Medea Benjamin talks to Counterfire about the prospects of American foreign policy, the anti-war sentiment in the US, and the Black Lives Matter movement
Counterfire: What has been Obama’s overall record during his term in office?
Medea Benjamin: It depends on what issues you look at. In terms of foreign policy in the Middle East, he continued the Bush strategies. In fact, he came in saying that Afghanistan was a good war, which led to the surge in Afghanistan. He said he was winding down the war in Iraq, but with Isis now we’re back in there again.
Another issue is that he’s become known as the “drone” president. He started the use of drones in a very methodical way in places where we were at war, like Iraq and Afghanistan, but also where we weren’t, like Pakistan and Yemen. He institutionalised the use of drone warfare in a way that’s very scary not only in terms of the precedents it sets for future presidents, but also for the use of drones around the world. In the case of Israel/Palestine, he’s made some criticism of the Israeli government, but he’s not followed it up with any threats to cut off the $3bn of US dollars of US money that goes to the Israeli military. He’s continued the relationship with the repressive Saudi regime that the Bush administration had, including massive weapons sales to the Saudis. It’s pretty much business as usual in terms of keeping the empire going, continuing the expansion of US bases overseas, even in places where there is a lot of opposition, like Japan. So I’d say it’s all pretty dismal.
CF: Have there been any positives about Obama’s administration?
MB: One area that’s very positive is the negotiations with Iran over the nuclear talks despite a lot of powerful opposition in the US from the proIsrael lobby. And the opening with Cuba: after 50 years it’s nice that the president has had the foresight to change that relationship, although it’s really a strategy to change the Cuban government through other means. Still, it’s getting out of a decades-long policy of hostility that has been so absurd.
CF: Where is US foreign policy going, and what can we expect from the next administration?
MB: I’m very worried that this election season, and a new administration, will bring a shift to the right. Hillary Clinton has already distinguished herself as being more hawkish than Obama. Most candidates like to portray themselves as being “tough on national security,” which means they are hawkish and pro-military. And the mainstream media portrays these as good leadership qualities, even though the American people are sick of war and one of the reasons many people voted for Obama was precisely because they thought he would take our foreign policy in a different direction.
CF: What about the Republican Party?
MB: One of the milder candidates in terms of foreign policy is Jeb Bush, and he was recently asked would he have approved the Iraq War if he had known what he knows now. Astonishingly, his immediate answer was “yes” – although he later backtracked. And from there it only gets worse, with candidates like Senator Lindsay Graham calling for 10,000 US troops to be sent to Iraq. Even libertarian Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has been non-interventionist, moved to the right when he decided to run for president.
CF: What is the state and strength of US imperialism?
MB: I think China’s economic power is going to threaten US hegemony, which is why the US military is engaged in this so-called Asia pivot. But while the US is in decline in terms of its economic power globally, it still maintains over 800 bases overseas and it still has a tremendous ability to appropriate resources to prop up the economic interests of the 1 percent.
CF: What are the sources of the turmoil in the Middle East?
MB: There are many sources, including the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Saudi/Iran rivalry, repressive regimes (most of which get Western support), the violent suppression of democratic uprisings, struggles over resources like oil, and of course, sectarian violence and extremist religious ideologies.
Unfortunately, the US-led invasion of Iraq is responsible for unleashing sectarian divisions on a scale that never existed before. Saddam Hussein was certainly a brutal ruler but when I went to Iraq before the US invasion, you saw all kinds of mixing between Shia, Sunni, Christians and Kurds. The Iraq invasion is responsible not only for a million deaths and millions of displaced people both internally and externally, but for the sectarian violence that is now sweeping the region.
CF: What would you say to people who say that the US and its allies need to intervene in the Middle East to stop Isis?
MB: I’d say look at what our intervention over the past decade has done. Western intervention only makes things worse, and look at wherIsis is getting its weapons: they’re the weapons that we’re giving to our allies who don’t want to fight, like the Iraqi army.
I think we’re much better off trying to stop the flow of weapons to Isis, stop the flow of recruits, stop the sale of oil by Isis to slash its income, and to get Turkey to seal the border. That would be much more useful in terms of giving people in the region the ability to fight Isis themselves rather than sending in Western troops or weapons.
CF: Turning to domestic US politics, can you tell us a bit more about Black Lives Matter?
MB: The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to racial profiling and police brutality that’s been going on for a long time but has finally come to a head, in large part because now so many of these incidents are being caught on video. What’s amazing about the movement is that it’s led by young people of colour in cities throughout the US and fantastic leaders have come to the fore organically. They understand that these are systemic issues, that it’s not just an issue of getting a few bad apples out of the police force, but that these are much bigger issues of racism that have never been addressed in the US – certainly not by our first black president. So it’s forcing a lot of changes in terms of not only how people view the police forces or the criminal justice system, but also about these larger issues like inequality, youth unemployment, mass incarceration and racism, and I think it’s a fantastic movement.
CF: What is US public opinion on the wars in general?
MB: In general the American people are sick and tired of the wars. They have become much more sceptical that US intervention is actually going to do anything positive. We’ve been trying very hard over the years to relate US militarism to the economic problems at home, that is to say, we’ve been trying to get people to understand that spending trillions of dollars on war is draining our economy of money we need at home. That never really stuck, though, because in the end people would feel, well, whatever it takes to keep us safe is worth it. And they didn’t really see, in their everyday lives, the direct relationship between the money spent on the quagmires overseas with the draining of the resources in their communities.
Now, with Black Lives Matter, we have the chance to bring out much more directly the relationship between militarisation abroad and at home. For example, people have become aware that the government has dumped all kinds of military equipment in our cities – tanks, assault rifles, stun grenades, grenade launchers, all kinds of crazy things that allow the police to transform our protests into war zones. We can also see how veterans from the wars overseas, triggerhappy people with post-traumatic stress disorders, have become the very policemen who are shooting unarmed black youth in our streets. So there are many connections that people are making about the need to demilitarise.
There are also larger connections we are making with the environmental movement, showing how the Pentagon is the biggest polluter in the world and how so many wars are related to resources, like oil. We also connect the solutions, like the need to take money from the bloated Pentagon to make massive investments in green energy and other measures to counter climate chaos. As we move forward, the strength of the peace movement will rest on our ability to make connections with climate and social justice movements.
Medea Benjamin is an American anti-war activist and co- founder of the social justice NGO Code Pink. She was speaking to Feyzi Ismail
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