As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Russia to talk about the war in Syria and other issues, we spend the hour with the longtime investigative journalist Allan Nairn. For decades, Nairn has covered the impact of U.S. foreign policy across the globe in East Timor, Guatemala, El Salvador, Indonesia and other countries. Democracy Now! spoke to Nairn on Monday, discussing the escalation of U.S. military operations across the Middle East, as well as the unique danger Trump poses both abroad and at home. We began by asking Allan Nairn about last week’s U.S. attack on a Syrian air base.
AMY GOODMAN: As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Russia to talk about the war in Syria and other issues, we spend the hour with the longtime investigative journalist Allan Nairn. For decades, Allan has covered the impact of U.S. foreign policy across the globe—in East Timor, Guatemala, El Salvador, Indonesia, as well as other countries. I spoke to Allan Nairn Monday, and we discussed the escalation of U.S. military operations across the Middle East, as well as the unique danger Trump poses both abroad and at home. I began by asking Allan Nairn about last week’s U.S. attack on a Syrian air base.
ALLAN NAIRN: It was an attack on an old U.S. partner, old U.S. torture partner, Assad. The chemical attack was a monstrous atrocity, but it wasn’t the most monstrous atrocity that was done in Syria probably that week or that month. The Assad regime routinely massacres civilians using conventional weapons. And also, the forces backed by the Gulf states and Turkey—Turkey of NATO, the Gulf States, U.S. allies—for a number of years were also using tactics that involved attacks on civilians. And some of them ended up morphing into ISIS.
This particular attack on the Syrian airfield, I don’t think, is going to save any lives in Syria, in terms of its effect on the conflict. It may save Trump, to a certain extent, politically. It was mainly an act of political theater. The U.S. establishment is an organism. And that organism, in an important respect, has a temperament that is similar to that of Trump. It gets satisfaction from displays of aggression. And if you look at the press coverage, you see that this attack has made them feel good, has made them feel better about themselves as leaders of the United States establishment. But it’s not saving lives in Syria. In fact, this particular U.S. attack was—was probably far—not the most deadly attack in Syria that the U.S. staged that week, that the U.S. staged last week. Although many people were calling for the U.S. to do this air attack on Syria, many apparently didn’t realize that the U.S. was already bombing Syria. In Syria and in Iraq, just over the recent weeks and months, U.S. air attacks have hit mosques, schools, apartment complexes, and killed many, many hundreds of civilians, so much so that the people who monitor this, like the Airwars group, have estimated that the U.S. has now surpassed Russia in its killing of civilians by bombing raids. So, this was—this was more of a symbolic strike.
As to the deeper issue of what can be done to stop this carnage, I’m not a pacifist. I think sometimes, unfortunately, tragically, force is necessary. Even violence is necessary to prevent more violence. If there were a military action that could stop this mass slaughter in Syria, I would support it. But there isn’t. Contrary to myth, most decisions regarding foreign policy are not hard. They’re easy. They’re easy. Don’t support the murderers. Don’t create a bureaucracy that, in order to survive, has to keep on killing in order to justify its own existence. But occasionally, now and then, you will get a situation where the choices are hard. And that is Syria today, because—in important part because of the inexcusable actions of various outside forces, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, the Gulf states, Turkey. Syria has reached a state of such collapse that there really is no clear, immediate way to stop, or at the moment even mitigate, the mass civilian killing. But, although it would be extremely difficult, you can imagine some steps that could be constructive—for example, getting all these various foreign powers out, stopping the influx of arms—even, on the dealmaking level, which the U.S. establishment likes and which Trump likes, even a deal between the U.S. and Russia, where, on the one hand, the U.S. agrees to stop the NATO expansion and the pressure on Russia, which is a violation of the agreement that Bush Sr. made with the Russians, in exchange for Russia cutting loose the Assad regime. Things like this could at least, perhaps, edge things in the right direction. But more airstrikes will not.
The fact that the U.S. bombed—U.S. bombs hit mosques, hit schools, hit apartment complexes, even, in some cases, hit wedding parties, such as in one famous massacre carried out by the forces of General Mattis, the Mukaradeeb wedding massacre, who’s now the defense secretary, within the U.S. system—
AMY GOODMAN: In?
ALLAN NAIRN: That was in Iraq, on the border near Syria. Within the U.S. system, those killings of civilians are excused, because the U.S. was not targeting those civilians per se. They just happened to be next to the targets, so they died in the explosion. So the U.S. system says it’s OK. That makes us morally different from Assad, from ISIS, from the Russians, etc. The Pentagon uses calculations, algorithms, before they make these airstrikes. They calculate how many civilians they predict will die by accident. So, in a certain sense, it’s an accident. But in another sense, if you were applying domestic criminal law standards, it wouldn’t be considered an accident. They could be charged with criminally negligent homicide. They could be charged with various kinds of manslaughter. And they make these calculations, and they say, "OK, if we drop this bomb, X number of people will die." It used to be, during the attack on—the Bush attack on Iraq, that the standard was somewhere in the mid-twenties. Roughly 25 civilians could be—it would be OK to do an airstrike if it would only kill roughly 25 civilians. Now the calculations have changed. One thing that Trump, with the support of General Mattis, has done is he’s encouraged the Pentagon to say, "Oh, well, even if it’s more than 25, no problem. We will still go ahead with this—with this airstrike." So, with those standards, some of which, by the way, were inspired by the Russian example, what the Russians call Grozny rules, just unrestrained bombing.
AMY GOODMAN: Investigative journalist Allan Nairn. We’ll be back with him in a minute to talk about Iraq, Yemen, the Trump administration and more. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: "Andar Conmigo," "Walk with Me," by Raza Obrera. The group’s singer, Juan Manuel, is currently imprisoned and on hunger strike with hundreds of others at the GEO Group-owned Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The death toll from a recent U.S. airstrike in the Iraqi city of Mosul has risen to nearly 300 civilians, including many children. The Los Angeles Times has described the March 17th strike as among the deadliest incidents in decades of modern warfare. I asked investigative journalist Allan Nairn to talk about the airstrike in Mosul.
ALLAN NAIRN: Various U.S. defenses after that mass killing of civilians by the U.S. was reported were things like "It was an accident" or "We were targeting ISIS" or "ISIS was using civilians as human shields" or "We meant"—maybe most revealingly, "Yes, we meant to bomb the apartments, but we didn’t realize that ISIS had rigged them with explosions—with explosives. So when we deliberately bombed the apartment, that touched off the explosives, and that made the killing of the residents of the apartment complex even more extensive than we had—than we had planned on." So, all those—all those defensive defenses turn on the idea that as long as you’re not targeting the civilians per se, it’s still permissible to kill civilians in mass.
And these are—if you go back in history, you find these justifications repeatedly. These are the same justifications that Israel used during their various assaults on Gaza, as they were bombing apartment buildings deliberately in Gaza, because, they would say, "Oh, well, yeah, we bombed that apartment building. But there was a Hamas guy in apartment 3B. Therefore it’s justified." The human shield concept. Well, think of domestic police procedure. Let’s say there’s a hostage situation, there’s a criminal. They’ve just robbed a store, and they’ve grabbed the store clerk, and they’re holding them, and they’re holding a gun to the clerk’s head. Well, what do the police do? They don’t—they’re not supposed to throw a grenade and kill both the criminal and the hostage. They’re supposed to seek a way that will allow the hostage to go free. But what the U.S. military doctrine does is precisely the opposite. They say, "Oh, well, yeah, all these civilians died, but it wasn’t our fault, because they were being used as human shields by by our targets."
Now, these standards I just described are long-standing U.S. standards. These standards were under effect under Obama, under Bush, all the way back. But with Trump—and this is the thing to be clear about—we’ve entered a new era, because now those kinds of rather intricate rationales no longer—no longer really apply. Under Trump, the military and the CIA are being encouraged, first, to make their own decisions on the ground as to where and when to bomb and drone, because, under Obama, many of these decisions were run through the White House bureaucracy, and there were lawyers, Obama lawyers, actually sitting there evaluating these various bombing plans, applying the criteria I just described, the criteria that, yes, allowed the killing of civilians, but that placed certain limits on it. Now, under Trump, they’re saying, "Don’t worry about the limits. Don’t worry about the lawyers. If you feel you need to bomb somewhere, go for it." And therefore, the only constraint on these bombings is the feelings and the doctrine of the military commanders.
And it so happens that the man at the top of the Pentagon pyramid is General Mattis, who is famous for, among other reasons, one, doing the wedding massacre I just mentioned and, two, constantly articulating a doctrine that when you’re going after the bad guys, it’s fun to kill. You should kill with zest. If you go online, you can see a list of famous quotes from Mattis, that, it’s said, have endeared him to much of the military—and to both the Democrats and Republicans, by the way. In fact, it’s interesting. During the presidential election, Mattis was invited to speak at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, and he was, for a while, the preferred presidential candidate of the "Never Trump" people, the Bill Kristol anti-Trump Republicans. So he’s a consensus man of the establishment.
And Trump takes an approach that is even more unconstrained than that of Mattis. And—but we should say, in fairness, that it’s not just Trump who takes that approach. During the campaign, the Republican candidates were competing with each other to see who could sound more bloodthirsty. You know, Trump was always talking about bombing the hell out of them, but it was Ted Cruz who said he was going to make the desert glow with his bombings. And, you know, each one would try to top the other. And that’s where we are now.
So, this is going to give a license both to the U.S. military, also to law enforcement personnel within the United States, local police, people within ICE, people from the various police and Border Patrol unions, who in their public and political statements clearly represent, among law enforcement, the most racist, the most prone to violence, of these—of the law—the various law enforcement communities. They, plus U.S. clients overseas, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in country after country after country after country around the world, because the U.S. has military and client relationships with more than a hundred countries around the world, depending on how you calculate it. Some could argue up to 170 countries around the world. The new message, the new U.S. guideline, is kill more, and don’t worry about criticism or occasional cutbacks in your aid from the U.S., because, as the press people ecstatically said after the Syria bombing run, there’s a new sheriff in town in the White House.
AMY GOODMAN: When you look at Syria, in response to what he saw on the ground in Syria, still he stands by his ban, his executive order, though judges have stopped it, that would not allow one Syrian refugee into the United States.
ALLAN NAIRN: I think it may well be true that in terms of Trump’s own emotional wiring, his mental wiring, maybe, you know, he did see those disgusting, gruesome videos of the tear gas attack, and maybe he said, "OK, we’ve got to attack Syria." I can believe that. But I’m sure Trump also saw some other very famous images, like the one of the little boy, the refugee from the Mediterranean, face down on the shore as he had just drowned to death because the boat he was riding failed to reach shore in Europe, and countless, countless other images. And the policy response—I don’t know about the emotional response of Trump, but the policy response of Trump to that drowned boy on the shores, to say, "Screw the refugees"—in fact, to make that hatred toward the refugees one of the very pillars of, A, his presidential campaign and, B, his new government.