"The Case Against the War"

02 November 2002
Transcript of the CBC Radio interview with Phyllis Bennis, by Michael Enwright

Michael Enwright:At the heart of George W. Bush's attitude is a simple proposition: Saddam Hussein is a dangerous despot who threatens his neighbours, the West, the US specifically, and oppresses his own people. He possesses weapons of mass destruction and has demonstrated a will to use them. He is on the verge of acquiring the ultimate weapon, nuclear warheads. All of this has created a drumbeat for war coming from the West Wing of the Bush White House. The latest polls show a majority of Americans, about 54%, support a war against Iraq, but that number is down from the summer, and is falling. In two days, Americans vote in what is seen by many as a referendum on the war. Phyllis Bennis knows how she will vote on Tuesday. She is a scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, has written on a wide variety of foreign policy issues, and is the author of Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis. And she has also marched publicly against the war. She is a driving force in the National Network to End the War Against Iraq. And she is in our studio in Washington. Good morning.

Phyllis Bennis: Good morning. Good to be with you.

ME: Nice to have you here. I wonder if at the outset we could stipulate a couple things. One, Saddam Hussein is a monstrous tyrant and the world would be better off without him. And two, he poses a threat to his own people and others. Do you agree with those two points?

Phyllis Bennis: I certainly agree on the first, though I think my country in particular bears a certain amount of responsibility for making that regime as aggressive and ruthless as it has been. We provided, after all, the seed stock for biological weapons, the targeting information for using howitzers filled with poison gas, and a host of other various assistance methods to the regime of Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s. On the second point, we have to be a little more cautious. A threat to whom? A threat of terrible repression to his own population, absolutely. A threat outside his own borders-not so clear. Countries in the region certainly do not think so. Kuwait does not think so. There is not a country in the region, even including Kuwait - which one would think, if anyone was urging war against Iraq, it would be Kuwait, who was, after all, the last country to be invaded by Iraq - and even Kuwait is saying, don't go to war, it is going to make the situation worse. So, a threat to Iraq's own population, absolutely. A threat outside his own borders, not so clear.

ME: Given the fact that Hussein is in violation of something like 16 UN resolutions which were supposed to be binding, and given other claims of the administration, this would seem to provide a case for war. Would you go ahead and make the case against that?

Phyllis Bennis:I think we have to be very careful before we say what makes a case for war. If we were going to go to war against every country that violates supposedly binding UN resolutions, we would be in serious trouble. We would be at war against Israel, which has violated 29 UN resolutions supposed to be binding, we would be at war against Morocco, which has violated a Council resolution against its occupation of the Western Sahara; we would have been at war for years against Indonesia for its occupation of East Timor, which was condemned by the UN. We would be at war against Turkey for its occupation of northern Cyprus, which has been condemned and it has been demanded that it end its occupation by the Security Council. So the notion that a resolution has been violated, does not mean war. The UN Charter, the supreme instrument of international law, is something that needs to be taken very seriously. The Charter says that all non-military solutions must be used before there can even be consideration of military solutions. What we face in the case of Iraq is the US claiming that the Iraqi violation - which, there have been violations, no doubt - can only be answered by war. In fact they have said that, regardless of the opinion of the UN, whether the Security Council votes for war or not, they are prepared to go to war unilaterally with whatever two or three or five countries might support that war.

ME: Let's look at the perceived or actual threat - and you can take issue with that. A couple weeks ago in the series I talked with David Kay, former chief arms inspector for the UN in Iraq, and he raised an interesting point. In an age of weapons of mass destruction, running all the way up the scale to nuclear warheads, are nations allowed to respond only following a devastating and deadly attack?

Phyllis Bennis: I think the answer to that is generally yes. If that were not the case, nations around the world would be attacking my country, because of our arsenal of chemical, biological and especially nuclear weapons which we have shown a propensity to use. Let's not forget, only one country in the world has ever used nuclear weapons, and it is not Iraq. Let's not forget that the UN Charter is very clear on the question of self-defence and how it might be expanded. The language of article 51 is very explicit in saying that a country has the inherent right of self-defence "if" - and that is the key qualifying word - if an armed attack occurs. Now there have been discussions, and David Kay is certainly referring to this, that the threat of an imminent attack could be interpreted in the same way, could count, if you will, in the same way as justifying self-defence. But there is no imminent attack in Iraq. No one thinks that Iraq is imminently going to have nuclear weapons. The way that we hear about it is designed to sow fear, not to provide information. We hear for instance, that if Iraq received the fissile material-the fundamental radioactive material - and had massive international support, it could have a nuclear weapon in six months to a year. That may well be true. But the same is true of Cameroon. Any country that gets its sources from outside, and has massive international help, could do that in six months to a year. What we need to do is to look at the terms of the resolution which called for regional disarmament, that's article 14 of Resolution 687. It said that disarming Iraq should be a step towards the establishment throughout the region of the Middle East of a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them.

ME: OK, let me give you a quote. This was asked of a president, "what would happen if Saddam were allowed to continue to build his terrible weapons. He would conclude that the international community has lost its will, and that he can go right on to build an arsenal of devastating destruction and some way, some day he will use it." That's not George Bush, that's Bill Clinton.

Phyllis Bennis: I think Clinton had a similar view to Bush, and I was against Clinton's moves towards war as much as I am against Bush's. This is not a partisan issue. The reality is we do not know what Iraq is or is not building. I support efforts to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. It was not finished by UNSCOM, the earlier weapons inspectors agency. That agency was considerably undermined by the US when it turned the agency of arms inspections and disarmament into an arm of US intelligence agencies. But the fact remains that their work was not finished. At the time they left Iraq in December 1998, they said they had found and accounted for 90 to 95% of what they were looking for. That means the job is not done. For four years we heard from US governments, one after another, saying we want inspectors back in, that's the problem, and finally Iraq caved, they allowed the inspectors in. Then the US said it had changed its mind, that it wasn't going to accept yes for an answer. That's unacceptable. We need the inspectors to go back in, and we need to take seriously what they find, and not to use them as a pretext for a war.

ME: Let me ask you about the humanitarian argument. We know he does terrible things to his own people. Throughout the 90s there was a great cry from liberals and from the left and to get into the Balkans and stop ethnic cleansing. Now Saddam is a lot worse than Slobodan Milosevic. Why can't we use the humanitarian argument to go in?

Phyllis Bennis: Now when we talk about humanitarian concerns, we have to be very clear about what we are talking about. For a decade or more the Iraq regime systematically violated the civil and political rights of its population. The US response to that was to impose crippling economic sanctions that left in place those earlier violations. So what you have now is a population that has no freedom of speech, no right of assembly, no opposition parties, no free press, but now they are also starving and don't have enough water.

ME: But isn't that an argument for regime change? That's George Bush's line.

Phyllis Bennis: It is an argument for regime change by the people of Iraq. If we lifted the sanctions and allowed them to rebuild their middle class, their intellectual capacity, I have no doubt there would be regime change. In this country, regime change does not mean a people changing their government. It means assassination and forcible overthrow. It doesn't mean that that is acceptable under international law.

ME: If we stay with this phrase "regime change" for a moment, the Bush people have said that what they really want is just that. Now if the threat of war leads to regime change, does that mean that that threat is justified, or was justified?

Phyllis Bennis: Absolutely not. What does this mean in terms of precedent around the world? What if India decides that it wants a regime change in Pakistan? That means that they can put their new nuclear weapons on high alert, and threaten to use them, and hope that there will be regime change in Islamabad? What if Jordan decided that Israel was going out of control and they need regime change in Tel Aviv? They can put their army poised on the border of Israel and threaten it? What if Israel, more likely, said, we have nuclear weapons, we have 2 to 400 high density nuclear bombs, we are now putting them on high alert, because we want regime change in Syria. This is very very dangerous.

ME: It appears to us north of the border there is some confusion within the Bush administration. On the one hand we have people who have actually gone to war like Colin Powell and the joint chiefs, and the other people who have never had a uniform on, like Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr Cheney, arguing to push ahead. Does this mean that the war is inevitable, or that the debate will rage on within the administration?

Phyllis Bennis: I don't think the war is inevitable. I think it is clear that a very influential sector of the Bush administration, the ones you were talking about, we call them the chicken hawks, those that have never fought but want everyone else to fight, are clearly ready to go to war. They have made up their minds, they are moving. These are the ideologues, Richard Pearl, Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, the whole gang of them, Condoleezza Rice appears to be in that camp. On the other hand you have people like Colin Powell, and interestingly enough, the joint chiefs of staff, so you have severe disagreement within the Pentagon itself between the civilian leadership and the military leaders who would actually have to lead their troops into battle. They are the ones saying not so fast. This is not a good idea, this is not a good instrument for - if we are serious about an assassination, you don't use massive bombing and ground troop invasion to carry out an assassination. We did not do so well in Afghanistan, lest we forget. We managed to kill over 4000 civilians that we know of, but not one of them was named Osama bin Laden. I am not sure of the thousands we are likely to kill in Baghdad alone in the bombing campaign that would begin any war, that any one of those people who die will be Saddam Hussein.

ME: Address for me if you would what appears to be the most compelling argument in the hearts of a number of Americans, that Rumsfeld in particular is trying to articulate, that is: "Do you want to wake up after another Sept 11 or worse and find that we could have stopped the guy and we didn't?"

Phyllis Bennis: The answer to that is that it is based on falsehoods and fear. Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. Unfortunately many Americans seem to believe that it did.

ME: Well, the administration would like them to believe that.

Phyllis Bennis: Exactly. There is a reason they think it. President Bush's speech in Cincinnati on October 7 was clearly designed to escalate the level of post 9-11 fear that had been going down in the US. People had begun to think again. 9-11 was a terrifying experience in this country. It was a horrifying experience at the human level and it was terrifying to suddenly realize that we were not as immune as we thought ourselves to be, because of our power, because of our size, because of geography, because of oceans, all those things. We were not immune to the events of the world. We could be victims too. And that was a terrifying thing. People were very frightened. But it is also true that people were beginning to think again, and George Bush did not like that. That speech of October 7 was designed to ratchet up the fear, and ratchet down the thinking. Look at what he said. He made a segue: "we must never have another terrible event like 9-11 again and so we must go to war against Iraq," as if there were a connection.

ME: I guess some people are still thinking, "if people had listened to Churchill in 1931, we wouldn't have had Auschwitz, we could have stopped it before it got started." There is that kind of rhetoric.

Phyllis Bennis: You're right, and that is rhetoric. Saddam Hussein is not Hitler. Iraq does not have global reach. The Nazis in Germany had Germany as a rising global power. Iraq is a devastated country with a devastated population. You go to the Iraqi medical schools, as I did when I took the US congressional staff to Iraq a couple years ago, and you find the most recent textbooks they have are ten years old. This is not a country that is capable of that kind of global reach. The notion of military sanctions and preventing the rearming of Iraq is I think a very important task, but if we are serious about it - and I think we should be - we have to be serious about stability in the neighbourhood. That region is the most over-armed in the world, and the US is responsible for about 80% of those arms. You have these tiny little countries surrounding Iraq - also a few big ones like Turkey and Saudi Arabia - but mostly small ones like Oman and the UAE. The UAE is the size of a city with just a couple hundred thousand people, and it has just purchased a batch of the most modern US fighter-bomber jets, the F-118s. They barely have a country big enough for a runway for the planes to take off. What are we thinking here?

ME: Let me ask you finally. The war in Viet Nam was stopped largely in the streets of America when young people got out and protested -

Phyllis Bennis: Well, the Vietnamese had something to do with it.

ME: Indeed they did, but is there in the US at the moment, anything, a movement approaching the power of the anti-Viet Nam war demonstrations? Do you think it could stop the train before it gets moving?

Phyllis Bennis: Absolutely. We are far more advanced at this stage of this war than we were in Viet Nam. It took years during the Viet Nam war, and it took hundreds and thousands of American body bags coming back, before we saw the kind of mass mobilization we have seen in the last couple of months. My office has documented 250 anti-war events that have occurred in just the week before the Congressional vote, in cities, and towns and campuses across this country. Just last Saturday there were something like 150,000 people who marched in Washington and huge demonstrations in a dozen other cities, linked with a global anti-war movement. The numbers of people in this country who are supporting this war are dropping precipitously, and the Bush administration knows this. They are very worried that they are not getting the kind of support in the runup to Tuesday's election that they were expecting. The result is that they are moderating their rhetoric. We don't know if they are moderating their practice, but even the troop deployments have slowed down. The rhetoric has softened a bit, and there is no doubt that the members of Congress who voted against the Bush resolution, whose numbers were far higher than we anticipated, was because there were people in the street saying they don't want this war, who were contacting their members of Congress saying they don't want the war. And far more of them did than we ever dreamed possible.

ME: Thank you for being with us.