The Cynical Forces Behind America’s Forever Wars

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Patrick Cockburn signing books at the Gothenburg book fair in 2016. Photo by Hobbsansak (CC BY-SA 4.0)

American interventionism in the Middle East has resulted in two of the longest wars in U.S. history, and led to countless deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as widespread instability in the region. Nearly two decades into the so-called “War on Terror,” concerns continue to arise about the U.S. military presence in the Mideast and its seeming inability to extricate itself after all these years. Patrick Cockburn is especially well-positioned to both ask and answer many of the questions stemming from what have become America’s “Forever Wars” as an award-winning, courageous journalist who has spent several decades reporting for the Financial Times and The Independent from the war torn region. In his latest book, “War in the Age of Trump,” he uses his vast experience as a leading war correspondent to analyze the Mideast crises that unfurled between 2017 and late 2019. 

Although the book zeroes in on more recent events, to the journalist, much of what he recorded in the years since September 11th in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, had an air of the inevitable when viewed in a historical context he was very familiar with. 

“What's kind of surprising,” Cockburn tells “Scheer Intelligence” host Robert Scheer in the latest episode of the podcast, “is how many of these lessons are completely obvious to my mind. It should be obvious that intervening in Afghanistan is not a great idea: the U.S. intervened in 2001 against the Taliban, announced it had overthrown the Taliban--and what's happening now after tens of thousands of people, including several thousand Americans, have been killed? The Taliban are close to taking power again. 

“These lessons are pretty obvious, but they don't seem to be learned,” he goes on, “particularly by the sort of political elite, above all in Washington.”

Cockburn and Scheer discuss how that in some sense, U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama share a reluctance to escalate and multiply military conflicts abroad, whereas Hillary Clinton and other Democrats who were expected to join her administration had she been elected president, have taken a more hawkish approach to foreign policy overall. As the two journalists trace the history of the Middle East, what becomes clear to them based on their decades of reporting is that while the excuse shifts from one moral crusade to another, the truth behind interventionism is much more self-serving than American leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, would like to admit. 

“One is tempted to single out Donald Trump given the title of the book is ‘War in the Age of Trump,’” says Scheer. “But the folly, the wasted death, the destruction, goes through British and U.S. colonial, neocolonial, neoliberal, and neoconservative periods.”

The award-winning British journalist points out that even if figures from George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton frame foreign wars as battles for human rights and freedom, the driving force behind them is domestic. What’s worse is that whatever the ideological reasoning, as the “Scheer Intelligence” host highlights, the results have been horrific for the local communities and have resulted in undeniable losses for the U.S. military. So why go on with these endless, failing wars?

“I think [American leaders] feel that normality was when you could intervene in places, and it kind of worked,” says Cockburn. “All the lessons of the last 25 years are that it doesn't work. Now, first of all one could say it shouldn't be done, but could also say it can't be done, as we see all over the place. And yet that doesn't stop them trying.”

Cockburn’s book also goes into detail about the fall of ISIS and the Kurds, as well as examines the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, a conflict Israel has played an important role in. When Scheer posits during the conversation that rather than Russia’s Vladimir Putin, it was Benjamin Netanyahu who intervened in the 2016 U.S. election with his congressional speech against the Iran deal, Cockburn adds that in many ways Netanyahu was a “prototype for Trump.” American and Israeli foreign policy have been intertwined for decades, a fact the journalist also believes has led to Israel’s somewhat unfounded position towards Iran.

“It's always been rather strange the way Israel and Netanyahu have been obsessed with Iran,” says the “War in the Age of Trump” author, “because the Iranians really weren't doing much to them, or anything to them. So why is there this obsession? Is it to keep the U.S. on their side?”

The British author points at another alarming problem that has exacerbated interventionism: the increasingly unchallenged spread of propaganda. 

“What has also happened is the ability for journalists to fight back against this propaganda is down,” says Cockburn. “Of course the number of newspapers is down, the amount of money is down. You know, if you want to cover a war, it's a quite expensive thing to do. And yeah, the money that used to go to newspapers through advertising now goes to the internet platforms. So there's reduced coverage, so propaganda has increased, and the ability to deal with that propaganda and to say what's really happening has gone down.” 

Listen to the full conversation between Cockburn and Scheer as they discuss the possible upside to isolationism, the military industrial complex and the state of journalism.



Joshua Scheer

Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata