Transcript: “The Obama/Bush Foreign Policies: Why Can’t America Change?”
Text as delivered of a speech by journalist Seymour Hersh in Doha, Qatar, on Jan. 17, 2011.
I don't know how to describe Obama, as somebody who's now in office for two years. Just when we needed an angry black man, we didn't get one. He has a nice dog.
Let's just do a checklist of what... We know a lot about Bush-Cheney. I've been doing a book for the last couple years about Cheney, basically based on people I knew that were inside... I've learned the truth that if people... You know, it's inevitable in a bureaucracy: You're a one-star general and you get assigned to the vice president's office... [cross talk] ... and maybe you knew him when he was secretary of defense under George Bush I in the first Gulf War when he was rational, so it seems, didn't want to, easily abandoned... and defended George Bush's decision not to go into Baghdad, if you remember, when we had that slaughter that we had that we called Gulf War I. But he was a different person after 9/11, as I think most of you have some sense of.
And so, I did know people in that process, and I couldn't write much about it. How to describe the Bush-Cheney years would be... I was telling a group of faculty people earlier -- and the book I'm doing isn't published, I don't want to talk too much about it -- but just to give you an idea of how differently they thought... As many dark thoughts as you may have about what America did after 9/11, whatever the justification was... I would argue that, what I'm really writing about is, about how eight or nine neoconservative whackos, if you will, overthrew the American government. Took it over. And it's not only that. It's not only that the neocons took it over, it's how easily they did it -- how Congress disappeared, how the press became part of it, how the public acquiesced. And all of us, I guess, in the sense of payback and rage and fear, tremendous amount of fear in America, and we all sort of signed on to what we call now the global GWOT, the global war on terror which, for this government, [inaudible] still exists.
I don’t know how to describe Obama, as somebody who’s now in office for two years. Just when we needed an angry black man, we didn’t get one. He has a nice dog.
Let’s just do a checklist of what… We know a lot about Bush-Cheney. I’ve been doing a book for the last couple years about Cheney, basically based on people I knew that were inside… I’ve learned the truth that if people… You know, it’s inevitable in a bureaucracy: You’re a one-star general and you get assigned to the vice president’s office… [cross talk] … and maybe you knew him when he was secretary of defense under George Bush I in the first Gulf War when he was rational, so it seems, didn’t want to, easily abandoned… and defended George Bush’s decision not to go into Baghdad, if you remember, when we had that slaughter that we had that we called Gulf War I. But he was a different person after 9/11, as I think most of you have some sense of.
And so, I did know people in that process, and I couldn’t write much about it. How to describe the Bush-Cheney years would be… I was telling a group of faculty people earlier — and the book I’m doing isn’t published, I don’t want to talk too much about it — but just to give you an idea of how differently they thought… As many dark thoughts as you may have about what America did after 9/11, whatever the justification was… I would argue that, what I’m really writing about is, about how eight or nine neoconservative whackos, if you will, overthrew the American government. Took it over. And it’s not only that. It’s not only that the neocons took it over, it’s how easily they did it — how Congress disappeared, how the press became part of it, how the public acquiesced. And all of us, I guess, in the sense of payback and rage and fear, tremendous amount of fear in America, and we all sort of signed on to what we call now the global GWOT, the global war on terror which, for this government, [inaudible] still exists.
I talked to somebody the other day in the… [inaudible] … I’m ruminating here, but I talked to somebody Saturday before I came about Ben Ali — a man in the intelligence community, a very decent… Believe me, as you can under… it makes total sense. Many people, the overwhelming percentage of people, want to do their job right, whether in the CIA, or the Joint Special Operations Command etc., etc. Around the world, that’s just the natural instinct. Everybody wants to do their job right. But I’ll just tell you, the thinking that goes on… I mentioned what happened in Tunisia, the implications of which I think will be felt, my guess is, we’re talking about, there are a lot of countries in North Africa where there’s economic distress as there was in Tunisia — Morocco, Algeria, etc. — where we could see a lot of trouble. But, my American friend — this is somebody in the joint special operations business — his first remark was, "Oh my God, he was such a good ally."
You know, he was. He was an ally in the Global War on Terror. That’s the way we do look at things. Never mind that… maybe he did chase down terrorists, al Qaeda if you will, for us. But you have to wonder (which I did not say to my friend, being reasonably polite at that moment, I did not say that), but for every terrorist we capture, how many more do we make? I mean, how many more… We complain bitterly when Iran captures three American students, they released the woman but the other two men are kept there, we complain bitterly in America about the lack of their jurisprudence and the lack of a good legal system. And how many people are still in GITMO, Guantánamo, suffering away? Over 200 still. We claim we can’t get rid of them, nobody wants them, but the truth that if they weren’t al Qaeda when we captured them — and most of them were not, as many of you probably understand — they are now after 7, 8, 9 years of being incarcerated without any hearings or any rights. So we don’t always look at ourselves in ways we should.
In any case, the Cheney-Bush years, I can just describe this scene that I was talking about earlier today, which is that in early April of 2003 after we won, quote-unquote, the war, before the insurgents — the dead-enders, as Mr. Rumsfeld called it initially — before they took, before the other war began, the war of attrition, there was looting of the artifacts. There was a big, sort of, it was a huge story in the United States and I’m sure around the world, the various gangs that were looting — there is a lot of looting in Tunisia right now, it’s one of the byproducts of unrest — the various gangs looted the museums, etc. There was a big hue and cry, and Rumsfeld was asked about it and his basic attitude was sort of: "Boys will be boys," you know, "This is the price of freedom."
So, but in the Cheney shop — I can write about it in ways I could not then, because I didn’t want expose anybody who was there — in the Cheney shop the attitude was, "What’s this? What? What are they all worried about, the politicians and the press, they’re all worried about some looting? And wait a second, Sunnis don’t like Shia? And there’s no WMD? And there’s no democracy? Don’t they get it? We’re going to change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get hold of all the oil, nobody’ s going to give a damn." That’s the attitude: "We’re going to change mosques into cathedrals."
That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations Command and Stanley McChrystal, the one who got in trouble because of the article in Rolling Stone, and his follow-on, a Navy admiral named McRaven, Bill McRaven — all are members or at least supporters of Knights of Malta. McRaven attended, so I understand, the recent annual convention of the Knights of Malta they had in Cyprus a few months back in November. They’re all believers — many of them are members of Opus Dei. They do see what they are doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims in the 13th century. And this is their function. They have little insignias, they have coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins, and they have insignia that reflect that, the whole notion that this is a war, it’s culture war.
Look, Knights of Malta does great stuff. They do a lot of charity work; so does Opus Dei. It’s a very extreme, extremely religious, Roman Catholic sect, if you will. But for me, it’s always, when I think of them, I always think of the line we used about Werner von Braun. Werner Von Braun was the German rocket scientist who invented the V-2. And after WWII we had a secret program of bringing and sort of de-Nazifying some of the German scientists who were valuable to our own energy, our own missile program. And we brought him here — I think it was called PAPERCLIP, the secret program — and we brought him here to sort of recreate his life. You know, he was this nuclear… he was this scientist, he was a rocket scientist. So there was a wonderful satirist named Tom Lehrer [Mort Sahl -Ed.] — some of you old-timers might remember him, he wrote ditties. And one of his ditties about Werner von Braun was, oh yes, "Werner von Braun, he aimed for the moon but often hit London." With his rockets. So the trouble with some of these religious groups is they may have good things, but right now there is a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.
So, what is Obama doing? Obama has turned over, I think his first year, basically, he turned over the conduct of the war to the men who are prosecuting it: to Gates, to Mullen, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And in early March, as I recreate it — and nothing is written in stone, but I’m just telling you what I’ve found in my talking and my working on this over the years — we have a general running the war in Afghanistan named McKiernan. McKiernan, unlike McChrystal, his deputy at the time Rodriguez, unlike Petraeus, unlike Eikenberry… They were all together at West Point class of 74, 75, 76 — what they call, we always call the sort of West Point Protective Association. McKiernan was William and Mary, not West Point. And Gates went to see him in March of ‘09, sort of the first big exploration on behalf of the new Obama administration. What do you need to win the war? Well, the correct answer was, he said, "300,000" — of course, he knew he wouldn’t get it, he was just saying to win that’s what it’s going to take.
There was a Russian study, the Russians did some wonderful studies after they were sort of beaten to death in Afghanistan (that we called a great victory of America versus the communists, the surrogate war there we fought in the 80s). When the Russians left they did a number of studies that have since been put back in the archives by the Politburo. But when they were out, they showed that, the Russians estimated, just to seal off Pakistan from Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, 180,000 troops alone just to seal it off so you couldn’t get the cross-border stuff that we are so worried about in terms of fighting the war in Afghanistan with the ability of the Taliban to retreat into Pakistan.
And by the way, there were studies done, two large studies done, when we first… right after 9/11, about going into Afghanistan. One was done by [inaudible] one of the war colleges, and they were both extremely critical of the prospects of victory. And there was a drive made to formalize the studies; they were ad hoc studies, and the vice president, then Cheney, sort of stopped them. Nobody wanted to talk about history.
We’re sort of, anyway, we hate history in America. We’re anti-history, as you know. Else why would we make the same mistake we always do? I remain convinced that if Nguyen Van Thieu — the South Vietnamese premier in 1975 when South Vietnam fell — that somehow if we had built a high wall around his palace we would still be airlifting food and supplies and supporting the Democratic Republic of South Vietnam. We don’t like to lose, we don’t know how to lose, which explains I think a lot of Afghanistan.
In any case, Obama did abdicate, very quickly, any control, I think right away, to the people that are running the war, for what reason I don’t know. I can tell you, there is a scorecard I always keep and I always look at. Torture? Yep, still going on. It’s more complicated now the torture, and there’s not as much of it. But one of the things we did, ostensibly to improve the conditions of prisoners, we demanded that the American soldiers operating in Afghanistan could only hold a suspected Taliban for four days, 96 hours. If not… after four days they could not be sure that this person was not a Taliban, he must be freed. Instead of just holding them and making them Taliban, you have to actually do some, some work to make the determination in the field. Tactically, in the field. So what happens of course, is after three or four days, "bang, bang" — I’m just telling you — they turn them over to the Afghans and by the time they take three steps away the shots are fired. And that’s going on. It hasn’t stopped. It’s not just me that’s complaining about it. But the stuff that goes on in the field, is still going on in the field — the secret prisons, absolutely, oh you bet they’re still running secret prisons. Most of them are in North Africa, the guys running them are mostly out of Djibouto [sic]. We have stuff in Kenya (doesn’t mean they’re in Kenya, but they’re in that area).
Assassinations? Let’s see, Eikenberry [McKiernan -Ed.] gave the wrong number so he was replaced by McChrystal. Stanley McChrystal had been in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command from ‘03 to ‘07 under Cheney. In the beginning under Cheney — what I’m telling you is sort of hard to take because the vice… In the beginning they would get their orders, they would call up on satellite phones, from the field, to Cheney’s office, and get authority, basically, to whack people. Sometimes names were given, sometimes generic authority was given. This was going on. There’s still an enormous amount of whacking going on right now. What happened is after McChrystal ran into trouble and he was replaced, Petraeus took over the war, General Petraeus — they call him King David, David Petraeus — and he has done this in the last 6, 8 months; He has doubled up on the nightly , nightly assassinations. He’s escalated the bombing. He’s gotten much tougher. His argument is: Let’s squeeze them, let’s bomb ‘em, let’s hit ‘em, and then of course they’ll be open to negotiation.
And negotiation for us means that anybody who wants to negotiate has to fully renounce any allegiance with the Taliban. [Inaudible] in the Pashtun world, they call this thing the Knesset. And of course, it’s not going to happen. Of course, I don’t know any serious, truly don’t know any serious officer or special operator or civilian who’s been in the war that has any confidence about it. We’re not going to prevail in that. There are some better things. There are some units that are doing… In some valleys, we are going from villages and we are doing a little better in terms of supplying some security, but in general, the insurgency has spread wherever we are and the Taliban have moved, they’re moving north. The insurgency is much more widespread; it’s much more violent. American boys are being chewed up.
As some of you know who know the Pashtun world, revenge comes, can come in two generations. Revenge, particularly if a male is killed, a senior male, revenge must take place or you are dishonored. We have a legacy there that’s going to be very hard to pay off. And it’s there. It’s not even hard to see. You could almost, you can get it, but the conflict in the increasing areas that they make them go, the targeting is…
You know, here’s the way it works: We have reconnaissance missions… We have a group in Washington known as the Joint Reconnaissance Committee. And when we want missions, let’s say off the coast of China, we have Boeing 707s that fly figure-eights doing electronic monitoring off China (they used to be mostly off Russia — they’re off China, they’re off North Korea now). We still do an awful lot of intelligence collection. These missions are all put into a book and they’re approved by the president. So the president (or his designate, but the president basically) is given these notions that you have to approve this mission for the next three months or whatever because there’s risks. And yet every time American Predators are going off, controlled by the CIA or the Air Force, going off, hitting targets (more and more in Pakistan) that are undefined, that the intelligence is not very clear on, often very bad, collateral damage is enormously high because we’re going after a member of the, let’s say the Pakistani Taliban, and in that society the women live right next to the men, they’re in separate quarters but they’re there, and boom the Predator wipes out a whole building, clearly, and kills an enormous amount of people who have nothing to do with… they’re non combatants. None of these missions are approved anywhere except the military chain of command. It’s a very strange system and he [Obama] has not tampered with it. I think that things are better in the sense that I don’t think Obama is authorizing quite as much; there isn’t that much to do with the war on terror, it seems. We still have a capability to operate. I don’t know what’s going to happen in North Africa because of this — and this is going to change the game, this one in Tunisia. Tunisia’s almost impossible to assess. It’s too early but it’s going to scare the hell out of a lot of people.
You know, it is, up to a point, about oil. When I started looking at Cheney from a different point of view, like, two years ago, I didn’t think so: I thought ideology, I thought protecting Israel… a lot of it is oil. You talk to people and they will tell you, "Yeah, there’s the wind and the sun but you [inaudible] it in America and where is it coming from?" And there’s always been an understanding. We tolerate the Saudis, we support the Saudis, who we know supply an awful lot of salafists, and they’re still, their various charities are supplying often the same people we’re targeting and there is certainly, they’re certainly… we see them, for instance, in the Iraqi war supporting the Sunnis, the Sunni Awakening, etc. I mean, implicit… I would argue that there’s nothing subtle about what we do, morally. If you think about it — again this is something I talked about earlier — we and the Brits always assume some imperial right to oil in the Middle East.
Part I of II. To be continued…
More from Foreign Policy
Xi’s Great Leap Backward
Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.
Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores
“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.
Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing
A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.
The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing
From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.