Author Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation magazine, told Philadelphia Weekly that he thinks the Obama administration’s foreign policy is actually worse than that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Scahill’s speaking at the Free Library’s Central Branch on Tuesday and signing copies of his new book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, and we previewed that event with a short article in this week’s print edition.
During our half-hour conversation about Dirty Wars, we discussed an array of different topics, including war, politics and the media. What follows below is the full transcript from my interview with Scahill.
PW: What’s the meaning behind the term "dirty wars?"
JEREMY SCAHILL: I wasn’t trying to be a master of the obvious and point out the fact that war is dirty. It was meant to have a two-fold logic to it. On the one hand, there’s this sense, I think, particularly amongst Democrats or liberals, that the drone wars are clean wars, and they’re smarter wars, which I don’t think is true. And also, the fact that we had a different era in U.S. foreign policy in the '70s and '80s where the U.S. was really doing these dirty wars in Central America, in Nicaragua, with arming the contra rebels; Batallion 3-16 in Honduras, supporting other dictatorships. And it covered the full spectrum of covert operations, but there wasn’t a lot of large-scale troop deployment. But I think we’re moving back into that kind of an era, where Obama’s going to be drawing down the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re going to be seeing a rationing up of covert actions.
Do you feel that often happens when a liberal gets in charge?
I cut my teeth in the '90s as a reporter when Clinton was president, and I think that Democrats really favor airpower and more discreet operations to what we saw Bush and Cheney doing in the earlier part of this century, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think what ends up happening is Democrats often try to clean up the image of the U.S. around the world while also continuing these policies and shoring up the liberal base. And you saw a lot of that during the Clinton era. Clinton bombed several countries and bombed a pharmaceutical company in the Sudan; he bombed Baghdad multiple times. He initiated the longest sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam under the guise of the north and south no-fly zones in Iraq. But he also tried to get away from the covert action messes that marked the Reagan-Bush period.
Now, with President Obama, Dick Cheney is probably sitting somewhere, either fly-fishing or at his ranch, saying, ‘We’re lucky that Obama is expanding the drone strikes and getting liberals on board with it because next time a republican is in office and they want to do these operations, liberals aren’t going to have a leg to stand on if they weren’t against it when their guy was doing it.' So, I do think that the net impact of the Obama presidency, when it comes to counterterrorism, is to make it possible for some of these policies to continue. And I think if McCain had won the election, I think liberals would have been up in arms about it.
Right. So, regarding that, when you talk about cleaning up our image around the world, based on your interviews and people you’ve spoken with, do you think Obama has cleaned up our image around the world, or--
No, I think the opposite.
--or is it worse?
I think what ended up happening with Obama is he thought that his speech in Cairo early on in his presidency was going to hit the reset button on U.S. relations with the Muslim world. He believed he was sending this message that we were in the midst of a new era. But based on my experience on the ground, if anything, people feel like if Obama will do these things and increase these drone strikes and targeted killing operations and continue working with some of these unsavory governments, then there’s no chance of it ever ending. I mean, if anything, anti-American sentiment has increased under Obama—particularly in Pakistan and Yemen.
To be honest, I just went way past where my questions are supposed to be right now. I’m going to back up a little bit. How was the idea for your Dirty Wars book and documentary hatched?
It wasn’t a pre-conceived plan. I’ve worked with Rick Rowley, the director of the film, for more than a decade in various capacities. We’ve traveled together and worked on different projects, but never any major project. And Rick’s wife and I had spent a number of years going in and out of Iraq together, and we had worked on a video project there. After I was done with the Blackwater story, Rick said he really wanted to work with me on whatever my next project was and was interested in exploring some kind of a film, or a series, based on whatever I was going to be investigating.
Rick had spent a lot of time embedded in Afghanistan, and I was starting to look into the story of the war within the war in Afghanistan and started doing some reporting on it. Meaning, there was the big conventional war that we see through embedded journalism, and it’s the Marines in Helmut province, and then there’s this other war where there’s special operations raids that were taking place. It started with me and Rick. We didn’t have producers or a budget or a crew or anything.
Rick and I, we went to Afghanistan, and we started investigating a series of raids. This was in 2010. We started looking at what the pattern was, and once we started doing that and we learned that this raid in Gardez was directed by JSOC—by the Joint Special Operations Command—we both sort of became obsessed with JSOC as an institution and sort of researching them. And when we got back from Afghanistan, we knew we were going to start shooting a film and try to go to other counties. But in the beginning, we didn’t think it was going to be anything more than Afghanistan.
You were pretty critical of the modern media in the film. Did filming your own thing have anything to do with getting your own message out there instead of having to compete with all the talking heads on cable news?
I think what we wanted to do was tell a story about how far we’ve come as a society since 9/11, like how deep into this mess we’ve gotten, and to tell it in a way that would be accessible to people and not feel like it was just pundits interpreting it or people being bombarded with acronyms and statistics—to actually show a human face of the war. That’s really what we want to do. That’s why we—and you’ve seen the film—we put so many images of people in the film, in, where, we want people to see the face of who we’re told the enemy is. I think you don’t see that on corporate media outlets very often, and I think that’s part of the problem. If we recognize the humanity of the people who live in these countries, it would be a lot harder than just writing them off as collateral damage when drone strikes happen, or night raids gone wrong end up killing families. So, I don’t think we conceived of it as 'We’re boxed out of the corporate media, so let’s go do a film.' I think it was that we saw that this is largely an untold story on American television, and in U.S. film, the culture of the warrior is lionized. There’s a lot of this worship of the military that goes on in Hollywood films. So I think we wanted to try to tell a story that didn’t feel like people were in school—more like they were going on a journey. And we wanted to tell a story of a part of the war that people hadn’t seen before.
Some of that humanity that you go into in the film is with the family of Anwar Al-Awlaki. Can you explain when and why you decided to delve into that family so much?
When I first learned that the U.S. had tried to kill Anwar al-Awlaki. Well, let me first tell you that I remember seeing Anwar al-Awlaki on television after 9/11; I was working as a radio producer. I tried to book Anwar al-Awlaki on a show because I thought he had an interesting perspective. He was condemning the 9/11 attacks but also describing the complex situations of American Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks, where they were being targeted and hate crimed and also being rounded up in some cases, or being detained and investigated. I found him to be a fascinating character. And then when the U.S. first tried to kill Anwar al-Awlaki in December of 2009.