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A Conversation With Institute for Policy Studies Scholar Phyllis Bennis

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IPS scholar Phyllis Bennis is quoted in this morning New York Times’ story on ISIS by Peter Baker.  She joined me for an interview on her criticism of President Obama’s very minimalist use of force in Iraq as the IS rampage accelerates.




HH: Joined now by Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s a fellow there. She directs the New Internationalism Project at IPS, and she is quoted in the Peter Baker article I was just talking about with Charles Krauthammer in today’s New York Times in which she said about President Obama’s decision to bomb IS in Iraq, “This is a slippery slope if I ever saw one. Whatever else we may have learned from the President’s ‘dumb war’, it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.” Phyllis, welcome, thank you for joining me.

PB: Good to be with you.

HH: You know, I am now fascinated by you, because I read that quote, and I went and watched your great interview with Peter Slen, who’s a friend of mine. I’ve been through that marathon thing over at C-SPAN. And I went and I watched your interview with Reality Asserts Itself from early December. And you have a remarkable career, and we don’t agree on anything, but this will be very, very polite.

PB: Well, I’m glad of that.

HH: Yeah, to summarize for people, they can go and look at those. I’ll put the links up. You’re a classic West side, liberal Jewish upbringing, you go to the University of California at Santa Barbara, you join SDS, and then you become an activist. I love your quote to Reality Asserts Itself, that “suddenly, school was not about going to classes. None of us went to class very much.” Now the statute of limitations is passed. Just as a matter of curiosity, were you involved in the bombing of the Faculty Club?

PB: Of course not. There was no bombing of the Faculty Club where I went to school.

HH: How about…

PB: And I certainly wouldn’t have been involved with it if there was.

HH: Well, I didn’t hear that, Phyllis?

PB: I said and I certainly wouldn’t have been involved with it if there was.

HH: There was a bombing at the school’s Faculty Club in ’69 by the SDS, according to what I looked up.

PB: I don’t remember that, but okay, I’ll take your word for it. I have no recollection of it. I certainly wouldn’t have…

HH: There are lots of arsons at UCSB as well. Any of that stuff touch you?

PB: I’m sorry, which stuff?

HH: The arsons. There was a lot of unrest at UCSB.

PB: There was. There was a lot of unrest. People were very angry about an illegal, immoral war that was going on in Vietnam, about a whole range of things, about the draft, about the lack of black studies departments. There were protests about lots of different issues in those days.

HH: Did you join the Weather Underground?

PB: No, I did not.

HH: Okay, just curious. You know, SDS’ers, I’ve got to ask, Ayers and Dohrn were in the SDS, right?

PB: That’s true. I never knew them, but I guess they were.

HH: All right, now a couple of GPS questions, I call them, for the benefit of the audience before we go to your comments today on Islamic State. And I do this in order to orient for the audience my guest’s understanding of history and sort of their view of the world. Number one, and this comes from Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago, President Obama’s sort of intellectual guru. Do you think Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy?

PB: And that’s relevant to what I think about what’s happening in Iraq today because?

HH: Cass Sunstein made the argument. I didn’t. He believes it creates a fault line in American politics which resonates to this day.

PB: I don’t. I think the fault line was the war in Vietnam.

HH: But do you think Hiss was a Soviet spy?

PB: I don’t know enough about it to have a real opinion. I don’t think I’ve read enough.

HH: Do you know who Alger Hiss is?

PB: Of course, I do.

HH: Okay, some people don’t. I figured you would. You’ve done enough writing.

PB: Of course, I do.

HH: But you haven’t reached a conclusion yet on whether he was?

PB: That’s fair to say.

HH: Okay, who was responsible, in your view, Phyllis Bennis, for the Cambodian genocide?

PB: For the genocide?

HH: Yeah.

PB: It was Pol Pot, who came to power as a result of the U.S. war in Cambodia.

HH: So do you think the U.S. was responsible for that genocide ultimately?

PB: I think Pol Pot carried it out. I think the U.S. war set the stage for Pol Pot to gain power.

HH: And does that imply responsibility, because I, what this does tie into…

PB: Sure, we are responsible for war crimes that we commit. We committed war crimes in Cambodia as well as Laos and Vietnam.

HH: And so…

PB: And we are responsible for them.

HH: Do you think those led to that genocide, because this will lead, we’re looking at a genocide in Western Iraq right now, and I want to establish what you think about culpability for that genocide. So I’m asking you…

PB: I think those who support policies that can be genocidal in their impact are responsible. I think that’s true of the U.S. support for Israel in Gaza. I think it’s true for a lot of things.

HH: Okay, now the quick rundown on what we share in common or don’t. Have you read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright?

PB: No.

HH: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins?

PB: Parts of it.

HH: Okay, anything by Bernard Lewis?

PB: Too much.

HH: Too much? You have read Bernard Lewis?

PB: Oh, yeah.

HH: So you just don’t agree with his understanding of Islam?

PB: That’s right.

HH: All right, there’s a key book by a…

PB: I don’t think he understands with his agreement about Islam.

HH: Okay, there is a wonderful book by a couple of John Kerry senior advisors, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins called The Nuclear Jihadist. Has that crossed your desk?

PB: I’ve seen it. I haven’t read it.

HH: Okay, last of these questions. Do you know who A.Q. Khan is?

PB: Yes.

HH: Okay, do you worry about what he did?

PB: I worry a lot more about the existing nuclear weapons that we know about, those that have been used, like the ones in our country, those that exist, the fourth most-powerful nuclear arsenal that is not acknowledged and not inspected, which is the one at the Dimona plant in Israel. I worry more about them. But sure, I worry about nuclear proliferation a lot. I just worry a lot more about nuclear, the need for nuclear disarmament and abolition.

HH: Do you really worry more about the Israeli nuclear arsenal than the Pakistani nuclear arsenal?

PB: Absolutely, because I think it’s destabilizing the region far more than the Pakistani arsenal is.

HH: Okay, now to the subject at hand.

PB: It’s also a lot bigger.

HH: And it’s not a debate. It’s just an interview, because I’m fascinated by your worldview. What do you understand the ideological goals of the Islamic State to be?

PB: I think they want to send people under their rule back to how people lived in the 7th Century.

HH: And…

PB: I think they are brutal and violent and misogynistic.

HH: And messianic?

PB: Yeah, I suppose so.

HH: Do you think they care much for the existing borders of the Middle East, or would they…

PB: No, they’ve been very clear. They care nothing for the borders of the Middle East, the colonial borders that were imposed after World War I. On the other hand, we should note that there are plenty of other people who also disagree with those borders. They’re hardly the first.

HH: Now is the Islamic State’s ideological agenda significantly different from that of Hamas?

PB: Completely.

HH: How so?

PB: Hamas does not believe in going back to the 7th Century. Hamas is a political organization that was created with Israeli support back in 1987, has a counterweight to the nationalist PLO, what Israel thought would be more dangerous, and was created to fight against Israeli occupation. It is an Islamist organization, but it has nothing comparable to the kind of extremism of the Islamic State. Now would I want to live under a Hamas government? Not particularly. I’m a pretty secular girl, Jewish or not. But that’s my choice. I don’t live there. Hamas was elected in 2006 in an election that the Carter Center, among others, called the most free and fair that had ever happened in the Arab world. It was not acknowledged. They were never given the chance to rule. And their military wing has carried out attacks that are in violation of international law. That’s certainly true.

HH: Are they war criminals?

PB: I think they have carried out violations of international law that count as war crimes. The degree of criminality, the seriousness of those war crimes, are dwarfed by those carried out by the Israeli military.

HH: In the aftermath of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, as you noted, part of the democratic process, but part of it was not democratic…

PB: Right.

HH: They executed a number of people.

PB: That’s right.

HH: Would you agree with that?

PB: I agree that they did it. I mean, it was an outrage that they did it.

HH: How many people do you think they executed?

PB: The numbers differ. It looks like it’s probably about 20.

HH: All right. Do you believe the ideological goals of IS to be the same of Boko Haram in Nigeria?

PB: I don’t know enough about Boko Haram to know that. I think that they share certain things, but I would not, I’m not an expert on Boko Haram. I don’t know.

HH: How about the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia?

PB: Again, I think that they share certain things, but I’m not an expert. You know, you’ve tried to make the links between all these organizations who share an Islamist framework, but they are very different, because they come out of very different history. There are international jihadis we might identify who come back and say that they are not accountable to any country, and they move from one country to another. But that’s different than acknowledging that there are people who are part of these organizations who grow out of the very specific circumstances of their country.

HH: I agree with that, but what I…

PB: Somalis…

HH: The reason I asked about them, and one more, do you think the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula share the goals of IS?

PB: I think they all have very different goals. They compete with each other. I mean, one of the big fights that’s going on in Syria right now, for example, is between the al Nusra front and the Islamic State. So do they share goals? Yeah. Some of them each want to be the top organization in the Islamist movement. That doesn’t mean they share the view that the other one should be.

HH: The reason I ask is when you’re quoted by Peter Baker, and Peter’s a terrific reporter, so I assume he quoted you correctly, you said, “it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”

PB: Right.

HH: We haven’t bombed Somalia. We haven’t bombed Nigeria. We haven’t…we have used drone strikes in the Yemen…

PB: No, we have bombed Somalia, first of all, but the point, I didn’t say, nor did Peter…

HH: I actually don’t think, I don’t think we have bombed Somalia. Are you, what are you referring to?

PB: I’m referring to back in the day when in the early 90s, when the U.S. went in first on a so-called humanitarian mission. It later became a military mission. It wasn’t massive bombings like what we’re seeing now, what we saw in Iraq, for instance. But I’m not claiming at all, and I don’t think that Peter quoted me as saying that only our bombs recruit Islamists. There’s recruiting on the basis of a whole lot of different issues.

HH: Yeah, that’s what I was getting to. I actually think the Islamic State exists independent of anything we do. And I credit them for what they say, and I read. And have you seen the Vice video that is being produced from the front lines by that remarkable organization?

PB: I’ve seen parts of it. You know, I think the point is there’s lots of different reasons that people become Islamists. People are desperate for all kinds of reasons. People can’t get jobs. Sometimes, that’s enough. People see their families bombed. Sometimes, that’s what pushes them. People feel completely oppressed by their own government, so they turn to religion as an alternative. Sometimes, that’s what turns it. You know, there’s all kinds of reasons that people turn to religion. There’s reasons people turn to violence. There’s no one reason. My point there in the New York Times quote, and I stand by it, is that when the U.S. or other outside agencies, we’re hardly the only one in history, we just are doing it more these days, bomb in other countries when we think that we are going in on the side of other people, for instance, very often, those other people turn against us because we’re killing their children who might have gotten in the way, or we’re killing their neighbors who joined an organization that they may not agree with, but they would rather have them alive than have us come in and killing them. So there are all kinds of…

HH: Well right now, the Kurds are begging us to intervene, as are the Yazidis. And the Yazidis certainly, and the Kurds possibly, will be wiped out by IS if we don’t. Do you think we ought to intervene? Do you think we ought to put boots on the ground, especially in Kurdistan, to protect a historic ally of the United States>

PB: No, I don’t think we should have any more boots on the ground, or sneakers on the ground, like the Special Forces wear, throughout Iraq. I think we’ve proved through the last war to the tune of $3 trillion dollars of our tax money and you know, a lot of young American soldiers killed, and far more Iraqi civilians killed, over a million in the years between the war and the sanctions that preceded the war, we made things worse. We didn’t make things better. And I think that would be exactly what would happen again.

HH: Is there any level of…

PB: We should have learned a lesson that President Obama tried to teach us when he said this was a dumb war. He’s now going back and creating his own dumb war.

HH: Is there any level of body count of Yazidis and Kurds that would change your mind, Phyllis Bennis?

PB: The body counts would be horrific. Our going in to bomb is not going to end those body counts. My point isn’t that it’s okay that people are being killed. It’s what do we do about it. Sending bombers is not what works.

HH: Now of course, the United States was attacked on 9/11, and before that, it was attacked in World War II, so it had reasons to respond in Afghanistan and in those global conflicts.

PB: It doesn’t mean it has reasons to, legal reasons to respond the way it did. There’s lots of possible responses. What the U.S. did in my view was not a legitimate use of Article 51 of the U.N. charter, which was cited, which is the self-defense article.

HH: And in World War II as well?

PB: No. World War II, I do agree.

HH: Okay, so going in to stop genocide is also a sanctioned activity of U.N.-sponsor states, is it not? Are we not treaty obliged to stop genocide?

PB: Yes. Yes, we are.

HH: And so if we see the conditions of genocide developing in Iraq, and I think we do, are we not treaty obliged to go in and stop that?

PB: I think we’re treaty obliged first to go to the United Nations and join with others to do it, which is exactly what the U.N. tried to organize when Maliki, the U.S.-backed prime minister of Iraq, refused. The U.S. just said okay, then we’ll send the U.S. Air Force instead. That’s not how it works. It’s a completely politicized process of when the U.S. will use the term genocide, and when it won’t. I think many of your listeners will remember when earlier presidents, for example, refused to use the word genocide when it came to Rwanda, because they didn’t want to feel the need to respond. You know, the question of when the term gets used is not something that is some objective committee out there that says. The U.N. Security Council is the right one that’s in the position to make a decision.

HH: But it’s paralyzed by Putin. And so there will be no action.

PB: They’re paralyzed more often by the United States when the Israeli member of the Knesset…

HH: But Phyllis, that’s not responsive. Let’s try and stay focused on Western Iraq, because that’s why I called you. And so Putin will block any action of the Security Council in Western Iraq. And so I’m curious if you think there are circumstances, can you imagine circumstances under which the United States ought to intervene to stop genocide?

PB: In Iraq? It’s hard, I can’t imagine any situation where U.S. military action in Iraq would make the situation better. I think in every situation, it makes it worse.

HH: Well, that’s a different question. I’m asking whether or not as a…

PB: I’m answering the question that I see as the important question.

HH: I know, but the key for the audience, and I think where your argument unravels, is whether or not you’re ever willing to stop genocide absent a U.N. Security Council…

PB: I’m willing to do a lot to stop genocide. Sending U.S. troops or U.S. bombers, in my experience, is never the right way to do it. So am I prepared to do that? No. Am I prepared to do other things? Yes. But I also think we have to be very clear about when the U.S. is and is not prepared to acknowledge calls to genocide. President Obama spoke of the IS forces “having called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide.” That’s exactly right. But there was also a member of the Israeli Knesset, her name is Ayelet Shaked, who posted a call to kill Palestinian mothers, so in her words, they would not give birth to what she called little snakes. Would that not be constituting genocide as well? Why don’t we hear…

HH: But of course, Phyllis, again, it’s not a debate. It’s an interview.

PB: I know, but this is my answer.

HH: I’m just trying to figure about Iraq. I know your positions on Gaza and Israel. I actually have read quite a lot over there. John Feffer has another piece at IPS today.

PB: Yeah.

HH: People are welcome to go there.

PB: Right.

HH: But I wanted to establish today that the expert to whom Peter turned to actually cannot imagine any conditions under which America would intervene to stop anything in Kurdistan in Iraq.

PB: No, in Kurdistan, in Iraq right now, it’s hard for me to imagine that. I’m not prepared to say I could never imagine anything. I thought that the U.S. played a terrible role when it prohibited the United Nations by vetoing in the Security Council, or threatening to veto, they pulled it off before it had to, the ability of the U.N. protection force that was already on the ground in Rwanda, for instance, in 1994 to stop that genocide.

HH: But again, I’m just talking about right now, there are Yazidis on the mountain who are…

PB: I’m talking about right now. I don’t think that the people, Yazidi people, Kurdish people, or other Iraqis, will be helped by U.S. bombing.

HH: So, but they’re dying. I honestly, I don’t understand. They’re dying by the hundreds. Soon, it will be by the thousands.

PB: No, they’re not dying by the hundreds. They’re dying terribly by the dozens. And there is already a Kurdish, I’m forgetting the word, a corridor that’s been opened to get people off the mountain, which is very important.

HH: And I hope it stays open.

PB: I do as well.

HH: But if it doesn’t, if it doesn’t, and it was opened by American air strikes…

PB: It wasn’t.

HH: If it doesn’t, and people rack up by the hundreds, and then the thousands, and a long…

PB: 790-some odd people were killed in Iraq under the bombs of the so-called No Fly Zone.

HH: But again, Phyllis, that’s changing the subject. And I know the left does this.

PB: No, it isn’t. That was Iraq. That was the No Fly Zone. That’s exactly…

HH: I’m talking about right now, just right now.

PB: Right, and I’m saying right now, sending U.S. bombers to Iraq is a bad idea.

HH: And so under no conditions…

PB: I didn’t say that.

HH: That’s what I’m trying to get at.

PB: I said I could imagine maybe there could be some conditions. I don’t know what it would be. I don’t see that condition now.

HH: Is it a thousand people a day dying?

PB: It’s not about how many. It’s about would it do any good. I’m saying it’s not going to protect people. It’s going to kill more people.

HH: And if I were to say, again, it’s not a debate.

PB: Sure, it is, but that’s okay.

HH: If I were to turn to a military advisor, and a military advisor were to say to the President yes, we can stop this, we can defeat ISIS…

PB: Right, and I would say no, you can’t. It’s going to make it worse in the longer term.

HH: All right, now this brings me to the last question…

PB: Okay, because I have to go in a minute.

HH: And it actually takes me back to your college days, this last conversation piece. Is it possible that your emotional and intellectual development stalled out in the 60s, and that the understandings of the world you achieved then…

PB: No, it’s not.

HH: …froze in place so that you…

PB: No, it’s not.

HH: …that you cocooned, and in other words, you can’t allow yourself to shift?

PB: No. No, I have shifted many, many times. I just gave you examples of them. That’s a rather insulting question, but unfortunately, it’s the last one, because as I told your staff, I do have to leave.

HH: But what, how, which ones did you give me? I’m unaware of the examples that you gave me.

PB: I’m sorry, I gave you the example of Rwanda. I told you that I could imagine other conditions might change later, but they haven’t changed in Iraq now. Going to Iraq now would be a disaster.

HH: But you cannot articulate a standard, and this is not intended to be insulting. It’s actually…

PB: I’m sorry, I told your staff I have to leave now, and I do, because I have two more interviews coming up. I’m very sorry, but thank you for your time.

HH: All right, Phyllis, I hope you’ll come back another time.

PB: Perhaps, Thank you.

HH: Thank you.



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