Monday, September 10, 2007

A Loyal Bushie on Inside Iraq

This week's Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English featured a three-way conversation with Jeremy Corbyn, a British Labour M.P. who has consistently opposed the Iraq War; Dr. Saad Jawad Kindil, a member of SCIRI, a Shia political party in Iraq; and Brad Blakeman, a man who is, if such a thing is possible, a more loyal Bushie even than Barney, the President's Scottish terrier. Blakeman's strategy seems to be simply to keep his eyes firmly closed and charge on ahead, insisting in the face of all evidence to the contrary that Bush is a brilliant leader who has never made a wrong decision. In fact, on 2005-10-05, Blakeman actually said on Fox News, "Bush hasn't made a mistake!"

If you don't know the name Brad Blakeman, you might know some of his work: he's the president of Freedom's Watch, an organization he co-founded with former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Freedom's Watch just came out with a series of pro-war TV ads featuring disabled Iraq War veterans explaining that we have to stay the course because "I re-enlisted after 9/11 because I don’t want my sons to see what I saw. I want them to be free and safe. I know what I lost. I also know that if we pull out now, everything I’ve given and sacrificed will mean nothing. They attacked us. And they will again. They won’t stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It’s no time to quit; it’s no time for politics." Blakeman used similar "logic," plus some mind-numbingly misguided comparisons between the Iraq War and World War II, on this week's program.

Photo of Corbyn, Blakeman, and Kindil
Inside Iraq, original air date 2007-09-07 [video and background info], ©2007, Al Jazeera English.
David Foster: Hello and welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm David Foster. It's been a week of comings and goings in Iraq, and of bleak reports published. The British withdrew their troops from the city of Basra in the South, signaling their possible full disengagement from Iraq in the near future. On the same day, US President George Bush made a surprise stopover in Iraq, meeting military commanders as well as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The next day, a Congressional watchdog released a damning report. It said that the Iraqi government had failed to meet most of the benchmarks set by Congress to justify the continued US military presence in the country. Next week sees the release of a further report, this one on US strategy in Iraq, from President Bush's top diplomat and army general in Baghdad. The stakes are rising ever higher in the political poker that is Iraq. Roya Raggeh(sp?) has more on the story.
[correspondent]: [bugle] Sooner or later, the world was going to see these images. British troops pulling out from the last base they held in the southern city of Basra, and handing it over to Iraqi forces. While not exactly a full withdrawal from the whole province, the move is seen as a stepping stone toward a complete handover expected to take place as soon as autumn. From a PR point of view, this image is probably not what the Bush administration would've wanted to see on television screens the same day the Commander in Chief himself arrived in Iraq. President Bush's visit on September 3rd was considered by some critics as a last-ditch attempt to garner support for his Iraq policy, ahead of the release of an evaluation of the surge by the top general in Iraq, David Petraeus.

President Bush: The surge of operations that began in June is improving security throughout Iraq. These military successes are paving the way for the political reconciliation and economic progress the Iraqis need to transform their country. [applause]

[correspondent]: Back in January, Congress approved President Bush's plan to send 30,000 additional troops to Iraq, but conditions to such an approval were set. Congress required assessments to be made on a set of political and security goals. And just one day after President Bush's visit to Iraq, one of these assessments was released on the performance of the Iraqi government. It makes for damning reading, rather like a school report a parent wouldn't want to see. The Government Accountability Office or GAO is a Congressional watchdog. The title chosen for its report ["Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq: Iraqi Government Has Not Met Most Legislative, Security, and Economic Benchmarks"; summary] gives it all away. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has failed many of the tests it was set. Of 18 required benchmarks, the Iraqi government met only three; it's partially met four, and it did not meet 11. And it's those unmet benchmarks that are posing the most serious threat undermining political and economic prosperity in the country. They include enacting de-Baathification laws, even distribution of oil revenues, and eliminating militias and sectarian violence.

[news clip]: Clearly the least progress has been made on the political front.

[correspondent]: It's exactly the lack of progress that's been prompting criticism from Democrats and other Americans who want their boys back home. And back in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Maliki's patience is wearing thin. He lashed out against repeated criticism to his government.

Nouri al-Maliki: Unfortunately, such statements go overboard and turn unrealistic. It sends unfortunate messages to the terrorists that the security and political situation in the country isn't holding up.

[correspondent]: But key allies aren't exactly holding up. And neither are cabinet ministers, most of whom walked out on the government in the past few months. Very soon, bigger reports are due. The assessment of US General Petraeus, expected in the coming days, is eagerly anticipated as the defining assessment of American strategy in Iraq. Raoui Raggeh(sp?) for Inside Iraq.
Foster: Will the British signs of disengagement from Iraq sour the "special relationship" between the US and UK? Is Iraq's government fully to blame for not meeting the benchmarks set? Can President Bush stay the course despite bleak reports on the security and political situation in Iraq? To understand these issues we have with us Jeremy Corbyn, British Member of Parliament; Brad Blakeman, former senior advisor to President Bush; and Dr. Saad Jawad Kindil, a member of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council. Gentlemen, welcome to Inside Iraq. Brad Blakeman, let me start with you in Washington, D.C. The report from the General Accounting Office [sic] will be a blow to Mr Bush ahead of the Petraeus report; is it going to make it much more difficult to persuade reluctant members of Congress that he should keep these extra troops there?

Brad Blakeman: Well, we have to remember who the GAO reports to, and that's the Congress. We expected the GAO report not to be as rosy as we would've liked, and quite frankly there are parts of that report that are absolutely true, that the Maliki government has failed to meet certain benchmarks, but that doesn't mean that the risk is not worth our continued effort in Iraq to bring stability to a very troubled region of the world.

Foster: Let's be fair: this report says that the whole security situation is a mess.

Blakeman: [talking over] Let's hold out for General Petraeus, though. General Petraeus — General Petraeus' report will mean more than the GAO report.

Foster: It says it's a mess there.

Blakeman: Well, it's not a mess! And let's wait for General Petraeus. His report trumps the GAO report. The military commanders certainly trump the bureaucrats in Washington, so I wouldn't hold too much credence to the GAO report.

Foster: Interesting to hear you say it isn't a mess; in what sense?

Blakeman: First of all, we're in a war! War's not perfect, war's not predictable; the question is, is the risk worth the reward of American lives — most importantly our most precious commodity — and our tax money, and I believe it is. George Bush is no Neville Chamberlain, we don't knuckle in to dictators, we defeat them. Al Qaeda is in Iraq; we're not gonna let that stand. The American people are starting to see that the results are not as rosy as we'd like, but the risk again is worth the reward of our troops staying there, and let's hold out and hear what General Petraeus has to say. Yes, certain benchmarks were made, but Iraq has made remarkable progress in the last four years.

Foster: It's a difficult situation if you're in a war to see your ally, your best ally — in this case, the United Kingdom — saying, we don't really wanna have much more to do with this.

Blakeman: Well, first of all, the British government is our most staunch ally, and our hats are off to them for doing such a great job in the southern areas of Iraq that allows them to reduce their troop force. It's no secret; they've been talking about years about the accomplishments that have to be made so their troops can come home, and they did accomplish their mission in the south enough that their troops could be reduced, so it's not that they're cutting and running, it's that they did their job, a job well done, and now their troops can go home.

Foster: Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Member of Parliament in London, let me talk to you now.

Blakeman: [talking over] That's exactly what we want our troops to do.

Foster: What do you make of the fact the British are pulling out? Would that have happened under Tony Blair?

Jeremy Corbyn: Probably not as quickly, but I guess it would've happened eventually, but I think we have to be clear that they're withdrawing from Basra to a base outside Basra, that unfortunately they're not yet totally withdrawn from Iraq, but I think we go back to the point that Brad made. If he really thinks that things are improving in Iraq, I think he should just consider for a moment the more than half million civilians that have died in Iraq, the two million people that have been forced into exile in Iraq, and if he's fighting a war against al Qaeda, well, al Qaeda were not there in 2003. Perhaps he should think seriously about the whole US and British strategy of invading Iraq in the first place on the basis of misinformation about weapons of mass destruction and a failure to allow the UN to carry out its job. The weapons inspectors —

Blakeman: [talking over] It wasn't misinformation! He had weapons of mass destruction!

Foster: Well, nobody found them, Brad Blakeman, did they?

Blakeman: Well, let me tell my British friend this: if we had a 24-hour news cycle in World War II, when you allowed Hitler as a group to get so strong that you couldn't stop him and America without being attacked came to your defense, we would've turned back at the beaches of Normandy because the battle was just too tough. We lost more American lives in hours than we have lost in this entire war. You guys can't see the forest for the trees, that if we're not successful in Iraq, god help —

Corbyn: [talking over] Well, how about we talk about the number of Soviet lives in the Second World War, then? How about we talk about the number of Soviet lives?

Foster: I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I'm going to have to stop you there, because I want to bring in our guest from the Islamic Supreme Council.

Blakeman: [talking over] Yes, 60 million people are gone from the earth because of World War II.

Foster: One second, Mr. Blakeman. One second, if you will, please. Let me bring in our guest, awaiting us also in London from the Iraqi Islamic Council, and ask you what you make of the fact that in a largely Shia area in the south of the country the British troops have effectively said, "What we're doing in Basra is too dangerous, we have to withdraw to the airport"?

Dr. Saad Jawad Kindil: Well, we think this is one step in the right direction. Eventually the Iraqi security troop will have to receive complete handover of the security portfolio and eventually are looking forward to see a complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil. I think until then, then we can say the Iraqi complete sovereignty have been restored, and then an Iraqi government, democratic government, is in place with the full power to rule and take over responsibility of the country.

Foster: When that happens, Dr Kindil, will Iraq be a peaceful place?

Kindil: I am certainly hopeful that this will happen. It must happen. There is no other choice, and this is the will of all parties involved in the political process. Yes, it is a slow process. It will take years, but I have no doubt it will happen.

Foster: We had another report from a group of retired American colonels in which they said the police force was so riddled with corruption, so many militia members were inside the police force, it should be disbanded.

Kindil: I think the main problem in Iraq, really, is security, and the main cause of this problem is that the Iraqi security forces are not completely built up. The build-up process must continue on four fronts: on the recruitment front, on the equipment front, on the arming front, and on training front. There are lots to do, in all these fronts, and until this build-up process is complete, I think we will see some problems and difficulties in the performance of the Iraqi security forces.

Foster: Dr Kindil, thank you very much, indeed. Gentlemen, all of you, thank you very much, indeed. We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll take a further look into the bleak assessments on Iraq which are coming out of Washington. Stay with us, if you will.

[voiceover]: This is essentially a move from a position where we were in a combat role to being in an overwatch role. — Gordon Brown, British Prime Minister

[commercial break]

[voiceover]: There are limits to what our military can provide, so my recommendations will have to be informed by the strain we have put on our military services. — Gen. David Petraeus, top U.S. commander in Iraq

Foster: Jeremy Corbyn is with us, a British Member of Parliament; Brad Blakeman, former senior advisor to President Bush; and Dr. Saad Jawad Kindil, a member of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council. Gentlemen, thank you for talking to us on Inside Iraq. Brad Blakeman, would President Bush have been surprised at the speed with which Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, appears to have changed British policy on Iraq?

Blakeman: Not at all. I mean, certainly our closest ally doesn't make his decisions in a vacuum and is in close consultation with his allies, including the United States, so I don't believe it's a surprise at all. I believe that the decisions we make together on an effort that we have a joint interest in are made with knowledge and input from both sides, so no, President Bush I'm sure was not surprised.

Foster: Does it make it more difficult for him, though, to persuade those people who don't believe it's right to continue with the present policy, to persuade them that he should stay the course?

Blakeman: If anything, it shows that our policy works, and that is, when the Iraqis stand up, the forces stand down. The British forces performed admirably what they were tasked to do in the south, which allows them now to either go home or regroup in another part of Iraq to determine what their future mission will be. Remember, there were 30,000 British troops in Iraq four years ago; there are now 5,000, and our hats are off to the British for doing a fine job, but that doesn't make America [sic] obligation less because the British have stood down; quite the contrary — our mission has yet to be accomplished, and we have a lot of work to do before our troops can fully come home, and it transcends this President's Presidency. The next President of the United States will have to deal with Iraq in their own way, but it doesn't mean that the presence of America will change much in the next couple years.

Foster: Jeremy Corbyn, I'm going to ask you in just a moment about perhaps the changing nature of the British-US relationship, but I saw you reacting off-screen there to what Brad Blakeman was saying. Your thoughts on what he said?

Corbyn: Well, I think it's whistling in the wind, quite honestly. The United States policy, with the support of Britain, is in a complete mess in Iraq, and everybody knows that. It's monumentally unpopular throughout the world, but perhaps more important on this occasion, it's monumentally unpopular in both the USA and Britain, and I would think Gordon Brown is quite relieved that he's managed to get the troops out of Basra, into a base outside Basra, and hopefully they'll all be home fairly soon. I personally wish they had never gone there in the first place, but I hope they'll be home soon.

Despite this claim of being a united front between the US and Britain, there are plenty of US commanders on the ground that keep on wanting British forces to be involved in much more combat activity and complaining that they are involved in a largely training and supervisory role. Now, there is a slight difference of policy there, but Gordon Brown knows perfectly well that he's going to face an election, maybe in two years' time, possibly less, and with the unpopularity of the war in Iraq he will want the troops out as quickly as he can. George Bush isn't facing election, he's only facing a legacy of the disaster of Iraq.

Foster: Brad Blakeman, when you talk about the successes of the US troops, it's worth bringing up George Bush's visit to Anbar province just a few days ago, in which he talked about how much safer it was than it had been, even four, five months ago, and yet within 48 hours of him leaving you see American troops killed in pretty much the same region.

Blakeman: Well, certainly the insurgents and the terrorists who wish to do Americans harm are going to show on the heels of the President's visit that they're still around. Look at the state of Israel — a lone democracy. They have violence of this kind on a daily basis; does that mean they're not a democracy? They're not a stable government? The fact is that this region is extremely troubled and faces violence that, fortunately, we don't see on the streets of America, and we're gonna keep it that way, because we're going to take the battle to our enemies on their terms and on their soil, not on American soil.

Foster: My point was that you compared it to Israel, and I said in what sense is it similar? Because you don't have roadside bombs on a daily basis, you don't have mortar rounds being fired —

Blakeman: You do have roadside bombs in Israel, you do have suicide bombers in Israel, you do have a quote-unquote "insurgency" in Israel, if you want to call it that, from Hamas and others who seek to do Israel harm on a daily basis. Israel is a stable democracy; yet they face this kind of violence every day. It's part of this very troubled region of the world, that experiences violence that we don't experience here in America. This is foreign to us, except for the attack that happened on 9/11 and happened 7 years before that, and we're not gonna let it happen again.

Foster: Dr. Kindil, is it perhaps foreign to America in the sense that it didn't quite understand what it was letting itself in for as well, when it went into Iraq?

Kindil: I think American policies, we have to admit, once they went into Iraq, have gone into a lot of blunders, a lot of errors, and mistakes, and we, as a country, as a nation, we have suffered from these mistakes, but I think we are putting the past behind us now. We are looking forward for better cooperation with the American troops in order to restore security and hand over the security portfolio to the Iraqi troops after due training and building up these forces, and then there will be no more need for these troops in Iraq.

Foster: But you might have to wait years for that.

Kindil: Yeah, indeed, unfortunately, perhaps we might have to wait years for this, but now really the occupation has happened, and this is a price that we have to pay. Any sudden and quick withdrawal of these troops from Iraq would leave a security gap which would be utilized by terrorists, by whoever don't want the political process to go forward. We might see —

Foster: Let me throw that point to Jeremy Corbyn. If the troops pull out now, it is going to create a bigger problem, whatever the rights and wrongs of having gone there in the first place. If they pull out now, there is a major difficulty.

Corbyn: Well, I'm not sure there is a major difficulty, because at that point, all the political forces in Iraq, and that includes those that are represented by people fighting on the ground, are going to have to come to some kind of political understanding and reckoning. Now, the fact that one of the forces has put itself on a 6-month cease-fire surely is an interesting development and worth recognizing that there is a space, possibly a small space, but some kind of space for political dialogue of what follows when US and British forces have withdrawn from Iraq, because they're going to withdraw — everybody knows that.

And I suspect that, whatever Brad says, the US public will make sure they're home pretty quickly. It's only a Presidential veto that's keeping them there at the present time. Surely we have to look to a political future of Iraq that does not involve foreign forces being inside that country. The disaster of Iraq at the moment — and I go back to the point I started with — 2 million people in exile, more than half a million dead, public services much worse than they were in 2003 — nobody can call that any kind of success on any terms.

Foster: Brad Blakeman, is it something to be proud of, if you're President Bush?

Blakeman: You bet it's something to be proud of! What decisions are made in their time are appreciated? Not many I can think of. When we went to the defense of Europe against Nazi Germany, that wasn't exactly a popular thing to do in our country, but it was the right thing to do. Not appreciated at the time. We lost 400,000 Americans, a million wounded — you talk about casualties, 60 million people gone from this planet because Europe didn't see the danger of Hitler and weren't strong enough to stop him until he got so strong that they couldn't stop him, and we had to come in and basically save the world.

We're in that same predicament: we're not appreciated because these are tough decisions. A war is a tough thing, but let me tell my British friend, if there was a vacuum and we left tomorrow, god help your continent, god help your country, because just listen to what Ahmadinejan [sic] says. The President of Iran. He can't wait to get his hands on Iran — uh, Iraq. And Syria can't wait to get its hands on Iraq, and they want to build a nuclear weapon, and the sovereign president of Iran tells the world, just like Hitler did, I want to destroy America, I want to destroy Israel. You think we can stand for that?

Corbyn: Hang on a second, Brad.

Foster: Jeremy Corbyn, I've got to stop you there, because I've got to give the last word to Dr. Kindil, an Iraqi himself. If you met President Bush tomorrow, what would you say to him?

Kindil: I would say, and ask him to speed up the process of building up the Iraqi security forces, and hand over the security portfolio to these forces, and start a gradual and controlled withdrawal of the American forces from Iraq, and let the country be ruled by its own people. We need the world's support to not to intervene in Iraqi politics, and this way then we could run the country in the way we would like it to be.

Foster: Gentlemen, thank you very much, indeed. My thanks to all my guests, Jeremy Corbyn, Brad Blakeman, and Dr. Saad Jawad Kindil. To watch the show online, and if you want to send us your comments, please go to That's the end of this show. Join us again next week, when we take another look Inside Iraq. Goodbye.
Hmm, where do I begin? Just because the GAO reports to Congress, we shouldn't believe anything they say. That's an interesting argument. At least General Petraeus offered some foundation for disagreeing with the GAO report, but Blakeman just finds it politically inconvenient and therefore necessarily wrong. But General Petraeus' report only "trumps" the GAO report if you have already taken President Bush's side against Congress. General Petraeus is in no better position to judge the progress on the political benchmarks — the subject of the GAO report — than the GAO itself. Of course, Blakeman immediately dug himself deeper into his hidey-hole by insisting that Iraq is not a mess, and that he's going to hold his breath until we stop saying it is. When confronted on the point, he dodges the question (In what sense is Iraq not a mess?) by pivoting off-topic onto a discussion of the risks and rewards of the current policy.

Blakeman makes a couple of what appear to be Freudian slips in that analysis, though: he speaks of the reward of American soldiers killed, and the reward of our troops remaining in Iraq indefinitely. He goes on to insist, again all concrete evidence be damned, that Iraq has made "remarkable progress" in the last four years. Well, no, actually, it hasn't, Brad. The Iraqi people are worse off now than they were four years ago, by any measure you choose. He also gratuitously tossed in the phrase "cutting and running," even though no one had suggested that was what the Brits are doing in Basra. At the same time, he won't pin down what would be a measure of "a job well done" that would enable the US to reduce our troop levels substantially. "Our mission has yet to be accomplished," but what exactly is that mission?

It's on the World War II analogies that Blakeman truly shows how much of the Kool-Aid he has drunk from Bush's poison punchbowl. No one "appreciated" President Roosevelt for going to war against Nazi Germany. It is true that public sentiment before Pearl Harbor was strongly isolationist, but the United States didn't enter the war in Europe purely out of the goodness of our hearts, nor did Roosevelt have any trouble persuading the public to follow him on an unpopular adventure. The simple reality is that Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, four days after Pearl Harbor. We were at war, willing or not. To say that Roosevelt's decision to commit fully to the defeat of Hitler wasn't appreciated at the time is simply nonsense. The idea that — even with 24/7 live video from the battlefield — the US would have given up on D-Day is likewise hogwash. The D-Day invasion, unlike the Iraq occupation, had a direct and immediate relation to our survival as a nation.

Brad Blakeman is right that a war is a tough thing, but it is made all the tougher by the refusal on the part of our alleged leaders to recognize the magnitude of the task they are undertaking — Rumsfeld's statement that the war would be over in weeks, rather than months; Cheney's claim that we would be greeted as liberators — and by the insistence on ideological doctrine over cold, hard tactical analysis. We made colossal blunders from the opening of the campaign that haunt us to this day, and will continue to haunt us as long as we remain there, but Bush and loyalists like Blakeman can't fix mistakes they still won't admit we made. Instead they hide behind the strawman argument that "War's not perfect, war's not predictable" — as if anyone ever suggested it was — and insist that the sacrifice is worthwhile, no matter how much their bungling magnifies that sacrifice and minimizes the chances of any reward at all.

It's a shame that we didn't get to hear Jeremy Corbyn's verbal smackdown of Blakeman's astonishing historical ignorance. It's a greater shame, though, that the security of the United States for the next generation is being managed by people with such blinkered worldviews.

Note: Brad Blakeman also appeared on Inside Iraq on 2007-01-26; transcript, video.

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