Interview with The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson



On Wednesday afternoon, I attended some panel discussions hosted by the Premio Gabriel García Márquez de Periodismo, a yearly festival that celebrates Spanish-language journalism. The list of panelists included Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, whose work I started following after I read his biography of Che Guevara. He’s a seasoned journalist who has covered Latin American politics for decades, writing profiles of people like Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, the King of Spain, and Gabo himself. He’s also covered conflicts around the world in Africa and the Middle East, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given his experience in the region, I wanted to get his take on US decision to strike ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He was in a bit of a rush, but was kind enough to give me a short interview after the panel discussion. Here’s what he said:

I’m pleased that the so-called “Islamic State” is being attacked, is being punished for what it’s done. I’m not sure if the approach is the best one, but I do think that the Islamic State needs to be physically eliminated.

When I raised questions over the legality of the US strikes, particularly in Syria, he said:

Legal justifications? When are there ever legal justifications for war? Look, this is a whole subject. I mean, do I think they could do it better? Do I think they will eventually need ground troops? Do I think this is a slippery slope? Yeah, all of the above probably. But I think they had to start doing something.

Many are sympathetic to the idea that ISIS needs to be dealt with militarily. But I was rather surprised by how unconcerned he seemed to be with the legality for the war. There are, in fact, legal wars. There are very specific criteria which must be met in order to bomb and/or invade other countries. Those laws exist so that when other countries break them, there are grounds for objecting.

If one is willing to ignore the law in the name of some specific set of US interests, as is often done, it is unclear how criticism of events like Putin’s incursions into Ukraine could be made without warranting charges of hypocrisy. (Here is a much different take on legality of the war from Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in The Guardian: “Is Obama really going back to war with a worse legal rationale than Bush? He still won’t say.”)

Jon and I found much more agreement on the following point:

Personally, I’m disappointed [the Western powers] didn’t reach out to and include Iran. I think Iran should be in this. This is speaking idealistically, it’s not going to happen. But I was disappointed the US and the Western powers went for the lowest common denominator and didn’t use this opportunity to get over the historic breach with Iran. It’s clear that Iran has a great deal to offer in this regard, and would be willing to do it.

On the Gulf States:

What has Saudi Arabia ever fought other than it’s own people? The UAE has flown a few bombers, so what. They’ve never fought on the ground anywhere. All the Gulf Arabs have is riot police and oil police. But ok, let’s see what they can do.

Finally, he made some comments on the idea that striking ISIS somehow aided Assad. As he admitted, he got a little “provocative”:

And as for this conceit of not wanting to help Assad, give me a break. We’ve been in tactical alliance with him for the last year ever since the chemical weapons…we effectively went into a military alliance as the international community with the Assad regime in order to extract the chemical weapons. What army on the ground made the UN extraction crews safe from the jihadis while withdrawing over 400 containers full of chemical weapons? Assad. So frankly, everything else is bullshit. Yes, he’s a prick. Yes, he’s killed 200,000 people. But, look what we’ve got. I’m being a little provocative here.


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