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Bacevich: Trump Sparked “Unnecessary Crisis” by Killing Soleimani, Barely Avoiding War

Jan 10 2020

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

AMY GOODMAN – Democracy Now!  (*)

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump vowed on Wednesday to hit Iran with new sanctions but appeared to pull back from taking any new military action. Tension between the two countries soared after the U.S. assassinated Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani at the Baghdad International Airport last week. Early on Wednesday, Iran retaliated by firing 22 ballistic missiles at military bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces, but no one was injured in the attack. [Iran] had warned the Iraqi government about the strike in advance. Two small rockets later hit the Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but no group has claimed responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: The two sides have reportedly been exchanging messages through a Swiss diplomatic channel. During a televised address Wednesday, Trump urged NATO to become more involved in the Middle East, and called for countries to pull away from the Iran nuclear deal.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They’re very defective. JCPOA expires shortly anyway and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout. Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism. The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China to recognize this reality. They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA. And we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: China rejected Trump’s proposal. Earlier today, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is the root cause of the current crisis.

GENG SHUANG: [translated] Tensions in the Middle East are escalating, and the Iran nuclear issue is facing grave challenges. The United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, turning a blind eye to international law and international obligations, imposing maximum pressure against Iran and obstructing other parties’ implementation of the JCPOA are the root causes of the Iran nuclear tensions and should be the basic starting point for all parties to deal with the issues in an objective and fair manner.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Washington, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on a measure aiming to limit Trump’s authority to take unilateral actions against Iran without congressional authorization. A coalition of progressive groups are staging antiwar rallies across the country today. According to, more than 350 events are scheduled to take place.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now in Washington, D.C., is Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran. His book is just out, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. Andrew Bacevich is president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest piece for the Los Angeles Times is headlined “Trump’s Suleimani strike is more of the same old losing U.S. game plan in the Mideast.” His previous books include Twilight of the American Century and America’s War for the Greater Middle East.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Bacevich. First, respond to, well, President Trump’s assassinating — the assassination of Soleimani, the Iranian response yesterday, and then what you see happening now.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the assassination was an act of great recklessness. I mean, in some respects, it was typical of this president’s decision-making. It appears that he acted very much on impulse. There’s no evidence that he had thought through the consequences of assassinating Soleimani. You know, what would be step two, step three?

And so, this reckless act plunged us into an unnecessary crisis, that, thankfully, both the administration and the government in Tehran found a way to back away from. So we’ve avoided war, I think. That said, I think it would be a mistake on our part, everybody’s part, to sort of breathe a sigh of relief and say, “OK, everything is fine now.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And why do you say that, Professor Bacevich? And also, just with respect to what you said about whether there’s a step two and a step three that Trump considered, I mean, he said, “We have sent a powerful message to terrorists” by killing Soleimani: “If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of [our] people.” And then he said the U.S. would impose more punitive sanctions on Iran, and also said that the U.S. is willing to pursue peace.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes. So there are about six contradictions in what you just said, accurately reflecting what the president said. And so, if you’re trying to figure out what the policy is, there is no policy.

It seems to me that, for example, the president’s claiming victory and now insisting that he’s going to impose additional sanctions on Iran. Well, I thought that the theme of U.S. policy had been that we were already putting maximum pressure on Iran through sanctions. So, you know, what any additional sanctions could possibly involve remains to be seen. That’s the first point.

And the second point is, it seems to me there’s very little evidence that economic sanctions are going to coerce the Iranian government into complying with American demands. It is not an approach that seems likely to produce success, as far as I can tell.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to President Trump speaking Wednesday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Iran’s hostility substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013. And they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying “Thank you” to the United States, they chanted “Death to America.” In fact, they chanted “Death to America” the day the agreement was signed. Then Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Iran’s money, Andrew Bacevich. Can you talk about President Trump’s obsession with President Obama, his — more about the significance of him pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and what that has led to every step of the way?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah, it pains me deeply to have to say that that official from the People’s Republic of China, who stated that the beginning of the problem here was our pulling out of the Iran deal, that his depiction is actually far more accurate than anything we just heard in that clip from our president.

I would only disagree with that notion, that the root of the problem is the Americans pulling out of the JCPOA, in this sense: that the poisoning of U.S.-Iranian relations certainly predates this administration, the Obama administration, in many respects goes back to the 1950s. I don’t think we want to rehearse all of the history here.

If I were going to cite one particular moment as creating the — as the root of the crisis that we’re in right now, I would say it was the aftermath of 9/11, the terrorist attack on the United States that did not involve Iran or Iranians in any way, and yet the George W. Bush administration responded by creating this fictional “axis of evil” and claiming that Iran was therefore part of the problem, part of the axis that the war on terrorism was going to destroy, I mean, as a demonstration of hostility to the Iranian regime. And then, of course, the Bush administration follows up on that by invading and occupying Iran’s neighbor, Iraq, in what was patently an illegal and highly foolish war, and almost inevitably was going to induce a response from Iran, which had every reason in the world to view the American occupation of Iraq as a threat to its own national security.

So, the president’s got his little narrative that makes it sound like the United States is an innocent party here. We’re not an innocent party. But what I would emphasize is that the problem goes back much farther than either what — Trump’s own folly, farther back than the JCPOA, which I personally support and believe offered an opportunity, the possibility of moving U.S.-Iranian relations to a more positive track. That possibility has now been completely discarded by this president.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Bacevich, I want to go to an issue that you’ve raised with respect to what you’re talking about now, namely what restraints exist — constraints exist on the exercise of presidential power when it comes to the decision to wage war.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: In an L.A. Times opinion piece headlined “Trump’s Suleimani strike is more of the same old losing U.S. game plan in the Mideast” — you published this just last month — sorry, earlier this month — you wrote, quote, “The Democratic members of the Senate and House who whine about not having been consulted or at least notified in advance of the drone attack that took out the Quds commander deserve not a respectful hearing but contempt. Their behavior over the past decade and more in giving presidents a free hand to wage war however they see fit cannot be described as anything but cowardly. It was, after all, President Obama who pioneered the role of assassin-in-chief to which Trump has now laid claim.” This is what you said, Professor Bacevich. Could you elaborate on that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, so, one of the stories unfolding right now, if I understand it, is that members of Congress — mostly Democrats, but some Republicans — want to pass a resolution that will put some kind of constraints on President Trump with regard to the possibility of further hostilities with Iran. I endorse that 100%.

But it seems to me that the issue here is not simply finding ways — what we ought to be concerned about is not simply finding ways to constrain President Trump with regard to the use of force; what we need to be concerned about is constraining the commander-in-chief, regardless of who that may be, with regard to using force.

So, the Congress has, for decades now, forfeited its constitutional responsibility with regard to war. You can make an argument that during the Cold War there was some kind of rationale for doing that, for empowering the president to make war on his own whim, because we were — the contingency we were worried about was a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. But since the end of the Cold War, that possibility has virtually disappeared. And since the Cold War, what we find is presidents, of both parties, exercising this authority that they now have claimed to make war wherever and whenever they feel moved to do so.

So, the effort to constrain Trump, which may or may not achieve success, really ought to be expanded to rethink the prerogatives of the commander-in-chief in this new post-Cold War era. And I don’t see any evidence that the Congress is going to take up that issue. And they ought to.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran. His book is just out, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. He’s president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. This is Democracy Now! Back with him in a minute.

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(*) Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.

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