U.S. Iraq War Veteran Warns Against New American Military Intervention in Current Iraq Crisis

Posted June 25, 2014

MP3 Interview with Matt Southworth, Iraq War veteran, conducted by Scott Harris


As President Obama announced the deployment of 300 U.S. military advisers to assist Iraqi security forces, Sunni insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, continued to advance their drive to capture key cities and other strategic sites across Iraq. As he spoke publicly about sending the first U.S. soldiers back to Iraq since the withdrawal of combat forces there in December 2011, Obama’s earlier statement, “We will not be sending troops back into combat in Iraq,” appeared to be open to interpretation. The president has said that he is prepared to take “targeted and precise military action,” including a campaign of airstrikes that administration officials say could be extended into neighboring Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was sent to Baghdad by Obama on an urgent diplomatic mission, told reporters that Iraq’s "very future" will be determined in the coming days, as he urged the nation’s feuding leaders to form a unity government of Sunnis, Shiite and Kurds – and confront the ISIS insurgents who have repeatedly forced the Iraqi military into retreat.

While the White House was formulating its response to the Iraq crisis, former Bush administration Vice President Dick Cheney leveled harsh criticism at Obama, declaring that his decision not to leave a residual force in Iraq had produced the current sectarian conflict. But Cheney and the other neo-conservative architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq who have regularly been featured on news programs to discuss the crisis, were condemned by many as unqualified to offer advice given their stunning failure in Iraq. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Matt Southworth, an Iraq War veteran who in 2004 was stationed near the strategic town of Tal Afar. Tal Afar was recently captured by Sunni militants. Southworth, who currently works with the Friends Committee on National Legislation and is a member of the group Veterans For Peace, discusses his views of the current Iraq crisis and the Obama administration & congressional response.

MATT SOUTHWORTH: You know, looking at the situation in Iraq now, it’s really gripping. You think about the sacrifice, not only of U.S. service members, which was great, you know, several thousand killed in action, tens of thousands wounded, I mean I always say that "friend, I was in Iraq for a short period of time and my experience left me with a great amount of trauma, but Iraqis are living that every single day." Fast forward ten years, I’ve been out of the war since 2004, but the war has continued for most Iraqis. So, it’s absolutely tragic. Of course, there have been periods that were punctuated with relative stability but, for the most part, it’s been pretty chaotic in Iraq and I look back and think about all the Iraqi friends I made and I think about the way the country was in 2004 and how much precipitously worse it is today and it’s hard to just imagine the loss and the suffering, tens of thousands killed in action, maybe 100,000 civilians – we really don’t know, millions internally displaced and refugees. The situation is beyond dire and it’s incredibly sad to witness.

BETWEEN THE LINES: From your perspective, having served in Iraq during the war, what are your views as to the underlying causes of the disintegration of the Iraqi state that we’re now seeing?

MATT SOUTHWORTH: Well, you know, I’ve watched a lot of pundits and a lot of real smart people talk about this over the last few weeks and the truth is, I really don’t know. I’m certainly no expert on Iraq or Iraqi politics or Iraqi culture. My sort of layman perception is that the majority of Iraqis do not view their government, the Maliki government, as a legitimate government. And yes, there are extremist groups involved in this uprising, ISIS is the most well-known one at the moment, but the truth is this is an uprising of many different Iraqis across many different stripes and creeds and they are pushing back, you know, what they view as an illegitimate government with considerable U.S. support, which is part of the reason why I am advocating against military intervention, as are many other veterans and, you know, other folks.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Matt, what is your response to President Obama’s decision, recently announced, to send 300 or more U.S. military advisers to Iraq to assist in the ISIS Sunni militants’ successful capture of many Iraq’s key and major cities and border crossings?

MATT SOUTHWORTH: Yeah, I’m incredibly disappointed in that decision by President Obama. I think we had an opportunity to change the nature of our involvement with Iraq by saying, “look, you know, there are different ways we can address this. The first thing we’re going to do is end unconditional aid to Iraq and the Iraqi government, we’re not going to intervene militarily, and we’re going to call for a comprehensive settlement of all parties, we’re going to work to get everyone in the right room and talking.”

And instead, the president said, “There’s no military solution to Iraq. So, therefore, I’m going to send some military advisers,” which just really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I think in a lot of ways it was a missed opportunity. It wasn’t as bad as it could be, I suppose, you know, the president could’ve announced a re-invasion of Iraq. It seems unlikely given the political climate in the U.S. that that would have happened. But, you know, there’s been a tremendous amount of sacrifice over the years by veterans and others, so I think there might be some kind of, you know, feeling that there needs to be action to take care of, you know, that loss, that feeling of “this would all be for nothing.” But, from my perspective, I think this was a really bad move and it only… it will only further the violence and worsen humanitarian crisis, and really serves, you know, in no way will it bring peace or stability to the very fragile state of Iraq.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As this crisis really comes into focus here, is it your view that preserving a united Iraq important for the Iraqi people or is the proposal partition or the predicted outcome of partition of the country a better option, carving Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite sectors?

MATT SOUTHWORTH: Well, you know, I have to say that this question and the question I hear repeated often in a lot of different ways, a lot of different forms, is sort of at the heart of the problem. The idea that we get to decide or we should have an opinion, I think ultimately it is for the Iraqis to decide. Ultimately, I think the best role for the international community in this is to encourage as nonviolent a transition as possible to whatever Iraq decides to do next and Iraqis decide to do next. What’s clear to me is that the government has been dissatisfactory at best and just egregiously manipulative and wrong at most and if Iraq wants a new constitution, if the Iraqis do, and want a new, sort of, government to represent them, or if they want a partition, that’s up to the Iraqis, you know. And the best we can do, I think, is provide aid and relief for the humanitarian crisis, develop an arms embargo against Syria and Iraq. You know, reject another military intervention and hold the unconditional military aid and try to gather a conference of the key stakeholders at one table to decide how to move forward with this really dire situation. But what I know beyond any shadow of a doubt is that adding military force to this, this already militarized problem, will not bring peace and stability to Iraq. Peace is possible through peaceful means, not through military force and I think that’s a lesson we should have learned by now.

For more information on the Friends Committee on National Legislation, visit fcnl.org. This transcript was compiled by Evan Bieder.

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