As Congress skipped town and avoided a vote on war, President Obama announced this week that the US was taking the lead in bombing jihadists in Iraq and Syria, opening what is being widely interpreted as another long and costly American military campaign in the Middle East.
This week, Bill discusses the latest on the conflict with Jonathan Landay, a veteran national security reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and foreign service officer in Afghanistan.
“As much as President Obama wishes we weren’t the world’s policemen, perhaps we are,” Landay tells Moyers. “And there’s no escaping that curse.”
Hoh, who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over US strategic policy there, adds: “Is this really our model for the Middle East that we are going to bomb countries, continuously, take part in civil wars, sometimes supporting one side, maybe supporting the other, with no means or no real desire or effort to achieve a peace?”
BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
MATTHEW HOH: Is this really our model for the Middle East that we are going to bomb countries, continuously, take part in civil wars, sometimes supporting one side, maybe supporting the other, with no means or no real desire or effort to achieve a peace?
JONATHAN LANDAY: As much as President Obama wishes we weren’t the world’s policemen, perhaps we are, and there’s no escaping that curse.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Here we go again.
PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH on January 16, 1991: As I report to you, air attacks are underway against military targets in Iraq.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON on December 16, 1998: Good evening. Earlier today, I ordered America’s armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH on March 19, 2003: My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA on August 7, 2014: To stop the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city.
BILL MOYERS: Over 23 years, four consecutive presidents have ordered the bombing of Iraq by U.S. forces. It’s what one of my guests calls the nightmare of Groundhog Day – facing the same problem, over and again. Just a year ago Barack Obama told the United Nations that he was determined to end America’s perpetual war footing in the Middle East region. But this week the President returned to the UN to announce – not yet! And to assert that the US intends to unleash more airpower to defeat the Islamic militants who have swept across large areas in Iraq and Syria. With a first round of drones and missiles unleashed inside Syria even before he spoke at the UN, the president has plunged America into the midst of a civil war that involves over one thousand different militia. You need a mighty big scorecard just to figure who’s on whose side.
We’ve asked a couple of experienced hands to help us do just that. Jonathan Landay is a senior national security and intelligence reporter for McClatchy newspapers. He’s also an unsung hero of Washington journalism. During the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Landay and his colleague Warren Stroebel dug deep to find evidence refuting the Bush administration’s case for going to war. You can see Landay and Stroebel at work in our documentary “Buying the War,” at BillMoyers.com.
Matthew Hoh fought in Iraq as a Marine Corps captain. He then joined the Foreign Service and became the widely praised senior American civilian in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, that’s a Taliban stronghold. He resigned in protest when he came to believe the war was making things worse and American soldiers should not be dying in what was a long-running civil war. Matthew Hoh is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.
Welcome to both of you.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Let me read you something one of your colleagues, Ryan Cooper, wrote this week in TheWeek.com. “Who’s ready to squander billions of dollars on yet another pointless, almost-certain-to-backfire war in Iraq? The mainstream media for one,” he says, “… which for weeks has been shamelessly fearmongering the supposed threat … by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria … Many Republicans, meanwhile, insist that ISIS represents an ‘imminent threat’ to the United States, which, strangely enough, is just how George W. Bush justified his war of aggression against Iraq in 2003 … Let’s get one thing straight: … ISIS poses ‘no specific, credible threat’ to the U.S … Indeed, ISIS’s slickly produced beheading videos are quite obviously designed to bait the media into stoking a panic — and it has succeeded spectacularly.”
JONATHAN LANDAY: See, I disagree with that interpretation because I think the point of those videos was to try and undermine that turn in American public opinion. Don’t come back here. Don’t get—
BILL MOYERS: Really?
JONATHAN LANDAY: —involved. This is what’s going to happen to your soldiers. Look what happened to your soldiers before. You have to look at some of their previous videos where they show American tanks being blown up, American soldiers being killed. Don’t get involved here. And I think that that’s what— I don’t see them being able to bait, at least at this point, Obama into coming back, because he, you know, beyond special forces I don’t think there’s any way he’s going to introduce American forces on the ground at this point. I don’t think he wants to. He may have to.
BILL MOYERS: At this point.
JONATHAN LANDAY: At this point. He may have to. We’ll have to wait and see. But I’m not—
BILL MOYERS: But is— go ahead.
JONATHAN LANDAY: I’m not sure that, again, I’m not sure that that was the point of the videos, to suck Americans in, and in fact, in one of the videos after the Steven Sotloff beheading, the executioner turns to the camera and says, back off. Leave us alone.
BILL MOYERS: So what do you think the Islamic State wants?
MATTHEW HOH: They subscribe to a form of Islam where they believe there’s only one authority within Islam. And they want to form a caliphate and they want to have that one authority that all Muslims follow. They attract, I think a wide group of followers. Some are people who’ve just been dispossessed, some are people who, many of whom I think have been caught up in this cycle of revenge, of killings, of retribution that have been wracking the Middle East for decades now and specifically in Iraq for 11 years now.
You have some who are, I think, adherents to this religious philosophy. And then you have some quite like the British gentleman who murdered Sotloff and Foley, who are psychopaths. But you also have to remember that throughout history there’s always been people who want to go fight, who like the romance of war, who are looking to fulfill something deeper, some purpose.
I will say with the beheading videos, I do believe they were bait. I think this is— they want to validate their narrative that the Islamic State is the protector of Islam, that it is protecting the people, the faith, the culture of their lands from the quote, unquote, “crusaders,” for lack of a better term.
JONATHAN LANDAY: I think there’s a deeper problem here, and it’s one that I haven’t— that the president has touched on. He touched on it in his speech to the UN General Assembly. And I think it’s one that could really prove to be the undoing of this campaign that he’s unleashing. And that is the immediate threat is the Islamic State, but it’s a phenomenon. It’s a consequence of decades, centuries of despotic rule in that part of the world by dictators, by kings who have provided no semblance of responsible governance, no accountability.
If you look at what’s going on in the Middle East today, you have enormous poverty. You have this huge youth bulge, the enormous number of young men between the ages of 17 and 30 who are underpaid or have no jobs, you know, lack skills. You have this massive corruption that favors a very thin elite in all of these countries. And now the United States, you know, I remember when the newly elected Obama went to Cairo for that historic speech.
BILL MOYERS: 2009, right.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Exactly, where he delivers this speech and he’s says, you know, we’re not— no more business as usual by the United States. We’re not going to align ourselves with these regional despots. We want to see reform, we want to see democratic reform. And what has he done now is he’s re-aligned himself with these regional powers, with these regional despots, including the guy who this administration condemned for the coup that he staged in Egypt, overthrowing an elected government, albeit, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood and I’m talking about Egyptian President Sisi. I mean, he is now counted as part of this coalition. So if you are one of these young men who are looking at all of this and seeing and listening to the propaganda about Islam being under threat from the west, this Islamic State thing has an appeal. And if somehow Obama succeeds in degrading and eventually destroying the Islamic State, something will come along to replace it because those problems that create this phenomenon are not going to go away.
BILL MOYERS: But meanwhile the Islamic State is a threat to Saudi Arabia, a threat to Jordan, a threat to Qatar, a threat to Bahrain, those autocratic regimes you were talking about, a threat ultimately possibly to Egypt. So why isn’t it an option for the president to have said or to say this is your doorstep, if you don’t put billions of dollars you’re earning from oil and all of those young men who are available into the fighting of the Islamic State, we’re not going to be there. This is your fight.
MATTHEW HOH: Because our priorities for decades have been on military first solutions, not on political solutions. We have, as Jonathan said, we’ve embraced dictatorships. Backing ourselves out of those relationships is very hard in a Washington, DC where the climate of politics overwhelms everything else.
So you see President Obama, and I’m reminded of an article you wrote, Bill, five years ago on Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War and how Johnson at that point felt that there was no good was going to come out of that escalation, that there was no purpose in it. But how could he face down these senators if he didn’t stand up to— and I feel that President Obama has the same challenge. How does he not come across as being weak-willed or not tough on terror? The other thing, too, is that again we, for decades now this has been our policy. So how do you extricate yourself from that policy? We spend a trillion dollars a year on national security in this country.
And when you add up to the Department of Defense, Department of State, CIA, Veterans Affairs, interest on debt, the number that strikes me the most about how much we’re committed financially to these wars and to our current policies is we have spent $250 billion already just on interest payments on the debt we’ve incurred for the Iraq and Afghan wars. So we’re in this system that how do you start to break down, how do you start to dismantle, because the result has been these Frankensteins like the Islamic State.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s the dilemma. The whole world has seen what ISIS is doing now. When you see evil playing out in front of your eyes: rape, beheadings, whole villages wiped out, don’t you as a human being, as a free nation have to do something?
MATTHEW HOH: You have to remember that this is not a singular unique event occurred this summer, that all sides have been guilty of atrocities in this conflict. Half a million Iraqis have been killed in the war since 2003. To put that in perspective, in World War II, the United States lost 400,000 people, killed.
So if you look at the conflict now in Iraq and understand it as this continuing cycle of violence, this continuing cycle of retribution, this continue cycle of sectarian hatred that groups like the Islamic State ,which I characterize as a parasite of war, benefit from, how do you stop that cycle? Because as horrific as the killings have been this past summer, remember 10,000 civilians were killed in Iraq last year. How do you stop it from 20,000 next year?
JONATHAN LANDAY: When we look at the situation there and the utter horror with which, you know, we’re focused on two videos of two Americans being killed. But there were other videos. There were videos where they killed 600 people. 600 young Iraqi, young Iraqi men. They’ve slaughtered men from a tribe in Syria that tried to resist them. Hundreds of them. And you say to yourself, as a human being, can we allow this to go on? And I think, you know, we’re talking about the complexity of this. But it’s really hard to put yourself in the shoes of the president of the United States who commands the only military in the world that’s capable, perhaps, of stopping this.
Here you have this horrendous civil war in Syria, and I’ve been there twice now this year. And I have, you know, and I’ve covered a lot of war. I have never seen such urban destruction anywhere. Anywhere. I don’t know how they’re going to rebuild that country.
BILL MOYERS: Two to three million refugees, Syrian refugees and six and a half—
JONATHAN LANDAY: That’s just outside of the country.
BILL MOYERS: —million inwardly—
MATTHEW HOH: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: —displaced people—
JONATHAN LANDAY: It’s nine million people displaced. But beyond that, and you see, like, street after street, town after town, just completely devastated. Infrastructure, bridges, roads, hospitals, schools, how are they rebuild that? How are you going to repatriate the two to three million people who are living outside of Syria?
I think something like 20 percent of the Lebanese population is Syrian now. How are you going to put that all back together again? If you allow that to continue, then you’re looking at something that perhaps a disaster on an even greater scale.
So here you are as the president of the United States, preaching human rights, trying to repair as best you can this unbelievable damage that was done to the United States’ reputation and its ability to wield soft power, diplomatic power, by the invasion of Iraq, by Guantanamo, by Abu Ghraib, by the CIA’s torture program. And you say to yourself, I may— I need to do something because you got the pressure on you as the only commander of a military in the world that can do something about it.
BILL MOYERS: But is it conceivable that the president, looking at the situation there, thinks that air power, that you can bomb the Islamic State into submission and oblivion?
MATTHEW HOH: I don’t think he believes that. And I think he’s said as much when he says that there’s no military solution, only a political solution to these conflicts. However, I unfortunately, I feel that’s just lip-service. And unfortunately, I feel that we are going to join in the violence in Syria without any end state. Without any goal. Without any ability to finalize some type of agreement that is going to bring about an end to the killing.
One of my favorite lines I’ve heard about our Syria plan is that it’s not a strategy, it’s a spending plan. That we are going to— we have authorized $500 million to train 5,000 Syrian rebels, moderate rebels. And you’ve been in a lot of combat zones, and have you ever seen anything moderate in combat? You know, I mean, like—
JONATHAN LANDAY: No, there’s no—
MATTHEW HOH: I mean, like, because I don’t know where this term comes from. But this moderate— and now we’re going to train them at a cost of $100,000 for one guy, it’s going to cost to train. $100,000 per person. And we’re going to send them to Saudi Arabia, the people who have been training and fostering and helping a lot of these groups, like al-Nusra, which is the Al Qaeda organization, or the Islamic State that are now out of control, in response to a beheading video. Which to me makes no sense because Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people in August.
BILL MOYERS: This past August?
MATTHEW HOH: Yes.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Yup.
BILL MOYERS: For—
MATTHEW HOH: One was for witchcraft or sorcery, several for drug possession. In Saudi Arabia, you can be beheaded for a whole list of offenses, including adultery and homosexuality. And—
BILL MOYERS: But these are our good allies in this—
MATTHEW HOH: These are—
BILL MOYERS: —new coalition.
MATTHEW HOH: And this is where I think a lot of us say, what are we doing here? This makes no sense. All we are going to achieve is perpetuation of this conflict. Now at least I think the Pentagon and the White House has been honest about that, this is going to take years. But what’s going to be achieved? How are we going to achieve it? Are we just going to bomb? I think it’s quite striking that the president said the model for these operations will be Somalia and Yemen. And then almost as soon as he said that, Yemen descended into utter chaos. Hundreds are dead on the streets of the capital of Yemen. The prime minister forced to abdicate.
And that’s the model. So is this really our model for the Middle East that we are going to bomb countries, continuously, take part in civil wars, sometimes supporting one side, maybe supporting the other, with no means or no real desire or effort to achieve a peace?
BILL MOYERS: What are the options in Syria? I mean, I just wrote down what seems to me to be the conundrum. The jihadists want to control Syria, which is 70 percent Sunni, so they should have a natural constituency there, since they are Sunni.
To stop ISIS, mustn’t there be a truce between President Assad and the rebels who are trying to bring him down and given the mutual hatred between Assad and the rebels, between the Sunnis and the Shiites, how can that political solution be found?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely and I think that’s what kept Obama out of there for so long. You know, how do you deal with this incredible tangle of not just sectarian hatreds, but there’s ideological differences between these groups, there’s personal differences, that’s why eventually I think the administration has all, despite what it says, all but given up on this moderate political leadership that it helped— it crafted and has been living in— on our tab in Turkey, has basically given up on this central command of the Free Syrian Army and has bypassed—
BILL MOYERS: I literally saw a reference in some major newspaper story the other day, said the moderately extremist militia—
JONATHAN LANDAY: Yeah, that sounds right.
BILL MOYERS: I’m serious.
JONATHAN LANDAY: And no, and again, I really think that that’s what’s kept him from intervening in Syria. And how he’s going to be able to create these buffers between, okay, so we’re going to bomb the Islamic State, but we’re not going to help Assad by doing that. And we’re only going to help these moderates.
And you know, I understand the conundrum. But then if you’re looking at that part of the world, you’re looking at the potential collapse of Iraq into this absolute chaos where this group is going to be able to expand, recruit, let’s not forget its goal is not just stopping at Iraq and Syria.
They want Lebanon. They want al-Sham which is this region of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. But they have also said, they have also said before the Americans got involved, that eventually, they plan to go after Western targets too, Americans and Europeans. Let’s not forget—
BILL MOYERS: You don’t doubt that, do you?
JONATHAN LANDAY: No, not at all. In fact, we’ve seen evidence of this already. There— I forget what the— I think the latest estimate is 15,000 foreign fighters now are in Syria and Iraq, mostly fighting for the Islamic state, over a hundred Americans, over a thousand Europeans. I forget exactly what the number, the Brits are talking about, something like 400. They all have passports.
There is evidence indeed that this group is, if not planning, at least encouraging its foreign supporters to stage attacks. Now are these existential threats to the countries in which they’re taking place? No, I think that has been so overblown.
The idea that these Islamic terrorists are an existential threat, particularly to the United States. No. They’re more of a threat to the politicians who are in power who fail to stop these attacks. And yet, nevertheless the duty of these leaders are to protect their citizens. And I think that also to a certain extent drove Obama.
But you know, it’s hard to put yourself in his shoes. He ran for election to be the leader of the United States. As a leader, you have to make some incredibly difficult decisions. Whether he’s made the right ones in this case, we’ll have to wait and see.
BILL MOYERS: Has he?
MATTHEW HOH: No, I think this is a very tragic mistake the president is making, intervening in these conflicts. I think it’s giving the Islamic State exactly what they want. I go back to some of the guiding strategy that Osama bin Laden had. And bin Laden said, all we have to do is send two Mujahideen to the farthest point East, raise the flag of Jihad and Al Qaeda, and the American generals will come racing and exhaust themselves economically, militarily, politically. And I think that strategy has been successful. We’re— that cost for these wars are already totaled at $6 trillion at our lifetime.
We have suffered casualties much greater than I think the American people understand. There is the 7,000 dead, the 50,000 wounded, but of the two and a half million veterans who served, including myself, a third of us suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other type of mental health injury. We also have 250,000 veterans and service members who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.
So I don’t think people understand the level of violence that we were talking about in these conflicts. And I think by jumping back— let alone, again, the half million Iraqis killed, the tens and ten thousands of Afghan killed, the spillover effects with the war in Syria. So I think jumping back into these conflicts is a very tragic mistake. A very shortsighted mistake. And I think it plays right into the hands of groups like Islamic State that need sectarian tension. That’s why I think jumping in on one side of the conflict is— it makes the— exacerbates the problem.
BILL MOYERS: You know, I’m not sure this conversation was a good idea, because listening to you, both of you, I think, aren’t we crazy to think we can untangle a mess like this and bring peace on Earth, good will to all men?
MATTHEW HOH: I think this is the lesson we learn from it. So stop our policy of trying to play one group against the other. I mean, this has gone back for decades. This is policy under Kissinger, under Brzezinski, of playing one ethnic group against another, playing one religion against another.
And for me, it’s stop trying to pick sides in these conflicts. Stop rewarding one side with a lot of American cash at the expense— I look at it this way. If you went into Kentucky and West Virginia, or wherever the Hatfield and McCoys were and you back the Hatfields, what would the McCoys do? They’d fight harder and they would try and find some other— I mean, so stop— and you don’t even know why the Hatfields are fighting the McCoys. And so, I mean, it’s a very simple way to say it, but stop getting in the middle of all these conflicts.
JONATHAN LANDAY: I think that, you know, to a certain extent, he’s right. Matt’s right. But I agree, the odds that we’re going to be able to put, you know, to bring peace to the Middle East, no. But I don’t even know if that’s really, underneath everything, the goal. I think right now perhaps the goal is, let’s just try and contain it and stop it from spreading. If we can do that, perhaps we can call that a success.
BILL MOYERS: We’re out of time for the broadcast, but we will continue this conversation online. Matthew Hoh, Jonathan Landay, thank you very much for being with me.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Thanks for having me.
MATTHEW HOH: Thanks, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, more on the Islamic State and the international response. And our documentary, “Buying the War.”
Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Rob Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Editor: Donna Marino.