Robert Scheer joins Truthdig contributor James Harris for a lively discussion on the devolution of Robert Gates, exiting Iraq, the politics of race and more in this special audio edition of the Truthdig podcast.
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Harris: This is Truthdig contributor James Harris, sitting down in San Francisco with Mr. Robert Scheer.
Bob, Robert Gates went in saying that we need to completely re-analyze the way we are doing business in Iraq, that the war is costly, we’re losing human capital, human lives, there seems to be nothing positive going on in Iraq ... and he comes out of a meeting with Bush and all of a sudden he’s talking about, perhaps, ways of using troops to escalate the peace or escalate Iraq toward some level of freedom or independence. What do you think is going on here?
Scheer: Well, first of all, never underestimate the opportunism of these careerists in government. They’ll do the wrong thing any time if it advances their career. This guy got a big job; he’s the center; and he’s betraying everything he knows to be true and everything he said before. He was a member of the Iraq Study Group, he knows the war’s a loser, he knows it can’t be won militarily, nor should it be won; you’ll be permanently occupying a place you have no business occupying. And this surge, this whole rhetoric of escalation, you would think we have no troops there; we have 140,000 troops there. That’s the equivalent of what we had in Vietnam because it was a country three and a half times larger, and much bigger territory to try to deal with, because you didn’t have all the deserts and everything. Here you’re doing what the French tried to do during the battle of Algiers—winning a couple of cities—and you can’t even do that. In addition to having all these troops, we’ve got about 100,000 private security contractors, who are pseudo-government troops there, running around protecting the oil pipelines and everything else. So the idea of that you throw in 20,000, 50,000 troops, that’s just window dressing, that’s not going to do anything. You’re just presenting more targets for people attacking us.
But I would point out: The main thing is that this has nothing to do with 9/11. There is not one sentence in the 9/11 Commission report saying that 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if we had a larger Army. Not one sentence. Yeah, if we had more translators in the State Department and the Defense Department; yeah, if we had more people who had actually read the Koran; yeah, if we had the FBI and the CIA talking to each other; yeah, if we had sky marshals in the airplanes; yeah, if we had four or five cockpit doors and didn’t let people congregate at the bathroom; you know, there were lots of things that could have been done to prevent 9/11. But there’s not one sentence suggesting that you have to have a larger Army—because you do the stupid thing of invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.
Now you’re preparing for a land war in Iran, which is three times larger than Iraq, so you have to have a bigger Army. It’s a path of madness. And to answer your specific question about what happens to guys like Gates, I think there’s some kind of contact high that takes place in the Bush White House when they meet this guy. I don’t know what it is—whether he intimidates them, or he gets them off on something, but they lose all common sense. Colin Powell was against occupying Baghdad in the first place; he lost his common sense. This guy Gates had his head screwed on straight; now it’s whirling madly. So, yeah, it’s really frightening that it’s Bush calling the shots.
Harris: It’s no secret that Bush is good at politics, and we know—it’s a clich—that politics is the art of compromise. Is it that he’s so good at getting people to see the importance of maintaining the republic, maintaining our American integrity, our American freedoms, the things we hold dear?
Scheer: Well, you say, “Bush has been so good at doing,” but you are in a minority of some 12 percent in the country that continues to—
Harris: I am—
Scheer: But he’s not so good at it, because 88 percent of Americans see through his nonsense, and only James Harris and another 12 percent seem to be buying it. [Laughs]
Harris: I’m not buying it, I’m saying we all seem to be buying it in some way.
Scheer: Come on now, we aren’t. Most Americans want to get out of Iraq. Seventy percent clearly want to get out; 60 percent think we never should have gone out there, and in the latest polls I’ve seen only 12 percent want to increase the troops.
Harris: Why don’t our senators and representatives follow suit?
Scheer: Well, that’s a different issue. But let me address what you say about Vietnam. You’re too young, really, to remember Vietnam, but I ask you: We lost in Vietnam in the most ignominious way; we had to lift people off the building next to the embassy, and all these poor boat people and everything. We could have gotten out in a much more orderly way; we stayed a decade when we didn’t have to stay. Nixon came in and said he was going to end the war and he escalated it. Three point four million Indochinese died in that war, according to McNamara, our secretary of defense. So I ask you, James Harris ... what did we lose by losing in Vietnam? You go to Costco or Walmart now, and you buy pants and shirts made in Ho Chi Minh City. Bush went to Vietnam and he sat under a bust, a statue of Ho Chi Minh—pleased as punch. So where was the real adverse consequence, what was the significance, militarily, of losing in Vietnam? Nobody even knows it, they don’t teach it in school, nobody talks about it, the pundits on television and radio are so misinformed and stupid about this that they never even bring it up, probably don’t even know it. What was the military significance of our loss in Vietnam? They say we can’t lose in Iraq or terrorism will take hold. They said we couldn’t lose Vietnam or communism would take over San Diego.
Harris: Don’t we believe that hype?
Scheer: But what happened there? What happened when we lost in Vietnam?
Harris: Absolutely nothing.
Scheer: You don’t know the answer. No, let me ask you: Militarily, what happened, James Harris? You don’t know the answer. You don’t know the answer.
Harris: I’m sure you’ll tell me.
Scheer: No, you don’t know the answer because they didn’t teach you that in school. You know why? Because they didn’t teach you that what happened was that communist Vietnam and communist China went to war. And communist Vietnam bloodied the Chinese; they were fighting over their islands and their border. Two communist countries, the exact opposite of what everybody predicted. And what’s more, the Vietnamese intervened in Cambodia, got rid of that murderer Pol Pot, who was backed by the Chinese communists, and who ended up being backed by the Americans after he was kicked out—the guy who killed millions of his own people.
Harris: So, will history repeat itself? Will two Muslim nations fight it out when we leave, if we leave?
Scheer: No. The future will, as with history, be messy. Anyone who tells you it will be orderly in every respect, that’s nonsense. But what I’m telling you is that we are part of the problem in Iraq, as we were in Vietnam—a big, big part of the problem—and that getting out gives these people a chance to make their own history. They know their country better, they know their countrymen better…. These Sunnis and Shiites who are now killing each other—they’re not foreign agitators or Al Qaeda; that’s all garbage: These are local people getting off their historic grievances—I say they’ve got to sort out their own history; they got to find their own way. They speak the same language, they follow the same vision of Allah; so let them go to it. That’s not our business.
Harris: But I think that’s our fear—
Scheer: Oh, you and your fears! Let me ask you [about] a big fear. We don’t want this [interview] to go on too long, because we want this to be podcast—you know, people have a short attention span. ... But we’re still embargoing, blockading Cuba. Big fear: Latin America will go communist. OK: Castro’s influence in Latin America has never been greater; through elections, leftist governments that are sympathetic to Castro win everywhere now—in Argentina, in Brazil, in Venezuela most recently, in Bolivia—all over the place. Is it interfering with our security? The richest supply of oil in Latin America, a major source of oil for America, is now in the hands of a guy who says, “We’re Reds, and we hate Bush.” The oil still comes here; we’re getting it at the gas pump; he’s not charging us any more than anyone else is. He even offered aid to Katrina victims. So this whole fear that drove our Cuba policy for half a century turned out to be garbage. We still keep it up because we’re stupid about it, and because we’ve got people down in Florida who want to avenge having left Cuba. But the fact is that Latin America has gone over to people who are critical of the United States, and it hasn’t interfered with our security. Nobody’s even paying attention to it; so why are you trying to scare me with what is happening in the Mideast? Why, James Harris? Because you’re buying their lies. You’re buying their lies. That’s what it’s all about.
Harris: It’s easy to be scared. It’s also easy to make a suggestion. Make a practical prediction. In 2007, this time, we sit here next year, what do we look like in Iraq? Let’s be realistic. Let’s understand that Republicans, Democrats, and there’s even some Green Party people out there, and all of them are going to mesh over the next 364 days. What will we be talking about with regard to Iraq in a year? What will it really look like, as you see it?
Scheer: If the American people assert themselves, and the Democratic leaders who got to be leaders because the American people voted against this war—that’s what the midterm election was all about—and they assert themselves, we’ll be winding down, hopefully, in some dramatic way, not surging ahead. There’s a way to do an orderly retreat, and whether it takes three months or six months, one could argue about it, but hopefully it will not take a year. But if the Democrats do their job and put the right pressure on this administration—that means cutting funding. You handed me an article—you’re the subversive; you handed me a Rolling Stone article, which I commend to everyone, “The $2 Trillion Dollar War.” And they quote Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and he says this war has already cost $2.267 trillion. [Editor’s note: Stiglitz came up with this figure for the total eventual cost of the war.] You know, people have a hard time figuring out the difference between a million and a billion. A trillion, they lose it all together. But you’re talking about funding education in America and everything else. It’s just incredible: We’re bankrupting this country, we’re mortgaging our future. You know Oakland, across the bay from where we’re recording this, upwards of 150 people have been killed there in mindless violence, and yet they say they don’t have money for more police—it’s ridiculous! We don’t have money for decent schools in places like Oakland, we don’t have more money to police the neighborhood and make it safe, and yet we can spend $2.26 trillion, and now you’re telling me we’re going to take people from places like Oakland and go police Baghdad to make it safer? What are they smoking? What are you talking about, James Harris? You want to take National Guard that should probably be patrolling Oakland at this point, you want to put them in Baghdad? Why do you want to do that?
Harris: [Laughs] I would never suggest doing that. I would never—I would never, how could you accuse me of that?
Scheer: You were just saying—
Harris: I was saying this is a complex issue.
Scheer: What makes it complex? That’s the big lie. The big lie says it’s a complex issue. It wasn’t a complex issue to go in. This son of a gun just sent these people over there—and that’s not complex. But if you want to get out, it’s “Oh, that’s so complex.” It’s not so complex. You put the ships and the airplanes there and you pull them out the same way you put them in. And you can declare victory. You can say, “We’re now certain there are no weapons of mass destruction. We’re now certain there are no ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. And even if there are, this guy is going to be hung.” So we get out—a great victory.
Harris: There’s no Democrat, there’s no leader who can take us to where you want us to go. I only challenge a leader to step forward and lead us. Because we are dumb, deaf and stupid without someone to guide us. Is Nancy Pelosi up to the challenge?
Scheer: Why not?
Harris: Who can lead us out of this darkness?
Scheer: What’s wrong with Nancy Pelosi?
Harris: I’m asking you.
Scheer: I’m hoping that these Democrats that we put in power—after all, that’s what the voters did: This midterm election—I remember just months before the midterm election, when people I knew in the Congress said there’s no chance the Democrats are going to win—no chance. The way the election districts are drawn up, the number of incumbents—particularly in the Senate, there are no risky Republican seats. So they all told me to forget it. Even a month and a half, two months before the election, they said to forget the Democrats ever winning the Senate in this election; and in the House, we’re lucky if we just make some gains. OK? The fact is, they get both of these bodies, and they have an obligation to put a stop to this war. Now, if they’re chicken about it—you know what, I think it’s not just chicken, it’s cynical. They say, “Oh, let’s give Bush enough rope to hang himself; let’s send more troops there; let’s commit more. It’s Bush’s war.” That’s very cynical, and it’s very dangerous, because you get young people killed—Americans killed, Iraqis killed. So I’m not buying that, I’m not going to go that cynical route.
Harris: I’ve got more questions, though.
Scheer: You can ask all the questions you want. You can take hours, Mr. Harris, you can advance your own position. This doesn’t have to be my taking—you tell me. Why are you so nervous? You tell me what your concern is. Why don’t you trust your own judgment about this? Why do you need some leader coming in on a horse?
Harris: Don’t need a leader. I’m smart enough to know that for any revolution to happen, there has to be a vision and a thought behind it. That’s why Clinton was so good. I challenge people to come together in that light. Like you said: Despite all the nonsense propaganda that Bush is so good at generating, we don’t have to follow that. But we do need to think about what is the core message that we’re getting behind. We know that Iraq is nothing but smoke and mirrors, but we can’t break those mirrors without uniform thinking, uniform thought. Is there a presidential candidate, I ask you, in Barack Obama, or will his campaign be too diluted with race? Is there a campaign candidate in Hillary Clinton, or will the candidacy be diluted by her femininity? Will any of these leaders be allowed to rise to a level that they can lead us? I believe in both of them.
Scheer: First of all, it’s very kind of you to acknowledge Hillary Clinton’s femininity—
Scheer: —You may be the only one in the country. I don’t think race is the problem for Barack Obama, and I don’t think femininity or feminism is the problem for Hillary Clinton. I think those are their main assets, frankly. I think their problem is opportunism. Are they going to provide a clear vision and a clear leadership of the kind you rightfully ask for? If you want to take what Bobby Kennedy did—after all Bobby Kennedy was a kind of opportunistic politician, but then he saw the light; he met Cesar Chavez, he met Martin Luther King Jr., and there was another Bobby Kennedy. I happened to be the guy who interviewed him just before he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel. And there was a different Bobby Kennedy than the one I had known even just two years before. So, yes, what you’re asking for—really it’s not “uniformity.” I resent the—I resist the ....
Harris: Why do you resent that term?
Scheer: I don’t want to be uniform. I don’t want anyone to march in lock step. We don’t all have to be sheep, or anything. What we have to do is have common sense. This thing is a loser. It’s not working. And no one should have to die for it. We have mayhem [in Iraq.] One hundred bodies just turned up, and they’re from our guys, our Shiite militants. It’s not some foreign invaders, or something. So common sense says: Look, we don’t believe in this even in our own country. Let the people who are in Los Angeles make their decisions about their freeways and their schools. We believe in local control. Why can’t the Iraqis make their own history? They’ve been together a long time—much longer than we’ve been together. Let them figure it out. They used to intermarry, they worship the same vision of God—primarily—they use the same scripture. So why wouldn’t they have a better shot of working it out. And what we need are people who are willing to say that the American people do not have to be at the center of every decision in the world. We don’t have this lock on wisdom. My God, we hardly travel around the world. At least the French in Vietnam bothered to learn the language, they had some knowledge. The British, when they were in India, they actually went local—native if you like; they actually learned something. We don’t do that. We’re hit-and-run. You run into anybody in this country today who cares what happens in Vietnam?
Harris: No. And isn’t that the typical American?
Scheer: Look, we’re a great people. This is a great country. It really is, as long as we don’t stick our nose in everybody else’s business. We’re damned good at trying to sort out our own problems. We don’t always go about it the best way. Women didn’t have the vote 85 years ago, or whatever it was. Segregation, when I was growing up, was a fact of life in America; people accepted it. I’m not going to sing the song of American perfection. We weren’t the city on a hill, created by God, in which everybody was perfect from the beginning. But we’re a great work in progress, and we can struggle with our own issues, but we get mucked up when we get involved with what George Washington warned us against, which are these damned foreign entanglements. That’s what this Iraq thing is about. His [Bush’s] administration was failing. It was only months old, but it was already failing. He didn’t know what to do there, and he was presented with this opportunity to show leadership and exceed his father, which I think is his obsession; you know, “I got two terms, you only got one.” It’s crazy: “You’re the man who told me I didn’t do my homework. You’re the guy who told me I was a failure. You preferred my brother,” you know, “Wow! Look at me: You were the loser; I’m the winner.” Well now he’s turning out to be the loser. Do you think he’s going to turn to his father’s advice? Hell no. Definitely not. He’s rejecting it. That’s why he doesn’t want to get out of Iraq, because the guys around his father, and [James] Baker is one of them, and all these people, [Colin] Powell, are saying, “Hey you gotta cut your losses; this is a disaster.” Which is clear, by the way: This is a disaster. This is going to haunt your children, James, your grandchildren. Fifty years from now, someone is going to blow up a building where one of your grandchildren is nearby. And they’ll say, “Why did that Iraqi guy go nuts?” An Iraqi guy is going to remember that his grandfather was killed at this time, OK? That’s how history works: unintended consequences.
Harris: You know what my grandfather said about that? He was 75, and we kind of talked about this whole thing. And I said, “Why is everything like this?” He said, “Son, they gave a rich white boy too much money.”
Scheer: The people listening to this might not know that you’re a black man and I’m a white man.
Harris: Should I talk like [affects an accent] this, Bob?
Scheer: I just want to set the framework here because I want to ask you a question—a pointed question.
Scheer: I was having dinner last night at a Japanese restaurant in what used to be the black community, by Japantown. I don’t know if it exists anymore, where there was great jazz—people used to go from a jazz workshop here on Broadway, and they’d go there late-night, after hours. It was great: I heard Charles Mingus there, Cannonball Adderley, and all these people, and we’re talking about what happened to black people here. We had this gentrification in San Francisco and Oakland, this big mess. And this woman [I was eating with]—an African-American woman, a young woman, she had done a book, she works at the [San Francisco] Chronicle, she’s an editorial writer, and she said, “Yeah, everyone accepts it, that one out of every three black men should be caught up in the criminal justice system.” OK, I ask you: How do we accept that?
Harris: It’s not to be accepted. This has been obviously a hot topic for the week. It is not acceptable, but it is in fact the reality.
Scheer: What does it mean that it’s the reality? How do we live with this fact? Let’s first of all establish, first of all, what is the fact?
Harris: The fact is that 30 percent of all arrests in San Francisco are black—40 or 50 percent in Oakland. And these numbers are the same in Detroit, in Miami.
Scheer: And probably not because of racism.
Harris: Probably not because of racism.
Scheer: Probably because black men are in a bad place right now—many of them. Now you sang this little song about slavery, but it doesn’t really go back to that. Everyone’s afraid to say that.
Harris: No one’s afraid to say that. I think people—
Scheer: Then let me lay it out, then. Let me interview you. If you read Colin Powell’s book, if you read the stories of the people who came from the islands, people who come from Africa—I have a friend, Bemi [Gbemisola Olujobi], who writes for [Truthdig], who comes from Nigeria—an African journalist, who’s getting her advanced degree at USC, who lives right there in the black community by the USC, she keeps asking me all these questions about these African-Americans, you know? Why don’t more of them work, why are so many of them hanging around asking for money? What’s all this about? She’s running around in her traditional Nigerian outfit—a very smart woman, and she has all these discussions with people, “You want a dollar from me? In my country I could feed a child for three days with that.” These are real questions. So it’s not DNA, because people who are black—and Bemi is very black—Colin Powell wasn’t “that black”, but there are plenty people from the islands—Stokely Carmichael was pretty black. They come and attract families; church still strong; they hit the ground running. They’re like immigrants from anywhere else. They do well and they succeed.
Scheer: So we cannot ignore what happened to Negroes, as they were called in my time, who were basically held in slave situations and segregation. It’s interesting: Willie Brown last night—I remember, I interviewed Willie Brown for a piece for the L.A. Times Magazine section, and Willie told me the story of growing up in [Mineola, Texas], he walked down the street and his father would have to step down if it was a narrow street to make way for some teenage white person. The movie theater was segregated. Negro kids had to sit up there in the hot, crowded little area, and white kids were down below. And segregation, I remember when I was a little kid major league baseball was still segregated. That’s the reality. So then you take people from the South, and because of the war jobs, they come to places like Oakland, San Francisco, Long Beach, working on loading the ships, and then that ends and they’re sitting there. But meanwhile their communities have been destroyed, their lives have been destroyed; it is an effect of slavery and segregation. It hurts to bring it up now, because people say, “Oh, you’re just bringing up the old excuse.?
Harris: No, it’s not the old excuse. And I’ll stop you there because I see your point, and it’s a good point, in my mind. The disconnect is history. There’s no consideration in the mind of a 17-year-old who was born in 1989, there’s no real racial relevance there for that kid. I’m unique: I’m soon to be 31 years old. First time I played a basketball game, I’m one of four black kids at my private white high school. I was forced to analyze my history when a kid leans over as he’s boxing me out, he says, “nigger.” That was the first time—at 13 years old—that anyone white had said that to me. So immediately I embraced my history. Young black men don’t have a chance—either haven’t been given the message that, hey, grandmom, grandfather, everybody who came before you allowed you to be in this privileged position. So what you have now is blacks, young blacks, who are privileged. They don’t have to fight to get anywhere; it’s already gifted to them. And that’s why 150 black men have been killed—probably by 150 black men—in Oakland: There’s not that steadfast spirit in the black family, because we’re losing the black families. That’s the problem: how to get past that, how to educate, and that’s where you get lost.
Scheer: Well, I’d like you—since we’re discussing Truthdig here—let’s have an open editorial meeting here; people can listen to it. We’ve got a new mayor in Oakland, Ron Dellums, I asked you to interview him, still hasn’t happened.
Harris: Still working on it; he kicked me to the curb [laughs].
Scheer: Well, maybe we’ll get somebody to listen to this podcast, and we’ll push it up. OK, but I’d like you to monitor what he can and cannot do in Oakland. And he’s not J.C., he’s not going to come in and part water. But the real irony here is that Jerry Brown was the mayor and Ron Dellums still hasn’t taken over. When does he take over?
Harris: January 3rd, the same day the new Senate takes over.
Scheer: So Jerry Brown is still technically the mayor. And you have these 150 kids killed on his watch, yet he gets elected attorney general of the whole state.
Harris: Makes no sense.
Scheer: So this guy has left Oakland more dangerous than when he came in, but he’s now going to be in charge of all law enforcement in the state. I saw him the other day, and he said, “Well, I’m going to help the homeless, I’m going to get some state resources.” But where’s this guy been? He’s been out to lunch. OK, so now you got a guy coming in, and Dellums is an exemplary figure for my money—I knew this guy back before he ran for Congress, and had something to do with encouraging him to do so, because I ran for that seat before he did—and I’d like you to see what a guy who’s well-intentioned—Ron Dellums would not become mayor if he didn’t think he could make this better. He’s not trying to put a shadow on his legacy—he was a very successful congressman, and went out with honor. So the question is: What can you do? He’s one those leaders you’re talking about. One thing you do mention is family. You said you had your grandfather’s image, you went to a good school, Ron Dellums, his uncle, C.L. Dellums, was, with A. Philip Randolph, the vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was the main Negro union in America—because that was a segregated job, but it paid all right, and people got to travel and see stuff; it was sort of an elite job—unionized. And he comes out of the church background and has deep roots in the community. I know this because when I ran for Congress [Ron] would take me around to all these churches, once people got over their shock that I was white, because when they heard me on the radio, they hoped that I wasn’t.
Scheer: ... This funny-looking white guy comes in. But Dellums clearly has roots in that community, clearly cares about it, so what I want to know is, whether you would take that on, to see what he can do, and really give him a report card—check it out. Because what is this crap? We started out this conversation talking about making Baghdad safe; but if you can’t make Oakland safe, I mean, my goodness, what can you do?
Harris: I think that’s a good way to end, and I think I will take that assignment, and I think we all need to accept that responsibility—locally, because we can’t make national change unless that change comes locally first. [Pause.] Happy holidays.
Scheer: Happy holidays to you—Hanukkah and Christmas, and for all the agnostics and atheists out there: Happy secular, meaningful holidays.
Harris: See you on Truthdig in the new year.