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Robert Fisk on the Presidential Debate, Iraq, Palestine and the International Criminal Court

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As the civilian death toll in Iraq, Palestine and Israel rises, Bush and Kerry face off in the first presidential debate. The debate focused on foreign policy, as agreed by both campaigns and Iraq clearly dominated the discussion. We hear excerpts of the debate and speak with longtime Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk of the London Independent about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, “democracy” in Afghanistan, the Occupied Territories of Palestine–which were never mentioned in the debate–and Bush’s blanket refusal to join the International Criminal Court. [includes rush transcript]

Last night’s presidential debate in Florida came on a day of international bloodshed in both Iraq and Palestine. In Iraq yesterday, a series of car bombs left 48 people dead–at least 34 of them children. Two US soldiers were also killed in separate incidents. And just hours before Bush and Kerry stepped on stage, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major offensive against the resistance-held town of Samarra. The death toll there now stands at 94. Neither man addressed the toll being paid by Iraqi civilians whose deaths go uncounted every day, instead focusing on the sacrifices of US troops. And neither Bush, nor Kerry mentioned Palestine, where scores of people were killed yesterday.

The only mentions of Israel came when each candidate talked about why they believe victory in Iraq is essential. Last night’s debate focused on foreign policy, as agreed to be by both campaigns. And Iraq clearly dominated the discussion. The debate was held at the University of Miami and moderated by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer. Both candidates used well-rehearsed lines, but this was the first time each had to listen to the criticism at close quarters. The Los Angeles Times described the two men as determined to “cast their relatively narrow policy differences in the starkest, most dramatic way possible.” Most major polls today are saying Kerry will benefit more than Bush from last night’s debate. Here is some of last night’s debate on Iraq.

  • Presidential debate, candidates discussing Iraq.

That was Sen. Kerry and President Bush debating Iraq policy in the first presidential debate last night. A large majority of the session was devoted to Iraq which has defined the presidential race more than any other issue.

  • Presidential debate, candidates discussing Iraq.
  • Presidential debate, candidates discussing Afghanistan.

During the debate last night, moderator Jim Lehrer asked John Kerry his position on the whole concept of preemptive war. Kerry responded by saying “the president always has the right, and always has had the right, for preemptive strike.” But it was Bush’s response that struck a chord. This is what the president had to say.

  • Presidential debate, Bush discussing the International Criminal Court.

Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. He joins us on the phone from his home in Ireland.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Here is some of last night’s discussion on Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: What criteria would you use to determine when to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Let me first tell you that the best way for Iraq to be safe and secure is for Iraqi citizens to be trained to do the job. And that’s what we’re doing. We’ve got 100,000 trained now, 125,000 by the end of this year, 200,000 by the end of next year. That is the best way. We’ll never succeed in Iraq if the Iraqi citizens do not want to take matter into their own hands to protect themselves. I believe they want to. Prime Minister Allawi believes they want to. And so the best indication about when we can bring our troops home, which I really want to do, but I don’t want to do so for the sake of bringing them home I want to do so because we’ve achieved an objective — is to see the Iraqis perform, is to see the Iraqis step up and take responsibility. And so, the answer to your question is: When our general is on the ground and Ambassador Negroponte tells me that Iraq is ready to defend herself from these terrorists, that elections will have been held by then, that their stability and that they’re on their way to, you know, a nation that’s free; that’s when. And I hope it’s as soon as possible. But I know putting artificial deadlines won’t work. My opponent at one time said, “Well, get me elected, I’ll have them out of there in six months.” You can’t do that and expect to win the war on terror. My message to our troops is, “Thank you for what you’re doing. We’re standing with you strong. We’ll give you all the equipment you need. And we’ll get you home as soon as the mission’s done, because this is a vital mission.” A free Iraq will be an ally in the war on terror, and that’s essential. A free Iraq will set a powerful example in the part of the world that is desperate for freedom. A free Iraq will help secure Israel. A free Iraq will enforce the hopes and aspirations of the reformers in places like Iran. A free Iraq is essential for the security of this country.

JIM LEHRER: 90 seconds, Senator Kerry.

JOHN KERRY: Thank you, Jim. My message to the troops is also: Thank you for what they’re doing, but it’s also help is on the way. I believe those troops deserve better than what they are getting today. You know, it’s interesting. When I was in a rope line just the other day, coming out here from Wisconsin, a couple of young returnees were in the line, one active duty, one from the Guard. And they both looked at me and said: We need you. You’ve got to help us over there. Now I believe there’s a better way to do this. You know, the president’s father did not go into Iraq, into Baghdad, beyond Basra. And the reason he didn’t is, he said — he wrote in his book — because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That’s exactly where we find ourselves today. There’s a sense of American occupation. The only building that was guarded when the troops went into Baghdad was the oil ministry. We didn’t guard the nuclear facilities. We didn’t guard the foreign office, where you might have found information about weapons of mass destruction. We didn’t guard the borders. Almost every step of the way, our troops have been left on these extraordinarily difficult missions. I know what it’s like to go out on one of those missions when you don’t know what’s around the corner. And I believe our troops need other allies helping. I’m going to hold that summit. I will bring fresh credibility, a new start, and we will get the job done right.

JIM LEHRER: New question — All right. Go ahead. Yes, sir.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I think it’s worthy of a follow-up. If you don’t mind.

JOHN KERRY: I’ll be happy to. Let’s change the rules. We can add a whole bunch —

JIM LEHRER: We can do 30 seconds each here, alright?

GEORGE W. BUSH: My opponent says help is on the way, but what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm’s way, “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time?” That’s not a message a commander-in-chief gives, or this is a “great diversion.” As well, help is on the way, but it’s certainly hard to tell it when he voted against the $87-billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops, and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it. That’s not what commander-in-chiefs does when you’re trying to lead troops.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Kerry, 30 seconds.

JOHN KERRY: Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse? I believe that when you know something’s going wrong, you make it right. That’s what I learned in Vietnam. When I came back from that war I saw that it was wrong. Some people don’t like the fact that I stood up to say no, but I did. And that’s what I did with that vote. And I’m going to lead those troops to victory.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Kerry and President Bush debating Iraq policy in the first presidential face-off last night. They met at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. A large majority of the session was devoted to Iraq, which has defined the presidential race more than any other issue. Let’s go back to the discussion.

JIM LEHRER: New question. Senator Kerry, two minutes. You just — you’ve repeatedly accused President Bush — not here tonight, but elsewhere before — of not telling the truth about Iraq, essentially of lying to the American people about Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.

JOHN KERRY: Well, I’ve never, ever used the harshest word, as you did just then. And I try not to. I’ve been — but I’ll nevertheless tell you that I think he has not been candid with the American people. And I’ll tell you exactly how. First of all, we all know that in his State of the Union message, he told Congress about nuclear materials that didn’t exist. We know that he promised America that he was going to build this coalition. I just described the coalition. It is not the kind of coalition we were described when we were talking about voting for this. The president said he would exhaust the remedies of the United Nations and go through that full process. He didn’t. He cut it off, sort of arbitrarily. And we know that there were further diplomatic efforts under way. They just decided the time for diplomacy is over and rushed to war without planning for what happens afterwards. Now, he misled the American people in his speech when he said we will plan carefully. They obviously didn’t. He misled the American people when he said we’d go to war as a last resort. We did not go as a last resort. And most Americans know the difference. Now, this has cost us deeply in the world. I believe that it is important to tell the truth to the American people. I’ve worked with those leaders the president talks about, I’ve worked with them for 20 years, for longer than this president. And I know what many of them say today, and I know how to bring them back to the table. And I believe that a fresh start, new credibility, a president who can understand what we have to do to reach out to the Muslim world to make it clear that this is not, you know — Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq in order to go out to people and say that America has declared war on Islam. We need to be smarter about how we wage a war on terror. We need to deny them the recruits. We need to deny them the safe havens. We need to rebuild our alliances. I believe that Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, and others did that more effectively, and I’m going to try to follow in their footsteps.

JIM LEHRER: Ninety seconds, Mr. President.

GEORGE W. BUSH: My opponent just said something amazing. He said Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq as an excuse to spread hatred for America. Osama bin Laden isn’t going to determine how we defend ourselves. Osama bin Laden doesn’t get to decide. The American people decide. I decided the right action was in Iraq. My opponent calls it a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: George Bush, John Kerry facing off last night at the University of Miami, Coral Gables. We’re going to go on to other excerpts of this forum. We’ll be hearing what they have to say about the Sudan, what they didn’t say about Haiti, and we’ll also be hearing their discussion on North Korea. But we come back from our break, we’re going to start on Iraq, Israel, Palestine — overall, the Middle East, with Robert Fisk. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to Robert Fisk. He is the long-time middle East correspondent for the London Independent. Today he joins us from his home in Ireland. He has spent much of the past year, though, in Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert Fisk.

ROBERT FISK: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, you have been listening to the debate.

ROBERT FISK: Oh, I have, indeed, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: If you want to call it that, when it comes to the issue of Iraq. Why don’t you share some of your thoughts today.

ROBERT FISK: Well, I thought they were both — I have actually heard it before, and I have heard almost all of the so-called debate. I think it’s miserable stuff. Both Kerry and Bush have completely missed the point. I think if they’re not willfully doing so, they are certainly misleading American people, who listened to what they had to say. We need to go back and recall how this whole disaster happened. We are talking about a disaster in Iraq. We are talking about a country we claimed we were coming to liberate and now we’re occupying it. We’re re-besieging their cities. I mean, Samarra was supposed to have been liberated by us in 2003. Now we’re going to re-liberate it, and apparently Fallujah is next on the list. What on earth are we doing there? Remember this all started at a critical moment after September 11, 2001, after the international crimes against humanity in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. When Osama bin Laden was suddenly deleted off the screen, off the radar screen and Saddam Hussein was put up there. The Americans were bombarded with the idea, which many Americans, sadly, still believe, that Saddam Hussein had had something to do with September 11 when in fact the agenda for attacking Iraq was first thought up by the neoconservatives in Washington during the Clinton administration. We’re now apparently fighting for democracy in Iraq. Originally, we were going to liberate Iraq so they could have democracy. Most of Iraq is outside of the control of the United States forces or British forces and certainly not government forces. The Iraqi government itself now has less power than the mayor of Baghdad and doesn’t even control all of Baghdad. The situation — the disastrous situation in Iraq is now so grave that I don’t think it could ever be turned around, not while western troops are there. And yet, Kerry and Bush talk about it, as if it is a reversible situation or actually getting better. And again and again, the concentration on America’s soldiers. Well, fine, Americans should be interested in their soldiers and their welfare, but the principal victims in Iraq are not Americans, they’re Iraqis, and they’re dying at an ever greater number. When I go to the mortuaries and see shrieking people holding the corpses of children, old men as well as young men. Trying to stuff them into coffins. The stench is overpowering. That’s the reality on the ground in Iraq. What Kerry and Bush had to say last night bore no relation to the reality which I see inside Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Robert Fisk, it seemed almost as if the basic thrust of Kerry’s arguments was, I will present a smarter imperialism, a smarter defensive empire than the kind of defense that the President has so far been responsible for. For instance, he — as you mentioned, the thrust of the Bush administration, he kept calling it a colossal mistake, rather than dealing with even what some former people in government as Richard Clarke said in his book, the night of September 11, President Bush began to say, let’s find a connection to Saddam Hussein in the attacks. Rather than reiterate that enormous indictment of Richard Clarke against the President, he kept referring to it as a colossal mistake. And he also, as Amy mentioned before, didn’t deal with one of the driving forces of much of the Islamic terrorism around the world is the continuing situation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Your thoughts about how that would be possible.

ROBERT FISK: You have to start off on the basis that nobody who wants to be the United States President is going to try and head into the Palestine-Israel conflict because it would be essential at some point to criticize the Israelis, and that’s not going to get you President of the United States of America. So, I’m not surprised that they ducked that one. That’s par for the course. Clinton did the same. George Bush Sr. This is not going to be a subject for debate.

AMY GOODMAN: But neither did the journalists dare to ask them about it, either.

ROBERT FISK: No, of course, not, because American journalism is, I think, I’m sorry to say, is becoming increasingly neutered. You only have to look the at cozy relationships now between journalists and power in Washington. The relationship is very evident. If you go to a press conference it’s, “Yes, John.” It’s “Mr. President, can I ask you…” It’s first name terms for the journalists and Mr. President. The journalists in many ways have become mouthpieces. I remember pointing out in lectures in the United States before the invasion of Iraq that “The New York Times,” every time it had a major story, the first paragraph always ended with the words, “according to American officials” or “American officials say” — often by Judith Miller at “The New York Times.” Over and over again, we have seen a failure of American journalism, who should — I mean the fourth estate should be out there for the people to ask the serious questions and challenge power. I go back to Amira Hass, the brilliant Israeli journalist, who once defined journalism to me as monitoring the centers of power. I think by and large, with the exception of a few newspapers and small television and radio programs, yours for example, by and large, major American news organizations are neutered. They have neutered themselves. They will not monitor the centers of power. They will not challenge authority, and that leads to a situation in which the major issues which should be discussed, and which American people are quite capable of discussing, and would like to discuss, do not get mentioned. You have got to go back and realize what lies behind the whole issue of Iraq for the two contenders last night. There is an equation which they wouldn’t mention and can’t mention, but it’s very clear. The Americans have got to leave Iraq. And they will leave Iraq, but they can’t leave Iraq. That is why we have this bloody mess at the moment. Everybody in America would like the American soldiers home. Everyone in America knows why the President cannot admit it was all folly. And why Kerry can’t admit it was all folly. So, we end up in essentially a false debate. The issue is that the Iraqi invasion is a disaster. We have got rid of dictatorship and replaced it with total anarchy. You know, I hate to once again go back to the poor Iraqi, but over and over again when I go to funerals in Iraq, of men who have been cruelly murdered, women, children, people say to me, look. I don’t care if you got rid of Saddam Hussein. No, we didn’t like him, but at least with Saddam Hussein, we had security. Our children went to school in the morning. Although we didn’t have free speech, we knew that if we obeyed the rules, we would be alive. Now, that is not praise of Saddam Hussein. He was a cruel dictator. We helped to prop him up. We started him off in the first place. But if the alternative is carnage on the scale we’re now seeing, what do you think that the Iraqis want? I mean, history shows that what Bush did, and what Kerry thinks he might be able to do, cannot work, especially in Iraq. I’m writing a new book about history and the folly of history and the inability to escape from it. I have gone back through the British and Iraqi records and what happened when the British occupied Iraq in 1917. Well, we set up an occupation authority. We appointed our own Iraqi rulers, like Mr. Allawi. Eventually we brought in a King. We found that the Iraqis started a major insurrection against us. One of our senior officers was killed near Fallujah. So we besieged Fallujah with artillery and killed many of the citizens living there. Then we besieged Najaf because we wanted the surrender of a Shia muslim cleric called Badr, not Muqtada al-Sadr, but the name is kind of similar. And then our intelligence operatives in Baghdad, this is British intelligence in 1920, told London they thought the terrorists were coming in from Syria. It’s an absolute fingerprint of what was to happen in 2003 and 2004. Anyone who goes back to the history of the British occupation, and believe me, we knew about empire and occupation, can see every step of the way the path to disaster. Everything we did there went wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, we want it turn for a minute it another excerpt of the debate, this on Afghanistan.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We have a duty to defeat this enemy. We have a duty to protect our children and grandchildren. The best way to defeat them is never waver, to be strong, to use every asset at our disposal. It is to constantly stay on the offensive, and at the same time spread liberty. That’s what the people are seeing now is happening in Afghanistan. 10 million citizens have registered to vote. It’s a phenomenal statistic — that if given a chance to be free, they will show up the at polls. 41% of those 10 million are women. In Iraq, no doubt about it, it’s tough. It’s hard work. It’s incredibly hard. You know why? Because an enemy realizes the stakes. The enemy understands a free Iraq will be a major defeat in their ideology of hatred. That’s why they’re fighting so vociferously. They showed up in Afghanistan when they were there because they tried to beat us and they didn’t, and they’re showing up in Iraq for the same reason. They’re trying to defeat us, and if we lose our will, we lose, but if we remain strong and resolute, we will defeat this enemy.

JIM LEHRER: 90 second response, Senator Kerry?

JOHN KERRY: I believe in being strong and resolute, and determined. I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are. But we also have to be smart, Jim. And smart, means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin laden, and taking it off to Iraq where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein. This President has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. Judgment is what we look for in the President of the United States of America. I’m proud that important military figures are supporting me in this race. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili. Just yesterday, General Eisenhower’s son, General John Eisenhower endorsed me. General Admiral William Crowell, General Tony McPeak, who ran the Air Force war for his father, all believe I would make a stronger Commander In Chief. They believe it because they I would not take my eye off of the goal, Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, he escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded, but we didn’t use American forces, the best trained in the world to kill him. The President relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job, too. That’s wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: John Kerry, George Bush, and their first so-called debate last night. It took place in Coral Gables, Florida. Certainly, a swing state. On the line us with, Robert Fisk, long-time middle-East correspondent for The Independent newspaper of Britain. he speaks to us from his home in Ireland on Afghanistan. Robert Fisk, you were beaten badly when you were covering the conflict in Afghanistan, but your response to Kerry and Bush?

ROBERT FISK: Afghanistan is not a success. Human rights organizations are already pointing out that the polls are hopelessly flawed, that the candidates in some cases are working for the warlords. Not since before the Taliban, when the same warlords were back in power killing each other has there been such opium and drug production in Afghanistan. Most of the country is out of bounds to foreigners because the Taliban have re-established themselves, especially in the villages around Pastia coast, and the Pakistani border. In many cases, U.S. forces cannot move freely except in large numbers in parts of Afghanistan. There has been some reconstruction work. Some people have gone along to put their names down for a vote, but given the warlordism, the vote is likely to prove meaningless, if it does take place. I don’t think, by the way, that the elections are going to take place in January or any time soon afterwards in Iraq. Afghanistan is being left to sink again back into the same chaos and the same poverty that it was in before. Both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, we have profoundly failed because we have not done our work as we should have done internationally through the United Nations. And that, unfortunately, is why the bin Ladens of this world can continue to flourish and can continue to stage their war. I think there’s one other thing that you need to remember. It’s very easy to say, we’re at war. It’s very easy to go off and start a war. Okay, you can say that the war started on September 11, 2001, but you could also say that the war started in 1948 between the Palestinians and Israelis. The war started in Iraq when the British invaded in 1917 and again in 1941. But once you embark on a major military campaign it’s very difficult to switch it off. What we have got in Iraq now is not a war on terror. Most of the people — the vast majority of the men fighting the Americans are Iraqi, and they will go on fighting. You know one of the things that’s very interesting at moment. Again, we need to look at history. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, we supported him with guns, chemicals for gas, with export credits from the United States. And we urged him on. We wanted the destruction of the Islamic Republic of Iran after Khomeini’s revolution. We backed Saddam. He sent a whole generation of Iraqis to learn to fight and die. Now, in that war, the Iraqis went through immense suffering. They fought most of them without any initiatives, because no one could take initiative, only Saddam was the man who was allowed to make decisions. They dug their tanks into the ground, stuck the gun barrels over the top and just fought on, like the battle of Asam against Iranians. But those young men, those men who were captains and lieutenants are now grown up with an enormous experience of fighting power. And they are no longer hobbled by dictatorship. They can take their own initiatives. That, I suspect, that, I suspect is why this insurgency is so successful.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, before we end, I wanted to go to the issue of the international criminal court. During the face-off last night, moderator, Jim Lehrer asked the two candidates starting with John Kerry his position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war. Kerry responded by saying, quote “The President always has the right and always has had the right for pre-emptive strike,” but it was Bush’s response to Kerry that was most compelling. This is what President Bush had to say.

GEORGE W. BUSH: My attitude is you take pre-emptive action in order to protect the American people. That you act in order to make this country secure. My opponent talks about me not signing certain treaties. Let me tell you one thing I didn’t sign and I think show as difference of our opinion, the difference of opinions. That is: I wouldn’t join the International Criminal Court. This is a body based in the Hague where unaccountable judges and prosecutors can pull our troops and diplomats up for trial. I wouldn’t join it. I understand that in certain capitals around the world it — that wasn’t a popular move. But it’s the right move. Not to join a foreign court that could — where our people could be prosecuted. My opponent is for joining the International Criminal Court. I just think that trying to be popular in the global sense, if it’s not in our best interests makes no sense. I’m interested with working with other nations and do a lot of it. But I’m not going to make decisions that I think are wrong for America.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush on the International Criminal Court last night. Robert Fisk, your response?

ROBERT FISK: Well, Bush has spoken over and over again of the need for international law, then when the machinery for imposing that law exists, he doesn’t want any part of it. He repeatedly says, prosecutions of American soldiers, diplomats, what are the prosecutions that he’s worried about? What are these war crimes he appears to be worried about? Do they exist? Do they happen? Are they going to happen? Is it perhaps the case, and remember this started before Iraq, that United States forces are going to be used in such a way that there will be a clamor for prosecutions? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you one thing, I’m a Brit. And I believe that the world should have a court in which we can try the bin Ladens and the Mladics and Karadzics. There’s a couple of other people we could talk about because we didn’t find them either. I think these people should be put on trial before the world. That is one way of exhausting all the possibilities of justice. And then placing these people in a position where the world can see what they really represent. Bush doesn’t want to do that. That is the problem. Why doesn’t he? What lies behind this? What are these prosecutions he’s so frightened about? That does raise a question in my mind.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to go, Robert Fisk. I do have to ask — we have 15 seconds. If you look at the plans for the future that Kerry and Bush have presented, this is a debate between the two major parties, not the other candidates, Kerry admits perhaps the most often word used last night was the word “plan.” Do you think there’s a difference in their plan for Iraq or the middle East, for that matter, overall?

ROBERT FISK: Neither of them are facing up to the realities that the Palestinians are not going to have a state, and the Israelis have no intention of giving them a state. Not this present Sharon government. And that Iraq is a hell disaster. There’s no point of talking of plans now. The question is the whole way in which the United States treats the middle East, and Israel, has got to be openly debated, discussed and re-thought through. Plans for getting out of a mess are not good enough. It doesn’t go far enough and it won’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, thank you for joining us, of The Independent newspaper in Britain, a long-time middle East correspondent for that paper, voted year after year the best foreign correspondent by British editors and reporters. This is Democracy Now!

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