Stephen Zunes: No Candidates Are Looking at Root Cause of ISIL, "This Monster We Created"

StoryDecember 16, 2015
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Stephen Zunes

professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies.

Bob Herbert

distinguished senior fellow with Demos. From 1993 to 2011, he was an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

Zaid Jilani

staff reporter at The Intercept.

As Republican candidates vowed to expand the wars in the Middle East, professor Stephen Zunes looks at how most of the candidates ignored how the U.S. invasion of Iraq helped create what became the self-proclaimed Islamic State. "There was a testosterone display put on by men who clearly have little knowledge of the Middle East and the origins of extremism," Zunes said of the debate.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush clashed over foreign policy after a Facebook viewer asked Trump about his plan to kill family members of ISIS.

JOSH JACOB: I’m Josh Jacob from Georgia Tech. Recently, Donald Trump mentioned that we must kill the families of ISIS members. However, this violates the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants in international law. So my question is: How would intentionally killing innocent civilians set us apart from ISIS?


DONALD TRUMP: We have to be much tougher. We have to be much stronger than we’ve been. We have people that know what’s going on. You take a look at just the attack in California the other day. There were numerous people, including the mother, that knew what was going on. They saw a pipe bomb sitting all over the floor. They saw ammunition all over the place. They knew exactly what was going on. When you had the World Trade Center go, people were put into planes that were friends, family, girlfriends, and they were put into planes, and they were sent back, for the most part, to Saudi Arabia. They knew what was going on. They went home, and they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television. I would be very, very firm with families. And frankly, that will make people think, because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.

JEB BUSH: Donald, this is not—this is—

WOLF BLITZER: Governor Bush? Governor Bush?

JEB BUSH: This is another example of the lack of seriousness. Look, this is—this is troubling, because we’re at war. They’ve declared war on us, and we need to have a serious strategy to destroy ISIS. But the idea that that is a solution to this is just—it’s just crazy. It makes no sense to suggest this. Look, two months ago, Donald Trump said that ISIS was not our fight—just two months ago. He said—

DONALD TRUMP: Never said that.

JEB BUSH: —that Hillary Clinton would be a great negotiator with Iran. And he gets his foreign policy experience from the shows.

DONALD TRUMP: Oh, come on. Give me [inaudible].

JEB BUSH: That is not a serious kind of candidate. We need someone that thinks this through, that can lead our country to safety and security.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jeb Bush and Donald Trump sparring last night in the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas. We’re also joined by Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Your response to what you watched last night, not only the clip that we just played, Professor Zunes?

STEPHEN ZUNES: I mean, there was this testosterone display put on by men who clearly had little knowledge of the Middle East or the origins of extremism. We kept hearing President Obama referred to as a "weakling," and they promised to be strong and tough. Even on a question about domestic terrorism like San Bernardino, a question about internal security, even the so-called moderate John Kasich immediately started saying, "We need to send more troops. The recently concluded Paris summit should have been about ISIS, not about climate change." You know, there are about, what, 20,000 ISIS fighters, and the United States already spends like $800 billion on the military annually, nearly half the world’s total. And we say that’s—we can’t defeat ISIS, because that’s not enough money.

And the irony here is that President Obama, when he was a state senator in Illinois, at an antiwar rally in October 2002, said that Iraq was not a threat. He warned that an invasion would fan the flames in the Middle East. It would bring out the worst, rather than the best, of the Arab world. It would be a recruitment arm for Islamist extremists. And yet, the very people who supported that war are now saying it’s his fault, you know, that somehow that—and this is what’s really, really—it’s a reckless militarism that got us into this mess. And what we’re hearing is just we need to have more of the same.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Stephen Zunes, I’d like to ask you about that. Repeatedly, this whole—several of the candidates kept saying that the United States was weak, that the world no longer respects the United States, and that that has to change.

STEPHEN ZUNES: I mean, President Obama has bombed seven Muslim countries since coming to office. And, you know, the withdrawal from Iraq was—he tried to extend the U.S. troops’ presence there, but President Bush had signed an agreement, while he was still in office, that required the U.S. to pull out. If we’d stay, we would have been an occupying army again, and the Iraqi government would have had every legal right to attack us. Yeah, this is quite extraordinary how they are twisting history.

And one of the ironies is that—you know, the best argument, of course, to this nonsense—I mean, there’s a lot of arguments one can make against it, but the most important argument is we never should have invaded Iraq in the first place, because ISIS is a direct outgrowth of that invasion. Almost the entire political leadership and the military leadership of ISIS is Iraqi. A recent survey by that Oxford University professor that was published recently in The Nation talked about how, in interviewing ISIS recruiters, they are almost all motivated not by Islam, but out of bitterness at the U.S. occupation and its aftermath.

And the best response that the Democrats can have is we should have never invaded Iraq in the first place. Unfortunately, if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, she can’t say that, because she was one of the right-wing minority of Democrats that did support Bush on this one. So, what scares me about the—not just the Republican debate, but the fact that Hillary Clinton is the front-runner, is that no one is looking at the root cause of this monster we created, ISIS, and all we’re hearing is this hypermilitarism and—that is the very root of the terror that the people of particularly Iraq and Syria are facing, but, as we’ve seen, Western nations, including the United States, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to Donald Trump last night at the Venetian casino.

DONALD TRUMP: Look, we need a toughness. We need strength. We’re not respected as a—you know, as a nation anymore. We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker, and just disintegrate. We can’t allow that to happen. We need strength. We don’t have it. When Jeb comes out, and he talks about the border—and I saw it, and I was witness to it, and so was everyone else, and I was standing there—they come across as an act of love. He’s saying the same thing right now with radical Islam. And we can’t have that in our country. It just won’t work. We need strength.

WOLF BLITZER: Governor Bush?

JEB BUSH: Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. That’s not going to happen. And I do have the strength. Leadership—leadership is not—leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy to deal with the threat of our time. And I laid out that strategy before the attacks in Paris and before the attacks in San Bernardino. And it is the way that—the way forward. We need to increase our military spending. We need to deal with a no-fly zone in Syria, a safe zone. We need to focus on building a military that is second to none—

WOLF BLITZER: Thank you.

JEB BUSH: —so that we can destroy Islamic terrorism.

DONALD TRUMP: With Jeb’s attitude, we will never be great again. That I can tell you.

AMY GOODMAN: Donald Trump saying, "We will never be great again," as he spars with Jeb Bush. Stephen Zunes?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Yeah, this is the part that is particularly mind-boggling. It’s basically about empire, this idea that the United States, you know, can—with just enough firepower, if we kill enough civilians, if we send in enough troops, that somehow we can shape the world the way we want to. It is an—it’s always been a really simplistic view, but particularly now, when you have this network of nonstate actors. I mean, even when it comes to nonviolent resistance, we had that ridiculous line—I can’t remember which candidate. I think it was Cruz, you know, who said that Obama toppled Mubarak, that somehow we could have prevented the millions of Egyptians from taking to the streets in their demand for democracy. The United States is not omnipotent. And indeed, when we try to—we have this hubris to think that we can shape the world, that’s when we get blowback. I mean, I’ve been traveling to the Middle East for, you know, 45 years now, and the more the United States has militarized the region, the less secure we’ve become. You know, I used to—Americans used to be able to travel throughout the region without fear, and now it really is becoming a dangerous place.

AMY GOODMAN: One issue—one issue not addressed in Tuesday’s debate was climate change. Ohio Governor John Kasich held the distinction of being the only candidate to even say the word "climate."

GOV. JOHN KASICH: First and foremost, we need to go and destroy ISIS, and we need to do this with our Arab friends and our friends in Europe. And when I see they have a climate conference over in Paris, they should have been talking about destroying ISIS, because they are involved in virtually every country, you know, across this world.

AMY GOODMAN: It really was astounding. You know, Democracy Now! just returned from Paris, where we covered the U.N. climate summit for two weeks. It was the largest gathering of world leaders in the history of the world. Zaid Jilani?

ZAID JILANI: You know, it’s remarkable. We have so much hysteria about, by the way, Syrian refugees. I was part of welcoming ceremony this past weekend in Georgia—I invited Ted Cruz, the senator—of refugees—to come meet with some. But it’s remarkable. They had so much hysteria about 4 million refugees. If we don’t solve climate change, we’re talking 40 million, we’re talking 100 million refugees.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Pentagon knows it well, right? They’ve been doing reports on it. Well, you know, the person who gained the most Twitter followers last night during this Republican presidential debate: Bernie Sanders. I want to play a clip right now of Killer Mike, a well-known hip-hop artist, introducing Bernie Sanders in Atlanta.

KILLER MIKE: I have to tell you that in my heart of hearts, in my heart of hearts, I truly believe that Senator Bernie Sanders is the right man to lead this country. And I believe it because he—I believe it because he, unlike any other candidate, said, "I would like to restore the Voting Rights Act." He, unlike any other candidate, said, "I wish to end this illegal war on drugs that disproportionately targets minorities and poor." Unlike any other candidate in my life, he says that education should be free for every citizen of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s hip-hop artist Killer Mike introducing Bernie Sanders. They spent a lot of time together in Atlanta, and Killer Mike just posted this, I think, hour-long barber shop interview, because he owns a barber shop, in Atlanta with Bernie Sanders. But the significance of this, Bob Herbert? And think it’s starting a trend with hip-hop artists endorsing Bernie Sanders. A poll just showed—what was it? ABC [World News Tonight], a major newscast, has devoted something like 81 minutes to Donald Trump compared to—is it 20 seconds, less than a minute, to Bernie Sanders?

BOB HERBERT: Isn’t that something? So, we’re now at the stage where, after all these years that I’ve been in the media, I have to get my perspective from hip-hop artists. I can’t get it from the mainstream media. The hip-hop artists are making far more sense. You know, I have not tended to beat up on the press or the media. You know, people use it as a whipping boy all the time, and I just don’t. That’s where we get our information from, and it’s crucial to democracy. But I think that its coverage of this presidential campaign has been really horrible. And so, you know, last night the debate focused almost entirely—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

BOB HERBERT: —on ISIS. And, you know, all the focus has been on Donald Trump. And Trump is now leading because he’s the most famous person in this celebrity-obsessed country. It’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Zaid Jilani of The Intercept, Arun Kundnani of NYU and the book The Muslims Are Coming!, Stephen Zunes at the University of San Francisco; and Bob Herbert of Demos.

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