Undermining U.S. Power, An Interview With Peter Bohmer

(What follows are my answers to a written interview from Kourosh Ziabari, a writer and reporter for the Iran Review, a major Iranian foreign policy news and analysis website. I submitted the following answers to Kourosh Ziabari’s six questions on August 4, 2015. -Peter Bohmer)

Kourosh Ziabari : For many years, you’ve been a political activist protesting racial discrimination across the United States, as well as other forms of social injustice. You’ve also organized solidarity movements with the people of crisis-hit countries like Vietnam, Puerto Rico and Cuba. How does the US government perceive your activism and how does it react to you? Are such egalitarian and liberal movements ever taken seriously by the White House? Do they leave any impact on the major decisions of the US government and its institutions?

Peter Bohmer: My own active opposition for many years to the U.S. war in Vietnam is probably what I am proudest of in my life. The millions of people in the United States outside the military but also inside the military deserve credit for actively opposing their government’s waging of a murder, immoral and illegal war. Of course, the people who deserve the most credit are the Vietnamese people who opposed the U.S. occupation and war. They are most responsible for defeating the U.S. but people all over the world including the United States also played an important role. The active anti-war movement in the U.S. in the streets was an important factor in the growing popular opposition to the war. For example, more and more people in the United States, particularly after February 1968, blamed the U.S. government for the deaths of U.S. soldiers rather than continuing to blame the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese. The growing opposition to the war by the U.S. Congress was caused by the growing popular opposition to the U.S. war against Vietnam.

The United States continued to wage an economic war against Vietnam after military intervention ended in 1975 and did not pay the reparations it had promised. The movements that I was a part of did not have the power to change this. One positive legacy of the anti-Vietnam war movement was the so-called Vietnam syndrome, meaning the public was more skeptical than it had been previously of calls for war and military intervention by the President. No gains are permanent and beginning with the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. government has again been more or less able to go to war when it desires to. During the Vietnam War, I always focused on all lives lost, not just U.S. lives. Unfortunately a significant part of the anti-war movement focused only on U.S. lives, e.g., with the chant and slogan “Bring the boys home”. The U.S war strategy today, e.g., using drones, focuses on minimizing U.S. lives. We need to focus on all lives loves lost, especially the victims of U.S. aggression.

With regards to global solidarity work that I have been involved in for 47 years, I think there have been limited but positive results. I was very involved with solidarity with the revolutionary government in Nicaragua, I went there in 1986 and 1988, and worked for their social security ministry in the summer of 1988 when the Sandinistas were in power I also was active in solidarity with revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980’s. We probably prevented a full scale U.S. invasion and an even greater massacre of the population and revolutionary movements but were not strong enough to end continued U.S. hegemony in Central America or to prevent the defeat of the revolutionary forces.

The anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. also contributed to the isolation and fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980’s and early 1990’s which is very important although the post-apartheid governments in South Africa have not adequately challenged the huge poverty and economic inequality there. I have been active in support of the Palestine struggle against the Israeli occupation since the late 1960’s. Although the horrendous Israeli occupation continues and is only possible because of continued U.S. support for Israel, there is growing support for a Palestinian homeland in the United States and against the brutal Israeli occupation. We have contributed to this change in public opinion here which is a necessary step for changing U.S. policy although not sufficient to change policy.

Through involvement in solidarity movements with liberation and revolutionary forces around the world, have led many including me to consider the need for revolutionary transformation of the United States to a participatory socialist society. Without being actively involved in solidarity work, I would not have become an advocate for and organized for radical change at home. Analogously, being in active support and solidarity with revolutionary groups such as the Black Panthers in the United States has also made me consider and then commit myself to working for fundamental change at home.

Are these movements taken seriously by the White House? I remember once hearing ex National Security adviser to Lyndon Johnson, McGeorge Bundy, saying in a debate with Noam Chomsky at MIT in 1969, that he, Bundy, now opposed the Vietnam war, not because it was wrong, but rather because many college students, who previously would have filled future positions in the government and corporations were now becoming radical and revolutionaries and this was undermining U.S. economic and political power. McGeorge Bundy was saying that in order to stop the growth of radical movements, the U.S. had to change its policy in Vietnam; that the radical part of the anti-Vietnam war movement was having an effect. If we look at the Nixon presidency, 1969-1974, much of the illegal activity and dirty tricks of the Nixon Watergate crew were aimed at radicals although their attacks on the establishment such as the New York Times made the headlines. They feared the growth of a radical new left in the United States, much of whose growth was connected to challenging racism in the U.S. and U.S. imperialism.

I am proud of my activism in solidarity with revolutionary movements and revolutionary societies and governments such as Venezuela and Cuba, I am proud of my activism. However, these societies or social movements and revolutionary political parties when they have taken power, e.g., Angola, South Africa, Nicaragua, and a unified Vietnam have not led to the type of society many of us inside and outside of those countries had struggled for. The reasons are complex. They include the difficulty of developing a workable alternative in a world dominated by global capitalism, e.g., Greece today; military subversion, e.g., Chile in 1973; and devastation caused by war by counterrevolutionary forces, e.g., Nicaragua and Mozambique. Reasons for lack of success also include the inability of developing a well functioning and liberatory alternative to capitalism. Cuba and Venezuela have made great advances in access to health care and education. However, they have not been able to continually and substantially increase domestic production of needed goods and services that are of high quality. Also, there has been a lack of democracy in many societies that have defeated capitalist and colonial rule in the sense that the people of these countries do not determine its politics and economics, and where the rights to protest, organize and form groups autonomous from the state and ruling party are severely limited. I continue to believe another world is possible and necessary but there is no model out there, we have to create our own.

I remember being shocked and angered when I learned in 1968 of the CIA overthrow of popular leaders, Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. In Southern California where I lived from 1970 to 1975, I had a lot of interaction and communication with members of the ISA, the Iranian Students Association. They played a major and important role in educating activists such as me about the negative role of the U.S. globally and the struggle of the Iranian people against the Shah. Most were socialists from various perspectives and they not only supported struggles in the U.S. for racial justice at home and in support of liberation struggles around the world but also encouraged us to do the same. I am very appreciative and learned a lot from these courageous Iranian students, many of whom suffered repression when they returned to Iran both before and after the fall of the Shah in 1979.

To me, the struggle against racial discrimination and for racial justice and equality has been central to my activism, organizing and teaching. The civil rights and Black liberation struggle was the central social movements of the 1960’s. Most of the most important social movements such as the women’s liberation movement, the Chicano movement and so many others are direct outgrowths of the Civil Rights and Black movement. Certainly gains were made, in reducing job discrimination, in increasing access to higher education, in voting rights, in a growth in Black consciousness and decline in racial prejudice. Nevertheless systemic racism is so deeply ingrained in all of the institutions of U.S. society so that racism has continued and in some ways has worsened since the late 1970’s. This is most clear with the huge growth of the incarceration of African-Americans and also the disproportionate incarceration of Latinos. The growing economic inequality in the United States over the last 35 years has of course worsened the situation of low income people in general and African-Americans and Latinos in particular, who are disproportionately low income. The decline of blue collar manufacturing jobs has furthered unemployment and poverty as have right-wing attacks on the public sector.

There have been important and positive changes in the United States although gains by social movements have always been less than what we have struggled for and are never permanent. Progress is not linear and the economic and social system in the United States is seriously and systemically flawed but it is a better place than it would be without this activism of millions of people. Positive change has come from the bottom up and it will continue to come primarily from the bottom up.

KZ: The Occupy Wall Street movement, which you had endorsed and supported in your speeches and writings, was primarily a movement aimed at bringing attention to the economic concerns of the American people and publicizing their protest against the socioeconomic inequality and uneven distribution of wealth. However, it progressively turned into an anti-corporate, anti-war movement and highlighted political demands, including an end to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and less spending on military and arms industry. How do you see this transition? Was it predictable at the outset?

PB: I was active in the Occupy Movement in Olympia. We had an encampment for two months before various police forced closed it, similar to what happened in many other parts of the country. In Olympia and I believe nationally, the main focus remained the power and wealth of the 1% who run this country and the growing inequality of income and wealth in the United States. Other issues such as immigration rights, the many U.S. wars around the world, climate change and the environmental crisis, racism and mass incarceration, indigenous struggles and reproductive rights were raised but were not successfully synthesized with the main demand. Some of the participants wanted to challenge corporate personhood, corporations having rights like people and to end their huge contributions to political candidates. Other participants wanted to focus on a tax on financial transaction which they called a Robin Hood as it would mainly tax the wealthy. There were some marches advocating for these reforms but there was never agreement on what major demands should be. The focus on the concerns of the American people and the massive and growing income and wealth inequality, cannot and should not be separated from an anti-corporate agenda although it should not be reduced to that either. Although almost all participants in Occupy favored less military spending and the end to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this did not become a major demand nor do I believe the Occupy movement transitioned towards an anti-war or primarily an anti corporate movement,. The anti-war movement in Olympia and the United States is quite weak right now.

KZ: Is the Occupy Wall Street movement, or at least its legacy, still alive and dynamic? President Obama had acknowledged that the protesters had legitimate demands that needed to be addressed, while the Republican politicians, including the 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney had furiously termed such protests “dangerous” that would incite class warfare. Do you think the police crackdown on the protesters or the Republican’s harsh response was what quashed the promising movement?

PB: I do think the increasing consciousness and discussion of the huge and growing inequality of income and wealth in the United States and the growing discussion of the concept of class oppression and exploitation such as the situation of low income workers is a direct legacy of Occupy Wall Street. Even though Hillary Clinton is beholden to Wall Street, she has been forced to make in rhetoric economic inequality the main issue in her campaign. It is hypocritical by her but shows the changes in popular consciousness. The enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, who is an anti-corporate and social democratic Senator from Vermont and candidate for President who calls himself a socialist, is even more directly connected to the politics of the 1% and 99% that directly comes out of Occupy Wall Street. In movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement, people are making connections to economic injustice and inequality. With regards to complaints by the powerful about class warfare, which is a common Republican and Fox news refrain, the reality is that corporate capital and their leaders with the support of the government have been conducting an aggressive and escalating class warfare against the working class of the United States and globally since the mid 1970’s in an attempt to restore and increase corporate profit rates.

Based mainly from my experience in Olympia, which maybe cannot be generalized, it is true that the police destroyed and ended our encampment in mid-December, 2011. However, by that time the weather had made the park we were occupying almost uninhabitable; it was a swamp. Most of the people sleeping overnight by early December were homeless people. One of the most positive aspects of Occupy Olympia was the increased communication and understanding between activists and homeless people that resulted from Occupy. Many of the street people and homeless identified as protesters, proud members of the 99% as the occupation of Heritage Park where we were located, progressed. Occupy Olympia like others in the Northwest, such as Seattle and Portland, provided for some of the needs of people there in a way that respected the dignity of all and created a temporary community. It made more visible the issues of poverty and homelessness in Olympia and the United States. On the other hand, we were not successful in developing a strategy, a campaign for economic justice, or building an ongoing movement or even the infrastructure for future mass social movements. We tried to both be a movement of the 99% but to also incorporate issues such as immigrant rights, to be against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and U.S. militarism, in support of indigenous struggles and reproductive rights but we didn’t figure out how to do this. We also were not very successful in welcoming and involving working class people over 30 years old into the Occupy Movement here.

These internal problems of structure, organization, and failure to do outreach in Olympia, were much more of a problem than repression. I believe this was also true beyond Olympia. On a larger level, lack of national networking, failure to build organization and infrastructure or develop demands and campaigns during this amazingly rapidly growing movement throughout the United States in fall, 2011are important reasons why the “Occupy Movement” no longer exists. Still it has changed the conversation in important ways.

KZ: In one of your commentaries, you noted that many soldiers who enlisted to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and fight for the US army came from the working class families and usually lacked proper employment and faced economic difficulties. They joined the military because they would otherwise have no job and no income. However, after returning to their homeland, they have to cope with trauma and a feeling of failure and find that virtually nothing has improved since they left the country for the battleground. What do the US politicians have to tell these soldiers who fought to uplift the values of their society, but are now encountering a different reality?

PB: When I have given talks to veterans, I point out the hypocrisy of most politicians and the mainstream media, calling for supporting the troops when what they mean is support the continuing U.S. wars with little regards for veterans of these wars. I point out that supporting the troops should mean opposing the wars but also creating a society where there is quality and affordable healthcare for all, meaningful jobs paying a living wage for all, accessibility to housing, free quality education, quality and affordable childcare, a sustainable environment, etc. This would be a concrete way of supporting the troops, who are primarily working class and their families. These ideas usually get a positive reception. There is an active Iraq Vets Against the War chapter in this area and an anti-war GI coffeehouse so there is anti-war activism among veterans of recent wars. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is very common and under diagnosed by the U.S military. Connecting demands for treatment with an anti-war perspective and demands for quality health care for all is very necessary.

KZ: According to Joseph Stiglitz, and as you cited him somewhere, the direct and indirect cost of the US wars since October 2001 equals 3 trillion dollars, which is a digit with a “3” and 12 zeros following it. Why has the United States government invested so heavily on these wars? Has it emerged successful and been able to realize its goals?

PB: The United States has become a permanent war economy. The United States no longer is the dominant economic power in the world. There isn’t any one country with economic hegemony. The United States still has military dominance and its role has increasingly become being the world’s cop for global capitalism. That is the principal reason for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. In addition, in Iraq, Bush, Cheney and their administration thought that they would open up Iraq for U.S. capital, especially the oil companies. They have not been successful. Neither the Bush administration, nor the Obama administration which followed has achieved their goal of a pro-U.S. Iraq where U.S. corporations, especially oil, have a major role in a country that was somewhat stable for U.S. and global capital. So the United States has not achieved their goals there and the Iraqi people have played a horrible price for 25 years of U.S. intervention there.

In Afghanistan the war continues with the U.S. and NATO still fighting. The U.S. should withdraw but they would have to admit a total defeat in terms of their objective of imposing a pro U.S. neoliberal capitalist country there. I grieve for the Afghani and Iraqi people and as in Syria the forces inside those countries that are struggling for an independent country committed to economic and social justice are currently weak although that has not always been the case. They are the hope for the future. One promising and important region of resistance, self-defense and self-government is in Rojava in the Kurdish region of Syria and its government led by the PYD, the Democratic Union Party and the connected YPG, the People’s Defense Units.

KZ: One of the threats to the global peace and security today is nuclear proliferation. The United States continues to possess large amounts of nuclear weapons in the world, and it seems to be reluctant to accept Iran’s calls for a nuclear-free Middle East, because a regional disarmament means that Israel, its most important regional ally, should disband its stockpile of atomic warheads. Do you think the US government is really intent on moving toward global non-proliferation and preclude an arms race in the Middle East?

PB: The U.S hypocrisy of demanding no building of nuclear weapons for Iran while having thousands of its own and supporting the large Israeli possession of them is striking. I fully support the idea of a nuclear free Middle East which of course should not only include Israel but also U.S. ships carrying nuclear weapons in the region. There is little knowledge inside the U.S. by the public of Iran’s call for a nuclear free Middle East although Noam Chomsky consistently mentions it in his talks and writings.

There has been a horrible double standard in the U.S. negotiations with Iran, i.e., that the U.S. and Israel can have nuclear weapons but Iran will be attacked militarily if they are close to having any. None the less, I was happy that an agreement was reached in early July, 2015 between Iran and the major powers. It will make it more difficult for the U.S. or Israel to attack Iran and it has to a minimal extent in the U.S. further exposed the reactionary and war mongering policies of Saudi Arabia and Israel. I am hopeful that the sanctions on Iran will be removed which should improve the lives of the Iranian people. I hope that the agreement if ratified will further the social forces inside Iran who are struggling for a more democratic and economically and socially just Iran as the threat from an external enemy diminishes somewhat. In the United States, the treaty is a defeat for the most reactionary and militaristic forces in the United States, which is necessary for there to be progress towards a better society here.

Kourosh Ziabari is an independent journalist from Iran.