- Phyllis Bennisfellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s written several books, including, most recently, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Her latest piece for In These Times is headlined “It’s John Bolton’s First Day in the White House. We Must Stop Him from Escalating War in Syria.
President Trump has threatened a forceful response to this weekend’s alleged chemical gas attack in Syria that killed at least 40 people and injured as many 1,000 in the rebel-held town of Douma. During a meeting with military officials Monday, Trump vowed to take action. Washington and its chief allies at the United Nations have blamed the Assad government for the chemical attack, but Russia claims there is no evidence an attack even took place. Meanwhile, Iran has acknowledged seven Iranians died in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base early on Monday. For more, we speak with Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, author of several books, including, most recently, “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.” Her latest piece for In These Times is headlined “It’s John Bolton’s First Day in the White House. We Must Stop Him from Escalating War in Syria.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump has threatened a forceful response to this weekend’s alleged chemical gas attack in Syria that killed at least 40 people and injured as many as 1,000 in the rebel-held town of Douma. During a meeting with military officials Monday, Trump vowed to take action.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’d like to begin by condemning the heinous attack on innocent Syrians with banned chemical weapons. It was an atrocious attack. It was horrible. … We are studying that situation extremely closely. We are meeting with our military and everybody else. And we’ll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours. … So, if it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out. And we’ll know the answers quite soon. So, we’re looking at that very, very strongly and very seriously.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Washington and its chief allies at the United Nations have blamed the Assad government for the chemical attack, but Russia claims there is no evidence an attack even took place. Meanwhile, Iran has acknowledged seven Iranians died in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base early on Monday.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the escalating tension in Syria and the debate at the United Nations, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, written a number of books, including, most recently, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror, her latest piece for In These Times, “It’s John Bolton’s First Day in the White House. We Must Stop Him from Escalating War in Syria.”
Well, let’s start there, Phyllis, because there we saw President Trump sitting next to John Bolton, who has talked about a preemptive strike against North Korea and Iran, and he is clearly extremely unsettled, President Trump, by the raid he has just learned about in all the premises of his personal lawyer. And it’s at this point that he says he’s deciding within 24 or 48 hours what to do about attacking Syria and possibly broadening it to Iran and Russia. Talk about this.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: This is a very dangerous moment, Amy. We have, on the one hand, President Trump going into this situation with his new adviser, on his first day yesterday, John Bolton, as you mentioned, who, of course, does not need Senate confirmation for this position. He’s just announced, appointed, and he comes to work. And he is now, as the national security adviser, the person who has the first and last words into the president’s ear all day long. Officially, he is supposed to be the one who pulls together all the different reports and positions of the 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies, and provides them to the president in a way that’s coherent and sensible and whatever. In practice, we know from John Bolton’s history that’s not his intention at all. His intention is to push forward any forces within the intelligence community, whichever agencies or agency it may be, who are pushing for war rather than diplomacy. This is someone who scorns diplomacy, who disdains the United Nations or international law, who has never met an international issue or challenge or crisis that did not require a U.S. military solution. So that’s one part of the danger.
Then, on top of that, you have this enormous need for distraction. With the headlines today all focused on the raid on Trump’s private lawyer, he’s going to want to turn that attention away from that. What better way to do that, historically in this country, but to go to war somewhere? It’s a very dangerous moment.
It could mean a small-scale, essentially symbolic response against this alleged chemical weapons attack. And we should be clear: Despite the fact that in this second bit that you just played, in the run-up, of Trump saying, “We are still finding out about it, we’re talking about it,” within moments of him being informed that there were claims that there had been a chemical weapons attack, Trump himself immediately went on Twitter and said this was carried out by the “Animal Assad,” backed by Russia and Iran. So he immediately targeted who he wants to hold responsible for this, threatened immediate military action, which, again, could be small-scale, symbolic, a few missile strikes on an air base.
It could be far greater than that. And if it attacked, for example, as did the attack yesterday—shortly after the allegations about the chemical attack emerged, there was an attack on a Syrian military base, where there were, among other things, some Iranian troops. Fourteen people were killed, four of them Iranian. And Iran indicated they believed Israel was responsible for it. Israel, in this one, has not claimed responsibility. No one has. The U.S. very specifically denied it, as did the French.
And the question of what will go forward is a very dangerous one, because we know, despite the fact that any military strike at this point would be absolutely illegal from the vantage point of U.S. domestic law, the War Powers Act and our Constitution, that says very clearly the Congress, and not the president, is the force that’s supposed to declare war. We know that in the United Nations, Nikki Haley has been out there using language virtually identical—Juan and Amy, you will remember, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, in 2002, 2003, we consistently heard the words in the United Nations, sometimes from John Bolton, when he was the temporary ambassador there, sometimes others, saying, “Regardless of whether the United Nations approves or not, we are going ahead.” That’s a very ominous reference. It’s very ominous. And it’s designed to be. When Nikki Haley says, “The Security Council must decide to use force. And if they don’t, we will,” which is essentially what she’s saying, she’s saying, “We will violate international law, we will violate the U.N. Charter, and we will violate our own laws at home, in order to carry out an illegal military assault on Syria,” claiming that it’s somehow revenge for an alleged chemical attack, which may or may not have been committed by the regime at all.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Phyllis—Phyllis, if I can—you mentioned before the precedence in this kind of situation, the second Gulf War. But going back, or a lot of people don’t remember the first Gulf War—
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and the horrific stories about the invasion force of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait marching into a hospital and killing babies—
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Incubators.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and killing babies, newborn babies in their incubators. A complete hoax.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But it horrified the American people and made it easier to justify going to war in the first Gulf War, as well. So, it’s not—and, of course, the weapons of mass destruction testimony of Secretary of State Powell at the United Nations for the second Gulf War. So this is not—it’s not unusual that we have these, and the media, of course, picks up on them and continues to spread the information without real fact checking as to whether this is accurate or not.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: That’s absolutely right. At the time, of course, we used to call it the CNN factor. Now we would probably call it the Twitter factor, but it’s the same phenomenon. You have, in many cases, a very real, horrific event. And I’m certainly not saying that this event did not occur. It’s possible, but I think, you know, there have been so many horrific attacks on Syrian civilians, by all sides in this war—by the Syrian regime, by the Russians and the Iranians, by the United States, by U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, all of these countries, every one of them. There are no good guys here. There have been atrocities carried out against Syrian civilians in this set of proxy wars that’s going on across Syria.
And that example of what we’ve seen before, the call about the babies being pulled out of their incubators, which turned out to be the testimony of the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, put together by a Washington-based PR company, it was purely made-up. But it did the job. John Bolton has been part of those kinds of campaigns in the past. In 2002, it was John Bolton who realized that the campaign he was undertaking to convince people in this country that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons, maybe nuclear weapons—he was talking about the yellowcake uranium from Niger that turned out to be complete hoax. And at the time, the head of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, the U.N. agency responsible for dealing with chemical weapons, was in a desperate effort to negotiate with Saddam Hussein’s government to try and get them to join that agency, to become a member of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons. If they had, they would have had to allow in incredibly intrusive inspectors. And Bolton knew, if they did that, they were likely to find there were in fact no pieces of evidence, there was no chemical weapons program in Iraq. And in order to prevent that, he arranged the firing of the chief of that organization. It was a Brazilian diplomat, José Bustani. He went to Bustani’s office and said, “You’ve got 24 hours to resign,” even threatened Bustani’s kids. And Bustani said, “I’m sorry. I’ve been re-elected, reappointed to a second term by the 145 members of this organization. I’m not going anywhere.” And at that point, Bolton went out, and within days, he had orchestrated enough bribes and threats and punishments of those governments, that they managed to get Bustani fired, and replaced him with somebody who wouldn’t—who would toe the U.S. line and would not move to get a diplomatic solution. This is someone who wants war and not diplomacy.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis—
PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s a very dangerous moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, we just have a minute. And what do you think has to happen in Syria right now to end this horrific suffering of the civilian population?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: There has to be a far more in-depth, a creative, sustained kind of diplomacy. It’s not going to be quick. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be telegenic. It’s not going to be good on Fox & Friends. So, this is not something that this president and this security adviser are going to be eager for. Congress is going to have to prevent further escalation of the U.S. war there. If the U.S. goes in—U.S. forces, in U.S. airstrikes in Syria, have already killed between 3,600 and 5,600 Syrian civilians, along with thousands of others killed on all sides. Syrian civilians are paying the price for these wars. The United States military is a big part of the problem. We have to start in this country by getting Congress to prohibit the illegal use of U.S. military force in Syria. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force doesn’t cover it. It’s illegal under U.S. law. It’s illegal under the U.S. Constitution. It’s a violation of international law. And John Bolton should not be allowed to tell the president that he has every right to go ahead with it.
AMY GOODMAN: And speaking of violation of international law, in this last minute, I want to turn to Gaza, the killing of dozens of Palestinians, peaceful Palestinians, on the Gaza-Israel border, the latest, last Friday, a journalist—they have carved his name into the sand to remember him—as he wore a press ID, not to mention the civilians that have been killed before him. What needs to happen there right now? We hardly see mention of this in the U.S. media.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thirty-one civilians were killed. Seven of them were journalists. Yaser was not the only journalist shot. He was the only one who died. There were seven others who were shot, also wearing those jackets that say ”PRESS,” usually in three languages—in English, Hebrew and Arabic. This is a massacre. These are not clashes. The press is doing a huge disservice here talking about clashes, confrontations killed people. Confrontations didn’t kill people. Israeli sharpshooters, who were sent to the Gaza fence, killed people. It’s a complete violation of international law, human rights law and international humanitarian law.
Again, this is something that the United Nations needs to take up. The United States, again, has used its veto and threatened to use its veto over and over to prevent any action by the Security Council, prevent, for example, what needs to happen, is for the Security Council to recommend that the International Criminal Court take up a full investigation of the role of Israel’s both political leaders, the prime minister, who said all 30,000 protesters are targets, are “legitimate targets.” Those were his words, “legitimate targets.” That is chilling. And it’s also illegal. It’s a complete violation to target civilians in that way. This was a nonviolent protest. It’s going to go on for more weeks. And it’s going to be up to international civil society to keep up the pressure that will enable the United Nations to do anything to stop it.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, we want to thank you for being with us, Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
When we come back, CEO of Facebook, Zuckerberg, is before Congress today. We’ll talk about Facebook. And then we’ll go to Denver to talk about the open rebellion at The Denver Post against its latest owner, a New York hedge fund. Stay with us.