Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Voice of Reason

Yesterday, Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., was a guest on the PBS program The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

I’ve met Phyllis a number of times in the Twin Cities and have always been impressed by her extensive knowledge of the workings of the United Nations and of the complex historical and contemporary aspects of the situation in the Middle East.


Two of her books that I’ve read (and highly recommend) are Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis. Her latest book is Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S Power.

Phyllis is an articulate and passionate speaker on a range of social justice and human rights issues, and her perspective seems to me to be one of great insight, compassion, and plain old common sense. Hers is the voice of reason within important debates often dominated by rhetoric and spin.

In Australia, The Newshour is broadcast weekdays on SBS, and it was by sheer luck that I turned on the TV and caught Phyllis being interviewed by Newhour co-host, Ray Suarez. This particular interview is part of the program’s ongoing conversation on the situation in Iraq. Phyllis spoke from the position that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Following is the transcript of this interview.


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Pulling Out of Iraq
A Conversation with Phyllis Bennis
The Newshour with Jim Lehrer
October 23, 2006

Ray Suarez: What are you suggesting that the United States should do right now in Iraq?

Phyllis Bennis: We should get out. We are making things worse. Iraqis have said that, in overwhelming numbers.

More than two-thirds believe that U.S. troops are making the situation worse; 37 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. troops out immediately, meaning in six months; another 34 percent want them out within a year. That’s not a recipe for the belief that we’re somehow helping the Iraqis.

We’re making things worse. Our troops are part of the reason for the violence. They’re not able to protect people from the violence.

Ray Suarez: Just to clarify, when you say “get out,” you mean withdrawal of all American forces from the entire theater, not in a phased way or not contingent upon certain Iraqi meetings of goals?

Phyllis Bennis: Not contingent on the Iraqis meeting goals that the United States sets, certainly not. We should pull out all of our troops. We should pull out the mercenaries. We should close the bases, something that the Congress already voted for, in fact, to stop funding the creation of permanent bases, but that’s going ahead anyway. And we should end the occupation of Iraq that has become such a disastrous reality.

Ray Suarez: Well, as the debates have gone on certainly here in Washington about what to do next, you hear a lot of discussion of [withdrawal] and the reasons why it wouldn’t be a good idea. Let me tick off some of them: One, that the security situation is so precarious that a strategic country, in a very critical location, could be plunged into chaos by a too precipitous withdrawal.

Phyllis Bennis: The reality is that that strategic country has been plunged into chaos through this invasion and this occupation. The reality is, first of all, no one knows for sure what will happen when U.S. troops leave. It will happen whether it’s right away, as I would hope it happens, or whether it’s five years from now or 30 years from now.

We can’t predict with any specificity, and anyone who says, “I know exactly what would happen,” is lying. But what we think will happen is based on what’s happening now.

And you know, Ray, how the rising violence, the spiking violence that we're seeing on a daily basis with such horror in Iraq, is operating within a much broader framework of resistance, not to another sect or another religion, but to the U.S. occupation, the U.S.-British occupation. If that broad anti-occupation resistance was ended because the occupation ended, there would be no umbrella to provide cover for those terrorist forces that are killing civilians whose agenda has nothing to do with ending occupation.

Right now, they are operating in a very privileged environment. They are operating within that broad umbrella. You know, this recent poll by the University of Maryland that indicated 61 percent of Iraqis now support attacks on American troops, that’s a very serious reality.

And what that means is, if the U.S. troops are gone, that whole sector of broad, popular resistance will be ended. Then it will be possible to do what’s not possible now: to identify the terrorist forces that are operating within that and eliminate them as a fighting force by Iraqis themselves.

Ray Suarez: In response to those arguments, the president in his own speeches around the country has noted that, whether or not Americans want to recognize Iraq as the central front in the war on terror, the terrorists themselves do. And he cites public statements from the leaders of al-Qaida and other associated groups.

Phyllis Bennis: That’s absolutely right. There’s no question that the war in Iraq – the U.S. invasion, the occupation – has made Iraq into what it never was before: a center of this kind of global terrorism.

The question, though, is: How do we stop it? How do we fight it? And it seems to me that, by maintaining an unpopular occupation, we’re making that worse. We’re not giving the Iraqis the tools that they need to fight that kind of terrorism on their own terms.

Ray Suarez: But why wouldn’t Iraq thus become another Afghanistan, a place where a movement that’s non-governmental in nature could use a country as a base to plan attacks on other places in the world?

Phyllis Bennis: Because I think that Iraq is very different from Afghanistan. The people of Iraq have had access to far more education than people in Afghanistan have for the last several generations.

There is a sense of national identity in Iraq, despite all of the claims that everybody in Iraq identifies first as a Shia or a Sunni. That really isn’t always the case. There are enormously powerful imperatives towards national consciousness among Iraqis.

And I think that one of the things that that would lead to is a sense of trying to reclaim their country. The agenda of terrorist organizations like al-Qaida, the agenda of trying to destroy the Arab states, destroy the Arab governments, and replace them with a 7th-century-style caliphate of some sort is not something that ever had any credibility in Iraq.

There are some Iraqis now putting that forward, very few. The problem is, challenging them is something that’s almost impossible to do, because they’re operating in an environment of this massive opposition to the foreign occupations carried out by the U.S. and its allies.

Ray Suarez: The original goal of the U.S. invasion was to achieve regime change, get rid of the Saddam Hussein government, and create a stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East. It's been suggested quite often that leaving now and leaving quickly would negate the value of the thousands of American lives lost and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent toward that end.

Phyllis Bennis: Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives that have been lost, as well. But I think that that really misses the point. It’s true that we were told at the end that the reason for the invasion and the occupation had to do with democracy. That was after the earlier justifications had been proved false – weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, et cetera, ties with al-Qaida that did not exist at that time.

The problem that we face now, I think, is how to respond to this reality. Killing more people, more young U.S. soldiers, more Iraqi civilians does not give credit to those who have already died; it simply increases the number of victims. And that’s not something that I think anyone in this country should be proud of.

Ray Suarez: The United States has exerted considerable energy holding elections, trying to create the conditions to hold elections, and trying to help a national government of Iraq stand up. Would leaving quickly, in the way that you envision, also threaten that enterprise?

Phyllis Bennis: It’s certainly possible that this government, as currently constituted, might not survive without the U.S. occupation to bolster it. I don’t think that’s evidence that this government necessarily reflects at this time the will of the Iraqi people.

Yes, there was an election, and we all saw the fingers with the purple ink held up with great pride, and with good reason. Iraqis did risk a great deal to vote in that election. But the system for each of these elections was established by the United States.

One of the earliest things that Paul Bremer did was establish, when he took over as the U.S. proconsul, if you will, one of the first things he did was to establish an electoral system that was grounded in giving recognition to sectarian-defined parts of the population. That was something that was not then a common aspect of Iraqi identity.

Only now we see people identifying primarily with parties that are created as Sunni parties, Shia parties. But this is fundamentally a political challenge. The fighting that's going on right now is between Shia militia and Shia militia, as well as between Sunni and Shia, between Shia and Kurd, or whatever else.

This is a fundamentally political crisis in Iraq. And getting the U.S. occupation out, ending the occupation, is the first step. It’s not the last step.

It’s only step one, before we can make good on our other obligations, to support international involvement, both in terms of a regional conference to bring in peacekeepers, to provide real reconstruction, meaning giving money to Iraqis to rebuild their country as they decide, not giving money to U.S. corporations to do it on our terms.

We owe Iraq a great debt, but we can’t make good on that debt as long as the occupation continues.


Ray Suarez: Phyllis Bennis, thanks for being with us.

Phyllis Bennis: Thank you, Ray.


Photo of Phyllis Bennis from Faces of Resistance by Michael J. Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Reign of Ignorance and Fear in the U.S.
John Le Carré’s Dark Suspicions
When Terror is the Foil
Taking on Friedman
The Exception to the Rulers
An Unholy Alliance in Iraq

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