, that the Kurds can bring in massive bombing runs, massive destruction, to the people, whether they’re Shias or Sunnis or whoever. So the foreign power comes in with these big airplanes, these big payloads, and ordinary civilians get killed in large numbers. And yet you don’t have a Vietnam situation, where you’re losing a significant number of your own people. So it becomes a video game. Except it’s not a video game for the people on the ground that you end up talking to and writing about.

PC: Yeah, it’s that, it’s–you know, what’s the U.S. intervention like in Iraq and Syria? Well, most of it has to do with air power. And there’s an exaggerated idea of what air power can do. What it can do is devastate whole cities. You know, this whole idea of pinpoint accuracy, of smart bombs and so forth–well, of course, that might be O.K. if you know where the target is. But of course the guys like, you know, ISIS in the past, the Islamic State people, they made sure nobody could see them. You know, so you’d have a building with six floors, two floors civilian, then another floor that would be full of ISIS fighters, and then there’d be civilians again. So they make sure they’re entirely mixed up with the civilian population. 

And air forces always lie about civilian casualties. I mean, they just sort of–one survey I saw in the U.S. bombing south of Mosul, just one little place, the U.S. had said they’d killed one civilian; somebody did a real house-by-house survey, the real figure was 43. But it’s always that sort of proportion. You know, that sort of–Raqqa, the same thing, completely devastated. And when the Russians and the Syrian government bomb east Aleppo, sure, they kill civilians. But when I go to these cities, they always look exactly the same. You know, whoever the hell was bombing them. It’s basically the same, it’s like World War II bombing, they bomb everything flat.

RS: Well, let’s end on that. Because there’s a conceit that has carried us right through this whole post-World War II period, where we make mistakes, but we’re on the side of the angels; our motives are good. And then whether we torture or bomb or whatever we do, those are unintended accidents or mistakes. And then of course the Russians getting involved with Assad, even though Putin’s no longer a Communist of any sort–their motives are always the bad ones. And that is sustained right now in American politics, with the Democrats really beating the drum for a new cold war with Russia, and you know, somehow what they’ve done in the Mideast somehow justifies that. And you’re presenting a view–no. On the ground, where you’ve been, where you’ve reported, it doesn’t matter which great power or which air force is doing the bombing. The consequences are inhuman.

PC: Yeah, exactly. And it also, there’s nothing very new about it; it’s very much like the 19th century. You know, the sort of foreign powers rushing into Africa, sometimes just, you know, claiming they’re going to civilize the place, claiming they’re supporting their missionaries, things like that. But it’s not much different. You know, look at Libya, or today that you have all these sort of foreign powers rushing in, looking to get their bit of influence, backing their local proxies. Turkey is in there, the Russians are in there, the French are in there, you know, the UAE, the Egyptians. And the whole place is torn apart, and likewise Syria. So it’s very much like sort of old imperial wars of the 19th century that we’re seeing again, except even more devastating, actually. 

RS: But what is so odd about it–and you mentioned the press is at fault, but I blame also the political class, and even the intellectuals who study these things. That, again, the justification that you’re on the side of freedom, you’re on the side of independence for people, that you care about them, and that anybody who’s going against your narrative, they’re doing the work of the devil. That tone is actually stronger now maybe than it’s ever been.

PC: I’ve experienced that, you know, if you try and sort of write objectively about these places, you’ll immediately get attacked a being a sort of lackey of Gaddafi or Assad or whoever. And that started quite some time ago; I was actually looking at my own book, at an article I’d written, I think it was in 1991 during the war in Iraq, the bombing of Iraq. And I don’t know if you remember the famous milk factory, which the U.S. bombed and claimed, baby milk factory, claimed that it was producing poison gas. And I went there with Peter Arnett, who was the CNN correspondent, and we looked around and you could see it had been producing baby milk. And you could look through the wrecks of sort of filing cabinets, and there was correspondence about that, and there was no sign of anybody producing biological weapons. Didn’t prove it wasn’t there, but you know. And I was much attacked, [as] a sort of traitor to the country up and down. A few years later, you know, very slowly it leaks out, yeah, they’d got the wrong place. You know, a bit of camouflage netting had looked an awful lot like the camouflage netting at a biological warfare place in Iraq. They just got it wrong. 

So as it got worse, I mean, it was always bad, but it has got worse. And what has also happened is something that you mentioned earlier, is the ability for journalists to sort of fight back against this propaganda is down. Of course the number of newspapers is down, the amount of money is down. You know, if you want to cover a war, it’s a quite expensive thing to do. And yeah, the money that used to go to newspapers through advertising now goes to the internet platforms. So there’s reduced coverage, so propaganda has increased, and the ability to deal with that propaganda and to say what’s really happening has gone down.

RS: So might one not make–and let’s end this, but let me–after reading your book, and I haven’t mentioned, you’ve written four books about Iraq and the Mideast, and people should check them out. This one is War in the Age of Trump. It’s a must-read, it’s from OR Books. And you know, this conversation doesn’t really capture the detail in the description of it. But what I came away from–and it’s not a new view for myself, with my own travels–I wonder, what’s wrong with isolationism? Now, we generally think, oh, you’re indifferent to the suffering of others, and you would stand by in the face of atrocities. But actually, at least you wouldn’t be making atrocities of your own. You wouldn’t be bombing people who don’t deserve to be bombed. Why does isolationism have such a–maybe we should revive it. Maybe it’s, in a time of vast cynicism, why should we intrude in countries where we don’t have any idea of what’s going on? And certainly Iraq, as you describe in your book, is a classic example. We produced exactly the opposite outcome of what we had intended. Exactly the opposite. The Iranian influence, which we claimed was a big problem at one point, has increased, not decreased. And if it’s decreased, as your book indicates, it’s only because one of their leading generals reached too far, and he alienated the population. So maybe isolationism should not be seen as a bad word. 

PC: Yeah, it’s sort of–yeah, I take your point, absolutely. And what’s kind of surprising that I find about this period the book is about–and in fact, all the period I’ve been writing about the Middle East–is how many of these lessons are completely obvious to my mind. You know, it should be obvious that intervening in Afghanistan is not a great idea, because the U.S. intervened in 2001 against the Taliban, announced it had overthrown the Taliban–and what’s happening now after tens of thousands of people, including several thousand Americans, have been killed? Hundreds of thousands, probably, have died in general, and the Taliban are close to taking power again, you know. But these lessons are pretty obvious, but they don’t seem to be learned, particularly by the sort of political elite, above all in Washington. In a funny way, both I think Obama and even Trump perceive that. They didn’t sort of go wholly against it. But I think they sort of did see that this was a road to disaster, in a way the foreign policy elite never did quite take that on board. 

RS: Well, but without the preparation for these disasters and so forth, there wouldn’t be much for the foreign policy elite to be expert on. I mean, there’s an industry here that Eisenhower warned us about, the military-industrial complex. And they make their living off this turmoil, and even if the turmoil is in no way connected with its stated purposes, there’s still a lot to do, write papers about, and make careers on. 

PC: Yeah, I think that the sort of–you know, and also that’s the business therein, as you rightly say. And also because they sort of, I think they feel that normality was when you could intervene in places, and it kind of worked; all the lessons of the last 25 years are, it doesn’t work. But they have a sort of idea of maybe imperial Washington when it was at its peak, that that was the norm. But now, first of all one could say it shouldn’t be done, but could also say it can’t be done, as we see all over the place. And yet that doesn’t stop them trying. 

RS: Well, that’s the tyranny of careerism. That’s a good point on which to end. I want to thank you, Patrick Cockburn. The book is War in the Age of Trump, but it’s really about the folly of war, as far as I could see. It’s OR Books, and they publish a whole interesting line of books. I want to thank KCRW, Christopher Ho, who engineers this and gets it posted and made available. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who does the introduction, and Joshua Scheer, our producer, who puts it all together. And I want to have a special thanks for support for Scheer Intelligence, which comes from the J.W.K. Foundation in memory of a writer–I suspect, Patrick, you had met her–Jean Stein, a legendary writer. And I want to thank that foundation for their support. And see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

%d bloggers like this: