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President Aims To Quiet Iran War Talk, Intervention In Syria

March 6, 2012 1:09 p.m.


Retired Marine General Joseph P Hoar, General Hoar, he was one of eight retired military officials to sign an open letter to the White House urging against military action in Iran.

Michael Provence, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at UC San Diego, he specializes in Syria

Related Story: Local Experts Respond To Obama's Iran, Syria Conference


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Tuesday, March†6th. Our top story on Midday Edition, in today's news conference heard live here on KPBS, President Obama addressed the question of US military intervention in both the Syrian up rising and against Iran. These two issues are deeply felt in San Diego's military community, and we have two experts to talk about them. First I'd like to introduce retired marine general Joseph P. Hoar, who lives here in San Diego, he was one of eight retired high-ranking military officers to address an open letter to the White House urging against military action in Iran. Welcome to the program.

HOAR: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I hope you're still on the line, General Hoar.

HOAR: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: As I said, in today's news conference, President Obama says he wants to wait for sanctions and negotiations to work to control Iran's nuclear aspirations. And he said war is in no one's interest. What is your reaction to the president's speech?

HOAR: Well, I'm in 100% agreement with the president. I feel that very few people, particularly those people that suggest that the president is soft on national security, don't understand the problem that we're facing. We've already fought one unnecessary war in Iraq, cost us a trillion dollars, 4,500 Americans killed, 20,000 wounded, not to mention one hundred thousand Iraqis dead. The business of attacking Iran would be very extensive, in human life, in disruption, of life around the world, because we know for sure that if Iran were attacked, that the Iranians would retaliate by destroying oil infrastructure you will up and down the Persian Gulf. We could expect gas prices to go to 150 or maybe $200 a barrel.

CAVANAUGH: What is it about the current discussion, general, about Iran that's led you to become concerned about a US strike against Iran or a US war?

HOAR: Well, I think that first of all, it is the loss of life. Since we've ended conscription in this country, very, very, few people have any personal interest in going to war. Only about $1 million people serve in the military. Only 5% of the American population know anybody in the military, very unlike the Vietnam war when everybody between the age of 18-25 was a potential conscript to go to war in Vietnam. This now has become somebody else's responsibility for the vast majority of American people. And that is absolutely unacceptable. And there is no reason why we should have to take military action now. The president has said that he would -- he would use various other means, diplomacy, sanctions, economic programs, to force Iran back to the table and I think that's exactly the right approach.

CAVANAUGH: General, this is -- we have a clip from the news conference today. This is what President Obama said in his news conference about the talk promoting war with Iran.

NEW SPEAKER: What's said on the campaign trail, you know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle.

CAVANAUGH: General, the open letter you signed and the ad that ran in the Washington post that urged the president to say no to a war of choice in Iran, why did you decide to sign that? Become a part of that?

HOAR: Well, in my active duty time, I was sequentially the chief of staff at the US central command, the combatant command that has responsibility for the Middle East, when Norm Schwartzcof was the commander in chief. I did a short stint in Washington, which also included the time in which we liberated Kuwait. And then was the commander in chief myself of three years following that. I'm very conversant with that part of the world, I know many of the political leaders that are still in place out there, I was in the Middle East two weeks during this past February, a couple weeks ago. I'm familiar with it. I agree entirely with what the president said in his press conference here a little bit earlier about his responsibilities as president. Talk is cheap.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the ad was paid for by the national Iranian/American council. Does that in some way mitigate the power of the ad? Does that show that you have a bias?

HOAR: No, I think that a friend of mine who has been very active in the nuclear nonproliferation movement over the years was contacted first about this, and he's someone that I've helped in his activities as well. He asked me to read what it was that they were offering to put in the paper. It made all kind was sense to me and I said sign me up. And I think the other people that signed on felt the same way. Obviously they have -- the people that put this thing together have another interest. It's obviously the ex-patriot community in the United States. But I don't think in any way does that invalidate the issue.

CAVANAUGH: How feasible is it for which the US military to wage another war right now?

HOAR: Well, I think that we could do it. I'm very familiar with the potential for how to go about doing this. These things were frequently discussed over the years when I was still in active duty, it required a lot of people and a lot of US assets, and it would take time. This would be no doubt about the outcome of it. But the loss of life on both sides would be great, and the economic disruption worldwide would be enormous.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Israel has a very strong interest to protect itself from potential nuclear annihilation from Iran Israel is a special US ally. Don't we have an obligation to help protect Israel?

HOAR: Well, I think the president has said exactly that. He has said, to use his term, that we have their back, No.†1. No.†2, he's not saying we won't participate in military action in the future, what he has said is Let's give diplomatic, economic, and sanctions a chance to work before we go down that road. Plus he has said that he will not stand for the Iranians having a nuclear capability. And that's particularly with respect to our sensitivity to the security of Israel.

CAVANAUGH: I want to switch the conversation to Syria right now. But I want to thank you very much, general Hoar, for speaking with us on this topic.

HOAR: It's my pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I'd like to welcome Michael Provence, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC San Diego, he specializes in Syria. Welcome to the program.

PROVENCE: Thank you, Maureen, it's nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: President Obama said it's not a question of if Syrian president al-Assad is deposed, but when. Do you agree with that?

PROVENCE: Well, it seems likely. The opposition movement is a year old now. And the Syrian president, president Assad has seemingly lost his legitimacy. The opposition is spreading. It's all over the country. So it does seem that -- I mean, how long things drag -- how many people lose their lives in the government suppression of the opposition, this is something that no one knows, but it doesn't seem that the Syrian government is going to be a permanent fixture as it's presently configured.

CAVANAUGH: The reason we're talking about this together today was the same reason that President Obama was asked about these two countries, Iran and Syria together, and that is there's been quite a drumbeat toward some sort of US military interaction in both of these countries. And we did, of course, intervene against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and yet so far no military intervention in Syria. The president says Syria is more complicated. Would you agree with that?

PROVENCE: It's certain! Libya is a small country, of three million people, approximately. And Syria is much larger with powerful and important neighbors, including Israel, also Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon. Syria is much more complicated. And I think it's also the case that Libya is what people are using as a kind of demonstration case as a successful intervention, but we may not know how successful that intervention was for years! It's too soon to say, okay, right, we did this, we can do it again. I think this is the wrong lesson in the first place. And in the second place, I think your term, drumbeat, is just right. I think this is appropriate. It seems to me, and I think general Hoar referred to this, that these discussions are about domestic politics. These are about the election campaign here in the United States, including Israeli moves toward Iran. These things have a great deal to do with our election cycle, and so the people who are advocating these kinds of hardline positions most furiously, are people who are arrayed to oppose Obama in the coming election.

CAVANAUGH: And yet, one of the questions asked I thought was quite telling in this news conference today. A reporter said, you know, Muammar Gaddafi was making threats against his people. What Asad is actually doing is murdering his people, and yet there was intervention on one side, and now there's no intervention on another. From a humanitarian standpoint, Mike will Provence, isn't this a clarion call to -- for the US to take some sort of action?

PROVENCE: Well, the United States has taken action. And there have been a series of sanctions, which have taken place. The Syrian pound is now at about 85 to the dollar, before the up rising it was about 48 to the dollar. So the sanctions are hurting all Syrians, poor Syrians. But this is undermining the legitimacy of the government in ways in addition to its own actions. So these are things that have been done, and the Syrian elites, the people who are surrounding president Asad, they can't travel, they don't have access to funds outside of the country. These are meaningful measures. Now, as far as military intervention is concerned or even arming the opposition, since the beginning of the uprising last March of 2011, the argument that the government has made is that the opposition is armed Islamist criminals. Not legitimate ordinary Syrian citizens with reasonable grievances against their government. So by defining them in this way, as armed opposition, they can justify repressing them with weapons! So the more they are armed, the more this actually justifies the government response.

CAVANAUGH: We do have a clip from the president's news conference today about what the US is doing to try to help Syria, and here's that clip.

NEW SPEAKER: This is a much more complicated situation. So what we've done is to work with key Arab states, key international patterns. Hillary Clinton was in Tunisia, to come together, mobilize and plan how do we support the opposition, how do we provide humanitarian assistance, how do we continue the political isolation, how do we continue the economic isolation? And we are going to continue to work on this project with other countries. And it is my belief that ultimately this dictator will fall.

CAVANAUGH: That, a clip from President Obama's news conference earlier today. Senator John McCain made a very big speech in Congress this week urging air strikes against Syria. And I'm wondering from what you know of the situation, do you feel that that would help people's suffering in Syria?

PROVENCE: No. A minute ago, I mentioned this argument that the Syrian government had made about armed opposition. But there's another argument that the Syrian government has made to justify its repression of the Syrian public. And that argument is that the opposition is foreign-inspired. This is the term that they use. So by actually supporting the opposition in Syria with weapon, and especially American weapons or air strikes, this under mines the opposition, delegitimizes them in the eyes of the people who have not decided, and validates the government's -- Syrian government's decision in bombing homes. This would lead inevitably to greater support for the Syrian government among Syrians. The United States has -- I'm afraid to say, a miserable record in Syria and the region generally. And so US support for the opposition would be a gift to the Syrian government.

CAVANAUGH: Quickly, what is the chance that other Arab nations might intervene in some meaningful way in the problem in the violence in Syria?

PROVENCE: Well, those countries that are most likely to do this, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, are far away and don't share a border. Turkey on the other hand does share a border with Syria and has played a role, and it seems that the armed opposition to the extent that it exists is moving towards the Turkish border and that there are smuggling routes across the border and so forth. So the Turkish government's possible intervention, or at least acquiescence in safe zones and refugee areas on -- inside Turkey, is something that I think the Syrian government views with tremendous worry. And there's not much they can do about it. But this is not really the business of the United States. And it's not something that we can do well. And it is the business of Turkey.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with professor Michael Seiver of UC San Diego am thank you so much.

SEIVER: My pleasure.