American leadership should be like Putin - Iraq War veteran

Iraq seems to be losing the war with Islamic State (IS). Its army is retreating as the jihadists speed up their advance, with reinforcements coming from all across the globe, volunteers bolstering the extremists’ ranks. Airstrikes don’t seem to halt the offensive – either in Iraq and Syria. Isn’t this the time for the world to act? Shouldn’t the US do something decisive on the matter – given some claims that it’s America’s fault IS even came into existence in the first place. What should be done, what could’ve been done, and what should never have been done in the War on Terror? We ask these questions to former US Navy SEAL, Iraq War veteran, author and politician Scott Taylor on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Scott Taylor, former U.S. Navy SEAL, Iraq war veteran, author and Virginia lawmaker, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.

Scott Taylor: It’s great to be here, thanks for having me.

SS: So right for the latest news: the U.S. Defense Secretary, Ashton carter, lashed out against the Iraqi army for failing to fight Islamic State despite American equipment and training. Now, Iraq’s Interior Minister told me last week they’re not getting enough support from the U.S. What do you think? Does the U.S. need to send more supplies and offer more support?

ST: Well that’s an excellent question. You know I spent a lot of time in Ramadi, in 2005, so I’m intimately familiar with it, and I think that the American people and the representatives of American people, of course, in Congress, we have to decide whether we’re going to go back to Ramadi, send folks there to make sure that we can stabilize Iraq a little bit more than it is now. I wouldn’t agree that the Iraqi army did sort of fail. But I would also say that if we’re going to be involved there, we should be involved wholeheartedly and make sure that we’re giving them the things that are necessary to actually push back the ISIS folks – and it’s not just airstrikes, you’re going to have to have some ground forces there to be able to do so.

SS: So you believe that American ground forces, ground troops should be on the ground in Iraq – because actually we see that bombing campaign is definitely not enough to stop Islamic State…

ST: What I would say to you, is that I believe that if we’re going to get involved, and this is what I believe with anything – if you’re going to do something, you should do it right – so, it’s very clear that the airstrikes themselves are not enough, so if we’re going to be involved there as a nation, then we have to do so in a way that actually produces good results. And to me, airstrikes are not enough….

SS: So how involved are you talking about? Can you be more precise?

ST: I think we made some mistakes, of course, from talking away our stabilizing force there, which allowed the Shia-led government to purge the generals and really isolate the Sunni folks.. In my opinion we probably need that stabilizing force back there.

SS: Now, not only does Washington currently not want to send its troops, Iraq actually doesn’t want U.S. troops on the ground…why not?

ST: I think that our current Administration is very adverse to doing that and of course they removed the stabilizing force because they wanted to say that the Iraq war was over, and I think that was a mistake, I think that stabilized Middle East, including Iraq, is not just good for Iraqis, it’s not just good for America, but it’s good for the world as well in terms of world energy security and of course just that powder-keg that is Middle East, where regional conflict could spread as it is spreading right now. Sure, there are some Iraqis who are in power in Iraq that are Shia mostly that don’t want to see that, but quite frankly, they are part of the problem of where we are today.

SS: Now, you say withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011 was a mistake. But what do you do? Stay in Iraq indefinitely?

ST: The President that was before President Obama – president Bush, of course, folks there beloved that we need a stabilizing force there to allow for the government that was at the time, in 2009, function in terms, you had Shia, you had Sunni, you had Kurds, you had Turkmen, legislating in the government – it wasn’t pretty, but legislation is never pretty – but they were actually functioning and casualties were really far down, it was more stabilized. Once you remove that, you create a power vacuum and there’s somebody who fills that power vacuum and that power vacuum has now been filled with disenfranchised Sunnis and of course ISIS. So, it’s not that we need to be there indefinitely at all, but I think that once we made a decision to occupy Iraq, once we made a decision to nation-build a little bit there – which I don’t necessarily believe in – but once you’re in there, you have a responsibility, in my opinion, to be able to create stability over there in the Middle East. Again, I don’t think that’s just good for the Iraqis or for the U.S., but it’s good for Russia, it’s good for the world, to have a stabilized Middle East.

SS: But maybe they pulled out because they figured it just wasn’t working anyway – for instance, U.S. troops are staying in Afghanistan and that’s not helping to defeat Taliban, which has actually renewed its offensive; so, maybe, they felt it really was not worth it, having their troops on the ground in Iraq anymore, because it wasn’t really helping?

ST: I don’t want to go into Afghanistan thing, because, yeah, I think it’s a different topic, I don’t think we have time here, but I will say, in Iraq it was working, the U.S. causalities were down to single digits per month, Iraq was sort of stabilized, again, they were legislating and moving forward and you didn’t have that power vacuum, and when you removed that stabilizing force, that’s when you had a power vacuum, and that’s when, quite frankly, it went to crap. And now, what we’re seeing is of course conflict in the Middle East, we’re also seeing insecurity with other nations as well, we’re seeing conflict in Yemen, I’m sure we will get to these topics as well; but I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the world.

SS: Let me ask you a more existential question: why should it be the U.S. who’s saving Iraq from Islamic State? Why put American troops in danger again?

ST: That’s an excellent question, it’s one that we will debate within the U.S. too, and I’d like to see the debate, I’d like to see our leaders in Congress and of course the President as well to take American opinion… I have friends… if we send more soldiers on the ground, they will be there – I myself, of course, have served there as well. Sometimes we have to bear a burden because we’re the only ones who can do it.

SS: You also said that veterans who fought and sacrificed their lives in Iraq, veterans like you, for instance, want to see result of that war. What kind of a result are you talking about? Is it really worth the cost of lives?

ST: That’s not necessarily a result, if you will. I think that veterans like myself and certainly my friends and those who are still serving, and I imagine it’s the same in Russia’s military as well too – you want to know when your leader sends you forward in harm’s way to do things, that it was worth it and that you’re serving for a cause that’s greater than yourself, and that you believe in the mission. I think that’s true with any soldier no matter what country you’re in and what military – that’s what you want to believe in. I think some of the things that you’ve seen in Iraq as of late, we can see that there were some mistakes made in our Administration and I think veterans are a little bit upset about that.

SS: But you felt like, when you were actually send to Iraq, you felt like it was something of purpose, that you were sent there for a reason, and the purpose was justified by your presence in Iraq at that point? Did you feel that?

ST: I did feel my purpose was justified. I will say that I don’t agree with all of the policies in Iraq, I didn’t believe in the extent of occupation and the extent of nation-building if you will, but I absolutely felt a purpose and so did my brothers at arms that were there as well.

SS: Even though later on we found out that there were no chemical weapons in Iraq and the primary purpose of why the American army actually moved in Iraq was unjustified? Did you sort of feel betrayed at that point, because you were sent there on a false pretext so to say…

ST: I think there are two ways of looking at that, and I will say that… Bob Woodward, a very renowned journalist just came out and said that Bush didn’t lie for that, and there were chemical weapons found in Iraq, it’s debatable whether they were going to be used or not, or if they were up to speed or not in terms of modernized or if he was going to use that plan, but there are two things that… yes, we wanted to make sure that there was not weapons of mass destruction and, the other pretext is oil, you hear about that all the time, but it’s not oil in the sense that you can fill up your SUVs and drive… You know, American foreign policy in the Middle East has been one of balancing for decades. We knew that if the Middle East became out of balance, like Iran or Saudi Arabia became too powerful, then the other powers would become insecure and that would cause conflict…

SS: Do you think the U.S. taxpayer really cares about all this countries far away, like all the Iraqs and Libyas to spend more money on renewed war?

ST: I think that is a great question, and that’s something that U.S. taxpayer, of course, has to have an opinion on. I will say to you that probably, just like many everyday Russians and everyday Americans, they may not understand or have time to pay attention to international politics or national security on international level, how it affects the nation – that’s why we have representation of leadership in Capitol to be able to do those things and be up to speed on this things for us, but that being said, it is up to our leaders to be able to tell us and educate us on why we do what we do, and then we have to decide, of course, as Americans, whether we want to support them or not.

SS: Now, you say drone strikes give a recruiting boost to terrorists, but wouldn’t another full-scale invasion in Iraq be a godsend for them then?

ST: I’m certainly not advocating a full force invasion of Iraq, that’s not what I’m advocating whatsoever, and you mentioned drones, and I think it is important as we move forward from drones, that we forge international regulations on drone warfare, because of course there are many countries who also have drones and they’re arming drones and that is a new technology that has spread rapidly, so it’s important that world nations get together and come up with international laws on drone strikes.

SS: But all I’m saying is that if America is more involved in Iraq, wouldn’t that recruit even more terrorists and breed more terrorism?

ST: There may be arguments, and you could argue that side, but I don’t believe so – I believe that, look, if there are more terrorists that come to Iraq that want to do our nation harm, I’d rather kill them over there than here.

SS:U.S. has been training the Iraqi army for more than a decade now, but its battle results, you know, are dismal – and that’s a colossal sum of money gone to pretty much waste, let’s be honest. Why do you think the U.S. failed in building up the Iraqi armed forces?

ST: I would take you back again to…Look, I’ve trained allied nation forces in many parts of the world, and I’ll tell you what: people fight for certain reasons, people are motivated by certain reasons, and that’s why you can have smaller groups of folks overcoming large forces that are much more trained and have many more weapons than they do, because they’re motivated by certain factors. So that is always a determinate – you could train somebody, but if he’s not motivated… for example, like, if you have a power vacuum and you have Shia-led government that disenfranchises Sunnis and other and Kurds and folks like them – they’re not going to want to fight for them. I mean, look at the Kurds who were also trained by Americans: they’re kicking butt against terrorism over there, and quite frankly, we should back them more, the Kurds in Iraq, to allow those folks, who are motivated, to fight terrorism for their homeland and their country. So, the Kurds were much a success for American training, but again, it all deals with who you’re fighting with, what you’re fighting for, and you have to have the willpower to fight, regardless of your training.

SS: You criticized Obama administration for allowing the rise of Islamic State, inaction in Syria – but arming the rebels in Syria and supporting the FSA – was that inaction?

ST: Of course, in this country we have the ability to hold our folks accountable and disagree with them, and I hope that you in Russia have the same ability with your leadership as well, but I would say that there are many things that contributed to rise of ISIS; domestically in America do I criticize some of our Administration’s moves? Absolutely. I also think there is some responsibility in world leaders as well to end their own inaction, that world leaders in other countries, like Russia and other countries and even in Europe, should step up more and deal with this problem that is basically on the rise and growing and causing havoc in a lot of nation states.

SS: But I’m actually asking right now about the responsibility of who and why you were backing one force or another. I spoke to a man who’s been there, inside the Islamic State, and he says the U.S. aid to FSA is just being sold by them to the Islamic State, to other radicals. Do you think there’s a stable force U.S. can back?

ST: I’ve been very clear publicly that I believe, number one, that we waited too long to get involved, and then, number two, I don’t believe that that’s the best method for success. Again, it’s not just American responsibility in that part of the world.

SS: Sure, but I can only ask you about the American responsibility, because you represent America at this point, that’s why I’m only asking you what America does or who America helps. I also spoke to another journalist, embedded with a rebel group in Syria and he told me that the majority of fighters want to see Islamic law established in the land – and that’s actually what they’re fighting for. That’s not very moderate, is it?

ST: It’s an excellent question that you’re asking… look, I represent some folks here in Virginia, I don’t represent all of America, of course I’m American wholeheartedly, I’m team America, but I would say that Islamic law, if you understand Islam, is actually in every single Islamic country to one degree or another. Look at secular countries like Turkey, they still have a form of Islamic law within their book. Everyone is like that, it’s just how radical or how moderate it is. So, I think it’s a little bit, not that it’s misleading, but I think that the question itself, and quite frankly, just the information itself is a little bit different. So, you certainly have a lot of folks who support Islamic law in Islamic countries, of course they do, but it’s to what extreme that they do, whether that’s a secular type of Islamic law, like in Turkey, or hardline law, like in Saudi Arabia.

SS: But it’s just really hard to make a difference, especially from oceans away. Now, you as an Iraq war veteran, you know the situation from inside, you’ve seen it all with your own eyes. You were fighting the very same radicals that later morphed into Islamic State, which didn’t exist before U.S. got there, actually. So, aren’t the roots of Islamic State buried in the events you witnessed then? Hasn’t the U.S. invasion sort of helped create it?

ST: No, I wouldn’t say that the U.S. invasion helped create it, I would say that there certainly were some mistakes that were made along the way. Look, I’ve spent years in Yemen, as well, too, and there are 23 million people in Yemen, but there’s also a small contingent of folks who cause a lot of problems, who believe in very extremes and terrorism; there’s Al-Qaeda there as well. But the majority of Yemenis just want…they want Islamic law, because that’s their background, but in its moderate form and they just want to live their lives and raise their kids and move forward. It’s always the small group of folks, of radicals, that cause problems for the masses. Sometimes politicians do the same thing, right?

SS: You’ve actually said that U.S. is now losing the War on Terror. Do you think you were winning at any point? Especially when you were serving in Iraq, which was at the height of the insurgency against the American invasion…

ST: By 2009 Iraq was pretty pacified, for Iraq standards, it was absolutely pacified. I don’t believe that we should have removed our stabilizing force, thought do I think that we can win the War on Terror? Look, Russia is a partner, or they should be a partner with us in the war on terror, that absolutely affects them too, and I do believe that moderate, that countries like Russia, like U.S., or others, should step up to the play, should deal with extremism in a way that roots it out. That’s cancer that is growing and we have to take steps to control the narrative, to make sure that we have moderate folks and allow those 23 million Yemenis who’re living there to live their lives and raise their kids and move forward without having to worry about extremism.

SS: Now, Iran is a topic that you brought up several times during the interview. The American establishment is actually mindful of Iran’s role in Iraq, but Iran seems to be getting the job done, I mean, Iranian-backed troops are but the only efficient force fighting on Iraqi side at this moment against the Islamic State. So what’s wrong with Iran, why not work with it? Isn’t ISIS a threat for everybody, like you said?

ST: They are threat, and it’s an excellent question, but also one that bears discussing a little bit deeper and like we’ve talked about “what do you fight for” – right? So, when you have a Shia-led government and you have Shia militias, and they’re fighting together against Sunnis – which is very unfortunate, you don’t want to have that sectarian violence, but when you talk about the other folks in Iraq who are not very effective against ISIS, you’re speaking primarily about other Sunnis. So, ISIS of course is Sunni, so it’s very difficult to take this Sunnis who are not with ISIS, and because of the stoking of sectarian violence, quite frankly big from Iran, they’re not going to want to fight with Shias – so the Shias are doing well, but I would submit to you, that the best group in Iraq that’s doing very well are the Kurds. The Kurds have been kicking ISIS butt all over there, and they’re the ones, quite frankly, that we think we should support. Do I believe that our interests sometimes align with Iran’s? Yes they do, absolutely they do, but you have to look at the very big picture, right, and with the nuclear talks and with the other problems that Iran is creating via their own proxies in places like Libya, like Yemen, like Iraq, we have to look at the whole big picture. Sure, there are some aligning interest in a very targeted way, but there’s also a lot of other bigger problems that really contribute to how we deal with Iran for America’s national security and what we want to see moving forward.

SS: Scott, you also said that U.S. is in need of leaders who would shape foreign policy based on what the world really is – not what it hypothetically looks like. Are you saying U.S. foreign policy today isn’t realistic?

ST: I’m saying that we absolutely need a shift in how we look at foreign policy. I do believe that our leaders, just like Vladimir Putin, I think he’s a realist, I think that he deals with the way that the world is as opposed to how he would wish it to be – I think we do need leadership that does that, and I’m hopeful that we will have a change in our foreign policy, that reflects how the world actually is now, not how we simply hope it would be.

SS: Now, in your book “Trust Betrayed” you’re saying intelligence leaks have put armed men and women of the U.S. in danger – what were these leaks exactly? What did they leak and how did that put people in danger?

ST: I think, and I talk in the book a lot about it, I talk about the Bin Laden raid for example and how we know now who got there, how they got there, what are the tools they’re using, their tactics, what information they found on target, the Stuxnet virus, which was of course a very covert operation, with double agent in Yemen… there are numerous leaks that I believe that were used for political gain, they were used in a way to help with re-election effort that I just disagree with and I certainly am very public. In this country we can be very voicetress and hold our leaders accountable because of free speech and that’s something that I will exercise whenever possible.

SS: So, in your view, the current Administration is failing leadership-wise, foreign policy-wise, but 2016 is around the corner – who would you rather see in the White House, who has the leadership required?

ST: That’s a good question. There are several people that are impressing me, I think that they will come on the forefront, of course, of the Republican field – full disclosure, I am a Republican, right, so we have a lot of folks with good, different ideas, that are in the field – I think that field will narrow down a little bit, we will have some people that will step to the forefront… but there are several folks that I like out there and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them, certainly on foreign policy and national security, and leading America from the front, not from behind…

SS: So who do you like from the Republican front?

ST: I am not sure yet. I haven’t made my decision yet. There are several folks, Rubio is great guy, Scott Walker is a great guy, there’s numerous candidates out there.

SS: What about Jeb Bush?

ST: I like Jeb Bush, I think he’s got good ideas, and I think he’s a smart guy, but…I am an American, and we have sort of hesitancy about dynasties, and I think, whether that’s Clinton or Bush, I think the country’s ready for something different.

SS: Alright, Scott, thank you very much for this interview, We were talking to Scott Taylor ex-Navy SEAL, Iraq war veteran, author and politician, here with me, talking about course of action needed for the U.S. to deal with current crisis in Iraq and beyond. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.