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2009 in Perspective: Glenn Greenwald on the Five Wars US Is Fighting in Muslim Countries

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As 2009 comes to a close, today we begin by taking a step back and putting this year of war in perspective. blogger Glenn Greenwald discusses US foreign policy, including the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, drone strikes on Pakistan, cruise missile attacks on Yemen, operations in Somalia, the ongoing operation in Iraq, and much more. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: As 2009 draws to a close, today we begin by taking a step back and putting this year in perspective.

The war in Afghanistan was escalated twice in 2009 by President Obama and, with it, the death toll of Afghans and US and NATO forces. In the latest news, a suicide bomber attacked a CIA base in Afghanistan Wednesday, killing eight Americans. In Pakistan, the number of US drone strikes has increased dramatically over the past year. And in Iraq there are still tens of thousands of US troops deployed. Now, a new military front appears to be opening up against Yemen, with Obama ordering cruise missile attacks there.

Meanwhile, the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay remains open, and human rights groups have decried what they call an Obama administration policy of preventive detention.

On the domestic front, the President’s top legislative priority — healthcare reform — is lurching forward with legislation passing both the House and the Senate. But many question the nature of the reform with no public option and no employer mandate.

AMY GOODMAN: For analysis of 2009, we turn to Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for, joining us now on the telephone.

Glenn, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk, beginning in Afghanistan today. You’ve got — we know the US contractors, CIA employees who were killed, eight of them, four Canadian troops and the first Canadian journalist killed in Afghanistan, Michelle Lang for the Calgary Herald. It’s always much tougher to find out exactly how many Afghans have died. Talk about this war on this last day of 2009.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think, in a lot of ways, it’s a very kind a morbid, though powerful, symbol of what it is that we’re doing, which is, we continue to, every time we are targeted with some sort of terrorist attack, we seem to respond by escalating. And there’s this sense that the Obama administration is less bellicose and less committed to warmongering than the Bush administration was, and although that may be true on several levels, as Juan just suggested before I came on, we are escalating our military presence and our aggression in numerous parts of the world, Afghanistan being only one of those cases.

And when we do that, not only can we expect that we are going to suffer the kinds of casualties that you just described, but we’re going to be bringing the kinds of deaths, not only to Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, but also to civilians, as just happened as well, according to Afghan officials, exactly the kind of death to civilians and to Muslims that cause and exacerbate the very threat that we’re purportedly trying to undermine. And so, what we’re doing is we’re bringing this constant cycle, where we bring death to their part of the world, they then try and bring more death to our part of the world, as we saw with the attempted terrorist attack on the Northwest jet, and we continue to respond by doing exactly that which perpetuates the cycle. And I think the multiple horrible incidents over the past twenty-four hours in Afghanistan symbolizes what it is that we’re doing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Glenn, what about the situation in Yemen? We have the situation of this Christmas Day attempted bombing, apparently coming out of Yemen, and yet the American people are not well aware of how deeply already the United States is involved in this new front in Yemen in the fight against the so-called war on terror.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, I think that’s the critical point, is that what this really is is it’s a covert war. The New York Times called it a “covert front” in the terror war, whatever you want to call it, a front in the ongoing war or a new war. The reality is, is that we’re involved in a war in a new country that most Americans have never even thought about or heard of, let alone given thought to whether we should be involved in war there.

And when you count the number of countries, of Muslim countries where we’re actively engaged in some kind of warfare — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and now Yemen — that’s five different Muslim countries where we are either occupying, invading or bombing. And that’s to say nothing of the conflicts that our primary client state in the Middle East, Israel, has with a whole bunch of other Muslim countries and the other Muslim countries that we’re threatening, such as Iran. So we are expanding the wars and aggression in the Muslim world.

Yemen is a prime example. And specifically with regard to Yemen, if you talk to virtually any expert in that country — and I interviewed one at Princeton last week — across the political spectrum what they will say is that when we shoot missiles into various sites in Yemen and kill civilians, as we did eight days ago — and there’s no question that — although there’s some question about what exactly our involvement was, because it’s a covert war, there’s no question we were involved heavily and enabled the attack. When we kill civilians or shoot missiles or drop Hellfire missiles into that country, and when we prop up the dictatorial oppressive regime that runs that country, we are unquestionably doing exactly that which al-Qaeda could wish for: we are helping al-Qaeda convert the population and bringing greater and greater sympathy to the cause of Islamic radicalism.

And so, here you saw a plot that quite likely had something to do with Yemen, and obviously there’s a connection between what we are doing in Yemen, in terms of our military assault and interfering in their country and propping up an oppressive regime, and the desire on the part of people of that country to attack us and the willingness on the part of the population — not just al-Qaeda, but the normal population — to be supportive of those efforts, because they perceive that we are bringing death to their country, and it’s only fair that they return those actions.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this mean, Glenn Greenwald, for Guantanamo prisoners from Yemen being returned there? What is it — the ones left at Guantanamo, about half of them are from Yemen?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yes, about half. There’s roughly 200 prisoners currently at Guantanamo, and ninety of them are from Yemen. And that’s been one of the primary obstacles, is that the government, the Obama administration and, before them, the Bush administration, has not wanted to release any of the detainees to Yemen, because they don’t trust the Yemeni government to safeguard those detainees. There — actually, there was, in 2003, a prison break in Yemen, where the current leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen escaped, and that’s what really led to the revitalization of Yemen.

The problem is, is that by holding ninety people from Yemen in Guantanamo, without charges of any kind, indefinitely, and many of whom are clearly innocent and have done nothing wrong, that, too, exacerbates the anti-American anger and hostility that fuels terrorism. It’s a huge propaganda tool for al-Qaeda, as well.

And to their credit, the Obama administration, actually just two weeks ago, released six Yemeni detainees back to Yemen in an attempt to close Guantanamo, on the ground that keeping Guantanamo open is more threatening and more of a — more dangerous than releasing these detainees back to Guantanamo, and yet what you — back to Yemen. And yet, what you see is the normal bipartisan reaction. You saw people like Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, but also Dianne Feinstein, immediately pipe up and demand that no more detainees be released to Yemen, even though these are people who are guilty of nothing, have never been charged with any crime, and against whom there is no evidence. And that’s another perfect example of how the policies that we’re pursuing in the name of fighting terrorism are fueling that very threat.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Glenn, another area where the Obama administration has expanded military activity, obviously, to Pakistan, in the border areas of Pakistan, yet Pakistan is continuing to witness almost daily attacks within its country by militants.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, this is — you know, this is, I think, very similar to what we just discussed, in terms of what we’re doing in the Muslim world generally, and specifically the counterproductive conduct that we’re pursuing in Yemen. I mean, the myth, from the beginning, has been that there is a certain group of evil, intrinsically evil, people called “the terrorists,” and the key to beating them is to just kill them all. And once you kill them all with bombs and other air attacks and the like, or if you lock them up forever, once you do that to the finite group known as “the terrorists,” there will be no more terrorists, and we will have won the war on terror. And that’s why we rely continuously and increasingly on acts of violence, with the idea that of we’re just going to eradicate the terrorists.

And, of course, what we actually have been doing over the last nine years — and we don’t ever learn our lesson — is we’re actually expanding the pool of terrorists. We’re increasing rapidly the number of people who are sympathetic to Islamic radicalism and who are willing — who are so angry at us that they’re not only willing to kill innocent civilians, but they’re willing to give up their own lives to do it. And if you look at all kinds of sources — you can go back to a 2004 task force that Donald Rumsfeld appointed; you can look at what David Rohde, the New York Times reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for eight months, said; you can look at the British reporter Johann Hari, who interviewed ex-jihadists — all of this evidence proves that the more we engage in these kind of air attacks in Muslim areas — and that certainly includes in these tribal regions of Pakistan — the more civilians we kill, the more civilians we kill, the more terrorists we create. And we certainly — there almost certainly are far more terrorists now, people willing to do violence against us, than there were nine years ago, as a result of what we’re doing.

And this covert action in Pakistan — it, too, is a covert war; there’s no congressional authorization for it, there’s virtually no discussion of it by government officials — is having the same effect as our bombing campaigns in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, talk about the media coverage of the wars. And also, you wrote an interesting piece about the New York Times coverage of Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera reporter who was held at Guantanamo for about six years and then released without charge.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, this is what I find actually most interesting and most — and the most significant aspect of all of this, is it’s generally assumed that there is a significant disparity between how we, as Americans or Westerners, perceive of all of these events and how the Muslim world perceives of these events. And that is true. There is a very great disparity. But generally, what we assume is that the reason there’s this great disparity is because we are rational and informed and educated and advanced and, most of all, free, and therefore we know the truth about what’s going on, whereas Muslims live in oppressive and primitive and backwards countries, they are consumed not by rationality but by religious fanaticism, and therefore they have very distorted and partial and propagandized views of the world, and that’s what accounts for this disparity.

Now the reality is exactly the opposite, because all of the things that we were just discussing about the effects of our air strikes in all of these Muslim countries, the fact that we are constantly waging war in an increasing number of their nations, and the fact that we routinely slaughter innocent men, women and children who are the victims of our air strikes, the Muslim — people in the Muslim world in those countries are very well aware of what we do, because the images are reported constantly. They’re informed about what we’re doing. And yet, if you look at American media coverage, it’s virtually never the case that the victims of our actions, of our air strikes and our military assaults, are discussed. Those things are kept from us.

And so, they perceive that we are the aggressors because we are killing civilians, which we’re doing, but Americans are propagandized, that information is basically kept away from their sight, and so they’re unaware of what the actions are. And so, when there’s anger and hostility and hatred in the Muslim world towards the United States, they understand why, but we are confused and bewildered, because the facts about why that is are generally kept from us.

And you mentioned the story of Sami al-Hajj, who was an Al Jazeera reporter, a reporter, a cameraman, who was covering the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States in late 2001, when he was abducted by the United States and shipped to Guantanamo, where he was kept for seven years, obviously without charges of any kind. He was interrogated almost exclusively, not about Osama bin Laden or about terrorism, but about the operations of Al Jazeera. He was clearly a prisoner because he was a journalist that worked for an outlet that the Bush administration perceived as being critical or hostile to its interests. So here was a journalist, a foreign journalist, that we imprisoned for seven years.

And if you go and research on Nexis or other media databases what the discussions were in the mainstream media about that incident, you can find almost nothing. So Americans were not informed that we, as a government, imprisoned journalists without charges. And there are lots of other foreign journalists who have been imprisoned the same way in Iraq and other places. And yet, when you have the case of, say, Roxana Saberi, the Iranian American journalist who was imprisoned in Iran for three months — not for seven years, but for three months — or the two journalists who were just in prison in North Korea, what you have is a media bonanza. And so, it makes it — it gives the appearance that only foreign governments, but not our own, imprison journalists without charges. And this is what accounts for the disparity in perception. It’s that we are being propagandized by our own media.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think things have changed, Glenn Greenwald, from how the Obama administration is dealing with things after President Bush, or do you find them very similar?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think there are some changes around the margins. There’s clearly an attempt to change the tone. There’s been outreach efforts on the part of Obama to speak in a more respectful and less hostile and dictatorial and belligerent way to the Muslim world. You saw that in his speech in Cairo and in other speeches that he’s given. He sent a video to Iran that was designed to ratchet down the threatening and belligerent rhetoric earlier this year. And I think those things are important, and you would never have seen the Bush administration do that.

I think there are other changes. If you look at how Obama reacted to this plot on the Northwest Airlines, the attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines jet, he didn’t try and turn it into something larger than it was or exploit it for political gain by running to the nearest microphone and engaging in all kinds of melodramatic pronouncements. He treated it as what it was, which was a failed attempt by criminals to kill people, and was much calmer and more sober about it. So I think those things have been beneficial on the margins.

But I think that the fundamentals of our response to counterterrorism, which is, as I said earlier, that the solution resides in dispatching missiles and fighter jets and ground troops and invasions and soon-to-be sanctions in Iran, as well, is doing nothing but escalating the very war that leads to terrorism in the first place. And I don’t think that’s changed very much at all. And certainly on the civil liberties front, Obama is every bit as committed to extreme secrecy, to detention without charges, to military commissions, the nuts and bolts of the Bush-Cheney approach, as the predecessor, as well.

So there are some changes in symbolism, some changes that are actually substantive, some improvements, but I think the fundamentals are clearly the same. And the results are the same, as well, which are increasing attacks from that part of the world on the United States.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And there seems to be, doesn’t there, a growing gap between the rhetoric of the administration and its actions, that from the early days, it appears — obviously, no one expected two escalations in Afghanistan in one year, as well this expansion of the war on terror to these other countries.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right, and I think that the central attribute of the Obama administration — and it’s ironic, given that the campaign was all based on changing the nature of how Washington works — the central attribute of the Obama administration is to accommodate and keep in place the same power factions that have run Washington forever, and as a result, the same mindset, the same dynamic that governs Washington in virtually every area.

And so, you know, I think that if you look at interviews that Obama has given, both before and after he was elected, there’s clearly an awareness on his part of the things that we’re discussing. I mean, he, himself, has talked about before how the more hatred in that part of world we engender through our military strikes, the greater the threat is of terrorism. He’s talked about before about how indefinite detention is a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda, and therefore we need to close Guantanamo.

But despite that rhetoric, despite that recognition, the same policies are being continued. So we’re closing Guantanamo at some point, but we’re shifting the very indefinite detention scheme and military commission scheme that caused such controversy simply to a new location. And although he talks about how air strikes enflame that part of the world, he has escalated air strikes not just in Afghanistan but in whole new countries, as well, and in Pakistan especially.

And so, you know, I think what you see is that he is afraid to or unwilling to challenge the orthodoxies of the intelligence community, of the Pentagon, of the lobbyists and industry interests that have long run Washington. And so, whether his intentions are good, whether he has a purer heart, these things are impossible to know, but they’re really irrelevant. The reality is that the same dynamic continues.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Glenn Greenwald, the issue of healthcare — your assessment of President Obama and what the Senate and the House are doing right now, and his role in this?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, it’s exactly what I just described, which is that the plan from the start was to meet in secret with the lobbyists and industry interests from the healthcare industry, the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and devise a plan that they were satisfied with. And the plan that they are satisfied with is one that promotes their interests. And so, what we’re going to have is an extremely immoral and destructive scheme where individuals are forced, by penalty of law, and forced by the IRS to turn over their income to the private insurance industry, that has very few restrictions on what it can continue to do, so that people have to buy health insurance, whether they want it or not, whether they can afford it or not. It’s a major boom to those industries.

It will ensure that that industry money stays with the Democratic Party. But I think that what it’s done is it’s bolstered and strengthened the private insurance industry that was supposedly the root of the problem in the first place. And that’s classic Obama: lots of nice rhetoric about healthcare coverage, some mild benefit to the poor, but a bolstering and strengthening of the very system that he vowed to change.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we want to thank you very much for being with us, constitutional law attorney and legal blogger for His most recent book, Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics. As we move out of this new term that I have learned, the Noughties, right? — from zero to ten, on this blue moon tonight, once in a blue moon, and it’s happening tonight on New Year’s, the second full moon in a year. It hasn’t happened for twenty years and will happen again in twenty-nine years. Happy New Year, Glenn.

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