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Despite Celebrated Speech, Has Obama Really Ordered an End to US Occupation of Iraq?

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President Obama’s plan to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq has both been hailed by some as a signal of the coming end of the war while criticized by others as an extension of the occupation. We host a debate between Lawrence Korb, the former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, and Jeremy Scahill, award-winning author and investigative journalist. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: One of the main themes of President Obama’s campaign was his opposition to the war in Iraq. He heavily criticized the Bush administration for the 2003 invasion and vocally opposed the war from the very beginning, when he was still an Illinois state senator. Now, as President of the United States, Obama has finally announced his plan to pull US troops out of Iraq. In a speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on Friday, Obama appeared to spell out a clear date for a withdrawal.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a candidate for president, I made clear my support for a timeline of sixteen months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we’ve made and to protect our troops. These consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next eighteen months.

AMY GOODMAN: Under President Obama’s plan, up to 50,000 US troops would remain in Iraq through 2011.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35,000 to 50,000 US troops.

AMY GOODMAN: But President Obama’s decision to keep 50,000 troops in Iraq has angered some critics of the war. Iraq Veterans Against the War described Obama’s proposal as a “plan for almost three more years of an unjustified military occupation.”

Obama’s speech on Iraq left several major questions unanswered. He did not address whether the US will keep permanent military bases in Iraq, and he made no promise to withdraw the over 100,000 private US military contractors and mercenaries stationed in Iraq.

For a debate today on President Obama’s Iraq plan, we’re joined by two guests. Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He’s a former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. He’s the author of more than twenty books. His latest article is called “The Promised Withdrawal from Iraq.” He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

And joining me here in our firehouse studio is Jeremy Scahill, award-winning investigative journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He reported extensively from Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. His latest article, called “All Troops Out by 2011? Not So Fast; Why Obama’s Iraq Speech Deserves a Second Look.” It appeared at alternet.org.

Lawrence Korb, can you assess the plan laid out by President Obama and why you support it?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, basically, the plan is exactly what he laid out in the campaign. He said he was going to withdraw all combat troops within sixteen months, so he put it up by two months. And he said he would leave a residual force in there to carry out the three missions that he mentioned: going after the remnants of al-Qaeda, helping the Iraqi Security Forces deal with any type of violence other than sectarian, and to protect Americans there.

In many ways, what — the campaign promise that Obama made was actually overcome by events, because President Bush, who for the longest time had resisted a timeline, agreed in the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqis in December of 2008 that all forces would be out by the end of 2011. So, what President Obama is just doing is carrying out that agreement, because these residual forces have to be out by the end of 2011.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, your assessment?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I agree with something that Larry said there at the end. I mean, Obama essentially gave Bush’s victory in Iraq speech when he appeared in front of Camp Lejeune. I mean, this, for all practical purposes, was policy the day that Bush left office. So we’re not seeing any radical departure from official US policy at the end of the Bush administration. And, of course, as Lawrence indicates, that was the result of a very complicated process where the Bush administration was outright criminal in its refusal to recognize anything even vaguely resembling the sovereignty of the people of Iraq.

But let’s be clear here on three major problems with the Obama Iraq plan. First of all, this residual force that Obama is going to be implementing, right now the numbers they’re discussing are 35,000 to 50,000 troops. I’ve long spoken out against this residual force, and there are many activist groups in this country that, when Obama was running for president, called his office and said, “No residual forces remaining in Iraq.” The scope of the mission of these residual forces, while it sounds specific to some — phrases such as “counterterrorism” have become almost meaningless in the America we now live in when uttered by politicians. We see how they’ve been applied over the past eight years and, quite frankly, under the Clinton administration, as well. So I’m very concerned about the type of operations that this 35,000 to 50,000 — if it actually gets down to that number under the timeline Obama has stated.

Secondly, Obama has refused to scrap this massive, monstrous US embassy that was built on basically slave labor, a $700 million embassy that’s the size of Vatican City. The Vatican has embassies of its own around the world. And the US has built this abomination in Iraq on slave labor, and the Obama administration is going to maintain a staff of over a thousand people there who are going to necessitate heavily armed security to go anywhere inside of the country. That’s been a cocktail for death and destruction in Iraq. Blackwater has been the company that primarily has been guarding US diplomats. Now it’s probably going to be a different company, although many of the same operatives will probably jump over to that company. So, change in name, but not necessarily in policy. Even if Obama hires these people through the State Department officially and says there’s some system of accountability, they’re still going to be putting US lives at a premium over Iraqi lives.

And the third problem that I have with the Obama Iraq plan is that it’s full of loopholes. The Status of Forces Agreement, first of all, Article 27 allows the United States and the Iraqi government to agree that the United States can stay in the country, can engage in any kind of military operations and also can take action, including military action, to address any, quote, “threat,” internal or external. Well, what’s a threat? The wrong people win an election? We’ve seen that happen before. Look at the case of Hamas in Palestine.

So, the fact of the matter is, you take these three, combined with the fact that senior military officials have told journalists, such as Jim Miklashevski of NBC News, that the Pentagon is preparing for US forces to remain in Iraq potentially for twenty more years, and I think we have reason to be very concerned about the fact that Obama basically is giving Bush’s final Iraq speech.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Korb, your response?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I think a couple of things are important. And there’s no doubt about the fact that any agreement can be abused. But remember, it was the Iraqis who wanted us out. The Iraqis never really wanted us there, and they’re the ones who insisted on the timeline.

The other is the Iraqi people get to vote this summer on a referendum about whether they want to support the Status of Forces Agreement. If they decide not to, all the forces have to be out within a year. So I think that’s the key thing to keep in mind. And I know our military commanders have talked about, and Secretary Gates has talked about, staying there, but we could only do that with the permission of the Iraqis.

The final thing is, come 1 July, our forces are out of the cities, they’re out of the towns. They’re basically back on their bases. They can only go out with the permission of the Iraqi government. Now, I agree, there can be abuses, and I do worry that Prime Minister Maliki might try get US forces to go against some of his enemies. That’s why I think in President Obama’s speech, when he said not to deal with sectarian issues — I mean, they can ask us, but we don’t have to do that, and I would hope that the President and his national security team make that clear to our military commanders, exactly what they can and cannot do.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, see, one of the issues I have here is, going back to this issue of what if the wrong people win an election, the Iraqi people have a right to choose leaders that are hostile to the United States, that are hostile to US corporate aims in the Middle East, more broadly, and in Iraq, specifically. And I think that US history has shown that when the wrong people win elections, the US will intervene militarily, overtly, covertly, behind-the-scenes, in front of the world public. And I think that the fact that Thomas Ricks, one of the most well-informed journalists covering this war, has indicated that it’s very likely that a leader will emerge in Iraq that is hostile to US interests, that is close to Tehran and is not going to be someone that’s perceived by the United States to be a friend — so the fact is that the Maliki government could be substantially weakened by indigenous forces within Iraq, and the Obama administration could step in and say, “We’re going to defend this flailing regime.”

What I found very disturbing about Obama’s speech, among other things, was the fact that he officially co-signed Bush’s major lies on Iraq. When he talked about the mission of US troops in Iraq, he said, “I want to be very clear: We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime, and you got the job done.” I’m sorry, Mr. Obama, the troops were sent to Iraq on the lie of weapons of mass destruction. And he co-signed that Bush administration lie.

He also said, “We will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life. That is your achievement,” he said to the US troops. “That is the prospect that you have made possible.” Again, no, not a better life. We’re talking about upwards of a million Iraqis that have been killed, their lives decimated, 20 percent of the country either in need of desperate medical attention, internally displaced, another 20 percent living outside of the country. And this has been an utter mess. And he talks about a better future. Iraq has never been in more shambles than it has been over the course of the US military occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion, Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, has written a piece on Alternet, online at alternet.org. Lawrence Korb, with the Center for American Progress, has also written a piece called “The Promised Withdrawal from Iraq.” He’s former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army — and I want to get to talking about Blackwater — well, it’s now called Xe. We’re also joined by President Reagan’s former Assistant Secretary of Defense. He is now with the Center for American Progress. He’s written a piece called “The Promised Withdrawal from Iraq.”

Lawrence Korb, the last point that Jeremy made about President Obama — well, he called President Bush right before he gave his Camp Lejeune speech, and then telling the troops at Camp Lejeune that they had succeeded in their mission in removing Saddam Hussein.

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I think it’s very important, because the troops did what they were told. I agree that the war was fought under false pretences. We should never have gone there. It was probably the greatest strategic blunder in US history. But that’s not the fault of the troops. They were sent there. Their mission was overthrow the regime, and that’s — you know, that’s what they did. We can’t fault them, however much we want to be opposed to this war.

The other point he made is certainly true, that there are potential for abuses. I have enough confidence in Senator Obama that he will not let that happen. But yes, there certainly is the potential for us to make some of the mistakes we’ve made in previous — our previous history when we didn’t like the results of the election.

But I think it is important — and I did like that part, because as a young man, I went and got involved in a — you know, another terrible war. But the people I went with in Vietnam, we did what we were told. Then, when you come back and you find out, for example, that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a sham, that’s not our fault. And that’s what — and I was glad that he did that, because it is true that these people have suffered — not only the Iraqis, but our men and women have been asked to do something that no other military in our history has been asked to do, to go back two, three, four times into a combat zone with very little, you know, time in between. And what it has done to them and their families, I think, is something that we’re going to be paying for a long time — for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, part of the problem here, though, it’s not about faulting the troops. I mean, I agree with Lawrence in the sense that troops are given orders, and then they can decide whether they’re going to follow out those orders or not follow them out. We’ve seen many soldiers through IVAW, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and others who have actually resisted or have refused to participate in a war they consider to be illegal or immoral. And that, though, is separate from what President Obama did.

What President Obama did is he completely reformed his position on Iraq, co-signed the lies of the Bush administration, and cast aside his campaign rhetoric, where he did talk about this being a fraudulent war, where he did criticize the prosecution of this war. To listen to President Obama at Camp Lejeune, you would think that this war was prosecuted beautifully and that the point of it was to liberate the people of Iraq. That was not the point of this administration — of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq. That came like two or three justifications later, after the fraud and the lies.

So, the fact that Obama gives this speech, does not mention the fact that Iraqis have suffered under the US occupation, doesn’t mention the incredible price that the Iraqis have paid as a result of US military action in Iraq, to me, I think that sends a very disturbing message to the Iraqi people and the region, more generally.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, I wanted to ask about the response of the Democratic leaders to President Obama’s speech, like Nancy Pelosi, like Harry Reid.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, first of all, yeah, you look at Obama’s top allies, it’s people like John McCain, it’s people like Mitch McConnell, who praised Obama for implementing the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy at the end. And, I mean, some of this is partisan politics. And, please, the Republicans have no credibility on this. I mean, if we can be critical of Barack Obama, I mean, the Republicans are just merciless criminals when it comes to, you know, US policy in Iraq and toward the world, more broadly.

But the fact that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer all acted like astonished that there’s going to be 35,000 to 50,000 troops in a residual capacity in Iraq and were criticizing this, I mean, this is a classic example of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party when it comes to foreign policy and what’s been wrong with this party for a long time. And that is that when it actually mattered, when Pelosi or Reid could have said to candidate Obama, “Back off that residual force,” as many activists were calling for, they were deafeningly silent. We were at the Democratic convention, Amy, walking around, trying to find anyone to criticize that aspect of the Obama policy, and not even antiwar Democrats, who were firmly against the war from the beginning, would dissent from the policy positions of the dear leader. This is cult activity, when you refuse to go after someone to try to criticize their policies when it matters and then later act like you’ve been hoodwinked. They knew exactly what was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Korb?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I think in the speech, as I read it, he did make reference to the suffering of the Iraqi people and talked about, you know, the refugee problem, so I think he did that. But again, I think Jeremy is right. I mean, you got to go back. Obama mentioned this in the campaign. So, if people are upset, they should have, you know, made these views known during the primaries. And again, while I thought the war was the greatest strategic disaster, remember that the Congress voted to approve this, including some of the other people who ran against Obama, and I think they — you know, they should be held accountable for this, as well. So I think there’s a lot of blame to go — that got to go round.

The question is, OK, we are where we are; are we, you know, doing the right thing? And I just hope that the President carries out what he says, and we’re completely out of there, no permanent bases, and that he does not allow Americans to participate in any type of operations that are done solely to deal with one ethnic group being concerned about what the other is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go from the issue of whether there are a permanent bases, which he did not address, to another issue he didn’t address: mercenaries, or the paramilitaries, the private contractors. I had a chance to question Senator Obama a year ago when he was on the campaign trail. He spoke at Cooper Union here in New York. As he was walking out, I asked him why he wasn’t calling for a total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in accordance with the 70 percent of Iraqis who say they want the US out.

    AMY GOODMAN: Senator Obama, quick question: 70 percent of Iraqis say they want the US to withdraw completely; why don’t you call for a total withdrawal?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I do, except for our embassy. I call for amnesty and protecting our civilian contractors there.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’ve said a residual force —

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, but —

    AMY GOODMAN: — which would be tens of thousands of troops.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, no. I mean, I don’t think that you’ve read exactly what I’ve said. What I said is that we do need to have a strike force in the region. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in Iraq; it could be in Kuwait or other places. But we do have to have some presence in order to not only protect them, but also potentially to protect the territorial integrity.

    AMY GOODMAN: Would you call for a ban on the private military contractors like Blackwater?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve actually —- I’m the one who sponsored the bill that called for the investigation of Blackwater and those folks, so -—

    AMY GOODMAN: But would you support the Sanders one now?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Here’s the problem: we have 140,000 private contractors right there, so unless we want to replace all of or a big chunk of those with US troops, we can’t draw down the contractors faster than we can draw down our troops. So what I want to do is draw —- I want them out in the same way that we make sure that we draw out our own combat troops. Alright? I mean, I -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Not a total ban?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I mean, I don’t want to replace those contractors with more US troops, because we don’t have them, alright? But this was a speech about the economy.

    AMY GOODMAN: The war is costing $3 trillion, according to Stiglitz.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: That’s what — I know, which I made a speech about last week. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Barack Obama a year ago at Cooper Union here in New York. Lawrence Korb, I know you have to leave for another appointment, but I did want to ask about the mercenaries, about the private contractors. They number, what, about the same as the US soldiers right now in Iraq.

LAWRENCE KORB: Troops, yeah. That’s correct. But again, as you draw down the troops, you’ll need less of them, because one of the things that they’re doing is providing logistic support, you know, for the troops, and you will need, obviously, less of that.

Remember, under the Status of Forces Agreement, they no longer have immunity. If these people act up again, they are going to be subject to the Iraqi justice system. And obviously, you’re going to need some sort of private contractors to guard the number of personnel that are in the country in this embassy. And again, I would not have built such a big embassy, but it is there, and hopefully, over the years, we can get that back to a normal size, if we ever get back to having a normal relationship with Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lawrence Korb, I want to thank you for being with us, from the Center for American Progress, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. And, Jeremy Scahill, if you would just stay with us for a few more minutes, I want to stay on this issue of the private contractors.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Can I say something about what —- about this issue first? I mean, on the issue of the US embassy, I think that the Obama administration should turn it over to the Iraqi people and let them decide what they want to use that massive city within their city for. And the fact is that -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about like a four mile square area in downtown Baghdad.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, you’re talking — yeah, you’re talking about a small city unto itself that’s going to have 1,200 employees and hundreds of CIA operatives, was the initial plan for it. And all these people are going to necessitate deadly and lethal security. So that would be a real message of change to send to the Iraqi people, to say this was an embassy built on slave labor as part of an illegal occupation of your country —-

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you say “slave labor”?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Because there were people that were brought in. It was essentially indentured servitude. There were people that were brought in from other countries that worked on the construction of that project, much like Africans abducted from the African continent and brought here as slaves, they and their descendants were building the White House in this country. Here we are, years later, with the US government having the embassy built largely on labor that was forced labor or dramatically underpaid labor by people that were essentially forced by their economic conditions or by being taken into the country under false pretenses to participate in the construction of that embassy. And this is the subject of a major congressional investigation that I don’t know is going to go anywhere now that Obama is in the White House.

But on the issue of the contractors, I mean, what you asked Obama about a year ago is very, very important, because Obama said in his answer to you that he didn’t want to draw down contractors at a faster rate than he drew down US troops. So, even when Obama is talking about 50,000 troops remaining in the country, presumably that would mean 50,000 contractors to support them. So we’re always talking about deflated numbers when we hear them come out of the mouths of administration officials.

On the issue of the mercenaries, though, the armed security contractors, Blackwater, the company formerly known as Blackwater, now, you know, called Xe, which is -— you know, I mean, it’s very, very interesting, this —-

AMY GOODMAN: Spelled X-e.

JEREMY SCAHILL: X-e -— you know, in the midst of a major rebranding campaign. What happened with Blackwater is that the Obama administration, through the State Department, informed Xe, Blackwater, that they were not going to renew their highly lucrative contract in Iraq. I think this was a result, in large part, of massive public pressure. I think that activists and concerned people and journalists who were exposing this really made it politically untenable for the Obama administration to at least publicly continue that kind of a relationship with this company, Blackwater, and I think the people who took this seriously should take heart in that.

Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, did make a pledge on the campaign trail that she was going to endorse legislation to ban Blackwater’s operations, and she took a lot of heat for that. Whether or not this was a decision that she influenced, I don’t know. I mean, it seemed like it was sort of a cynical decision on the campaign trail aimed at outflanking Obama from the left. But the fact is that Blackwater’s contract has not been renewed.

Having said that, Blackwater is firmly entrenched in Afghanistan, continues with many lucrative US government contracts, has now changed its name. Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater and the CEO, this week announced that he was stepping down as the CEO but will remain as the chairman. So, you know, I mean, Erik Prince is not in control of Blackwater, the same way that Vladimir Putin is not in control of Russia; he is in control of it, he just isn’t officially the head of it.

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