As Democrats in Congress struggle to pass the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act, there is large bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress to spend over $7 trillion over the next 10 years in military spending. The United States spends more each year on defense than China, Russia, India, the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, and Australia combined. “Democrats have to engage in theater about human rights and international law and due process, but they ultimately, at the end of the day, are just as aggressive as Republicans,” says investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. His most recent piece is titled, “The War Party: From Bush to Obama, and Trump to Biden, U.S. Militarism Is the Great Unifier.” We also speak with Scahill about the Biden administration’s ongoing persecution of military whistleblowers, including Daniel Hale.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. The United States is on pace to spend over $7 trillion over the next ten years for the Pentagon. To put that number in perspective, the U.S. spends more each year on the military than China, Russia, India, the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, South Korea and Australia combined.
While Republicans and Democrats are in sharp disagreements over the much smaller Build Back Better legislation, there is largely a bipartisan consensus when it comes to the military budget and foreign military intervention. We end today’s show with investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. His latest article is headlined The War Party: From Bush to Obama, and Trump to Biden, U.S. Militarism Is the Great Unifier.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Welcome back, Jeremy, former producer at Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out your thesis?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Oh the anniversary of 9/11, I was being asked to write pieces and to make media appearances because of the work that I had done throughout the War on Terror that culminated with the film and book Dirty Wars where I was investigating the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command and this expanding drone program and how the United States under Barack Obama in particular had moved toward a radical attempt to normalize and legitimize assassination as a central component of American national security policy. Of course, you and Juan know well that the U.S. has long engaged in assassination and political assassination but presidents have found a way around actually owning the fact that they were authorizing assassination. Under Obama, the term du jour was “targeted killing.” Now under Joe Biden we see them increasingly use the phrase “over-the-horizon operations.”
I hesitated to write anything on the 9/11 anniversary because I sort of came to the conclusion that we obsess far too much about the way in which 9/11 impacted the world. It is indisputable that the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks altered geopolitical realities in the world and certainly altered the future of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader Middle East. But ultimately, I concluded that there is a sort of an inherent intellectual dishonesty to pretending that the United States was not already on this trajectory prior to 9/11.
So what I am trying to do in this piece is just establish some basic facts that we can use as a basis for discussing the U.S. role in the world, and that is that prior to 9/11, the U.S. was already on a course to do regime change in Iraq. In 1998, the bipartisan Iraq Liberation Act was passed that codified regime change as the official policy of the United States government. It was largely the product of the work of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. But even then-Congressman Bernie Sanders voted in favor of making regime change the law of the land in the United States.
Bill Clinton had already moved toward small wars, as they say, and using remote lethal strikes, although there were not really using weaponized drones under Clinton. They were being developed, but they didn’t use them. They were using more legacy systems like cruise missiles to attack Afghanistan under Clinton, Iraq on an average of almost once every three days under Bill Clinton. Of course, the first attempt to kill or assassinate Osama bin Laden that we are aware of happened under Bill Clinton. So you had a foreign policy that was already moving toward a very radical embrace of this notion that the U.S. has the sovereign right to bomb any country anywhere regardless of what the U.S. Congress had to say about it. In fact Joe Biden as a senator in the late 1990s was the chief congressional architect of Bill Clinton’s 78-day bombing campaign of then-Yugoslavia, which was done by Clinton over the explicit objection of the U.S. Congress.
So on 9/11, you have these neocons come to power, the Bush-Cheney administration, with real veterans of Washington. They knew how to move the levers of power. They also knew how to exploit the fear, the anger of the American people at the 9/11 attacks. What we saw, Amy, was the Democratic Party just fall in line behind the Bush administration at every turn. Throughout the eight years of Bush-Cheney, the Democrats would raise holy hell about certain war issues and the Iraq War, but when it actually mattered, when it was the Patriot Act, when it was the authorization for the use of military force, when it was the Iraq War, the kingpins and queenpins of the Democratic Party aided and abetted a militant neocon agenda.
We could talk a lot about Barack Obama but in short, Barack Obama, when he campaigned in 2008 against Hillary Clinton in the primary and then against the notorious militarist John McCain in the general election, one of the main reasons why his campaign caught such fire was this notion that he represented something different than the bipartisan war party. Of course what ended up happening when Obama comes into power is he lets the CIA off the hook, he lets Donald Rumsfeld and the other torture architects off the hook and then he radically expends some of the worst aspects of the so-called War on Terror and uses his credibility as a constitutional law scholar, as the first Black president, as a sort of guy that was perceived as being a different kind of politician to push the U.S. imperial agenda on a militarist level beyond what a John McCain would have done, because he got the Democratic Party to support it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Are there any discernible differences that you can tell in the approaches to this imperial policy of the United States between the recent Democratic presidents—we are talking about obviously Clinton, Obama and Biden—and the Republican ones, the two Bushes and Trump? Are there any different approaches from them in terms of imperial rule?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. Let’s start with what I think is the most obvious issue that I think you could say it’s a good thing that Joe Biden did this, and that is the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Certainly, there are serious questions about the tactical withdrawal and the bloodshed that was witnessed and the scene at the Kabul Airport. Congress is going to spend endless time looking at that span of a few days. In fact, I will predict they are going to spend more time looking at Biden’s withdrawal than they are going to spend looking at the catastrophic 20-year policy in Afghanistan.
There was an enormous amount of pressure on Joe Biden to keep the war in Afghanistan going from within his own party, certainly from the military brass. I think Biden deserves credit for standing up to them. I am not sure that if Barack Obama had been the commander-in-chief during this period he actually would have followed through as Biden did on a total withdrawal of conventional American forces. I do think someone who is this career politician specializing in foreign policy, I think Joe Biden knew the history well enough to know that he would have been taking a catastrophic gamble by keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan. I think outside of Bernie Sanders, I think there were almost no Democratic candidates that would have had the spine to follow through on Trump’s withdrawal plan.
Regarding China, I think it is a bit of a wash because you have both the Democrats and Republicans taking an increasingly hostile posture. When you have someone like Trump engaging in the rhetoric that he engaged in, I think some world leaders can sort of recognize that this guy is a bit of a lunatic. But when you have Biden and his Secretary of State Tony Blinken staking out very radical position on Taiwan and then saber-rattling and doing military exercises, it takes on a different level. I think the Democrats have to engage in kind of theater about human rights and international law and due process but they ultimately at the end of the day are just as aggressive as Republicans albeit with some tweaking of the machinery.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Given all of this emphasis now in the early days of the Biden administration on the threats from China, but even now in terms of Russia and Ukraine, the Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago and China, despite its socialist veneer, has become the manufacturing linchpin of world capitalism. Isn’t this renewed fear-mongering on the supposed threat from China and Russia simply a way to justify greater, as you say, government expenditures on the military complex, which then privatizes this stuff for the consumer market? I’m thinking, for instance, of drones. Drones are now becoming a major consumer market when it started out as a military tool.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Oh, absolutely. And I think if you look at the recent comments of Xi Jinping, particularly after his virtual summit with Joe Biden, he has been really hitting the talking point that what is happening is that the United States is taking this neo-Cold War posture. I think he is entirely right. But I sort of see it in the same vein as you. China, the United States and Russia in particular are engaged in a classic capitalist battle for control of natural resources all throughout the world. Look at what is happening on the African continent. You have China engaging in large-scale construction projects. You are also starting to see Chinese manufactured drones popping up in a variety of conflicts. You have the United States essentially agitating to bring down the Ethiopian government albeit through sort of quieter diplomatic or back channels. But the United States and China and Russia are engaged in a very serious strategic battle over control of natural resources in a variety of regions around the world.
What I think is happening as a result of NATO expansion, of Biden being a tremendously hawkish figure on Ukraine and basically daring Vladimir Putin to stand up to NATO expansion, is that you run the risk of what is ultimately the elite business class of the world having their battles spilling over into overt military conflict. I think China in particular is very concerned about the aggressive U.S. stance because I think China would be very happy to find a way to just sort of divvy up the world for domination in various regions. The United States is not going to accept that. The U.S. posture is pushing China and Russia into an even closer alliance akin to the relationship during the Cold War.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Jeremy Scahill and I just want to note that Jeremy is sitting in front of perhaps the most famous antiwar painting ever, antiwar, anti-fascist painting, and that is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica the destruction of a Spanish town, city, Guernica, by the German and Italian fascist forces in support of the fascist Spanish general, Franco. Although Picasso was Spanish, he lived in Paris and said his painting could never go back to Spain while Franco was still in power. But that’s not what I want to ask you about, Jeremy. I wanted to ask you about that other piece you wrote headlined U.S. Absolves Drone Killers and Persecutes Whistleblowers. Can you talk about the last drone strike that we know of in Afghanistan during the U.S. withdrawal and what whistleblowers have to do with that?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Joe Biden made clear when he announced his withdrawal from Afghanistan that the United States was going to still have the capability to strike remotely. It is a harrowing grotesque flashback to many of the incidents we saw during the Obama era where the Biden administration authorized a drone strike on what they claimed was a vehicle carrying ISIS operatives. And you just recently had this terrorist attack at the Kabul Airport during the withdrawal. On the surveillance feed that the drone operators were looking at, we now know that they saw clearly at least one child and still went forward with the strike. Seven of the ten people killed in that strike were children. Ten of the ten people were civilians.
Now the person who has been convicted of leaking top-secret documents and secret documents on the drone program, Daniel Hale, who is serving almost four years and is now in a Kafkaesque communications management unit in federal prison, one of the revelations that Daniel Hale was convicted of making that was published by The Intercept stated that at a certain period of time, U.S. so-called targeted killing operations in Afghanistan, as many as nine of ten people killed in the strikes were not the intended target. We do not know who they necessarily were. They could have entirely been innocent civilians or they could have just been people the United States didn’t know, but that the United States would preemptively categorize them as enemies killed in action. That was initially what happened in this strike as well except ten of ten were civilians. The one name that everyone knows is the individual who worked for a U.S. aid organization was one of the people killed in this strike.
What happened after that is that the Pentagon did its own investigation of itself and exonerated itself of any crimes. This is the bipartisan self-exoneration machine that has long fueled U.S. military operations around the world. Joe Biden was part of the Obama administration, of course, which operated as a global octopus with lethal tentacles that could strike anywhere. Daniel Hale should be freed. He is an American hero for revealing what we now see continuing under Joe Biden.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we want to thank you so much for being with us and we are going to link to your piece. He’s a senior correspondent and editor at large at The Intercept. The latest piece,
The War Party: From Bush to Obama, and Trump to Biden, U.S. Militarism Is the Great Unifier as well as his piece U.S. Absolves Drone Killers and Persecutes Whistleblowers.
Tune into Democracy Now! on Thursday when we mark our 25th anniversary with an hour-long special looking at show highlights over the past quarter of a century. And on Friday, we speak to Mansoor Adayfi who was imprisoned at Guantánamo for more than a decade. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.
The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).
For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.
The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.
Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.