On Friday October 22nd WikiLeaks released the "Iraq War Logs," in what they described as “the largest classified military leak in history.” The Logs, almost 400,000 reports in total, detail the deaths of 109,000 people, the wounding of 170,000 people, and the detaining of nearly 200,000 people over the course of six years. Below is an interview with Michael Schwartz, conducted by Chris Spannos, about the War Logs—what they mean now and might mean in the future.
Michael Schwartz’ most recent book, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, was published in 2008. It describes the political and economic causes and consequences of the Iraq war, analyzing how the roots of the war in the militarized geopolitics of oil led the U.S. to dismantle the Iraqi state and economy while fueling a sectarian civil war. A professor of sociology at Stony Brook State University, Schwartz is the author of award winning books on popular protest and insurgency (Radical Protest and Social Structure), and on American business and government dynamics (The Power Structure of American Business, with Beth Mintz). His work on post 911 U.S. foreign policy and military interventions has appeared in numerous academic and popular outlets, including ZNet, TomDispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, Cities and Contexts. His email address is [email protected]
Chris Spannos is fulltime staff at Z.
1 – Chris Spannos: The WikiLeaks’ Iraq War Logs confirm what many, including you, have been pointing out for years—that U.S. foreign policy has produced barbaric results including torture, war crimes, and human rights violations on a mass scale—not simply because of poor strategic choices made by war planners, but because the consequences of U.S. domination are systemic at root. What do you think is new about the Logs and what do you think is important to keep in mind when considering their release?
Michael Schwartz: The public declarations of the U.S. military command about the Wikileaks documents (and its predictable echo from the corporate media within the United States) are quite accurate. There is very little in these documents that had not already been known by those who have expended the time and energy necessary to ferret out the on-the-ground reality in Iraq.
On the other hand, for those who have followed the invasion, occupation, and protracted war in Iraq through the prism provided by the U.S. corporate media (and who have not dug into the coverage in the back pages of the news and magazine coverage, and/or tracked the story through the independent media and foreign sources), there is an incredible wealth of new information. Even a casual perusal of the documents shatters the mainstream media image of an immaculate war carried on with precision weaponry by humane troops who have marched peacefully into cities, neighborhoods and towns seeking to free them from local Al Qaeda despots; utilizing their awesome (and precise) firepower only when attacked first. The ugly reality contained in the documents reveals that rules of engagement under which U.S. troops operated sanctioned a “shoot-first-and-ask-questions-never” policy whenever they entered hostile territory.
Those without the energy to read the raw Wikileaks documents or follow the foreign media coverage (most notably the British Guardian) will not discover this blinding contrast. The New York Times offered a bland report on the documents which focused on (and quite blatantly distorted) the role of Iran in the fighting in Iraq, ignoring all the remarkable details of U.S. brutality, U.S. complicity in brutality, and—most of all—the policy of treating the Iraqi population as less-than-human encumbrances to U.S. domination of Iraq. The Wikileaks documents could—if widely circulated—provide a foundation for a more effective resistance within this country to our leaders’ foreign policy of invasion, occupation, and exploitation—and its attendant carnage.
2 – Spannos: Without doubt, the amount of data the Logs provide, about 400,000 reports, have made a media splash around the world. But these news headlines are what Iraqis have all known and experienced themselves since the U.S. began its war and occupation in 2003, and even further back during the period of U.S./UN imposed sanctions on Iraq in the 90s. What do you make of mainstream media’s spin that this is all somehow a revelation for Iraqis?
Schwartz: From very early in the war in Iraq, the majority of Iraqis had no illusions about the intentions and role of the U.S. military in their country. Opinion polls taken by U.S. polling agencies revealed percentages from 60% to upwards of 90% (depending on location and time) viewing the U.S. as a brutal occupying force with little regard for Iraqi lives and welfare. Most believed that invasion was aimed at capturing and controlling Iraqi oil.
As a consequence of this almost universal opposition to the U.S. presence, every Iraqi election, including the most recent one, was marked by candidates and parties running on platforms headed by a promise to get the United States to withdraw. In fact, in the recent election, the only major party that did not call for complete withdrawal by the December 2011 deadline (the Supreme Council) suffered a resounding defeat. Despite this now long history of opposition to the U.S. presence, I expect that there will be a considerable reaction to the release of these revealing documents.
I think it is instructive to look at the responses of the Obama administration to earlier controversies: most notably the calls for prosecuting Bush administration officials for war crimes (which might be renewed with these new documents); and the earlier release of 90,000 Afghan war documents by Wikileaks. In both cases, the Obama administration argued that the sort of exposure (from trials or from the release of documents) would “endanger” U.S. soldiers still fighting in the various war zones. These comments were not just based on the claim that these revelations would contain information that insurgents could use militarily. In addition to that spurious argument (which has been refuted repeatedly) is a much more (I think accurate) expectation: that even the Iraqis would be surprised and outraged at the sheer magnitude of the atrocities contained in these documents (or in Bush administration atrocity trials) and further outraged by the proof that high level U.S. military commanders and government officials permitted, sanctioned, and even ordered the carnage.
I believe that it is this amplified outrage that the U.S. officials fear from the release of these documents: they feel that the revelations will fuel further resistance—by currently passive citizens—to the U.S. presence and actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Some of that resistance will find violent forms, and—in that sense—the U.S. officials are absolutely right: the release by Wikileaks has the potential to energize the insurgencies in all three countries (and even in Yemen), and thus endanger U.S. troops who are invading various cities, towns, and villages in those countries.
3 – Spannos: In its coverage the New York Times paraphrased Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as denouncing the leak “as a move to derail his bid for a second term.” What do you think are the possible political consequences inside Iraq?
Schwartz: The big political consequences inside Iraq will flow from the increased determination by ordinary citizens to expel the U.S. from the country, a determination that has been in place for more than five years. As the December 2011 deadline for full military withdrawal approaches, and the Obama Administration continues to press for a modification of this deadline to allow for a major (perhaps 50,000) U.S. force to remain, the popular resistance to such a continued presence could play an important role.
As for its impact on al-Maliki’s effort to retain the Premiership, this will depend on what sort of revelations about Maliki will become issues within Iraq. So far, the single such revelation involves his secret negotiations in 2008 with the Sadrists. In exchange for the Sadrists standing down from their major offensive against Maliki’s regime, he insisted on a public promise from the U.S. (and enshrined in the State of Forces Agreement) to withdraw all military forces by the end of 2011. I do not see publicity around this secret negotiation hurting Maliki in terms of internal politics, and, in fact, it seems to have made it easier for him to make a new alliance with the Sadrists—which the United States has vehemently denounced.
Maliki certainly has been involved in a great many secret maneuvers involving the United States and other important players in the Iraqi landscape, and I am sure that many of these, if revealed and publicized, would hurt him politically. He surely has much to fear from these 400,000 documents. But whether they contain sufficient proof of his various nefarious activities and whether they will be publicized sufficiently to impact his prospects is not clear.
4 – Spannos: Another mainstream media spin is the supposed revelation that Iran was “training and equipping insurgents inside Iraq.” What does it say about U.S. mainstream media, that they so easily overlook U.S. “training and equipping” of Iraqis to enforce their own imperial objectives?
Schwartz: The is one of the most despicable of the New York Times war coverage atrocities, for me comparable to Judith Miller’s slavish repetition of U.S. accusations that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling WMDs and actively seeking nuclear weapons.
In fact, the Wikileaks documents contain sparse evidence of any systematic Iranian military involvement and quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. The British Guardian, which behaves much more like a real news organization, as compared to the propagandistic coverage of the New York Times, has a fine article about this subject that pretty much debunks all the grandiose accusations (backed by no evidence) in the Times.
The Guardian article, with URL references to the relevant documents, makes the following points: (1) that “the main evidence for Iranian involvement…consists of low-level arms smuggling” [and not the big weapons that the U.S. has claimed]; (2) “they rarely mention Iranian links to improvised explosive devices” [despite U.S. claims that Iran was providing a multitude of particularly deadly IEDs]; (3) that the claim (central in the New York Times coverage) that Iran was sponsoring assassination attacks in Basra was made by an informant whose “reliability has not been determined” [and the report was never subsequently validated]; and so on and so forth.
On the matter of U.S. military involvement: the documents are simply a tribute to its magnitude and pervasiveness. Each of these documents records a single military event in Iraq during the six years covered. This averages out to about 66,666 military incidents per year, or just under 200 military incidents per day. Now that is a real military intervention.
Schwartz: I had hoped, when word leaked out about the new release of documents, that the publicity levels would be much higher and that there would be coverage of a growing outrage against the atrocities reported there and against the larger imperial policy, perhaps blossoming into a new round of highly visible protest. Clearly, that is not going to happen in the United States or elsewhere, though the impact within Iraq is yet to be determined.
The meager initial coverage in the New York Times without any significant follow-up, and the virtually (perhaps total) blackout on the electronic media is a terrible sign of U.S. government control of the U.S. media. This problem seems to be getting worse and worse, especially in the area of foreign policy—and particularly when foreign policy involves military action. The publicly expressed Obama administration demand that the public should not be informed about the content of the documents has been honored very well by the corporate media.
Even without adequate mass media coverage, those of us who already oppose the war (a large and still growing majority) will certainly be strengthened in our belief that the wars need to be ended and that the (military, political, and economic) U.S. presence in these countries must also be ended. But this sort of strengthening is not what is needed. To harness this discontent, there needs to be an avenue for protest that appears to have the potential for impacting U.S. policy.
The Bush Administration was fully successful in one part of its foreign policy: convincing the American people—and most particularly those in opposition—that no amount of protest was going to change policy. The 2008 election was energized by the hope that regime change was a viable route to altered policy, and this unleashed tremendous energy into the Obama campaign. But the almost two years of Obama have led to a restoration of the Bush Administration status quo: a belief among the anti-war population that there is nothing to be done.
Unfortunately, the Wikileaks release has not (yet) produced the kind of disruption of “business as usual” that would inspire anti-war activists and partisans to initiate new efforts against the war.
6 – Spannos: To what extent do you think this information could provide credible legal leverage against U.S. war planners and managers in the arena of international law?
Schwartz: There are some signs of institutional action against U.S. officials. The calls by British officials for an “official” investigation of possible war crimes are certainly a welcome start. There are some stirrings in the UN. We can hope that these do not subside, and that instead there will be a growing tide internationally for such investigations.
Such investigations can take many forms, from official inquiries by the United Nations to action by the International Criminal Court to investigations by individual judges in various countries. If there were a variety of such initiatives, this might trigger collateral action within the United States, such as lawsuits on behalf of various victims documented in the Wikileaks, calls by the more responsible legislators for a special prosecutor, or even new legislation.
If any or all of these were matched by a manifestation of large protest out in the streets, this legal leverage could be another route to a revitalized antiwar movement.
7- Spannos: Following the release of the War Logs Obama has defended the U.S. military in Iraq. What effect do you think this will have on those who voted for him in 2008 hoping he would bring change and end the wars? How do you think this impacted the November 2nd Midterm elections? What impact could these leaks have on pressuring Obama’s administration to end occupation and war as compared to his ability to simply better manage the wars as elites would like?
Schwartz: Given the weak coverage of the Wikileaks release in the corporate media and their unwillingness to provide any follow-up, I doubt that even the most avid Obama 2008 supporters are fully aware of his response. Without the intervention of large scale, highly publicized, repercussions either from foreign governments or from antiwar activists, these revelations will have little impact on U.S. public opinion.
However, I do think that the accumulated foreign policy decisions by the Obama administration, most notably the escalations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the intervention in Yemen, and the repeated refusal to address the full range of claims about U.S. brutality had a considerable impact on the November 2 election. As the media reported during the entire run-up to the election, there has been a decided lack of energy among the Democratic Party base, with the principle symptom being the much higher levels of “intention to vote” among Republican Party loyalists. This is a reverse of the 2008 situation.
The denouement of this lack of enthusiasm is now being reported in the media: in many (or perhaps most) states, the Democrats are getting as much verbal support among independents as in 2008, and retaining their very high percentage among Democrats. The loss of the House of Representatives was, it appears, a result of heavy turnout by Republicans, and by much lighter turnout by and Democrats and by independents who supported Democratic candidates.
My view, which I believe it will be validated by the post-election analyses, is that this dramatic decline in turnout was the disillusionment of the public (including the independents) who swept Obama into office and the Democrats into control of the Congress. The principle source of this disillusionment is the management of the wars, and it resulted in (1) a drastic decline in the number of activists knocking on doors to encourage people to vote Democratic, and (2) a very substantial decline in Democratic supporters going to the polls to vote. It was, I believe, this low turnout that produced this Republican surge.
Obama’s failure to answer his mandate to dramatically shift U.S. foreign policy away from military-first imperialism was, I believe, at the heart of this disillusionment. In that sense, the Wikileaks are just another element in solidifying this alienation from the Democratic Party, and made a small contribution to the election defeat.
8 – Spannos: How is this Leak the same or different from past leaks, for example Daniel Ellsberg’s efforts to expose U.S. crimes against Vietnamese in 1971?
Schwartz: What distinguishes the two Wikileaks releases from the Pentagon Papers publication is the way in which the corporate media has responded. The media broadcast Daniel Ellsberg’s documents far and wide, filled the newscasts and special reports with details and analyses that even the most militantly a-political citizen absorbed and pondered. In treating the Pentagon Papers in this way, the media amplified and validated the voices of protest against the war, thus consolidating the antagonism to the war in Vietnam.
One element in this process was the strength and militance of the anti-war movement at the time of the Papers’ release. By that time, there had also developed a large and growing counter-media (as there is today) that threatened the credibility of the major media, a threat that was animated by the strength of the antiwar movement. In a sense, the corporate media was forced into its coverage to avoid suffering a huge blow to its credibility, since the independent media would then have become the only source of the Pentagon Papers.
Wikileaks arrived at a time when the antiwar movement is at best quiescent inside the United States. So even though the alternative media provide an ample vehicle for circulating the news contained in the documents, without a vociferous and threatening antiwar movement, the major media have been free to ignore and therefore (in effect) suppress it.
9 – Spannos: Do you think these leaks may help further delegitimize U.S. foreign policy and imperial ambition nationally and internationally in the future, thus making it harder to carry out or get away with war crimes? If so, how? If not, why?
Schwartz: U.S. foreign policy was fully delegitimized in world and domestic public opinion long before the release of the Wikileaks documents. This was amply demonstrated during the Bush administration, when opinion polls recorded negative opinions of the United States (both its leaders and its policies) approaching 80% on a world-wide basis, and exceeded 50% even among European allies like Great Britain and Germany. Antiwar opinion in the United States also soared, surpassing 66% during the waning years of Bush II.
The uptick of pro-U.S. opinion just after the election of Obama has long ago since dissipated, though his popularity is much better than the record breaking negative opinion toward Bush II. The negative judgments of his leadership reflect the continuing aggression in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and thus is a resounding rejection of U.S. foreign policy.
A subsidiary issue is whether this negative public opinion is informed by an understanding of the imperial design the undergirds these unpopular policies. On this matter, I think there is great variety around the world. In the Middle East, for example, it is quite clear that the public sees the U.S. presence as an attempt to gain political and economic control of the region, and to exploit the oil that resides there. In other parts of the world, there is, I think, a more general sense of the U.S. attempting to impose its will on various countries and regions, without necessarily seeing it as a long term imperial effort. In the U.S., on the other hand, opposition to the wars is based on a sense that Obama’s policies are misguided, rather than systemic.
One question that merits attention, then, is whether the Wikileaks documents—if their content is widely disseminated—could and will shift world (and especially domestic) public opinion toward a better understanding of the underlying imperial engine animating the policies that generated the various current wars, especially (given the content of the documents) the war in Iraq.
One point of contrast between these documents and the Pentagon Papers is worth noting in this context. The Pentagon Papers contained information about the policy-formation process itself, with direct attention to opinions and actions of the civilian and military commanders whose responsibility was to set these policies. Therefore, the overt content of those documents related to the goals and strategies that informed the Vietnam War. The Wikileaks documents, on the other hand, are battlefield reports, generated by on-the-ground military personnel with little knowledge (or even interest) in the overall policies they were enacting. In this sense, then, these documents do not speak directly to the process that created the military strategy they were following or to the U.S. imperial design under girding the foreign policy.
Nevertheless, there is ample evidence in the Wikileaks documents that could further educate world and domestic public opinion about the policies that inform the actions described by the soldiers who wrote this report. For example, reading the many reports of U.S. military attacks that resulted in civilian casualties makes it clear that these deaths were not accidents, but rather the result of rules of engagement that (among other things) mandated firing into crowded areas to kill suspected insurgents, even if this involved “collateral damage” in the form of civilian deaths. This sort of policy is inconsistent with U.S. government’s claim that our policy was to “rescue the Iraqis from the grip of Al Qaedi;” but it is fully consistent with the “beat them into submission” policy of an imperial power.
The problem is that these sorts of lessons must be inductively derived. Such inductive conclusions are found in full-on investigative reporting, and in the work of scholars, and they are already being developed by the many anti-war activists and scholars who have seized on the documents and begun to analyze them.
The real question is whether these careful and vivid analyses will reach the broader public that could be educated by them. Here again, the failure of the U.S. media to apply its investigative tools to the documents makes it clear that this may be yet another missed educational opportunity for the U.S. public. The alternate route to such education through the mediation of the antiwar movement (conjoined with the alternative media) also appears to be limited by the movement’s current quiescence.
The situation appears to be more promising outside the United States. Even in Britain, the United States’ closest ally, at least The Guardian has dug into the documents to extract meaningful conclusions. (For example, the Guardian documented the lack of evidence for substantial Iranian military intervention—countering the claims of the U.S. government, reinforced by the misleading impression created by the meager New York Times coverage of the Wikileaks.) This analytic reporting may have been a key part in animating the recent calls by British political leaders for a formal investigation in U.S. war crimes.
There is some hope, therefore, that a combination or careful reporting by the foreign media and the possibility of official state inquiries (or even prosecutions) could provide a platform for a real education about the nature and goals of U.S. foreign policy.
10 – Spannos: The Pentagon has told WikiLeaks that they want all previous and future released classified material returned or destroyed and the Justice Department is weighing the actions of WikiLeaks founder and spokesperson Julian Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act. Their reasons are that the leak put national security and the security of troops at risk. The War Logs describe in graphic detail how U.S. foreign policy is put into practice on the ground and its human consequence. What do you think is the greatest threat to “national security,” the troops, and also the people of Iraq?
Schwartz: As I mentioned earlier, scrutinizing the logic that these documents constitute a threat to “national security” makes clear that the goal of U.S. efforts at suppression is to avoid the anti-U.S. reaction to the information contained in these documents. These revelations will contribute their quantum to the resistance in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other venues to the ongoing effort to create and sustain U.S. physical, economic, and political domination. In one sense, then, these revelations do endanger the safety of U.S. military personnel, since some of the amplified resistance would and will involve violence aimed at preventing U.S. soldiers from controlling, invading, or bombing various homes, communities, and cities deemed crucial to U.S. pacification efforts.
As to the question of “national security”—as distinguished from the “security” of our invading soldiers—these documents have little or no relevance. They do not contain information that the (mostly mythical) Al Qaeda masterminds could use to deliver their (largely mythical) weapons of mass destruction to targets within the United States. The fuss about national security is just puffy rhetoric designed to conceal the ongoing cover-up of what the United States is actually doing at the cutting edge of its imperial foreign policy.
11 – Spannos: How would you compare media and state reactions in the U.S. to those of totalitarian regimes, for example Julian Assange’s comment on RT that the credibility of the Pentagon’s views are no more reliable in than those of North Korea?
Schwartz: Julian Assange’s comment about the U.S. military’s lack of credibility is actually a sad comment about the reliability of the U.S. media. The media is enshrined in the constitution precisely because the politicians who shaped the Federal government understood that lying, manipulation, and corruption was endemic in governments and in the military (after all, they had experienced King George, whose treatment of the colonies was marked by a full measure of lying, manipulation, and corruption). “Freedom of the press” was included in the first amendment to guarantee that the media would “speak truth to power,” and therefore expose the inevitable lies, manipulations, and corruption of the government (and the military).
Any accurate reading of our history validates the insights that led to the fear of despotic government: our military (and its civilian overseers) have regularly lied about their actions. One would hope that, based on this history, the general population of the United States (and all other countries) would receive all communications from its government with a full measure of skepticism, but this is simply not the case. This sort of skepticism only occurs when there is a critical media that can and does investigate the verity of these assertions and blast them away when they discover the (inevitable) lies, manipulation, and corruption. The corporate media in the United States, however, has abandoned this constitutionally mandated role, and instead adopted the posture of a cooperative subject, eager to fulfill the various orders and requests of its government overlords.
That is why the New York Times—and the rest of the U.S. media— has honored the request of the Obama administration to maintain a policy of silence about the content of the Wikileaks. As if to emphasize its cooperative posture, the Times’ single report on the documents misreported their content to offer support for U.S. government claims that Iran has undertaken strenuously military intervention in Iraq. The documents that would, if reported, debunk the pro-war propaganda generated by the military command and its civilian overseers, has been systematically ignored.
12 – Spannos: What are the effects of mainstream propaganda on our own understanding of elite interests relating to these leaks and the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
Schwartz: There is a coherent elite in the United States that operates—at least occasionally, and probably quite regularly—in a unified manner. Much of the time, this unity is concealed under the manifest disagreements over the details of policies or developments, while meaningful alternatives are left unspoken and unexecuted. The mute response of the corporate media to the content of the Wikileaks documents is a symptom and proof of this ongoing unity.
The most visible aspect of this elite unity in the area of foreign policy is the absence of any public debate about discontinuing the policy of using overwhelming military force to impose U.S. demands on various regimes and/or their subject population. Despite public opinion in the U.S. that favors a “non- military” solution in Afghanistan (and in Pakistan), there is no real debate within the elite around such a solution. There are no visible forces within the higher levels of U.S. institutional leadership who publicly (or privately) advocate for such a solution. Aside from a stray voice in Congress (usually unreported in the corporate media), the power wielders in the Executive and Legislative branch simply ignore this option, as do the highly visible corporate leaders (who take vociferous stands on many other issues) and the media (which will not even report the opinions of those who support a non-military policy) This failure to express a policy option that has substantial (actually a majority) support in the electorate is a perfect expression of how leadership acts on its own unified, behalf.
The release of the Wikileaks documents and the failure of any substantial sector of the political, economic, military, or media establishments to respond to its larger significance is yet another dreary symptom of elite unity in the United States.
13 – Spannos: Thank you very much Michael…