The Other America

Phyllis Bennis is a leading analyst and writer on the Middle East, the war in Iraq, the United Nations, and on U.S. foreign policy. She is a long-time activist, and works closely with United for Peace and Justice and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation to oppose what she describes as the “dual occupations” in the Middle East. Bennis was a featured speaker at the September 26 rally in Vancouver against war, occupation and Empire organized by the StopWar coalition.

A fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C., Bennis sat down with Derrick O’Keefe from Seven Oaks during her recent Vancouver visit to discuss the anti-war movement both internationally and in the United States, her work against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, U.S. policy towards the Chavez government, as well as broader questions of UN reform and strategies for opposing war and Empire.

Derrick O’Keefe: Last week, George Bush spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, again defending the legitimacy of a war that – even more so today – does not have international legitimacy. How is this administration’s Iraq policy playing out?

Phyllis Bennis: I think that many people in the U.S. understand that Bush deals with the UN reluctantly, only under pressure, and very tactically, when he’s forced to deal with the UN at all. It’s in some ways a tribute to the global opposition to war in Iraq, and to U.S. unilateralism in general, that Bush felt compelled – because of the pressures of the U.S. election – to go to the UN at all. There were many who thought that he would just disdain it altogether. But the fact that he went, he treated it in an extraordinarily tactical way, as if it was nothing but one more venue for his campaign for the November elections. He treated the gathered world leaders as if they were likely to accept as a given his belief, or claimed belief, — I don’t even know if he believes it or not – that events in Iraq are going well, that Iraq is the world’s newest democracy, as he put it, and that things are on the upswing. He and Vice President Cheney appear to be the only ones who are saying that. Even people at the Pentagon are saying that’s not the case, the State Department’s saying that’s not the case. It’s really only from the political campaign that that claim is coming forward, that the conditions in Iraq are improving.

In fact, a new report that the Institute for Policy Studies is just working on, that we will be releasing next week, focuses on costs of war. Particularly in the three-month period that they are calling the “transition,” there has been an extraordinary explosion of escalating costs in death and destruction. Certainly the most obvious is in the number of deaths of U.S. troops, which has absolutely spiked in those three months. The deaths of U.S. and other contractors has also spiked. The numbers of Iraqi deaths has become even harder to track than before. We know that they are still huge and unacceptable, but the cost of war to Iraq has become even more difficult. So the notion that things are getting better simply flies in the face of reality. And he treated the UN in an extraordinarily insulting way, trying to claim that was true.

D.O.: At the end of August, a reported half-million people marched in New York City against the war and against the Republican National Convention. How wide is the anti-war sentiment in the United States?

P.B.: The anti-war spectrum is very, very broad at this time. It’s really reached right into the heart of what we call “middle America.” Working people, ordinary people, across this country, are having severe doubts about this war. One of the most important components of the anti-war movement these days is made up of the families of military people who are deployed in Iraq, as well as the families of victims of September 11. So there’s a really powerful credibility factor that’s really unshakable, when you talk to family members who say, “If you’re serious about supporting the troops, bring them home.” This [war] isn’t how you support the troops.

D.O.: And yet despite this broad sentiment, if you believe the latest polls, Bush is still in the lead.

P.B.: Yes, the problem is that people in the U.S. are very much affected by fear. Fear has been a very useful tool for this administration. And the very real fear, after 9/11, of another terrorist attack, has been used by the administration to keep up the level of unease at the prospect of any change. So, because Americans tend to be badly educated, don’t necessarily have a global outlook, don’t have access to the kinds of information that is routine in places like Canada, it’s not surprising that people are frightened and that that becomes the most significant framing of the vantage point. What is true is that up to 54 percent of Americans now believe that the war was wrong, and believe that the troops should be brought home. It doesn’t necessarily correspond to an increasing level of opposition to Bush, because people still are reluctant to acknowledge that this was a choice. People believe that this war may have been a necessity. Only now people are beginning to realize, “Yes, it was a choice. It was a wrong choice, a bad choice.”

D.O.: And the Democratic contender John Kerry voted for the war, and has said that even if he knew that there were no “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq, he would have voted for the war.

P.B.: What’s important is that in his most recent speech, which was his most comprehensive assessment of the war, he changed that position. And all of the talk about flip-flopping aside, when you’ve been wrong, it’s important to flip-flop and change to the right position, which is what he did. Whether it’s going to prove too late to affect public opinion, we don’t know yet, but certainly it was a crucial part of his campaign to go public and say, “It’s crazy to imagine any serious commander-in-chief would go to war knowing that there are no weapons of mass destruction and knowing that there were no ties to Al-Qaeda.” So, acknowledging that was important. The fact that he didn’t acknowledge that until now may turn out to be the biggest problem Kerry faces.

D.O.: One of the areas of foreign policy in which Bush and Kerry appear to be in agreement is opposition to the Chavez government in Venezuela. Kerry has issued campaign statements to this effect. What do you see in terms of U.S. policy now, after the August 15 referendum victory, towards Venezuela?

P.B.: I think they’re very concerned in Washington that the government in Venezuela is proving far more independent and far more popularly supported than they had anticipated. It’s not a waffling, shaky government; it’s a very well-rooted government. It’s using the oil billions for massive social welfare programs that are vitally needed in Venezuela and have never been made available to the vast majority of the population. Local clinics, food rations, water treatment plants: All of these kinds of projects have endeared the government to people. Not because of rhetoric, but because it has given tangible improvements to their lives. So it seems to me that that’s a very important advance.

The issue of whether the U.S. will continue its efforts to destabilize the government of Venezuela has everything to do with the capacity of the U.S. and the global anti-war and anti-intervention movements to make that an unacceptable option. To set in motion a situation in which it’s clear that it becomes more costly to intervene than to not intervene.

D.O.: In terms of the Middle East, here in Canada there has been a big step forward in terms of including the issue of Palestine in the anti-war movement. Is that a phenomenon that you see in the U.S. and internationally as well?

P.B.: Yes, this is one of the huge accomplishments of the global and the U.S. peace movements of the last two years. The normalization of the question of Palestine in that movement has been a huge gain. It has both strengthened the movement in general — it’s brought in whole new sectors that had not identified with the peace movement because it historically refused to take on the question of Palestine – and it has strengthened the work on Palestine by linking it with the much broader movement that’s focused on the war in Iraq.

What we have been talking about in the U.S., particularly through the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, has been the issue of dual occupations. The U.S. has claimed that its invasion of Iraq was designed to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. In fact, what it has created has been a second illegal occupation made possible by the United States. You now have the Israeli occupation of Palestine – paid for, supported diplomatically and armed by the United States – and the direct U.S. occupation of Iraq. In both cases, these two occupations are feeding on each other. We’ve seen the U.S. using Israeli training in order to train their own soldiers in how to do an occupation of Arab countries. After the massacre of Jenin in April 2002, you had the Pentagon going to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), asking them for training in how to use the example of Jenin as a counter-insurgency effort that was deemed successful. So this intersection of the two occupations both put the United States at the centre.

D.O.: One of the contentious issues, particularly in the U.S. anti-war movement, has been the inclusion of the demand for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. What position does the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation take on the right of return?

P.B: The U.S. Campaign has always taken the position of supporting international law, UN resolutions, and human rights. In that context [UN Resolution] 194 was always one of them that was included. Now, at our recent convention in July, we made a more explicit and clear commitment to specific work campaigns around 194. The reason for the shift being that our campaign is very, very targeted. It focuses on U.S. policy. We don’t go after Israel for every twist and turn of what they do, we don’t focus on anything else but U.S. policy. Until recently, until the last six months or so, the U.S. did not really have a policy on return. Its policy was whatever Israel wants. Recently, President Bush stated explicitly that the U.S. would not accept the right of return. So because that became a more explicit U.S. component, we took it on more aggressively.

But our position is very clear that the right of the return is absolute. The implementation of that right, like the implementation of any right, is thoroughly negotiable, and should be negotiated. But only after a unilateral declaration by Israel that Palestinians have the right of return and that it’s an individual decision to be made by every Palestinian family, whether or not to exercise that right, and if so, how. So the first step has to be Israeli acknowledgment of the right of return and Israeli complicity in what Palestinians call Al-Nakba, the expulsions of 1948.

D.O.: The resolution you are discussing, 194, is one of many passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, but of course never implemented. Who are the forces today pushing for reform and democratization of the United Nations, and what are their prospects?

P.B.: Well, there are a lot of countries right now that are focusing on the issue of UN reform the way it’s been traditionally understood, which mainly means Security Council reform. That’s everyone from some Canadian officials who call for an end to the veto, a useful thing but not likely to happen anytime in our lifetime, to a number of other governments right now trying to get permanent seats for themselves on the Security Council. It’s an interesting collaboration between North and South, you have Germany, Japan, Brazil and India, in a four-part collaboration trying to get permanent seats for themselves on the Security Council; not to get rid of the veto, but to expand the veto. In my view, there is certainly a case to be made that if there are permanent members with vetoes, that those permanent members should include the most important, influential and powerful countries of the global South, and that would certainly include India and Brazil. I would add South Africa to the list. I would not say that adding two more wealthy northern countries like Japan and Germany adds anything to the democracy of the UN or of the Council.

Having said that, my own view is that focusing on the issue of reform of the Security Council is wrong. It’s the wrong way about a realistic approach to UN reform. In fact, if we’re serious about having UN reform be real and not just rhetorical, we need to talk about transferring power away from the Security Council at all and in to the hands of the General Assembly, which, as messy and disorganized as it often is, is by far the most democratic organ within the UN. If we want the UN to become a more viable and representative institution that can play a role in the challenge to Empire, rather than being a tool of Empire, then I think we have to look towards the General Assembly and not the Security Council.

D.O.: You attended the international anti-war conference last year in Indonesia out of which came the Jakarta Consensus declaration. How is the work on the resolutions made at this gathering progressing?

Well, there’s the work on tribunals, for instance. Tribunals investigating the war crimes that are inherent in the invasion of Iraq have been held in Turkey and Brussels, and that’s an expanding movement. The creation of the Occupation Watch centre in Baghdad, although they’re not able to function now because of the security problems and others that make it impossible, has played a very important role in documenting some of the human rights violations inherent in the U.S. occupation. So a number of the specific campaigns discussed at Jakarta have come to fruition. More broadly, that was the first really international meeting of a self-defined, self-consciously global peace movement. That was very, very important.

D.O.: And what’s shaping up as the next major gathering of international anti-war forces, and what are the next worldwide days of action?

P.B.: The European Social Forum that’s scheduled for October will, I think, have a major peace component. Of course the Social Forum in Mumbai included a major anti-war component. In November, in Italy, the Peace Roundtable of Italy is sponsoring a huge conference on reclaiming the United Nations, and the role of the UN in challenging Empire. So all of these meetings are now reflecting the breadth of this global movement.

November 29, for Palestine, is the next big international day. That has come as a call from the Palestinian NGOs. On Iraq, the next major mobilization, I think, will be shortly after the U.S. elections. There will be another global call: The world says no to war regardless of who is in the White House.

D.O.: And what’s next for you, in terms of writing?

P.B.: I have a book launch in October, in London, a new version of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN. That’s being published in the United Kingdom. But then we also have my other big project right now in IPS. In June, we published Paying the Price: The Rising Cost of the Iraq War. And we’re doing a new version of that, with updated figures but also a whole new framework looking at the particular problems of the cost of war since the so-called transition at the end of June. So that will be released on September 30 in Washington, and that will be available internationally.

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