This week on Truthdig Radio in association with KPFK: Code Pink challenges Occupy movement “manarchists,” Oliver Stone talks history and Tariq Ali argues that President Obama is a continuation of President George W. Bush. Plus the winner of our protest song contest.
A full transcript is available below.
Listen to the show:
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK in Los Angeles. I’m Truthdig.com managing editor Peter Scheer. Today on the show we’ve got a general strike in Oakland; manarchism in New York; and a Bush clone in the White House, says Tariq Ali, who we’ll be hearing from later in the show. Also, Oliver Stone, Jodie Evans and Melanie Butler, and later in the show we’ll announce the winner of our Ry Cooder-inspired Power of Protest Music Contest. You’ll definitely want to catch that. But first, Code Pink founder Jodie Evans has an update from Oakland’s general strike, and New York-based activist Melanie Butler tells us how to handle manarchism in the movement.
Josh Scheer: Welcome to Truthdig Radio. I’m on the phone with Jodie Evans of Code Pink and Melanie Butler. Thank you, ladies, for joining me.
Melanie Butler: Thank you, Josh.
Jodie Evans: Thank you, Josh, for having us.
Josh Scheer: So we’re going to go right to Jodie. What’s the situation in Occupy Oakland today with the general strike?
Jodie Evans: It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. There are just so many people, thousands and thousands, no police in sight. Every march totally takes over the street; people just march; they shut down the Wells Fargo branch this morning, and on the outside pasted a lot of stickers that said “You Owe the 99 Percent.” The people’s mic is going all the time. And there’s just people coming and offering, this morning about a hundred people did a flash mob, “I will survive capitalism”; there’s interfaith ceremonies; there’s a wailing wall that the Jewish Circle put up, and one of our Code Pinkers just put inside “Occupy Wall Street, Not Palestine.” The weather is gorgeous, and as Melanie sometimes calls the Occupies manarchies—it’s the opposite; it’s diverse, it’s women, it’s children, it’s glorious. And later this afternoon the goal is to shut down the port and that’ll start at around five o’clock; their shift changes at 7 and the longshoremen are onboard. And you know, the last general strike was in 1946, and that was before all the big changes in Wall Street happened that helped level the playing field in America until the ’80s, when Reagan and the onslaught of Republicans gutted all of those.
So today is an exciting day. Melanie, who you’ll hear from later, has been occupying Wall Street for six weeks. And through her presence there and our presence around the country in Maine and Texas and Florida and Boston and Philadelphia, and all the things that we learned, is we really came to understand that there needed to be a way the women could share their stories. And so we’ve created WomenOccupy.org and WomenOWS on Twitter, to help women be able to share their stories and best practices because of the issues that come up in the Occupies around women. I’m going to let Melanie talk more about that.
Josh Scheer: OK, great. Melanie—and, yeah, the Nation magazine wrote a piece on October 26 about how great these movements are, but women have found some issues. And can we get into that a little bit? What are the issues that women are facing?
Melanie Butler: Sure. Well, what’s important to remember first off the bat is that the issues women face at Occupy Wall Street are the issues that women face everywhere in the world, unfortunately. But the main difference that I see with our movement and what makes it, for me, so exciting, so new and so worth pursuing and worth fighting for, is that within this community that we’ve created there is a genuine willingness to tackle these issues and to truly make this a space where all voices can be heard equally, where there’s … representation from all sectors of the community, and where people can really be involved and have a voice.
So in the early days of Occupy Wall Street—and I just wanted to point out, women have been involved in this movement since the very beginning, since the very early planning stages back in July, back in August. We have been there, we have been on the front lines, and we continue to be on the front lines every day. Unfortunately, that is not always what is reflected by mainstream media, and it’s not always what you see when you go down, just like Jodie was saying, you know; sometimes on the streets it does seem like an angry mob of manarchists. And part of that is that the roles that women have been fulfilling, and the committees that they’re on, aren’t always the most glamorous or the most visible roles. But we are working on that, and we’re working on having more women’s involvement in every single committee, whether it’s media or medical or security.
So that’s the main difference, and that’s what I see that is so exciting. And in the early days of the occupation–just like I was saying, it’s gotten a little bit better now–but what I noticed was that, as I was watching the news coverage, there was such an underrepresentation of women. And you know, I went to the general assembly and I said—I had just come from seeing a media piece that interviewed 10 people, and nine of those people were men. And I said the 99 percent is not 90 percent men. And that was the message that really resonated with people. So what Code Pink has been doing, and some other groups have been doing, is we’ve been doing media trainings to help women get out there and have their voices represented in the media. And when we had that first media training to combat what I saw happening in the media, what we found when we did the sort of go-around of why people were there was that it wasn’t just a problem in the media; it was also a problem within the larger group of women really struggling to have their voices heard. And part of that is just because this is a reflection of the larger society, and even though this is a participatory and inclusive and horizontal movement, if you’ve never been given a platform to use your voice, you’re not going to be the one stepping up to use it; you’re not going to be the one that says ‘I have an idea worth sharing.’
So the work that we’ve been doing is to just work with women to talk about their stories, to get them feeling more confident and more comfortable speaking in the general assemblies, speaking to press, and to know that their ideas are important, and to encourage them to step up. And we still need more, you know; we still need more women coming down.
One of the other challenges is making sure that we are creating safer spaces for women on the ground. So I’ve been working a lot with the Safer Spaces Committee, in conjunction with all kinds of other teams; we have support circles; we have, within the Women’s Caucus that I’m a part of, we’re working on awareness of some of the issues that women face. And tonight we’re having a Safer Spaces sleep-out. We’ve done that before; it’s been really successful. So these are some of the things that we’ve been doing, and we’ve also been having, just basically creating forums for women to speak to one another—discussion circles where women can get together and just simply talk. Because what we found was that the space has become very male-dominated, and women are experiencing so much frustration with that that it’s really, really important sometimes to just sit around with other women in a safe space and just talk.
And actually I just wrote a piece on this, which is up on the Code Pink blog; I called it “Are We Bonobos or Chimpanzees?” And it draws inspiration from a story someone shared at the first meeting of our discussion group, where they compared our society to the bonobos and chimpanzees, which are two different kinds of monkey. But they’re almost exactly the same, and what sets them apart is that bonobo society, which is very, very peaceful, is characterized by strong female bonding, and the female bonobos spend a lot of time together; whereas female chimpanzees live in isolation and spend their days gathering food and, as a result, chimpanzee society is terribly violent and hierarchical. So we kind of took that model, and said women just need a time to talk.
Josh Scheer: Also, [in] bonobo society, women are the leaders; they’re the ones who empower.
Melanie Butler: That’s right.
Josh Scheer: They use violence, though, but they’re—I studied this; this is one of my favorite things, so you’re going to get me off on a tangent here—but yeah, bonobos handle their problems with sexuality and not as much violence. And then obviously, chimps, we know, are very violent.
Melanie Butler: Bonobos have a lot of sex. [Laughs]
Josh Scheer: Yeah, a lot of sex. Just one last thing, because we’re on KPFK and I know we’re both nonprofit organizations, and I know this is a fund drive. And I want to just make sure–can you guys tell us a little something, why we should support KPFK and Pacifica? And then I’ll just end it there, because we are in a fund drive, and I think KPFK is worth supporting. And again, it’s all public—I’m sure, like Code Pink—all public supported; it’s not supported by Wal-Mart or Bank of America.
Jodie Evans: Josh, let me talk, because this is so important. We wouldn’t be having this movement, we wouldn’t have the voices we have, if we didn’t have the opportunity of KPFK to tell the truth, to tell the story that’s not being told; to [make] the voices and the stories available to those of us who are hungry for them—what the dead mainstream media that doesn’t tell the truth, and doesn’t reflect reality, without KPFK and the amazing voices that have been there nonstop. The courage of some of these voices, the willingness to dig into the story and pull up the truth, is invaluable. And everyone should be supporting KPFK if they want democracy.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you guys so much. And again, we’d love to have you both on to give live reports from both New York and Occupy Oakland, Occupy wherever you guys are, because I know you’re everywhere. And we’d love to hear it, because this is the biggest movement that we’ve seen in a long, long time, and it’s not going anywhere.
Jodie Evans: Well, and just the other thing is, L.A. really needs more women. L.A. … we’ve just gotten donated a big tent … we have our women’s circles that talk about manarchy. We need more women to be coming down to L.A. and not as looky-loos, but to get engaged and be supportive and bring the skills that you have into the women’s circles there. Thank you.
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer … that interview was Joshua Scheer speaking with Code Pink’s Jodie Evans and Melanie Butler. Coming up on the show, we have a discussion with Tariq Ali and we reveal the winner of our Power of Protest Music Contest. But first, Oliver Stone speaks with Truthdig’s Kasia Anderson about his new book of interviews with Tariq Ali and also about Occupy Wall Street.
Kasia Anderson: The creative collaboration between director Oliver Stone and one-man political think tank Tariq Ali began not three years ago, but they’ve already produced three joint projects spanning multiple continents and eras.
Stone gave a talk at Book Soup in Los Angeles recently to introduce their latest venture, the book “On History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone in Conversation,” a deceptively slim volume that delivers a hefty dose of historical analysis and commentary. “On History” is the print-based byproduct of hours of interviews Stone conducted with Ali—covering everything from the Russian Revolution to World War II, the Soviet Union and post-9/11 America—for two documentaries. The first, “South of the Border,” came out in 2009, and the second, a 13-part series with a title that promises more of the sort of provocative stuff Stone is known for, “The Untold History of the United States,” is slated for a 2012 release on Showtime.
During a Q&A session at the bookstore, Stone talked up the Showtime series, pointing out how “we don’t get that point of view, certainly not on television” — at least from where he sits.
He was careful to keep the spotlight on Tariq Ali during the discussion, but he let his own opinion be known about some timely topics that he believes are either missing from the mainstream media’s headlines and sound bites or covered in a way that serves their corporate interests.
Stone slammed Obama’s picks of the Wall Street litter for his economic advisory team, issuing a warning to the president that “If you’re going to enable people who are rotten, you’re going to become rotten after a while.” He was particularly critical of what he called the “self-delusional” mainstream media for their failure to tell the full story about the diplomatic impasse that the U.S. and Iraq reached over the Status of Forces Agreement, and particularly American troops’ immunity from Iraqi law—the sticking point that ultimately became the deal-breaker that dictated Obama’s withdrawal timeline. “There’s an arrogance to our media that we have a right to do these things,” he said .”The only issue is how this will affect Obama’s re-election campaign.”
Stone took a moment to sit down with Truthdig to talk about his book with Ali and the places his own professional and political instincts have taken him.
Oliver Stone: I love the idea [that] we grow up and we get the official story that the media keeps giving us over and over again. I think Tariq undercuts that, undermines it; and he does it pretty boldly. And he just says boom, boom, boom—he goes into the Russian Revolution and how that really terrified Europe and the United States, and how that set up so many issues that followed from the consequences of World War I, which is the Great War, you know. But we go into that, into the history a lot more, but Tariq does just this much; just give them a taste, and if they want to know more, let them go back and read more about this. But Tariq’s written many, many books; he is the Noam Chomsky of England in a way; he keeps turning them out, right? One after the other. He just did one on Obama; this was about a year ago. He had done some investigation in Chicago, and came to the conclusion that [Obama] was very much a product of the Chicago political machine. Which was before anybody was talking about his background, and it seems like he was looking at Obama a little bit more objectively than some of the starry-eyed media here.
Kasia Anderson: Did he change your mind about anything about American history in the process of these discussions?
Oliver Stone: Well, see, a lot of his answers are coming from my questions. There are so many things—Pakistan; the concept of communism in France and Italy; his view of Trotsky, of course, as opposed to Stalin; his view of when the Russian Revolution was betrayed. Very strong on Third World. And I remember the [Bandung], what the 1955 conference meant, and above all the murder of the Lumumba, as well as the betrayal by the United States in the 1950s of the Third World. … What we did in Pakistan in 1958. Nobody talks about it, but look where we are with Pakistan today. Go back to ’58, you know, we have a lot to do with the coup d’etat there. And that was separate from the coup d’etat in Baghdad in ’58; there was another one too. … History is littered with minefields of truth.
Kasia Anderson: And what about the blowback section?
Oliver Stone: Johnson used that word, yeah, Chalmers Johnson. Wrote wonderful—four books before he died; more than four, but four books come to mind—he died in 2010, just died. But, God, what an elegant writer. And he deals with it very well. But this blowback is inevitable. And he talks about, in that same—the war on terror, he talks about the King David Hotel, of course, and Menachem Begin, the leader of Israel, and how he was one of the first terrorists on a big scale; he brought terrorism to another level with the bombing in Jerusalem. I mean, blowback’s inevitable. And as Chalmers Johnson called it, he called it Nemesis, which is the goddess of retribution in Greek mythology. Inevitably, we’ve committed so many crimes, Johnson is saying the whole 21st century is going to be a series of blowbacks. It’s pretty scary.
Kasia Anderson: I wanted to know, just for our listeners too, if you had a reaction or any statement about Occupy Wall Street and the movements going on, on [both] the domestic and international levels, feeding in somewhat from your conversations that you [and Tariq Ali] had for this book.
Oliver Stone: I made some comments in The New York Times; it’s on DealBook. We had screened “Salvador” the night before at the New York Film Festival’s 25th anniversary. So “Salvador” was done in 1986, and there were street protests all over that movie. And you see the results: The death squads come, and they basically slaughtered, in Central America, the entire protest class. They slaughtered teachers, nuns, bishops, priests and labor union agitators; everybody who was for reform got killed by these death squads.
And I was thinking about these protests in the film, and the next morning I went to Occupy Wall Street, and it was so peaceful. You don’t get a sense there that you’re going to be set upon by machine-gun-toting thugs who are going to cart you off and kill you, you know; there is a sense of security, and that undercuts the concept of the real protests. Seattle ’99 was rougher. But I certainly admire their desire for reform.
But the bankers have to laugh at this, I mean, they’re gonna shrug and keep walking. Nothing is going to affect them except the Volcker bill, which is where it all matters. I was reading today in some article that the Volcker bill was originally three pages by [Paul] Volcker. He wrote a three-page memo that’s now become 250 pages of dense bureaucratic exceptionalism. So it’s very hard to get anything through in this era of lawyers and specialization, but essentially the Glass-Steagall Act has to be restored. So, you know, the bankers—everyone knows what they did wrong. They had a feast, and they partied on other people’s money, basically, and they continue to party, although I think there are some changes.
So, I wish them well, but I don’t know if the culture can change. Because Wall Street is not just Wall Street, it’s also Washington; and that’s a big—I would occupy Washington. I think Washington is the one that needs to be changed the most, but you know, they tried. The Iraq War demonstrations were the biggest ever. More people objected to that war, and yet that was played down and basically trivialized by the media. …
Grab the power. Grab the power. Get it away, and get these people out of office. Democrat, Republican—it makes no difference.
* * *Peter Scheer:
That was Oliver Stone speaking to Truthdig’s Kasia Anderson. And we’re back with Truthdig Radio; I’m Peter Scheer, and I’m in the studio with Alan Minsky. Coming up, we’ll hear Tariq Ali’s conversation we had earlier today about President Obama’s decline into Bushdom. And we’ll announce the winner of our Power of Protest Music Contest. … Let’s go to that interview with Tariq Ali.
So you’ve come out with an update to “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad,” which is really an ahead-of-the-curve look at how the Obama presidency is a continuation of W. Bush before it, Clinton before that, H.W. Bush before that. Maybe you want to summarize your thesis for us.
Tariq Ali: Well, my thesis in “The Obama Syndrome” is very simple. Which is that despite the hyped-up promises made by Obama on civil liberties, on health, essentially he has delivered nothing. The only reform is to take the Clinton views on homosexuality, ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ further and legalize that; that’s good. But you know, on the main issues of world politics the continuity with Bush is quite startling. Escalation of the war in Afghanistan, more drone attacks on Pakistan than during the Bush regime; the promises to close down Guantanamo totally dishonored, and in fact Obama has released fewer people from Guantanamo than Bush did. Small wonder that Bush, on his recent visit to India, and elsewhere, says he’s very pleased with the way Obama is governing the country. He has no disagreements with him. So my book highlights how that happened, why that happened and why Obama is continuing on this path. And why we need a movement to protest against all this.
Peter Scheer: Let me just ask about Guantanamo specifically, because that’s an example that’s often cited. And it’s also something that you know, he claims that Congress, or Congress wasn’t funding the transfer of prisoners, wouldn’t allow him to have trials on United States soil. To what extent is that a defense of Obama?
Tariq Ali: Well, he had a majority in Congress. Both the Senate and the House for the first two years of his office, you know. President’s first two years, with a majority in both houses, is very significant; so he can’t use that as an excuse. You know, within the first 400 days he could have done that; within the first year. This is a campaign pledge, and it’s being implemented. And told his party to vote for it, and had it not voted for it he could have done something else; he could have appealed to the people who elected him, the millions on his supporters’ list, on the Web, and asked them to come out. You know when Roosevelt, during the New Deal, was being disrupted he made direct appeal to the people in his firefight cap. This guy has accepted all this very quickly and is now using it as an excuse, saying I couldn’t do it because of Congress. I don’t accept that.
Peter Scheer: Since you’ve updated the book, have your findings been confirmed? Have they changed at all?
Tariq Ali: Yeah, I’m afraid the findings have been vindicated even more. I don’t say this with a great deal of pleasure, because it’s not nice to be proved right when what is being proved is a disastrous political and economic situation in the United States. So I’m not happy about it, because I know that large numbers of young people had real hopes which have now proved to be complete illusions, in Obama. But I think that’s the way he’s going, and given that the Republicans seem to be in a total mess, unless something unforeseen happens Obama will be re-elected; that’s what I write in the book. But re-elected to carry on as his predecessors, not to do anything new.
Peter Scheer: You know, that issue of the young people has always bothered me, because you had this huge movement across the country. Granted, it was organized around some really vague ideals, but it was a huge movement of people, more unprecedented political involvement among young people who have traditionally been written off as a political force who really slaved away for Obama, working for free, devoting their time, traveling around the country. And came out in droves to vote for him; changed the politics of the country, and then almost immediately, must be the most cynical and disillusioned group of people in America, I would think, given the disappointment.
Tariq Ali: I agree with you. I was in the United States three times that year, election year, and witnessed for myself the enthusiasm. And often when I was speaking on campuses, I saw the enthusiasm for myself, and I also bit my lip; I didn’t want to say anything to disillusion them, you know, because it’s awful when someone older and from another generation tells them hey, you know, don’t believe a word of this. People have to learn from their own experiences, and they have done, and they’re very angry. And I think that is one reason for the occupation movement; that even though they’re sort of reluctant to say what their demands are, there’s no doubt that one reason they’re out is because they’re disillusioned with the Obama government. Otherwise they wouldn’t be protesting like this. So one result has been independent organization, discussions taking place nonstop, all over the country. I was in Oakland last week and talked to many of the occupiers and spoke to them, actually, in Oakland. And the mood is quite militant; it’s not a mood of the majority, but I think a majority of the country is very skeptical now about politics. I mean, a number of opinion polls have shown that. Not just students, but working people and the unemployed.
Peter Scheer: You know, you can compare these movements, like the Occupy Oakland or New York or Boston to Los Angeles, where they have a mostly sympathetic local government where they’re camped out. And the difference maybe in energy and attitude and focus. I mean, maybe you need something to react against, as supporters of Obama were in 2008, reacting against the years of Bush rule. I want to ask you about—you have this really great Malcolm X quote at the top of your book, and he said in 1964: “It isn’t the president who can help or hurt, it’s the system. And this system is not only ruling America; it is ruling the world.”
Tariq Ali: Well, I think Malcolm was absolutely right. And you know, on the one occasion that we met and talked he repeated all this to me. And he also knew the power of the system. Because at the end of this sort of conversation we had, I said, “Malcolm, great to meet you, and I hope we meet up again soon.” And he said, “I don’t think we will.” And I said, “What do you mean you don’t think we will? What is this?” And he said, “Oh, I think they’re going to kill me.” I said, “Who is going to kill you?” He said, “the nation, the FBI, both together; the system doesn’t like me. Black politicians, especially, when we begin to talk about blacks and whites uniting to fight the system, that’s what they hate the most; it’s fine if we stay in the ghettos.” And within a few months he was dead. I have never forgotten that conversation. And of course he is right.
On the other hand, even within the system, certain presidents, if they wish to, can bring about reforms. You know, it has happened, though it has to be pointed out that these reforms have never come without movements from below. The New Deal came when there were factory occupations, you know, Flint occupied; trade unions were being formed; there was a sense of radicalism in the air after the ’29 crisis. And Roosevelt used all this to push through reforms, and also of course at that time the Soviet Union was seen as a possible alternative to capitalism, and that too scared the governments of the day into instituting reforms lest the dreaded vulturism spread to their countries. So all of these things did it, and then the Johnson reforms, the Great Society reforms, were a very direct outcome of a huge civil rights movement that had developed. And the fact that GIs returning home from the Vietnam War, black GIs, were participating as snipers in the big revolts that hit every city with large black populations, and that’s what pushed that through, because they couldn’t fight a war abroad and at home at the same time. And so they did push things through, and whether Obama would, if the movement were really to increase in size, is an open question, because I think he is a deeply conservative politician. I mean, the account in my book of him operating in the Illinois State Assembly shows the future Obama much, much more clearly than the vacuous speeches and the slogans of the campaign.
Peter Scheer: How do you see this movement affecting the president? Certainly it’s adjusted his speeches, his style a little bit. But do you see that having a—
Tariq Ali: I think that, basically, they would like to co-opt the movement and use it to get—you know, sort of to show, “look, we have our own version of the tea party.” This is what he said on one occasion. But I don’t think it’s going to work like that. I think the fact is that the movement is largely, if you like, a movement which is proclaiming a moral and ethical campaign against the excesses of Wall Street, the bankers and the capitalist system. So the solution to their problems lie in deep structural reforms and changes at the top of American society. And even though they don’t demand it, that is the logic of what they say. They are attacking the system as it exists, and there is no way Obama is going to do that. But he can ignore the movement unless it increases in size, and you know, more or less says that “we’re not going to vote for any of these politicians.” Were it to do that, and increase in size, then I think he would feel the pinch. What he’d do is an open question, because you know, he’s very confident now, because the Republican candidates are utterly useless … he thinks he’s going to win anyway.
Peter Scheer: Other than the economy, the area where Obama seems to be most a continuation of his predecessors, and maybe even taking it further, is foreign policy. You yourself are from Pakistan; that’s a country where the president is waging a kind of casual war without declaring war, just flying in and bombing people. The justification for this, as you say in your book, is that it’s—and this is a legal reasoning—that it’s for the national security of the United States that we can fly drones anywhere and bomb anyone. Isn’t that just license to do whatever we want in the world?
Tariq Ali: It is. And the United States is the only country that has this license, and uses it at will. Most of Europe follows suit. I mean, you know, because in my opinion, in the Western world at any rate, the only country with real sovereignty is the imperial state—in this case, the United States. And they do what they want to get away with it, and they use the institutions available, so if the Security Council has passed a vote, they’ll use that. They’ll use NATO; if there are divisions in NATO they go themselves unilaterally. That’s been the way for some time. And there’s nothing new here. The problem now is that we live in a unipolar world; there’s no set of countries which, at least nominally, are opposed to all of this. So the U.S. now feels it can genuinely do whatever it wants, except in the Far East, [although] it’s got Japan and South Korea. The Chinese can’t be manipulated that easily; I mean, they don’t intervene in world politics; at the moment, they’re only interested in the economy. So the U.S. has essentially—you know, can do what they like. I mean, the fact that Obama is angry with UNESCO for recognizing the Palestinians as an entity—I mean, UNESCO’s decision is purely symbolic; it changes nothing, it just accepts that the Palestinians are an entity, and we can’t deny their existence. And for that, Obama has ordered that U.S. funding of UNESCO is immediately withdrawn.
Peter Scheer: Isn’t that, in and of itself, an indication that American influence has waned? That you can have this, that they have to negotiate behind the scenes in this protracted battle to get Palestinian statehood recognized, and the U.N. has gone a lot—you know, it’s not like they just pointed a finger and said “no,” right? They’ve been negotiating heavily, how are we going to sort out this problem, and you have a lot of countries willfully ignoring U.S. influence, including our allies in Europe.
Tariq Ali: Yeah, on the question of Palestine the U.S. policies are deeply unpopular in most parts of the world. But that doesn’t mean that they change. I mean, the umbilical cord that now ties them to Israel via funding, via military links, is as strong as ever it was. And look, there was always opposition to the United States in the past; they ignored it, and they ignore it now even more strongly. It’s not the case that people always agreed. If you look back to the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s, no European country sent troops to fight with them; even Britain, which is the closest to them, refused to send troops. Whereas in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, the Europeans by and large back them up and go along with them. So it’s, I think, too premature to say that U.S. power is waning. I know this is a popular view; I don’t accept it myself. I think that the U.S. has suffered some setbacks, but I don’t think that power is waning. I mean, at the present, even as we talk, there are discussions going on [about] whether to invade and attack Iran and destroy its nuclear reactors or not. I mean, there’s heavy pressure from Israel to do so; it’s reported in the British press today that the British military has been told to be on the alert for this attack on Iran. I mean, it may be just the rocket rattling, as has happened before, to frighten the Iranians. But were they to do this, let us imagine that they do it—I mean, the results throughout that region would be dire. You know, it would be full scale war, and it would be much, much more serious than Iraq because the Iranian armed forces are not a destroyed or spent force, as they were, which the U.S. knew quite well in the case of Iraq. The Iranians are going to fight back, and the war could spread into Iraq again, into Israel and into the—the Iranians could unleash campaigns in Afghanistan as well, which is why the Pentagon has always been opposed to this lunacy. But the fact that the politicians haven’t given up on that is revealing.
Peter Scheer: Didn’t Bush kill a war with Iran, that the Israelis wanted to attack, and he nixed it somehow?
Tariq Ali: He did. And I think that there is a lot of opposition to it within the U.S. military establishment. And if the politicians decide to go with it, they might well face a general’s revolt. I don’t know, but the fact that the politicians even take this as a serious option, including Obama, is frightening. In my book I point out that—I was teaching in Illinois one semester, and some friends said let’s, you know, this is a rising young senator who’s appearing on television; let’s watch him. And this was Obama; he was then fighting for the Senate seat. And he was asked by the interviewer, if President Bush were to declare war on Iran because it poses a threat because of its decision to make nuclear weapons, would you support the president? And Obama said, “absolutely”—without any question at all, putting on a very grim look. So that convinced me that this guy was a total opportunist, and quite reactionary in many ways. He’s now president, so if he’s going to do that, I mean, I think it would be the most serious mistake he makes. And as I said, I’m not convinced that they are going to do that, but there’s certainly a lot of rocket rattling going on. And then, in the case of Afghanistan, what did Obama do? He sent in more troops, which they are now saying they’re going to withdraw. But there was a huge debate within the American military elite; Petraeus wanted more troops, and Eikenberry, a more senior general, retired, and ambassador in Afghanistan, said no, we don’t need them. And Obama had a choice here, two generals saying two different things, and he went with the aggressive general. So it’s very clear that whenever he’s offered a choice, he usually makes the more aggressive, the more reactionary, choice either because he fails to understand the situation or he feels he has to prove something to someone. I don’t know, but it’s crazy to imagine that they can win the war in Afghanistan, when virtually every intelligence agency has pointed out to them that this is an unwinnable war.
Peter Scheer: Why do you think, then, that they pursue that policy? That policy, more than any other, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, at least the way that they framed it in pitching it, the way the president introduced it, made absolutely no sense.
Tariq Ali: It made no sense except to show him as a tough leader.
Peter Scheer: So it’s purely political, you think?
Tariq Ali: I think it’s largely political. It couldn’t be military, because militarily they are bogged down there, and it’s not more troops they need; they need a political settlement. And reaching a political settlement by sending 30,000 troops in is a contradiction in terms. Because these troops fight more battles, kill more people, are killed in return, and the situation deteriorates; it doesn’t get better. So it was a calculated choice by Obama, and it’s failed. Since that escalation in Afghanistan, what have we seen? We’ve seen the insurgents striking at the very heart of NATO, hitting its headquarters, hitting the U.S. Embassy, targeting helicopters carrying intelligence agents and Navy SEALs, some of whom were involved in the operation to kill bin Laden, blowing up that helicopter, going in and killing senior collaborationist Afghans at will, killing the president’s brother and then attacking his funeral—I mean, this is a situation which has gotten much, much worse with every passing year of the occupation. And you know, even the most serious diplomats from the United States in that country report that this is an unwinnable war. It can’t be won. And yet Obama continues with it. I think they are now realizing that they’ll have to do something. But I mean, till now, the paralysis, if you like, in the White House on this war has been amazing.
Peter Scheer: I want to ask about, getting back to the domestic side of things, before we run out of time, because the great power of the presidency is that there’s much he can do without Congress, just purely through executive action and administering the country, in whom he hires. And we’ve seen recently a turnaround, a complete 180 degree turnaround on the issue of medicinal marijuana, where originally the Justice Department was directed essentially to ignore the issue, and now, getting closer to the election, we’ve had here in California, the authorities have told the landlords of medicinal marijuana dispensaries in the state they have 40 days or something to shut down or their property could be seized. And it’s just such an incredible opportunistic switch. But I think it speaks to a danger that’s much greater than the issue of marijuana.
Tariq Ali: It is. And I think it’s typical of this administration, that they’ve done this. It doesn’t surprise me at all; it’s cynical, it’s opportunistic, it’s immoral in my opinion. But you know, a far graver problem on that front is the decision taken by Obama in private to authorize the killing of U.S. citizens without trial. That is a decision this president has taken. And I’m a bit amazed that there’s been some protest about it, that liberal lawyers and jurists who normally write in The New York Review of Books haven’t written anything on this so far, as far as I can see. And it marks a very grave deterioration. I mean, some of the astute journalists like Tom Engelhardt describe the U.S. as a post-legal society. And I think that that is becoming true. If you decide you can kill your own citizens without trial, this is a grave deterioration. It’s difficult not to compare this. For instance, Bob Redford’s latest movie he’s directed about the trial of the conspirators who conspired to assassinate President Lincoln. It’s a very critical movie of how that trial was conducted. But at least there was a trial. And the union officer who was the lawyer who defended one of the conspirators, the woman who was not guilty—but nonetheless it was ordered by the secretary of defense, and ultimately the president, that she had to be hanged. … But nonetheless there was a trial, and this brave lawyer tried to defend her. Watching that movie, you really feel that what Redford is talking about is what we are seeing now, you know, in the United States, but in a much, much sharper way that killings can be ordered and that’s that. They’ve decided to circumvent trials altogether, and that’s appalling. You know, the way Bradley Manning is still being held in solitary without being charged, without being brought to trial, is just shocking, actually. So the deterioration of civil liberties and civil rights under the Bush administration has been continued by Obama.
Peter Scheer: Well, we’ve got just seconds left, and I just want to ask—say we go back in time before 2008; what would you tell someone who’s trying to decide who to vote for? I mean, are we better off with McCain?
Tariq Ali: No. I mean, I would say that in some conditions it’s better not to vote. And build up a huge majority of nonvoters to expose the system, and say that this is a system which is run by an extreme center that consists of both Democrats and Republicans, and unless there’s a real alternative it’s better not to vote. And the Bush administration was demonized, and understandably so, as being horrific on every level; and liberals were going crazy; people were talking, some nonsense, saying this is a fascist regime, there’s been a fascist coup; absolute nonsense. And then Obama comes in and behaves in the same way, and most of the people who were attacking Bush fall silent. And that is not a good thing for the health of the republic.
Peter Scheer: Tariq Ali, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Alan Minsky: And the voice of Tariq Ali critiquing Barack Obama’s presidency. We have a winner for a song, correct?
Peter Scheer: Yeah. So we had this contest because Ry Cooder’s new album, “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down,” was really just inspirational in terms of its political content. And so we decided to have a contest for the best “Power of Protest” song. There are no wrong answers; people have great protest music; a lot of our readers wrote their own songs, which they sent in, and they’re really to be commended; there’s some great music out there. I just want to read, someone said: “I’ve wondered for years where our next protest music would come from and how it would arise. I can see now that it has been here all along, it just needed the right time and place to break out and be heard.” And they also added—this is [Truthdig reader] AdoAnnie—“Someone needs to write something for Scott Olsen.” So if that inspires you, go ahead and do it. But we decided the winner of the contest was Jenna Ware. I hope I’m pronouncing that right. And she will win a copy of Ry Cooder’s new album on vinyl and a CD courtesy of Nonesuch Records, along with his new book, “Los Angeles Stories” courtesy of City Lights Publishers. And we ended up choosing Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan.”
[Music: “First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen]