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An Interview with Pierre Sprey and Marilyn Young

Obama’s Wars

by BILL MOYERS

Very often in the White House, the most momentous decisions are, at the time, the least dramatic, the least discussed. And they don’t make news, or history, until much later, when their consequences bubble to the surface downstream. There are observers who think that could prove to be the case with a decision made within hours of Barack Obama’s swearing in last week.

It started as a few lines in wire reports – a bit of buzz on the web – then a story here and there in the weekend papers. Unmanned American drones like this one, called Predators, honing in on villages in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, striking like silent intruders in the night, against suspected terrorists.

Early accounts of casualties varied from a dozen to more than 20 dead and wounded. One Pakistani security official told THE WASHINGTON POST that perhaps ten insurgents had been killed, maybe even a high value target, a senior member of al Qaeda or the Taliban. Then the TIMES of London quoted locals who said "… three children lost their lives" when the missiles destroyed several homes.

Since last August, 38 suspected U.S. missile strikes have killed at least 132 people in Pakistan, where allegedly we are not at war.

In next door Afghanistan, the number is much higher. For seven years American and NATO forces have been chasing Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban, not only with Predator drones, but with guided missiles and bomber raids as well. According to the United Nations and the organization Human Rights Watch, aerial bombing has killed or wounded more than a thousand civilians, what the Pentagon calls, "collateral damage."

The death of civilians has brought sharp criticism, including from some of our NATO allies and the president of Afghanistan. They believe the bombing is turning people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan against the West, actually undermining an effective campaign against terrorists.

The bombing of civilians from the sky is an old and questionable practice, argued over since the moment the military began to fly. It was deliberate strategy in World Wars I and II. American presidents approved it in Korea and extensively in Vietnam, again in the first Gulf War, then in Bosnia and Kosovo, and six years ago during the campaign of "shock and awe" over Iraq.

But what lifted those reports last weekend out of the routine is the simple fact that for the first time the air strikes occurred on President Obama’s watch. As he said during his campaign, and as Secretary of Defense Gates reaffirmed this week, Obama is escalating America’s military presence in Afghanistan. He may increase it to as many as 60,000 troops this year.

When I read the first story about the Predator strikes last weekend, I thought back to 1964, and another president.

LYNDON JOHNSON: My fellow Americans…

BILL MOYERS: After an encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin between American destroyers and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, President Lyndon Johnson ordered bombing raids over North Vietnam.

LYNDON JOHNSON: Air action is now in execution…

BILL MOYERS: LBJ said we want no wider war, but wider war is what we got, eleven years of it.

Now military analysts and historians, including my two guests are wondering aloud – could Afghanistan become "Obama’s war," a quagmire that threatens to define his presidency, as Vietnam defined LBJ’s?

Marilyn Young is a professor of history at New York University. She’s published numerous books and essays on foreign policy, including THE VIETNAM WARS, 1945-1990, THE NEW AMERICAN EMPIRE and IRAQ AND THE LESSONS OF VIETNAM. She is the co-editor of a collection of essays to be released next month titled BOMBING CIVILIANS: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY HISTORY.

Pierre Sprey is a former Pentagon official, one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s famous "whiz kids" who helped design and develop two of the military’s most successful airplanes, the F-16 Falcon Fighter and the A-10 Warthog Tankbuster. But in the late 1970s, with a handful of Pentagon and congressional insiders, Sprey helped found the military reform movement. They risked their careers taking issue with a defense bureaucracy spending more and more money for fewer and fewer, often ineffective weapons.

You will find an essay with his shared by-line in this new book, AMERICA’S DEFENSE MELTDOWN, published by the Center for Defense Information.

Welcome to both of you.

MARILYN YOUNG: Thank you.

PIERRE SPREY: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: Marilyn, what did you think last weekend when four days into the Obama administration we read those reports of the strikes in Pakistan?

MARILYN YOUNG: My heart sank. It absolutely sank. It had been very high. I had been, like I think the rest of the country, feeling immensely encouraged and inspired by this new administration and by the energy and vigor with which he began. And then comes this piece of old stuff on approach to a complicated question that in comes in the form of a bomb and a bomb in the most dangerous of all places. And, yeah, my heart sank, literally.

BILL MOYERS: Our military, Pierre, says it’s sure that it’s striking militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And that they’re not targeting civilians. Can they be sure? From your experience, can they be sure?

PIERRE SPREY: I’m sure that their purpose is to strike militants. I have no doubt of that whatsoever. But with the weapons they use and with the extremely flawed intelligence they have.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yes.

PIERRE SPREY: I’d be astonished if one in five people they kill or wound is in fact, a militant.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean "flawed intelligence"?

PIERRE SPREY: You can’t tell with a camera or an infrared sensor or something whether somebody’s a Taliban. In the end, you’re relying on either, you know, some form of intercepted communications, which doesn’t point at a person. It just, you know, points at a radio or a cell phone or something like that. Or, most likely, you’re relying on some Afghani of unknown veracity and unknown motivation and who may, may very well be trying to settle a blood feud rather than give you good information.

BILL MOYERS: But don’t these drone planes and Predator missiles provide a commander-in-chief, a President of the United States, with enormous political convenience for being able to order military action without risking American lives?

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: Yes.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah, it’s-

PIERRE SPREY: But-

MARILYN YOUNG: Simple. Yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: And-

MARILYN YOUNG: And then-

PIERRE SPREY: A very dangerous option because it’s so convenient and because at home it’s politically acceptable because our boys aren’t dying on the ground, it gets us into tremendous trouble, which, of course, in general is true of bombing.

BILL MOYERS: And your-

PIERRE SPREY: Bombing is always politically popular relative to sending infantry and killing our boys.

BILL MOYERS: Aren’t these drone planes and these Predator missiles effective? Don’t they get the bad guys, even though they might kill a few civilians?

PIERRE SPREY: Their importance is enormously exaggerated, as is their glamour. A Predator is a very large radio-controlled model airplane with a 48-foot wingspan and a snowmobile motor in the back. It only goes about 80 miles an hour. And it stays up for 10, 15 hours and carries a missile. And when they launch the missile, the missile is not pinpoint accurate. You know, if it’s a house, reasonably often it hits the house it’s aimed at. And when it does, it usually kills a bunch of other people around.

MARILYN YOUNG: And it’s true, you can aim at this table. But the question is who’s sitting at – well, they might want to aim at this table. But, you know, who’s sitting at the table? And you don’t know. Or actually you do want to hit Pierre but you don’t want to hit the two of us. Unfortunately, pieces of what hit him hit us. And we are severely injured or dead. But really Pierre is what you wanted and Pierre is what you got. And this is supposed to be a triumph. And it seems to me that it is a triumph in the most abstract sense. And if you are on the ground as one of these things come at you, the material meaning of being bombed becomes very clear. And that’s not ever discussed or taken into account.

BILL MOYERS: The material meaning?

MARILYN YOUNG: Yes. What it feels like to be bombed, not to be in the crosshairs going down but to be on the ground looking up. And the footage that we have in the sense we have of drones is of someone 10,000 miles away pushing a button and, wham, there it goes. But nobody’s sitting there on the ground looking at what happens after it goes up.

PIERRE SPREY: And what happens on the ground is for every one of those impacts you get five or ten times as many recruits for the Taliban as you’ve eliminated. The people that we’re trying to convince to become adherents to our cause have turned rigidly hostile to our cause in part because of bombing and in part because of, you know, other killing of civilians from ground forces. But we’re dealing with a society here, that’s based on honor, you know? The Pashtun are very ancient people.

BILL MOYERS: This is the tribe in the southern part of the-

PIERRE SPREY: Well, it’s not a tribe. It’s a nation. This is 40 million people spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan, you know, who don’t even recognize that border. It’s their land.

BILL MOYERS: Forty million?

PIERRE SPREY: There’s 40 million of them. That’s a nation, not a tribe. Within it are tribal groupings and so on. But they all speak the common language. And they all have a very similar, very rigid, in lots of ways very admirable code of honor much stronger than their adherence to Islam.

PIERRE SPREY: They have to resist, you know, being invaded, occupied, bombed, and killed. It’s a matter of honor. And they’re willing to die in unbelievable numbers to do that.

BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting that these strikes could be contributed to the destabilization of Pakistan, one of our allies?

MARILYN YOUNG: It’s clear that they’re doing that. I mean, there never was before an organization called Taliban in Pakistan. This didn’t exist as an organization. It does now. It’s unclear to me as well the relationship between our punitive enemy, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. That’s unclear. And it’s, it’s very unclear what American policy will be with respect to either group. Mainly what’s unclear is what our goal is in Afghanistan. It’s really unclear.

BILL MOYERS: Well, we went there to get Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and to free Afghanistan from the brutal grip of the Taliban, religious extremists who were wrecking misery and creating a base there for al Qaeda, right? That was-

PIERRE SPREY: And we failed miserably on both missions, you know? al Qaeda’s obviously flourishing, undoubtedly stronger around the world than it was when we started this in 2001. And what did we liberate the country from? We certainly caused the Taliban to withdraw. We didn’t defeat them. They withdrew. And Afghanistan turned into a battleground for warring huge, extremely violent drug gangs. All these provincial governors, all these people we call warlords euphemistically are large-scale drug gangsters.

MARILYN YOUNG: Uh-huh.

PIERRE SPREY: And the country was ripped apart by them. And that’s why the Taliban is coming back.

BILL MOYERS: You saw the story in "The Washington Post" this week from Secretary of Defense Gates who says, you know, we’re not longer going to be involved with these gangsters you talk about, with a corrupt government of Karzai in Kabul. We’re going to concentrate instead on doing something about the mess you just described by waging a war that will ultimately defeat the insurgents. That was, in effect, his message. New strategy.

MARILYN YOUNG: Right.

BILL MOYERS: Involvement with the civilian government.

MARILYN YOUNG: And we’ll focus on the provinces. And there is also an implication from earlier stories that there will be an effort to buy off various warlords to try and import some of what was done in Iraq into Afghanistan. The problem is the focus remains a military solution to what all the other information I have says is a political problem. So I don’t care how you slice the military tactic, so long as your notion is that you can actually deal with this in a military way, you’re just going to march deeper and deeper into what Pete Seeger used to call the Big Muddy or I guess in Afghanistan it’s pretty dry. It would be some other expression. But the point is if you can’t figure out a political way to deal in Afghanistan then you can only compound the compound mess that Pierre talked about.

PIERRE SPREY: Yeah, the military approach is always and the conventional think tank approach and the General Petraeus approach is, first, we’ll establish security.

MARILYN YOUNG: Right. That’s-

PIERRE SPREY: And then we’ll fix the government.

MARILYN YOUNG: Right.

PIERRE SPREY: That doesn’t work. In fact, that’s already failed. And the more we try to fix the security situation, the more we will drive these people, particularly the Pashtun, into implacable opposition. And whether the military solution is more bombing from Predators or from F-16s or more special forces on the ground, you know, attacking villages and inadvertently killing lots of civilians, it doesn’t matter. As long as security comes first, the mission will fail because these people are sick and tired of a government that’s oppressing them and a foreigner who’s killing them.

BILL MOYERS: There was a photo the other day of a protest in Pakistan, a few days after a drone attacked. The banner reads, quote, "Bombing on tribes. Obama’s first gift to Pakistan." Now, that’s part of the blowback, isn’t it?

PIERRE SPREY: That’s incredibly dangerous.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: I mean, I don’t think people in America have any sense of how dangerous that is. By bombing into those areas, those traditional Pashtun areas, that the Pakistani government long ago made a pact, you know, at the founding of the state of Pakistan to never invade those areas and to leave the Pashtun to govern themselves. And we are forcing the Pakistanis to break that pact, both on the ground with their army. And we’re breaking it by bombing the Pashtun in Pakistan. That is taking a weak and also rotten Pakistani government and crumbling it. That’s putting them on the horns of a dilemma that they don’t need. Why is that so dangerous to us? Because this is a nuclear armed country. And when they fall apart and fall into the hands of people like, people that are running Afghanistan, you could have a nuclear war with India, you know? I mean, we’re talking about not just blowback but we’re talking about catastrophe could result.

MARILYN YOUNG: You know, the thing that gets me, Obama appoints George Mitchell and he says what we’re going to do is listen. What we’re going to do is figure we’re just going to listen. And in his first press interview on that Arab TV network, which was a brilliant move I thought, he talked about respect.

BARACK OBAMA: We are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest.

MARILYN YOUNG: He used the word "respect" repeatedly. And it’s an excellent word to use and an important one. He, it’s not impossible to say we’re going to pause in Afghanistan and listen. We’re going to think about it. We’re going to figure it out. We’re not going to move militarily at this moment until we know what we’re doing.

BILL MOYERS: But suppose, Marilyn that somebody from the Pentagon came to the White House right after the inauguration and said, "You know, we’ve had this drone attack planned. And we’ve spotted these insurgents whom we think really are militants–"

MARILYN YOUNG: Right.

BILL MOYERS: "and killers in their own right. And we want to – we want you to approve this raid." And suppose he had said no four days after the inauguration and that had been leaked. You know what would have happened on all of the right-wing talk radio shows in.

MARILYN YOUNG: Sure.

BILL MOYERS: And maybe "The Washington Post" and editorial page and others like that. He has no backbone, right? I mean, wasn’t he in a sense, trapped by this option?

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah, but that’s, that’s you know, he’s read history. He should at least or he should have been very familiar with the Johnson administration. That’s exactly the trap that Johnson walked into. And it’s not necessary. I have this odd notion that the American public is actually, in the main, adult enough to listen and think and to respond to a president who says, I’m going to tell you what’s going on. For eight years there has been miasma, lies, deception, bizarre behavior. We’re going to change that and not just economically and not just domestically. But we’re really going to see what we’re doing everywhere. That means I did not approve a military move I was urged to approve because I want to know what I’m doing. And I’m sure my fellow citizens will join me in wishing to know what it is the United States is doing militarily before it does it.

PIERRE SPREY: I would applaud, I would have the utmost admiration.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: For any leader, even for a senator or congressman who had the guts to say exactly what you just said. But it’s not in the cards. And we knew it wasn’t in the cards when during the campaign Obama subscribed to the fact that we’re in a war on terror.

MARILYN YOUNG: Right.

PIERRE SPREY: This is not a war on terror. You know? And anybody who starts from the premise that it’s a war on terror is heading straight into disasters error.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: And he said-

BILL MOYERS: I don’t understand that because George W. Bush defined this as a war on terror. And I think Obama must be using the same invocation, you know?

PIERRE SPREY: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: This is all part of the war on terror. He said it in his inaugural address.

PIERRE SPREY: Yes, he said that. I was appalled. You talk about our hearts sinking.

PIERRE SPREY: 9/11 was not an act of war.

BILL MOYERS: What was it?

PIERRE SPREY: It was a criminal act. It was a simple.

MARILYN YOUNG: Right.

PIERRE SPREY: Criminal act by a bunch of lunatic fanatic violent people who needed to be tracked down and apprehended and tried exactly as you would with any other lunatic violent person, like we do with our own domestic terrorists, like the guy who bombed the Oklahoma federal building.

BILL MOYERS: Federal building. Right.

PIERRE SPREY: You know? Exactly the same thing we did to him is what we should have launched on a huge basis, of course, on a huge international police basis and not called it.

MARILYN YOUNG: And there would have been totally international support.

PIERRE SPREY: It’s not a war.

MARILYN YOUNG: Right.

PIERRE SPREY: We, by calling it a war, we have glorified al Qaeda. We have glorified the cause of violent radical Islam. All that tiny minority have become heroes. And we made them heroes. We made their propaganda. We made their case for them.

BILL MOYERS: Let me read you an excerpt from the official White House statement on foreign policy under President Obama. Quote, "Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security, the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan’s economic development." There you have a very clear statement of their intentions that we’re going to concentrate on the war. And in fact by the end of this year there’ll be 60,000, not 30,000 American troops in Afghanistan. And there’s no indication the strikes, the air strikes that are killing civilians are going to stop.

PIERRE SPREY: And the 60,000-

MARILYN YOUNG: No.

PIERRE SPREY: -will be useless.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: You know, the Russians at the peak of their invasion – who dealt with the Afghanis a good deal more brutally than we did – had over 150,000 and a trained a 250,000 man Afghan army. And they lost. 60,000 is a recipe for failure, defeat, and ultimately a disgraceful withdrawal by the United States. One way or another, no matter how nice a face we put on it, we’ll be kicked out of there just like we were kicked out of Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: Speaking of Vietnam, and you’ve written so much about this, we have a conversation between President Johnson and, your old boss, Secretary of Defense McNamara about bombing. Take a look at this. ROBERT McNAMARA [SOT]: If we hurt them enough it isn’t so much that they don’t have more men as it is that they can’t get the men to fight because the men know that once they get assigned to that task their chances of living are small. And I, myself, believe that’s the only chance we have of winning this thing. And when they see they’re getting killed in such high rates in the South and they see that supplies are less likely to come down from the North, I think it will just hurt their morale a little bit more. And to me that’s the only way to win, because we’re not killing enough of them to make it impossible for the North to continue to fight. But we are killing enough to destroy the morale of those people down there if they think this is going to have to go on forever. PRESIDENT JOHNSON [SOT]: All right. Go ahead, Bob. ROBERT McNAMARA: Thanks.

BILL MOYERS: Now, Secretary McNamara and President Johnson were talking about a different kind of bombing from the drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a lot more of it. But do you see a historical parallel there?

PIERRE SPREY: Absolutely.

MARILYN YOUNG: Oh, yeah. I mean, the notion that you will break the will of the enemy, I – that’s such a depressing clip. I just can’t – I mean, it just sinks me right back into the moment when all that was going on. Winston Churchill is held up as a great hero because he defies German bombing and says we will fight them everywhere. They can’t break our will. And he is considered a great hero. McNamara is incapable of reading that same spirit back into his enemy. Instead, he assumes that he can bomb them into submission. And it’s the same notion now that you can scare them, break their will. And the drone, this precise thing, is maybe, in the minds of those who use it, even more scary because you don’t see us but we see you. And zap we gotcha. But it’s, again, an effort to deal with a political issue with force. And it doesn’t work.

BILL MOYERS: Pierre, as I said in the introduction, you helped develop a couple of very effective fighter planes. Is there a moral dimension to this use of drones that you didn’t see in a more conventional kind of weapon?

PIERRE SPREY: There’s a moral dimension to every kind of bombing that destroys civilians, particularly bombing that destroys more civilians than military people. You can’t avoid it. There’s nothing notable about the drones that changes that. And the moral dimension is very simple. And it dates back to the original theologian of bombing, Julio Doue, a rather fanatical Italian from World War I who first hypothesized, wrongly, that you could destroy an enemy’s morale, exactly what you said, and win victories without any ground armies if you simply bombed them enough. And secondly, that the bombers would always get through, that they would always defeat fighter opposition and antiaircraft opposition. Both propositions have been provided in history over and over and over again to be not only wrong but thumpingly wrong.

BILL MOYERS: Has civilian bombing ever been effective, Marilyn?

MARILYN YOUNG: I can’t think. Can you?

PIERRE SPREY: The answer is no.

MARILYN YOUNG: No.

PIERRE SPREY: Very simply, no.

BILL MOYERS: Here you say there are none.

MARILYN YOUNG: No. I don’t think ever.

PIERRE SPREY: And by the way-

MARILYN YOUNG: No.

PIERRE SPREY: You know? Churchill tried it. Churchill, by the way, after that brave stand to resist the Germans, turned around and, for politic reasons, just like our leaders, decided that it would be a great idea to simply area bomb Germany. What that means is to kill civilians. And they deliberately set out to kill German civilians on the same premise of Julio Doue that we would kind of kill them into submission. And it failed miserably.

BILL MOYERS: Does it seem to you that President Obama believes he can escape the outcome in Afghanistan that George W. Bush did not escape in Iraq?

MARILYN YOUNG: Right. I think he does think he can escape it. I think anybody would imagine coming into fresh into power would imagine he can make it happen better. If he didn’t believe that, he would not have said – he would not have signed off on the drone attack. So I think he thinks he can escape it. And by fiddling within the same set of tactics that the Bush administration did. And isn’t it any – there’s no new thinking going on.

PIERRE SPREY: See, that’s the problem.

MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: Is – he’s surrounded by people who tell him, you know, "Boss, you know, all we need is, like, 30,000 more people here to secure the nation. And we need to get rid of Karzai because he’s a problem. And we got a few more Band-aids here, and it’ll all be fine." So-

BILL MOYERS: We couldn’t keep up with who we were getting rid of in Saigon, you know? I’m serious about that.

PIERRE SPREY: Exactly. And we’re-

MARILYN YOUNG: Right.

PIERRE SPREY: It’s – same thing’s going to happen when we get rid of Karzai because the people behind him are worse. And they will be worse. And Obama is going to be in exactly that situation, surrounded by a bunch of Robert McNamaras, except not so smart.

BILL MOYERS: So do you believe "The New York Times" was accurate the other day when it said Afghanistan could quickly come to define the Obama presidency?

MARILYN YOUNG: I hope not. I cannot tell you how much I hope not. I think – he’s got so much he wants to do. And he has so many good things he wants to do. And he starts out, you know, really marvelously, trying to do those good things. And if he is deflected, as Johnson was, that would be, well, it’s this sort of tragedies that America’s good at. It turns out to be as much a tragedy for the people we’re supposedly engaged with as it is for us.

PIERRE SPREY: I’m pessimistic on that. I’m more pessimistic than Marilyn.

MARILYN YOUNG: I’m, yeah.

PIERRE SPREY: I think he will be trapped in it. I think.

MARILYN YOUNG: I’m hopeful.

PIERRE SPREY: I mean, he’s already-

MARILYN YOUNG: I’m not, I knock wood a lot.

PIERRE SPREY: He’s already so committed through his campaign of reinforcing Afghanistan and continuing the path we’ve been on unless he finds an act of enormous political will and courage and a way of explaining it to the American people that, you know, we’ve engaged on a path that’s wrong and that’s not going to work. And I’m about to reverse course. That’s really hard to do.

MARILYN YOUNG: You know, it’s-

PIERRE SPREY: And if he doesn’t reverse course, it’s the same quicksand. It’s deeper and deeper, step by step.

MARILYN YOUNG: See, suppose that Osama bin Laden stayed where he was. Suppose he did. I mean, the acts of terror occur or they don’t occur and they’re deflected or they’re not deflected no matter where he’s living, right?

PIERRE SPREY: Yep.

MARILYN YOUNG: So the question of why we’re in Afghanistan looms very large indeed.

PIERRE SPREY: Absolutely.

MARILYN YOUNG: Since it doesn’t seem to relate in any way I can really name with precision American security.

BILL MOYERS: Two important books, "Bombing Civilians: A 20th Century History," with Marilyn Young, and "America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress," with an important chapter from Pierre Sprey. Thank you both for being with me on the Journal.

This is a transcript of PBS’s BILL MOYERS’ Journal on Jan. 30, 2009.