What Will Trump’s Foreign Policy Mean for the World? An Interview With Patrick Cockburn

By Ken Klippenstein, an American journalist who can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein. Originally published at Alternet.

Patrick Cockburn is a journalist for the Independent who has covered the Middle East for decades and is credited with forecasting the Islamic State’s ascendance in 2014. Seymour Hersh has called him “the best western journalist at work in Iraq today.” Cockburn is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the Martha Gellhorn Prize and many others.

AlterNet interviewed Cockburn, who at the time was based in Erbil, Iraq, about 80 kilometers from Mosul, the location of the major coalition offensive against the Islamic State. We discussed topics ranging from Donald Trump to the efficacy and civilian toll of the Mosul offensive. The interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Ken Klippenstein: When Trump called for a Muslim ban, did ISIS use that for propaganda purposes?

Patrick Cockburn: There probably were references to it because, though it’s a bit degraded now, Islamic State has a pretty wide-ranging propaganda program; [they] certainly would’ve used that. Anything which smacks of communal punishment of Muslims in the U.S. or France enables them to mobilize their constituency more easily.

KK: Mobilize their constituency militarily or recruitment-wise?

PC: Both.

KK: What do you hope that the Trump administration does (and does not) do with respect to ISIS?

PC: They could—though Hillary Clinton seemed more likely to do this, actually—they could say we are equally committed to getting rid of Assad. As soon as you do that, that’s good news for Islamic State. It’d be a bad idea if they did that.

Above all, what’s the relationship to Iran? That’s one thing Trump is very committed to, was denouncing the Iran deal. Now, does that fall apart? Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies would be very pleased if it did fall apart. If that falls apart then that further destabilizes the region and gives an incentive to the Iranians to maybe increase their intervention [in Iraq] and Syria. It has all sorts of repercussions.

That’s probably the most menacing thing, is whether the deal Obama did with the Iranians is dropped by Trump, which would probably delight the Israelis, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. That’s the most destabilizing thing that could happen and is perhaps the most likely thing that could happen.

KK: What effect would killing the Iran deal have on the war against ISIS?

PC: There has always been this funny mixture particularly in Iraq, of public rivalry and private cooperation between the Iranian army and the U.S. because for a long time they had the same enemies—initially in Saddam Hussein and then al-Qaeda in Iraq. You had a Shia government [in Iraq] supported by the U.S. after 2005 but it was also supported by Iran. They wanted to increase their influence and limit that of America but they had the same friends and the same enemies. The degree of cooperation would depend somewhat on this nuclear deal and has increased because of this nuclear deal.

Also the current government of Iran that is committed to this deal could fall apart. It’s all very negative if that goes.

KK: If Trump tears up the agreement, will there be a government more like Ahmadinejad’s in Iran?

PC: That’s one thing that could happen…a tougher U.S. line on Iran provokes the whole Shia coalition against the U.S., makes them look more towards war than diplomacy.

KK: Do you think Trump was serious when he called for a Russia détente?

PC: He might be. It’s not so stupid. To some degree, that’s what we already have had: negotiations and an attempted ceasefire with the Russians. You can justify that by saying that if there is going to be any peace agreement in Syria, it has to be negotiated by the biggest players which are the U.S. and Russia. They may not be enough to do it, they may not be able to control allies or proxies or something. [But] that’s sort of feasible.

It’s also true that policies such as Hillary Clinton’s—or just the people around her who were talking about fighting Islamic State and fighting, getting rid of Assad—were never feasible. There isn’t a moderate opposition faction that could’ve fought both. It barely exists. The problem about this is, what Trump has said, these are not defined policies. We don’t know who the guys who are meant to implement them are. So it’s pretty incoherent.

KK: Do you think these attempts to arm the rebels will continue to happen?

PC: Yeah, it’s evident that within the U.S. government, different parts of the government have different policies; you know, the CIA arming various rebel factions, the Pentagon tried this. But the idea of arming factions that were supposedly moderate not only hasn’t worked but it’s been disastrous, it’s been a joke. Whatever the state of the Syrian political opposition, the armed opposition is dominated by Islamists and has been a long time. So that might continue but I don’t think it’ll make much difference. When it comes to troops, soldiers, on the ground cooperating with the U.S., of course, the Pentagon did find people but it was the Kurds and various proxies supported by the Kurds.

KK: Has Trump’s victory helped jihadis in Syria in Iraq?

PC: Potentially it could, but I don’t think it works that way at the moment because they tend to think of Americans, Europeans, not just non-Muslims but non-believers in that sort of Wahhabi variant of Islam that they believe in. So to them all the world’s an enemy, whether it’s a Shia Muslim who’s worthy of immediate death or Yazidis, who many are enslaved. One of the things about the siege of Mosul, down the road from where I am, is that there are different armies—all of whom are enemies of the Islamic state and all hate each other—besieging the place at the moment.

Now potentially, [if] Muslims start getting kicked out, if some people get killed and so forth, yeah that would play to their advantage. Any sort of communal punishment of Muslims anywhere is something that they can take advantage of in their propaganda. The degree to which that’s successful and helps them of course depends on the degree of the communal punishment to which Muslims are subject.

KK: Do you think the numbers we’re seeing are vastly understated with respect to civilian casualties arising from the coalition airstrikes on ISIS territory?

PC: They’re probably understated; whether they’re vastly understated I don’t know. Areas I’ve been to between here and Mosul, most of the villages were uninhabited ever since ISIS took them over in 2014. There weren’t many people living there, so they could bomb these ISIS positions without killing many civilians.

Now we’re getting to—the fighting is in East Mosul and that’s full of people. This is an important question that’s going to come up now in the next few weeks. The Iraqi army isn’t making that much progress over the last week in those areas, so what’ll they do? One option is much more bombing and disregard the civilian casualties. If that happens then the number of civilian casualties will soar vastly from what it is now.

KK: Could Trump pursue that option?

PC: Potentially, yeah, they could up the bombing, particularly in places like Mosul. But it’s too early to say.

KK: There have been reports in the Russian media that the U.S. has let ISIS forces escape Mosul for Syria to cause problems for the Syrian government. Is there any truth to that or is it just Russian propaganda?

PC: I think it’s propaganda. It may be that we would quite like to do that but I don’t think it’s happening because it looks as if the Islamic State is very determined to hold Mosul, which was always likely because capturing Mosul was its big victory that sort of put Islamic State on the map. It’s one big population center, still controlled, 1.5 to 2 million people there.

If it’s going to fight anywhere, Mosul is probably a good place to fight because there’s a big civilian population, it’s filled with small streets and houses that it can carry out street fighting and it’s more difficult for an air coalition to bomb it flat like they did in Ramadi. It’s also quite difficult to get out of the city these days because the siege is quite complete at the moment.

People are telling me units of snipers and so forth are being sent from Raqqa to Mosul.

KK: When Trump apparently calls for carpet-bombing, does that have an effect on [ISIS] morale?

PC: No, I don’t think so. Guys here have been bombed so often…they’re not going to be frightened by this. The place is being very heavily bombed. These armies have massive firepower, it’s up to 15,000 airstrikes or something like that in Iraq and Syria. There may not be carpet bombing here, but the place has been very heavily bombed.

KK: What is Turkey’s involvement in the Mosul offensive?

PC: They’ve been rhetorically saying that they have an interest in Mosul, that they will intervene if the Shia militias take over. President Erdogan was saying that Mosul was part of the Ottoman empire, he goes into sort of neo-Ottoman rhetoric and nobody quite knows how seriously to take it. They do have about 700 soldiers in one place, they sort of trained up a local militia that used to work for a former governor; when I met these guys they didn’t seem that serious, like a form of policemen, they’re not combat soldiers.

Turkey is sort of implying it might get across the border [into Iraq], which is pretty close—it sent a unit of tanks down there from Ankara the other day. I don’t think they’d do it because I think the Iraqi government are against it, the Kurds are against it, the US are against it, it doesn’t seem to me that likely. They certainly sort of involved in it, they want to be a player but they’re still a sort of marginal player.

KK: Who’s to say ISIS won’t just flee to the countryside and wait it out and come back later, in another form?

PC: I’m sure they’d like to do that. I think they’ve been divided. There’s evidence their commanders were divided as to whether they should have a last stand or a big stand in Mosul or should they revert to being guerillas.

I think if the Islamic State goes down, that is an important change, one shouldn’t underrate that. One of the things that gave them ideological prominence in the world and gave them the capacity to launch attacks in France and Belgium and so forth was the fact that they had a state. Foreign leaders kept saying it’s not a state…but it had its own army, administration, taxes, everything else. So it is very like a state.

Also actually declaring a Caliphate gave them a much higher profile.

It’s not so easy to convert back into a guerilla organization…I don’t think they have the kind of guerilla networks to sustain themselves that they had in the past.

KK: Many Americans think our weapons are so advanced and accurate that civilian casualties from airstrikes are minimal. What’s your response to that view?

PC: There’s a misconception about that we may have a really good way of targeting a building or something but at the end of the day it all depends on intelligence of where Islamic State is—this may be good or bad. The actual weapon might be very accurate but we don’t really know who’s going to be at the receiving end.

There’s a long history here, going back to the first Gulf War (1991) U.S. bombing, where they were hitting buildings very accurately. I remember, in 1991 in Baghdad, they hit a shelter, which they thought was full of high-ups in the Ba’ath party—in fact it was full of 600 women and children who all got killed.

KK: Could civilian casualties in Mosul hamper hopes for a political solution?

PC: We’re pretty far from a political solution anyway, and these guys are pretty angry. Would it make that worse? Well, probably it would, but we’re a long way from any power sharing with the Sunni Arabs (these are the people in Mosul city). The armies outside are Iraqi army which is mainly Shia Muslims.

I was going through an Iraqi army checkpoint a couple of days ago. They wanted me to have tea and biscuits, they were giving tea and biscuits to everybody. The reason is, they were celebrating a Shia religious festival which involves feeding people. This was an army checkpoint but they were making no point to conceal that they were all Shia and they were conducting a religious ceremony. So you have a high degree of sectarianism already within the army.

This is what people want to know about: what happens after the fall of Mosul. First of all we have to know how much of Mosul is left by the time that happens. You might have power-sharing between the Shia and the Kurds but the Sunni are kind of the defeated in this war so far. You have lots of Sunni refugees all over the place. Other than ISIS they don’t have much leadership. So it may not be power sharing after this conflict; you may just have winners and losers.

KK: The US government describes its military presence in Iraq as merely advisory. Is that a fair characterization or is it more than that?

PC: It’s more than that. There are 12 US generals in Iraq. First of all, the main firepower of the Kurds and the Iraqi army is the U.S.-led air coalition. Secondly, logistics. I doubt that this offensive would be taking place if Washington hadn’t wanted it.

KK: Have U.S. forces been directly engaged in combat?

PC: They probably have…there have been a few U.S. casualties but not many, which indicates they’re not really engaged in combat.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. cocomaan

    Man, this guy is just great. Able to explain the fog of war there with real clarity. I can’t imagine how he can compartmentalize the absolute horror of being in that massive clusterfuck, though. Great post.

    You might have power-sharing between the Shia and the Kurds but the Sunni are kind of the defeated in this war so far. You have lots of Sunni refugees all over the place. Other than ISIS they don’t have much leadership. So it may not be power sharing after this conflict; you may just have winners and losers.

    This seems to fulfill what Maliki started when he was brought in: a complete dismantling of the minority Sunni presence in the country. The US chose sides in an ethnic war and enabled the ethnic cleansing**.

    However, given that Iraq and Syria and the rest of the Levant are arbitrary borders, it was probably inevitable that this ethnic cleansing would happen and the country borders needed to realign.

    Interesting how the US intellgensia harps so hard on demographics when we’re essentially dismantling people based on race and language in other countries!

    ** Funny part is that the US has done the opposite in Afghanistan, supporting the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others in putting down a Pashtun insurgency – an oversimplification because we also chose sides among Pashtun tribal confederacies, choosing urban minority Durranis against the large and rural Ghilzai confederacy.

    1. Barry Egan

      If you haven’t checked it out already, I’d recommend Cockburn’s book The Rise of the Islamic State. It’s a real good primer on the first few years of the conflict.

    2. Strategist

      I can’t imagine how he can compartmentalize the absolute horror of being in that massive clusterfuck, though.

      And continues to over a period of decades! His colleague Robert Fisk writes more on the toll it takes on his soul. Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is just horror after horror, country after country, decade after decade, and each decade worse than the last. All for the oil.

  2. Momster1000

    The Kurds are Sunni but the religious divide isn’t as big a deal to them as the Kurd-Arab divide.

  3. Fiver

    Well, I wish I could agree with Hersh’s assessment of Mr. Cockburn, whose reporting I long followed, then completely abandoned since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. This interview is exemplary in that regard, as the role of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UK etc., in constructing this horror show is so completely minimalized as to be non-existent.

    We know, because it’s been widely documented, largely in the mainstream itself – though critically, never put together into a coherent narrative – that the US clearly ‘anticipated’ in 2012 that something pretty much identical to ‘ISIS’ was taking shape. The DIA reported it. Independent media reported it. The King of Saudi Arabia essentially reported it in 2013 when, after Obama was persuaded by Putin that the chemical weapons ‘red line’ that was intended to bring the full might of the US down on Assad’s head was in fact not the Syrian regime’s doing, he, the King, was going to field a proxy army to do the job. Look it up. The US did nothing while the original ISIS convoy of white Toyota trucks and equipment streamed across the open desert to create a Sunni uprising. The paper mache ‘army’ the US had stood up in Western Iraq folded like a cheap shirt in the face of a (then) puny force in relative terms. That was no accident. The US wanted rid of Maliki, who, quite aside from treating the Sunnis terribly, was also refusing to cooperate on oil, and as soon as that purpose was served, and the US invited back in to Iraq (with the Iraqis no longer insisting that US forces of any kind be immune from Iraqi law) the game so favored by Petraeus, McCrystal, Flynn (Trump’s man) et al, the game of high-tech slaughtering of radical Muslim ‘leaders’ and ‘infrastructure’ and all the rest of the stuff the US, Saudis and others provided in the first place began again in earnest.

    I could go on and on and on, but the bottom line is Mr. Cockburn hews very, very closely to the standard line emitted by the US, UK and ‘coalition’ from the takedown of Ghadaffi to present. The truth is the US, Israel, UK and others are perfectly content to see Muslims killing each other and have in fact done everything in their power to bring about precisely that result, going all the way back to creating al Qaeda in the first place (and please note – al Qaeda remains a tool of US policy) to engage the Soviets, then suckering Saddam into attacking Iran thus setting off the modern sectarian rift – the rift that keeps on giving to those pulling the strings. And for heaven’s sake, bear in mind that the Saudis cast their lot with the US and Israel long ago. Again, it’s not some crazy fluke that the core issue that drove Middle East politics and geopolitics for decades, the fate of the Palestinians, has been completely obliterated via creation, and re-creation, and re-creation of the jihadis who just happen to have no problems whatever with Israel.

    Trump has said several things that may be taken as reflecting his ‘thinking’:

    1. ‘I will destroy ISIS.’

    2. ‘I will be the best friend Israel has ever had.’

    3. ‘It would be nice if we could get along with Russia.’

    4. ‘I will tear up the deal with Iran.’

    You can be sure he will keep 1 (either by force, or facing down the Saudis while the globe swims in oil) and 2. However, he risks 3 to attain 4. Since nukes never were the problem with Iran, rather that Iran backed Syria and Hezbollah, there is one great big thing Trump can give Israel and that is a deal with Russia that sees Iran cut off its support for Hezbollah (Syria is no longer a threat whatever). Such a deal would involve significantly higher oil prices, an end to Saudi, GCC and other support for jihad, Caliphate etc., both Iraq and Syria split for good and the complete betrayal of the Palestinians, who quite clearly have no friends left in the Arab world – while the rest of the world would be more than willing to look the other way in exchange for no larger war.

    It would great to see NC show the courage to take these issues on. As I rather expect this won’t be published, at least I’m on the record somewhere having staked out this synthesis as a very, very serious possibility – a very ugly one at that.

    1. TomDority


      And outside of war

      Stateside…I am still waiting for the complete rejection of the politics of fear.
      Seams we never get enough fear mongering from our politicians…..of course, without it, they would actually have to tackle real issues with real backbones in some proportionally way.
      You stand a better chance of getting shot by a four year old than being shot by a terrorist yet we spend billions on the latter when we should spend billions on the 4 yr old…..education, infrustructure, habitability of the planet, nutrition etc.

  4. ironbutterfly

    I’ve wonder how the election would have turned out if Bernie had decided to break his promise and run as an Independent. This is pure speculation of course, but he would have been excoriated by the Ds, chided by the Rs, but his percentages would never have fallen below 10%. Therefore, he would have been in all 3 presidential debates. Then, later in the campaign I think Bernie would have siphoned off enough Trump and “fence sitters” for Clinton to win. Just speculation. Is there anything I’m missing? For example, would Bernie have been eligible to be on the ballot in all 50 states?

  5. fuji

    Fiver seems to have posed some very good questions and theses, showing how tangled these internecine relationships can be. No prospect of US getting out of ME.

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