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Nearly two full decades into the Afghanistan War, with just a month left before the United States under President Trump had agreed to withdraw its remaining troops from Afghanistan at long last, it seems Joe Biden is going to backtrack on his predecessor’s promise. At his first press conference as U.S. president, Biden stated, “It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” citing “tactical” and safety concerns regarding the 2,500 soldiers left on the ground in Afghanistan. Maj. Danny Sjursen, a historian and veteran of America’s two longest wars, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss what he thinks about Biden’s possible delay and what this will mean to Afghanistan’s people and the American soldiers in the region.
Sjursen, who graduated from West Point and taught there, is the author of several books, including most recently “Patriotic Dissent,” suspects that the main motivation behind the hesitation to withdraw by the Biden Administration and its liberal allies in corporate media and think tanks is, put simply, that the deal to pull out was negotiated by Donald Trump. Liberal distaste for the former president seems to be fueling decisions, the veteran argues, that will cost many lives. It also reveals just how powerful the military industrial complex continues to be despite the change in the White House. The military historian lists the warmongers pulling strings in D.C. who have ties to Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors that make billions off of bloodshed. Most egregiously, Sjursen highlights that it’s not just the lives that are lost in Afghanistan that make up the cost of these ongoing conflicts, but, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower once powerfully said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.”
While many on the left, including Sjursen and Scheer, had tentatively hoped that a Democratic president hailed as newly progressive would take the country off its perpetual military collision course, the two caution that liberals can also prove dangerous when it comes to foreign policy.
“Is it always going to be this way?” asks Scheer, expressing his concern that the Democrats are “trying to pick a fight” with Russia and China–conflicts that would have a devastating impact on the entire world.
“My greatest fear is that it’s the Democrats that get us into a great power conflict,” responds Sjursen, “[because] they have banged the drum about Russia and Trump for so long, [as well as] trying to out-Trump Trump on China.” The retired major goes on to pinpoint where he believes the most dangerous conflict could start as well as outline why, although he thinks neoconservatives have done abominable things, he is extremely wary of some of the cold war liberals in the Biden Administration–including Jake Sullivan, whom he’s written about for ScheerPost. Listen to the full discussion between Sjursen and Scheer as the two consider the new president’s foreign policy direction and try to predict what Biden will do in Afghanistan based on the people he surrounds himself with and his mixed record as a long-serving statesman.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And it’s somebody I’ve gotten to know real well, Daniel Sjursen. And you know, he comes from this mysterious place of Staten Island, New York; I come from the Bronx, I have difficulty dealing with his foreign language issues. But really, it’s great to have you back. And I thought this would be a joyous moment; you got a Democratic president, these enlightened people are running all around, Donald Trump is history. And Donald Trump, I must say, did start an energetic process to try to get us out of Afghanistan, the way Richard Nixon did getting us out, starting to get us out of Vietnam. And suddenly we’ve hit a snag here.
So I thought this was going to be a podcast where we talked about, you know, here’s Major Danny Sjursen, he entered West Point just before 9/11, and ended up being a lieutenant and then a captain and a major, and spending–he’s only 37 years old now, and he spent his whole entire adult life fighting these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these never-ending wars. I thought this was going to be a congratulatory podcast. We’ve done a bunch before this, and I was going to say well, the war is over–war is over, peace, what’s happening? Instead we’ve got a Democratic president and bipartisan, the Congress passed the biggest defense budget, as if peace is not in the offing. And now we have, just this week, a report that the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon are putting pressure on President Biden, not to negotiate peace quickly, because otherwise the Taliban will win. And that’s always the excuse: this enemy will win, will win; that’s what kept us there all these years.
And so I just want to put it to you there, and Biden in his defense said well, I’m hoping we’ll get out in a year. So he’s actually backed off on what was supposed to be Trump’s promise of getting out. How do you see this? How do you see your life in this context? For god’s sake, 37 years old, and what you’ve known is being a commander of troops that died, that were injured; you saw so many people in Iraq and Afghanistan injured. I thought this was going to be a celebratory thing, and what are we, in there for still another 20 years? Take it away.
DS: Well, you know, it’s interesting that you kind of bring that up. We are led to believe that because of the 2020 election’s results, that peace should break out, you know. John Lennon sang, “War is over, if you want it.” I’m not so sure that holds anymore, because the American people want out of this war; 73% of veterans of the Afghan War want out. And here we are with a Biden administration that we’re told is newly progressive and is going to bring America back at home and abroad–and Biden is saying, look, it’s tough to see how we can get out of this war on May 1st as planned. Which makes me think, controversially, that the worst thing that happened to the Afghan peace plan was that Trump made it. Because if Trump did it, we have to undo it.
But you know, just to really answer your question in the briefest way, I find it sort of grotesque, and disturbing, and a little depressing. The sort of offhandedness with which this is handled. That there are still 3,500 American soldiers in Afghanistan. My best student as a cadet, when I was a teacher, he only recently returned from Afghanistan. He fought the same war I fought, 10 years after I fought it, and I fought it 10 years after it started. And yet the American people, the politicians, and the media handle this with such, you know, flippancy almost. Like, well, maybe the war will continue and maybe it should, but you know, people are dying, and if this continues we are going to see the first time in our republic’s history that a soldier born after the start of a war dies in said war. Because the Taliban have said that if May 1st we don’t leave, they’re going back to war with the United States. And I’ll tell you, that blood is going to be on the Biden administration’s hands. I mean, sure, everyone before, but it’s going to ultimately fall on him, and wouldn’t that be a tragedy for the guy who lost a son to the burn pits in Iraq.
RS: You know, I just want to say, I didn’t give you a proper introduction, but you wrote a very important book about your tour of duty in Iraq. And that’s I guess where you had graduated from West Point, and that’s where you became disillusioned with these forever wars. It’s called Ghost Riders of Baghdad. You most recently came out with a book that Heyday is printing, called Patriotic Dissent, in which you make the argument that dissent is the highest obligation of patriotism, when the government’s policies are wrong. And this June 1st you’ve got a new book coming out called The True History of the United States. I’m a bit familiar with it because you have been writing about this history of the United States for Truthdig magazine that I’ve been editing, and also for many other publications. So, congratulations. And you also are a graduate student; the military sent you to graduate school at the University of Kansas, you’re quite an expert on American history, and you were brought back by the military after your first tour of duty to teach at West Point. So you were referring to somebody you got to know as a student at West Point.
DS: That’s right. It was after my second tour, it was after Afghanistan, actually. I commanded in Afghanistan at the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so essentially the tenth anniversary of that war. I came back, and I was accepted to teach at West Point–it’s actually fairly selective–while I was in Afghanistan; I got the news in Afghanistan that I’d been selected to teach. Which was wonderful, because that meant that if I got to go home, right–which not all of my soldiers did, but I did, right, I was lucky–that I could go straight to grad school, essentially, and kind of take a breather from the army. So then from 2014 to ’16, I was teaching cadets. History 101, freshman History 101, to kids who were in kindergarten when 9/11 happened. Since then, those students of mine have served in Afghanistan, in Syria, Iraq. And I just–you know, in my world–and I understand that as a professional soldier we have kind of a small world in a way, right? We’re separate from the American people, which is a problem. But in my world, this is real. Which means in their world, in the military family world. And of course it’s even more real for Afghans.
But I think that this is being handled as though it’s a bureaucratic decision, with bureaucratic timelines. But that’s war as an abstraction, and that’s obscene, and that’s what I’ve been trying to call out about this forthcoming decision. Which, look, it looks like a fait accompli; it looks like Biden’s going to say, hey, we’re staying a little longer. And it’s the same old, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, just a bit more effort, just a bit more staying the course. But like I said, you know, blood will be shed over this. And that’s something that we really have to deal with outside of the intellectual arguments that I can and will make, you know, forthcoming here, about why all the arguments to stay are just, you know, completely spurious. But outside of that is the human element, and that’s what I try to bring to the table, in addition to the scholarship.
RS: Yeah, but let me–you know, the reason I bring up your military credentials, you served–thank you for your service. When we go to sporting events they thank wounded veterans, they thank veterans, but they don’t really care about what happens. And you were somebody who believed. You came from Staten Island where there were a lot of cops and firemen, and they were affected by 9/11. You know, you believed in the mission for much of it; you became disillusioned by this reality. And you saw people die, people that you had to report their deaths and deal with the consequences, or had mental issues and everything else, wounds. And so I think–and I do want to mention, I left out an important credential you have right now. You are, what, the director of the new Eisenhower institute? What is the official title?
DS: Yeah, it’s the Eisenhower Media Network, we call it EMN. It’s just an organization, or an affiliation of kind of independent, critical national security veterans. So we’ve got, you know, enlisted people up to colonels like Larry Wilkerson; we’ve got FBI special agent whistleblowers; basically, we’ve got people who’ve been there and done that and then kind of changed their mind, and have an analysis to give that is not the Pentagon line. That is not the military-industrial complex line. That’s what we do; we place them in media, we help them write articles, and we work together.
RS: And you’ve been there and done it. And the reason I bring that up, I’m–god, I’m a half-century older than you, you know? About to have my 85th birthday. But I remember going to Vietnam the first time. It was 1964, and I went there a whole bunch of times, was at Cambodia, I’ve been in a few other war zones, the Six-Day War in the Mideast in Israel, what they call the Six-Day War. I’ve been around the block. And I was always met with this argument as a journalist–oh, you don’t really know it, and you’re not really willing to sacrifice. You know, and yet–interesting in the connection with Eisenhower, we could go back to George Washington, this is always something that–it’s interesting how we selectively ignore American history or evoke it. But our two most famous generals, or two of our most famous generals, George Washington and President Eisenhower, who became presidents, right?–were determined not to repeat the errors of war. I mean, it was George Washington who warned us about the “impostures of pretended patriotism” in his farewell address. It was Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell address, who warned us about the military-industrial complex. You know, and here you are, a major, retired, who paid his dues.
And you’re not getting MSNBC coverage, you’re not getting mainstream coverage and so forth. And you know, I think it’s commendable that veterans like you are willing to speak out. But there’s a splendid indifference. It’s almost like, you know, oh, yeah, an adornment you wear; you wear the American flag here when you’re a politician and so forth, but the actual–your whole life has been as, what, a mercenary. You know, and now your country–you write intelligently about it, I’ve read what you’ve written about American history; I think you’re one of our really great historians. I hope this book gets the attention that Howard Zinn or Mary and Charles Beard got for their great books; we’ve had important historians. But you know, the splendid indifference–take us there now, at this moment. This war could end now. And they say oh no, no, because the Taliban–there’s always these rationalizations. Like with Vietnam, the war that I spent so much time covering, I remember you would have intelligent people say, oh, we can’t just get out, or it’s too early to get out–why? What will happen? Oh, we’ll have to fight them in San Diego. How are the Vietnamese going to get to San Diego? How are the Taliban going to get to–oh, no, it’s not really Vietnam, it’s China. Right? And then what happens? We lose the most ignominious defeat in American history, and what happens? The Vietnamese Communists don’t go fight in San Diego. They don’t fight America at all. You know, they go have a war with Communist China. Exactly the opposite of what was supposed to–and now they’re still fighting about some islands. And when Donald Trump and other people say we shouldn’t do business with red China, they want the business to go to Vietnam. Which is also red. So there’s a game played with people–with their fear, with their minds, what Orwell had warned us about, what Huxley had warned us about.
So you know, tell us. I mean, you’ve seen the death and destruction. Isn’t it crazy-making? That, I mean, we have a chance for peace and then we have these people? And they don’t even question Biden about this. You know, why would you have to wait another year. And what about if the Taliban get in? You know, the Communists–the specter, the enemy–they won in Vietnam. They’re still there in China. We managed to do a lot of business with them. What is this phobia, this hysteria that’s cloaked in intelligence?
DS: Well, first of all, of course the war could end now. It’s–by agreement, it has to end on May 1st, except that we’re looking like we’re going to abrogate the agreement that was made with the Taliban. You know, there’s always a reason to stay. One can always come up with fearful reasons to stay. The idea that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are the same, the idea that the Taliban is coming to San Diego, as you said, or New York, is generally ludicrous.
I told a Reuters reporter on the tenth anniversary of 9/11–my brigade sent him to spend two days with me, because they were looking to do a story on a New Yorker in Afghanistan. And I made the mistake of telling the truth, and my colonels didn’t like it. I said, well, the truth is this has nothing to do with 9/11. I’ve never seen any Al Qaeda. The “farm boys with guns”–was the quote they didn’t like–that I fight, they can’t find America on a map, and most of their parents don’t even know what year they were born in. So the idea that this has to be fought there, over in Afghanistan instead of here, is a farce.
And I’ll tell you, I’m really upset with some of the voices that have been saying that. Take for example–and I’m not afraid to say it–Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq. She recently said–you know, and I think it’s because she wants to oppose whatever Trump did–she recently said, it’s better that we fight them over there than here at home. I mean, give me a break. This is debunked, delusional cliché. So I just think that the reality of this is that nothing has measurably changed for the better, in fact only for the worse, since 2011 at that tenth anniversary. And President Biden gets to decide whether or not America celebrates a 20th anniversary of the Afghan War and of 9/11 this September and October, respectively.
And I just think that absolutely this war can end, and it should end. And let’s take that to the logical conclusion. That if the Taliban takes Kabul within six months–right?–if that’s what happens, if the over/under in the parlay bet is a year or six months, someone needs to explain to me how that measurably affects American security. I’m not minimizing the effect on the Afghan people. My question is, can we measurably and meaningfully influence that with American military power? On the contrary, I think the entire Afghan War is an exercise in the limits of American power, American military power, and one we should never forget.
RS: Well, what we should never forget is that we were part of creating this mess. I mean, where did Al Qaeda get connected with the Taliban? There was Afghan history, there were the Afghan people, and the Taliban are a response to an internal situation in Afghanistan. You had a secular force, they had the more religious, fanatical force; they didn’t like what the Russian ally was doing in Kabul, they had plenty of problems even with the old king. And we have the documentation, very clearly, that going back to Jimmy Carter–and I think he himself is probably ashamed of this, thanks to Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security advisor–let’s give the Russians their Vietnam in Afghanistan, you know. Let’s get these freedom fighters–Ronald Reagan called them “freedom fighters,” and they’ll take on the Russians, and they can go kill each other. That’s how this whole bloody thing started. You’ve written about it a number of times, I don’t need to lecture you about it. And now we’re going to stay there for these very people that we–how did Al Qaeda even get to Afghanistan? They were recruited by the United States to go there and fight as freedom fighters. So you know, bring up a little bit of that history, remind people, and tell us a little bit about your book, also.
DS: Well, you know, I used to show–and I think I’ve shown it in some of the classes of yours that I’ve guest taught–I used to show a photograph of Reagan sitting with, like, mujahedeen leaders. Many of whom, they look just like the Taliban, and many of whom become Taliban, right. So the Taliban itself doesn’t exist during the 1980s; they’re called the mujahedeen, and there’s a bunch of groups. But some of these elders that are sitting with Reagan, they turn out to kind of become Taliban supporters. And their sons are Taliban commanders. And I also would show a photograph from The Independent, right, the newspaper, that’s like a glowing, almost GQ profile of Osama bin Laden as this hero in the late eighties, fighting the Soviets.
You know, the key thing to remember here is when we talk about the Afghan War–when the media does, when the think tanks do–20 years is the key markup; 2001, 9/11. As if history started on 9/11. But the reality is, Afghanistan has been a state of never-ending war since 1979, and actually sort of 1973 when there was first kind of an uprising against the Soviet-backed government. And the United States fueled this fire. Uncritically fueled this fire, threw gasoline on it, supported the very forces that later coalesced into the Taliban.
Now, the reason they coalesced into the Taliban in the mid-nineties is because the warlords–the various warlords from the mujahedeen, many of whom the United States had supported–start a civil war. And they’re raping boys at checkpoints, and they’re causing chaos, and it’s corruption. And the Taliban is seen as a better option. In a country, Afghanistan, which before the uprising against the Soviets, which we fueled–before that was known as actually a fairly syncretic Islam, a fairly tolerant, a lot of Sufism was there. This was not a society like Saudi Arabia that had always been extremist Islamist.
So this problem was in part largely created by the United States, and we act as though that never happened. Because the policymakers in Washington, they have a form of daily amnesia where they act as though history began yesterday. But it is important to recognize the long arc of this story, and that we had a role in creating this–and that we may not be able to solve it. And certainly 3,500 American troops and some drones and five more years and just one more college try isn’t going to do it. But what it will do is it will get more American boys and girls killed. It’ll do that, and then I guess we’ll have to celebrate with the next 50-yard-line football game and act like everything’s OK.
And if I sound flip, it’s because I am frustrated. This has been my life, and the life of people who are in my life system–my best friends, the soldiers that I’m sending, you know, cartons of cigarettes to because they’re struggling. You know, and the relationships, and the people calling me at two in the morning, and the times I was calling somebody else at two in the morning. Because there’s a lot of broken folks out there who are great people, and–I don’t know, we have asked the impossible from our soldiers, and that’s a crime. And that is a crime, and no pats on the back and TGI Fridays meals in airports is going to save that. And that’s largely what that book Patriotic Dissent is about. Let’s get rid of the pageantry, and let’s talk reality: What does it mean to be a patriot? And I think in this case, it’s dissent against this war and the war system that we’ve been fighting.
RS: So you’re really up against it, though, because Biden–President Biden, when he was talking, makes it sound like well, if we’re there a year from now I will be–I forget his exact words. You probably have them. But what are the consequences? What is the carnage? You’ve seen it, you know; you’ve seen civilians killed, and what are these drone attacks and everything. We make it sound like, oh, yeah, well, it’s not going to happen now because it’s inconvenient to our election campaign, and we’ve got other bills. You know, I mean, there was no real discussion about the military budget. You know, I mean, it’s amazing. That’s a great program for the economy, the military budget, but–I don’t know, give us Eisenhower, you’re the director of the Eisenhower–what would Ike think now?
DS: Well, first of all, Ike’s colleagues and boss during World War II, George Marshall, right–five-star general as well, became Secretary of State, the Marshall Plan. By the way, we’ve spent more money on Afghanistan than the Marshall Plan. Right, adjusted for inflation. But Marshall said that “a democracy cannot fight a seven years’ war.” And I think that Ike would agree with him. In other words, the institutions of a republic start to fall apart during forever wars.
But here’s what Ike would have said. This is what he would have said about the military budget. We know what he’d say–he gave a speech called “Atoms for Peace,” 1953, April. He said every missile that is bought, every gun and bomber that is bought represents in the final sense a theft from people who starve and don’t eat, and who are cold and don’t get clothed. And he lays it out: he says one bomber is this many silos of grain, you know, one battleship is–you know, there’s opportunity costs, in other words. I like to say the Pentagon’s cheeky advertising slogan should be, the Department of Defense, colon, this is why you can’t have nice things. Because they really are trade-offs.
But here’s an interesting point. The Afghanistan Study Group–right, bipartisan, establishment figures; there’s generals on it, there’s think-tankers on it, there’s scholars on it–they released a report a few months ago. And they said, we need to stay in Afghanistan. In fact, the best option is to add 2,500 more troops, just for a little bit more. Now, if you look at the 12 or so members, right, the 12 apostles of militarism on that Afghan Study Group, almost every one of them has connections, either directly to the military-industrial complex–like General, retired, Joseph Dunford, who’s on the Lockheed Martin board of advisors. He’s on the board of Lockheed Martin, and he’s making recommendations; he’s the co-chair of that Afghan Study Group. But every one of them, almost every one of them, has some connection, either directly or laundered through the think tanks that are funded by the military-industrial complex. In other words, the war industry owns the people who are telling President Biden what he should do, and they are putting a veneer of scholarship and a veneer of expertise on it. And all of this ties together, and that, in the final sense, is what I argued against. When he said beware of the military-industrial complex, I don’t even know if he foresaw how far it would come. Because I really believe we’re through the looking-glass on this, Alice, and it’s really obscene.
RS: Have you been invited to MSNBC?
DS: I have not. We’re working on it.
RS: I’d like to focus on that. Because you know, a lot of good liberal folks out there, they listen to Rachel Maddow and all this, just wonderful, what has happened to liberalism? We used to have a peace movement. You know, why wouldn’t there be some curiosity to why–you know, you are a retired major; you’ve commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; what would you tell Rachel Maddow about why we shouldn’t stay, or what the costs of staying are? Let’s pretend this is MSNBC, and I’ve given you a proper introduction, and you know, the president who we helped get elected, we at MSNBC, he’s now said it’s not the right time, but he thinks he would be disappointed if we don’t get out next year. Has he talked to you, because he talks to a lot of–no, he hasn’t talked to you?
DS: I would say to Rachel, I would say hey, Rachel, I’ve admired you for a long time, or I did. I read your book, Drift, about American military policy since, you know, the late seventies, and I thought it was excellent. And I’m interested to know, you know, why have your positions changed? Right, I mean, all the arguments in that book made sense. They were sound, they inspired me, I read them while I was on active duty, I read them between my Iraq and Afghan tours. And suddenly, once Trump was elected, right, you started advocating to stay in Afghanistan.
And then I would dig in to the very points that I just made with you, but in more detail. I would talk about how everyone who is arguing–and the op-eds are countless, right, from these establishment figures: retired military, civilian Pentagon officials, former diplomats, think tankers and scholars, flooding the market with arguments to stay, all of which have been debunked time and again, and they all are tied to this war industry. That sounds like conspiratorial thinking, but I would argue that actually it’s rather instructive, isn’t it?
And in terms of the actual arguments for staying, here’s one I would make. I would try to [unclear] because lord knows I’m only going to get a minute more, right, sound bite, so I’m going to hold it to that. This is what I would say: I’d say, well, Rachel, either you as the host or the people that I’m arguing against on the other side need to explain to me how the 3,500 troops we currently have in Afghanistan–which is a thousand more than the Pentagon reported, we just found out, but we’ll table that–someone needs to tell me how they are going to make a difference in this war, as to whether the Taliban wins, and 100,000 troops couldn’t do it when I was there. Someone needs to explain how the 100,000 troops that were in that war, majority of them down south where I was, are going to measurably alter this situation.
And I would just tell one vignette, which is that we didn’t control a single square inch of soil in Kandahar when we had the top max troops there, when I commanded, than what we stood on. And the way I know that is because my troops, and in one case me, had to dive into canals under machine gun fire, steps out of our gate, of our sandbagged little Alamo. In other words, at the top peak of American troops during the second surge, the Obama surge, we couldn’t take, we couldn’t hold ground in any meaningful sense, not in the long term. So what are we going to do with 2,500 troops? I don’t think a half a million troops would really make a long-term difference, and someone needs–I didn’t get the memo, Rachel. Someone needs to explain how this is going to be different this time.
RS: Well, I suspect Rachel Maddow would take offense at the idea that she profits from the war. The owners of MSNBC might be different, if we trace all the connections. But you know, most of these talking heads will say, well, we’re being realistic; Trump was not realistic in his negotiations, and he’s a wild man, and he was all over the map; and Joe Biden has experience, and he knows. Now, Joe Biden did support the Iraq invasion, right? And yet he has an aura about him. And would you unmask that? Would you deconstruct that? What is this aura that lets us think adults are watching the store when they’re full of it? Now, you can’t say that on these shows, because then you won’t, definitely won’t be invited back; you haven’t been invited in the first place. You’ve written a lot about this; you were on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. But let’s say you had this odd moment. How would you get through to her that this is not a game? It’s not a video game. You’ve seen civilians killed, innocent children.
DS: You know, I mean, again, I wasn’t even saying that I think that Rachel Maddow personally profits from this. But what I’m talking about is the people that are being highlighted on her show, right, and the people that are in these study groups. They are, right, directly in many cases. But I think the point here is rather important. You know, there will be killing in Afghanistan. There will continue to be war, whether America stays or goes. Not all of that death is on the United States directly, although we did play a role in catalyzing the conflict. But it’s not all us. What we can control is whether or not more people are killed by U.S. military power, and whether more American troops–probably in small numbers but still real humans with mothers, right–are going to be killed.
And I wish I had an audience with Joe Biden, actually, and that may sound like a stretch. But I would like to ask him, Joe, you were terribly wrong on the Iraq War; you were the lead cheerleader for that, but we’re going to put a pin in that for a second. On Afghanistan, though, Joe, you were probably the best voice in the Obama administration. We know this, of course, because Richard Holbrooke–famous diplomat who was like a special envoy to Afghanistan–he wrote it in his diary. He had a big argument with Joe Biden. Biden, like, threw his hands in the air and started yelling; I think he banged the table and he said–he was against the Obama surge in Afghanistan back in 2009. He said it won’t work, it won’t work, I’m not sending my boy back over there–his son had been in Iraq, but point hold–I will not send my son back over there to die for women’s rights, right, or one of these canards. In other words, it’s not going to work, we can’t change the society.
Joe was right! In the Obama administration, he was probably the strongest voice on this. And by the way, that son that he was talking about contracts cancer, traced, Joe believes and others do, to the burn pits in Iraq. So his son may not have died in combat, but is a casualty of these wars. And I think that in a sense, sometimes in his gut, you know, Mr. Biden might have the right idea about this. But who’s talking to him? And the aura that you’re mentioning is this aura of an elder statesman, of an adult in the room; that compared to Trump, hey, look, Joe’s got a steady hand. Well, I don’t know so much about that, because he’s been wrong about most things in foreign policy throughout a 40-something year career, almost 50-year career in public life at the national Washington level. But I will say that on Afghanistan, he’s been more right than wrong in the past.
And I’d like to see that Joe Biden, not the Joe Biden who’s listening to, you know, the Iagos or the Ja’fars, like Jake Sullivan whispering in his ear. Because I think if he just went with his gut, if we could bring back–maybe we need a Ouija board. If we could bring back the Joe Biden of 2009, he was on the right side of history on this. So I’m not saying there’s no hope. I just, I hope he’s going to change his mind, but it sounds like he’s moving in the other direction. And look, people are going to die because of it. Afghan and American. Bottom line. Real people. Loved people, right. And they all matter.
RS: Well, one of the inconvenient truths of our history is that the partisan–you know, for Democrats anyway–the warmongers have been bipartisan. And in fact sometimes you get the feeling the Democrats are more aggressive than the Republicans. After all, Eisenhower was a Republican, and cautioned us about being too aggressive. And he may have had thoughts about attacking Cuba, but it remained for Jack Kennedy, a hero of yours growing up–I think you had a picture in your room–
DS: My grandmother, yeah.
RS: –yeah, who actually did the Bay of Pigs. And of course Lyndon Johnson very much escalated the war in Vietnam, which Kennedy started. And you know, and then Nixon, who used to be the most hated person to liberals until Trump came along–yes, he escalated the war, but you know, at least at the end presided over getting out. Now, here you have this odd situation where people are very happy that Trump has been discredited and is gone, but when it comes to national security, so-called, we have the hawks back in. Every bit as much as they were, maybe more so under Trump–at least Trump dared to say who was winning from this. You know, what are the great outcomes–he dared challenge some aspects of American jingoism, or at least put it in trade terms, or the commercial terms, what’s the profit here.
This is a very odd moment. You have people, it’s not just–shouldn’t say “not just”; Afghanistan is very important. They’re picking a fight, of course, along with Russia, they’re very upset about Russia, but now they’re picking a fight with China. And actually stressing more the military dimension than even the trade, because it might hurt you with Silicon Valley if you say well, Apple and Tesla and everybody should not be putting their whole business there. You don’t want to say that, but they’re stressing somehow China as a military threat in some big way. And this is really bringing back the Cold War with a vengeance.
DS: The idea that the Democrats are a peace party is belied by history, right, which I read and write. War is a bipartisan enterprise; perhaps the one true bipartisan American enterprise is the military-industrial complex, and then the wars that are partly a result of it. The hawks are back; the polite imperialists are back; the polite militarist hawks are back. Jake Sullivan is the national security advisor. I’ve got a bit of a blind spot for this guy; I think he’s a very dangerous figure. He’s a young hawk who’s very smart, and he’s very good at influencing people. He said in a Time magazine “40 Under 40” kind of profile that they did on him that his hero–his singular hero in history; he could have chosen anybody, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, anyone–he chose Harry Truman. That’s what’s back. The liberal hawks, right? The liberal interventionists, the polite ones, the ones who speak very articulately, and they know the Washington boardrooms and cocktail parties–but they still drop atom bombs unnecessarily on the Japanese, right, in the case of Truman.
And it is the liberal interventionist hawk that scares me almost more than the overt neoconservatives. Not because I think that the neoconservatives are good guys; they’re monsters, they destroyed Iraq, they destroyed the Middle East for generations. But the liberal hawks tell you they’re your friend. Right? And Martin Luther King said this about white liberals, right, that they’re the bigger enemy, because they prefer stability over justice, or something like this. I say the same thing in foreign policy, that’s the–
RS: Martin Luther King, we tend to forget it, did accuse the Johnson administration of being the major purveyor–he said, my government is now the major purveyor of violence in the world today. In all the celebration of Johnson on civil rights, we always leave out that other part, you know. And it’s interesting, even the neoconservatives,– remember I knew quite a few of them back in the old Scoop Jackson days, Richard Perle and all of these people–many of them were Democrats. They just got it ratcheted up a bit when they moved over, but they started out as neoliberals and ended up as neoconservatives. In fact, some of them actually came from the left. You know, we have not shortage of people suddenly, as you say with Rachel Maddow, somehow find wars that are OK. But let me, let’s wrap this up with, you know, is it always going to be this way? I mean, we are really at a very dangerous moment if we’re going to pick fights with Russia, which happens to be the one military power that can really meet us on the high-tech level, but also more importantly, really, China. If we’re going to take this tension we have with China over trade and so forth and escalate this into somehow, to have what Orwell said you have to have for a totalitarian modern system, “the enemy.”
And if China–that’s really, maybe that’s a good point to end. I mean, we seem to be with the Biden administration veering more to China as somehow a big enemy. And we do know that the intelligence information is overwhelming, China is a regional military presence. That they mostly are into trade. They’ve actually taken us up on capitalism; they’re winning influence and markets and so forth by producing things. Yet we’re back to–and I’m asking you this as a historian–it seems to me we’re at a very odd moment where it’s once again the Democrats trying to pick a fight with some Communists, even though these Communists don’t get along, one country after another. And I have a real fear that under Biden, in order to–because you know, after all, to appeal to working-class voters and about jobs and so forth, you’re going to say oh, well, the jobs have all been stolen by China, and add the military dimension, so it becomes patriotic that we push China around.
DS: Well, yeah. I mean, the thing about this is, we’ve got a pivot to Asia. Right, that was–Biden was the vice president under Obama when he said we’re pivoting to Asia. My biggest fear is that it’s the Democrats that get us into great power conflict, right, some sort of regional or even global war, or some sort of nuclear miscalculation. Because they have banged the drum on Russia and Trump for so long, they may start believing the myth, or they may start believing that we really do have a new Cold War with Russia, and then escalate. And then they were trying to out-tough Trump on China. And so if we do in fact fight this regional war, or have some sort of miscalculation, at least through a limited, whatever that means, nuclear war, it will be in the South China Sea that it starts. And the key word there is “South” China Sea. The way you know that China is a regional power, and that we are the only truly expeditionary imperialist sort of power, is that we push our power everywhere. Chinese aircraft carriers don’t slide between Cuba and Key West. American aircraft carriers slide between Taiwan and China and all through the South China Sea.
So, look, I think that Afghanistan is a first test for Biden’s foreign policy, but the real fear, the real indecency, would be if we see a liberal hawk interventionist policy that’s aggressive and blows out of control with Russia or China. Because that is the one truly sort of existential threat if we have a miscalculation. And I’m not optimistic. I have not given up hope, but the signals are very worrying, and I think that’s probably a decent place to close it out. I don’t mean to depress people, but this Afghan thing is going to be a test. And I would encourage people to keep an eye on it and to remember that there are real people dying over there, and this is not a bureaucratic debate that’s unfolding on the front pages of the New York Times. It’s more than that. There’s human beings involved, Bob. You know that.
RS: Right. Well, that will be ultimately the defense. The difference between Democrats and Republicans, at least the Republican hawks have had the honesty to say we’re after markets, we’re out to control the world, we are Christ’s soldiers, or we have the truth, we have morality. But in a power expression: we should do regime change. The Democrats are always looking for some kind of human rights connection. You know, and these human rights concerns are real. But the example you offer of Afghanistan, my goodness, we have had alliances in Afghanistan, now it’s sort of everywhere, where human rights are invoked as, what, opportunistic rhetoric. And you’ve seen human rights on the ground. Do we really care about these people of Iraq and Afghanistan? That’s where I’d like to end it. It always gets out that we have to save their freedom, or save the freedom of women somewhere, or save the freedom of children elsewhere. But that gets left out when you’re actually shooting people, doesn’t it?
DS: Absolutely, it does. Look, the Taliban when it comes to women and human rights, some of it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. In other words, the Taliban is in fact a pretty brutal organization. But it’s not a monolith. In other words, many of them are more extreme than others; some are signaling that they might be willing to follow some aspects of the Afghan constitution guaranteeing rights to women. Now, I don’t necessarily trust even those folks. But I do know this: we did not go to war in Afghanistan to protect women’s rights or minority rights. Because if we had, we might have intervened in 1998 or 1999 when they were, you know, executing women in soccer stadiums, right? We didn’t. That’s not why we went to Afghanistan. And I think we should remember that. And I’ll tell you this: it wasn’t the primary mission that I was ever given in southern Afghanistan.
And the reason I say it’s chicken-or-egg with the Taliban and human rights is because the question is, does the Taliban force people in southern and eastern rural Afghanistan to have these old, you know, very terrible views of women and these social strictures? Or are they responding to the product of the environment that they are? Because most of the folks that I met, whether they were Taliban or not, in southern Afghanistan, adhere to the social system. And it’s not a good one, but the question is, can American military power–can and should American military power–alter that? In other words, is American social engineering–if that were even the real cause–going to work? Or is it actually going to alienate more Afghans and drive them into the arms of the Taliban?
And I think that the latter is, tragically, the case. I have zero patience for these sudden protestations that we have to stay for Afghan women. Because the people who are saying that–that is not why they wanted to get involved in the first place. You can look back at their statements. That is a canard, that is a move of desperation, and that is a hypocrisy that is a stain on their characters. And I’ll go that far. So I reject that. I reject that, because it was never the cause, and it won’t be the reason we stay.
And 3,500 troops and air power–which is what we really bring with those troops, special forces raids and air power–I don’t know. I worked with a lot of Navy Seals and a lot of Green Berets on my outpost, and I did a lot of raids myself. And I’ll tell you, I’ve never called a drone strike or led a raid on a village that saved a woman from the hijab or the burqa. In other words, you know, a drone strike doesn’t put women in school. And the idea that there’s a direct linkage is a farce. It’s a farce. It’s not why we’re there, and look, I just want the United States out of the indecency game as much as possible. And I’ll take small victories. And the Afghan War is going to be our first test in the Biden administration.
RS: If you can end it.
DS: If. Big if.
RS: And you know, but it’s interesting, what ever happened to the antiwar movement. I’ll leave that for our next discussion. And I’m happy that you’re working, that you’re running this Eisenhower institute, because after all, it was general-turned-president Eisenhower that warned us about the basic thing we’re talking about here, which is there is a military-industrial-intelligence complex. You’ve got to add the so-called intelligence factor. And they get us into these wars because that’s what they live for.
OK, I’ll end on that. Thank you, Danny Sjursen, once again for a great discussion. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts, making them available. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introduction. Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who puts it all together. And I want to thank the JWK Foundation in memory of Jean Stein, a very good and critical author, for helping with our funding. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.