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An Interview with Anthony Arnove

Out Now

by THOMAS P. HEALY

Anthony Arnove’s new book, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (The New Press, 2006) is tailored after Howard Zinn’s 1967 brief against the Vietnam War. Arnove has worked closely with Zinn on Voices of a People’s History of the United States and a collection of interviews, Terrorism and War. Zinn provides both a foreword and afterword to Arnove’s book. Arnove spoke with Counterpunch from his home in Brooklyn.

TH: How do you envision generating the political momentum to accomplish immediate withdrawal?

AA: We know from history–recently from the history of the Vietnam War–that public opinion and political protests can change the nature of the debate around a war and change the calculus of power. Right now I think if we want to change the calculus of power the first thing we need to do is to see that we have to pressure the Democrats just as much as we have to pressure the Republicans. It’s not as if the Democrats are on our side in this fight–they’re not.

So it’s a mistake for us to put our energy and resources into persuading the Democrats to somehow be some animal that they’re not or hoping that the Democrats are somehow going to become a standard-bearer for our movement–they are not. They will respond only to the thing that the Republicans respond to: a mass groundswell of opposition. Protest. Disaffection that threatens their power to the point where they see we’re losing in Iraq, we’re losing at home, and each day that we stay in Iraq, things get worse for us. In order to maintain some control over the system, in order to maintain some credibility for future U.S. imperial projects, we need to pull out. And that’s going to involve a greater degree of mobilization, protest and disruption of business as usual. I think it’s also going to involve gaining some clarity about who the targets of our protests are and on the nature of the Democratic Party that, unfortunately, the antiwar movement has lacked.

TH: It’s hard to have clarity, especially when the media are not supportive. You write in the "Resistance in Iraq" chapter, "The propaganda for this war has been internalized by the establishment media and no one blinks." Despite the many successes of the Peace Movement–we have the numbers, we were right about the president lying to the American people–we weren’t paid attention to then and aren’t being paid attention to now. How do we suddenly get attention?

AA: Well, look. There are a lot of positive things you can say about the antiwar movement. I think it’s also useful to step back and ask what we can do better. Given the scale of the crisis of what’s happening in Iraq and given the urgency of the issues we’re talking about, I think it’s good for us to be sober and self-critical and to realize our weaknesses and realize where we can do things better.

There’s an enormous gap that we have not filled between sentiment against the war, which is reflected in polls and other expressions in the culture, and the degree of opposition and organization of protests that we’ve seen. That says to me that people are seeing through the media deception. People are reaching antiwar conclusions but they’re not being engaged or involved in organization. Ideas can’t change the world alone. They need people to embody them–to act on them, to do things with them. They need organization. For example, I think it’s a serious mistake that the major antiwar organizations did not come together in a unified way on the third anniversary of the occupation. It was a gift to the mainstream media. The establishment media went out on the third anniversary looking for protests. They’ve got to have a story that lets them off the hook. They had a story: Where are the protesters? People don’t care, people aren’t paying attention and that story’s not the real story. So we gave a gift to our opponents and to the media.

Instead, a number of the organizations that might have been organizing that protest are focused on the midterm congressional elections. Now, I’m not saying that they have bad intentions. I just think they are making tactical, strategic mistakes. I may be in a minority position with the antiwar movement but I want to argue that position to as many people as I can because I think the antiwar movement would be stronger if it weren’t oriented on the midterm elections and if it were oriented on a different set of political priorities. I think those arguments within the antiwar movement are healthy and should be had with a tone of solidarity–of course we’re all on the same side–but we can be on the same side and argue and fight things out and hopefully in that process come out with a stronger movement.

TH: You’ve suggested that by being diverted into electoral strategies it dilutes the movement for immediate withdrawal. What kind of extra-electoral strategies are you thinking of?

AA: A couple of things. First of all, we should try to connect the war at home with the war abroad. There’s a war on civil liberties taking place, there’s a war on immigrants taking place, there’s a war on trade unions, working people and poor people taking place. State after state, city after city, county after county is facing budget cuts in vital social spending, healthcare and education programs and yet, with the Democrats providing the votes that gave the margin of victory, Congress just passed a bill that’s going to send tens of billions of dollars more in emergency assistance for the war in Iraq. Every spending bill that George Bush has brought before the Congress asking for more money for this war has been approved. And that’s already on top of bloated Pentagon and energy department budgets spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the war, and then they’re coming back for yet more.

Where’s the money for the people in New Orleans? Where’s the money for the entire Gulf Coast affected by Hurricane Katrina? Where’s the money for public education? Where’s the money for veterans who are coming back injured from this war and who have come back injured from earlier wars? You know, people can see that connection.

Look at the question of immigrants. Part of the way that the war in Iraq has been sold is by demonizing Arabs, demonizing Muslims, demonizing immigrants, and increasing xenophobia and racism. There’s been a tremendous rebellion taking place around the country recently, with Latinos and other immigrants speaking out, asserting their rights and asserting their dignity. People can see the connection between the questions that immigrants, working people, poor people in this country have and the situation in Iraq. Those are very fertile connections for the antiwar movement to be making.

I think we need to broaden our movement and see all of the ways we can localize these discussions. There are trade unions, city councils and parent/teacher associations expressing opposition to the war and connecting global issues with local, immediate concerns that are quite organic and, I think, very effective. This puts you in conversation with your co-workers, people in your community, your neighbors, people in your school, talking about these vital issues. That strategy can help not only further solidify antiwar sentiment but also bring people into activity. I think the main obstacle for people right now is not that they support the war, but that they don’t think they can do anything to make a difference about it. We need to find small, concrete ways to show people that you can do something, that you can make a difference and that there’s an accumulation, an aggregation of all of these democratic efforts and organizational expressions on a local level that can come together to have an impact nationally and even internationally.

TH: What do you think about the tepid impeachment movement?

AA: The impeachment thing is interesting. I think it’s a distraction because first of all we have to think realistically. We have a Republican-controlled Congress that’s not going to impeach Bush. Even if we could impeach Bush, Dick Cheney becomes the president of the United States. It seems to me that the antiwar movement or the progressive Left movement more broadly has made a mistake in focusing so much on one individual, George Bush. As much as I don’t like George Bush, I think we make a mistake when we don’t look at the broader institutional roots of George Bush’s politics–the bipartisan character of the most urgent issues we face today. The Democratic Party could pass some sort of theoretical censure against George Bush but this is the same party that voted for the Patriot Act, the same party that’s voting to fund the war in Iraq.

It seems to me it really isn’t getting at the core issue. Now, has Bush committed crimes that are impeachable? Absolutely! But strategically is that where we should be directing our energies? I don’t think so. The fact that George Bush hasn’t been impeached is a reflection of the shift rightward in official politics and the establishment media. We’re in a different political moment. And the Democrats and Republicans both share a commitment to many of the policies I consider illegal and indefensible that George Bush has carried out. So, it’ s not just about what he as an individual has done.

TH: You write that "withdrawal is the first step in the United States’ meeting its obligations to the Iraqis for the devastation we’ve wrought." Let’s say we actually do withdraw. Does the United Nations move in? Do we create a fund for reparations? What’s the strategy?

AA: Well, I was in a meeting the other day with an Iraq vet named Geoffrey Millard, who had a very good comment. He’s now declaring conscientious objection. He said, "Withdrawal is not a strategy, it’s an executive order. You don’t need a strategy. You just need to say, "We’re giving up the project. We’re not going to build long-term bases in Iraq. We’re not going to continue to be the colonial power." This happens over and over again in history–the colonial powers have said, "We’re staying forever, we can’t leave." And then they’re forced to leave.

So, that’s the first step. The next steps are up to the Iraqi people. I don’t think it’s up to us to decide what they then ask other countries or the UN or the Red Cross or any other international humanitarian organizations to do. They may very well want their assistance. They may not want their assistance. Genuine self-determination, genuine democracy for the Iraqi people means that’s their decision, not ours.

In terms of reparation, I think the moral case is very strong that the United States owes a great financial debt to the Iraqi people for the death and destruction that it has caused. Not just during this occupation but during all of the years of sanctions and during all of the years before that when we supported Saddam Hussein and of course also during the Gulf War of 1991. But the fact that there’s a moral case for it doesn’t mean that it will happen. The only way it would happen is if there is pressure, as I would hope there would be domestically and internationally, for the United States to pay reparations. Now we know from the Vietnam War that the opposite happened–that rather than paying reparations to the Vietnamese people, the United States economically punished the Vietnamese people for the crime of standing up against the United States and defeating the world’s greatest imperial power. And we would expect they would try to do the same with Iraq but I think we as an antiwar movement shouldn’t give up the day the war ends. We should be continuing to pressure the administration on this point and doing whatever we can to make sure that Iraqis have the resources they need to rebuild their country.

Right now the United States has bled the country of resources and has been preventing its development through a completely warped system of economic insertion based on a just a handful of contractors with close ties to the administration making loads of money while ordinary Iraqis have less electricity, less access to safe drinking water than even under the sanctions.

TH: I’m curious about the appendix in your book. It’s embarrassing to admit but this is the first I’ve heard of the Istanbul Declaration.

AA: The reason I wanted to include it was to give people a sense, a reminder that there’s an international movement against this war, that we’re not alone. People from dozens of countries came together in Istanbul to issue this declaration. It is based on the Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre declaration against the Vietnam War, where a number of intellectuals and journalists came together in Brussels to have hearings in which the public looked at the evidence of war crimes in Vietnam and condemned them because those facts were not being brought before the public through the normal operations of the media or the political process. There’s a great story in the book "My Times" by John Hess, who was a reporter for The New York Times during the Vietnam War. He described how he wanted to cover the Russell tribunal but was not assigned the story. His bureau chief told him that the story wasn’t important. A year later he looked back at the minutes of the tribunal and realized that all of the evidence of the My Lai massacre had been presented in full detail–a year before the My Lai Massacre story broke here in the mainstream media. Just imagine the impact that could have had if those revelations had come out a year sooner.

A group of people felt like the same situation was happening with regard to Iraq and it was necessary to bring together intellectuals and journalists and political scientists and political historians from around the world to examine the situation in Iraq and to issue a judgment in the absence of organizations like the United Nations or other bodies meant to embody international will or justice serving that role. I found their declaration a powerful, concise presentation of the crimes of the invasion and occupation in Iraq.

TH: The social and economic justice and peace movement is fighting a battle on a number of fronts. While they’re opposing war and racism and economic injustice, the Bush administration is moving forward with a very radical agenda.

AA: I think it’s important to see we need to fight on many fronts because these issues are interrelated. I’m reminded of Martin Luther King’s speech at the Riverside church one year before his assassination, when he spoke out very powerfully on the Vietnam War. As he said at the beginning of that speech, a number of civil rights leaders didn’t want him to speak out on the war in Vietnam. They said it would be a distraction–that it might even undermine the fight for civil rights to speak about Vietnam. And Dr. King said you can’t separate the issues of racism, racial oppression, economic oppression, militarism and imperialism–all those things are combined.

So you have to find a way of fighting on multiple fronts but also see the connections between the fights we’re engaged in. I think right now is the time where those connections are very clear, and what’s encouraging to me is that people are making those connections.

Also, look–we’re the majority! On the Iraq war, on healthcare, on the idea of raising taxes to support Social Security and care for the elderly–we’re the majority. When you look at society overall in terms of working people, poor people and people who are affected by these issues we’re talking about, we’re the majority. So there isn’t a reason to feel embattled or isolated. We have serious challenges but we also have serious opportunities.

THOMAS P. HEALY is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at ThomasPHealy@sbcglobal.net