Interview with Anthony Arnove

On 28 March 2003, Pablo Navarrete interviewed Anthony Arnove, who was in the UK on a speaking tour, and asked him for his analysis of the war with Iraq and the anti-war movement in the US.

April 1, 2003 · 14 min read

PN: In Iraq Under Siege, you outline the origin and rationale behind George Bush and Tony Blair’s decision to attack Iraq. Could you summarise the background behind this decision?

AA: There are many things at play, but clearly oil is at the heart of the question of why the US has historically been interested in Iraq and it is absolutely essential for understanding the war today. A liberal commentator in the United States, Michael Ignatieff, recently referred to the Middle East in the New York Times Magazine as ‘the empire’s centre of gravity.’ Iraq must be situated in its regional context in the Middle East – which has two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves – and then the Middle East has to be situated within a larger geopolitical context. The US and UK understand that those states that exercise regional control over the energy resources of the Middle East have power economically and politically that they can use against their economic and political competitors. A number of countries around the world import their energy resources from the Middle East, and some important countries are growing more dependent on the oil reserves of the region. One country in particular is China, which is rapidly increasing its oil imports from this part of the world.

The US and Britain also think that they can project their political power onto the global stage by engaging in a war that will demonstrate their military might – their ability to call the shots in the region – and their ability to implement the Bush doctrine of pre-emptively attacking any country that they consider to be a threat to their interests.

PB:Noam Chomsky recently made the point that the level of opposition to this war has been without historical precedent – not even Vietnam. Could you tell us about the present anti-war movement in the US and how it compares to the anti-war movement that developed in relation to the Vietnam war?

AA: Noam is making a very important point; it took years into the Vietnam war before there were mass demonstrations in protest against the US intervention, and even at the height of the war, some historians have argued, there wasn’t as diverse or representative a movement as there is today. What we saw in advance of the attack on Iraq was a movement that went from being a small number of people organising against sanctions and the periodic assaults on Iraq to a movement involving millions of people, culminating in the 15 February demonstrations, when 10-15 million people around the world marched in solidarity, and announced: ‘We say no to war.’

This was the largest co-ordinated protest in history. In the US, we’ve seen the expression of opposition to war not only in these enormous demonstrations, but in more than 200 trade union bodies passing resolutions against this war, saying that there is a connection between the war on the people of Iraq and a class war at home, which takes the form of both an attack on standards of living and an attack on civil liberties in the US. We’ve seen the formation of very important groups such as US Labor Against the War, local formations like NYC Labor Against the War, which is part of the broader national network. This is a historic development and it’s something that we really have to build on, but there’s a lot of work still to be done to revitalise labour opposition to the war.

More than 100 city councils in both small and large cities across the country have also passed resolutions and come out against this war, saying this is a war that is unjustified and that is taking away resources that are badly needed for crumbling infrastructure in this country. There has also been diversity on the demonstrations in terms of age, with several generations marching together, and a range of organisations taking a stance against this war. It’s not just the traditional anti-war organisations, but religious groups, civil liberties groups and groups representing ethnic constituencies across the country that have taken a position against this war and made connections between the issues that they’ve organised around in the past and this war. So it’s been far more broad based, far deeper and far more active than it was at the comparable time of the Vietnam war.

This reflects much more profound changes in US society more generally. There is a lot more questioning and resistance – not just around what Bush is planning for Iraq but around a series of domestic corollaries to that war: tax cuts for the rich; attacks on trade unions; using domestic security to roll back civil liberties. It’s creating an environment where people are raising very deep questions about this government and this administration.

PB:You’ve already touched on the basis of support for the US anti-war movement. What is the basis of pro-war support in the US?

AA: The Bush administration has been very clever in pushing for this war by playing the card of 11 September, and the media has played a crucial role in allowing it to do so. I think part of the story is that some people have been criminally misinformed and manipulated into thinking this is a response to 11 September, and that it’s a defensive rather than aggressive action. A recent New York Times poll, for example, showed that around 50 per cent of the population think Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 11 September attacks, despite the fact there’s absolutely no evidence for that view and that it’s been discredited.

The assertions about a connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda are not the least bit credible, yet the media has allowed the Bush administration to repeat this mantra over and over again. The media has played the role of a home team sports reporter, cheering on the Bush administration and serving as an echo chamber for their arguments for the war. It has done very little to provide the public with the evidence they need to question these justifications or to understand what the impact of the war will be. But I think this war is opening up a national debate in which we have an opportunity to actually get out the facts, the evidence, the real history, and challenge the Bush administration. It’s quite difficult because now the media is even more clearly in the mode of wartime propaganda and reporting. This is a very serious challenge.

The historical element is also really important. In the US the public education system has systematically denied people access to the real history of US foreign policy, and to the consequences of US intervention. People don’t know about the US relationship to Saddam Hussein. They don’t know about the cynical support for him after the Halabja massacre in March 1998, now cited as a rationale for war, but then seen as an inconvenience to be explained away or even denied by people in positions of power and in the media. They don’t know about US support for dictators throughout the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa, or interventions to overthrow democratic governments, to oppose popular movements that were fighting from below for democracy and for their liberation.

People who’ve been denied access to that knowledge, to the real history of US imperialism, are far more likely to take at face value the claims that this is a war motivated by the desire to check weapons of mass destruction, or to bring democracy to people who have suffered from dictatorship and oppression.

PN:What do you see as the main challenges to the anti-war movement?

AA: Challenging the media has to be a part of our efforts, but I think it has to go hand in hand with building a broad-based, democratic movement. These two things can go together. For example, in the US the media has been consistently downplaying the size and inclusiveness of the demonstrations we’ve had against this war, so we’ve had the experience over and over again of turning out much larger numbers than we expected, only to then find reports of our demonstrations buried in the local metro section or not mentioned at all, our numbers drastically undercounted and our message distorted.

On 15 February, however, many people in New York and many groups in the movement had pressured the media about its wilful misreporting of previous demonstrations that they couldn’t ignore us. So we achieved not only a demonstration that showed our strength and our numbers but one which through its strength was able to influence our coverage. The next day the New York Times had a front page story on the demonstration and the day after that it featured a front page news analysis piece in which they described ‘popular opinion’ as a ‘world superpower’ and as the only force which at the moment was confronting the US superpower. This illustrated that we can influence the media and that we can break through their gates when we’re organised.

Another critical challenge is to make a connection between the war abroad and the war at home. It is critical to expand the movement because we need to be much larger. We have to make the case to people very clearly and organically that they are going to pay a price for this war: that there’s a fiscal crisis in every state in the US; that nearly every state budget is in deficit; that people are cutting back on the basic social programmes; and that the Bush administration is spending billions upon billions on a war which is going to wreak havoc in Iraq and is a beginning of wars to come.

It’s very encouraging to see the trade union and city council resolutions but that has to be broadened and has to be the beginning of a much larger mobilisation of those forces. It’s not just enough for those trade union locals to take a stance against the war. We need those people organising to convince other locals to pass resolutions and to get their members mobilised and into the streets, demonstrating and engaging in civil disobedience.

I also think it’s absolutely vital to find ways to revive the political culture in the US, a culture of debate, a culture of discussing political ideas, a culture in which we can talk about the history of US imperialism. It’s very interesting right now that the word ‘imperialism’ is common lingo with some people who are close to the Bush administration and a number of journalists and academics who put a positive spin on the term. These people think that it’s good that the US is an empire. They are engaged in creating a revisionist history about imperialism that buries the real history of colonialism and of imperialism, and instead claims that it’s about democracy and about bringing civilisation to uncivilised people. It’s openly discussed as the new ‘white man’s burden.’

Another challenge that faces us is to address the fact that there are number of people in the US at the moment who are particularly vulnerable as a result of the crackdown on civil liberties. The anti-war movement cannot push to the side questions of civil liberties, immigrant rights and racism. There’s been a temptation to say ‘we have to focus on the war’ and keep to narrow points of unity, which is true, but it’s actually a matter of absolute principle that we address questions such as racism and domestic repression.

We must address the fact that Muslims are being demonised in the US and that Arabs are being singled out and targeted by the immigration authorities and are being threatened in their universities, their communities and their workplaces. And we will actually broaden our movement by raising these concerns. These targeted groups and individuals will not be part of our movement if we are not taking up directly those very legitimate concerns, which of course are connected to the war abroad, as the government needs to dehumanise people at home and to uphold racism at home in order to justify what it’s doing abroad. The government also needs to create a population which is scared and which is looking for scapegoats in order to achieve its programme at home and abroad, so that’s a central challenge for the movement.

PB: Is there a level of coordination in the US within the anti-war movement comparable to the Stop The War Coalition (STWC) here in the UK?

AA: There’s a real effort to build a united front. The greatest expression of that was 15 February, when a wide array of organisations and social forces came together to coordinate an action. The United For Peace and Justice coalition is one attempt to very consciously bring together a broad united front against war, and the Campus Anti-war Network was formed to create a democratic structure for various student anti-war groups to come together and debate out positions, and engage in common activity against the war.

But there are also political differences and we have to have forums for debating these. We have to understand and respect those differences, and not simply bury them for the sake of unity. It’s very important for the health and growth of our movement that we find ways to discuss those differences constructively, and also move toward the STWC model of bringing all of the antiwar forces together under one umbrella, which we have not yet been able to achieve in the US.

PB: Finally, how do you see the future of the left in the US on the basis of the anti-war movement?

AA:The US Left is at a historic turning point in which it can overcome some of the legacy of its recent history. The history of the Left in the United States cannot be discussed without talking about McCarthyism. McCarthyism systematically rooted out radicals from the key institutions in which they were based – very significantly the trade unions, but also from universities and from cultural institutions. It really separated a generation of the left from the best traditions that had come before it.

We’re now in a situation where we can really start rebuilding the links in the chain of the US left and to make connections to the resistance of Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglas and the best traditions of the American worker’s movement such as the Wobblies, the Communist party, the Anti-Imperialist League, Mark Twain, Helen Keller.

One of the things that’s so exciting about the Left right now is that there really is a grasping for history, an attempt to learn the history we don’t learn in schools. I was recently at an amazing event commemorating the book A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which has now sold its millionth copy, a remarkable achievement. The publisher of the book, the mainstream publisher Harper Collins, pointed out that it’s the only book he has ever known that sells more copies year after year. So it just continues to reach more and more people and is connecting with this new mood of radicalisation and resistance.

Right now I think we have an immense opportunity. It’s not clear what the Left will do with that opportunity, but it’s there and I think that there’s a chance to seize it, and for the Left to become a far more relevant force, and within that for the best traditions of US radicalism to find organisational expression again.

Those are the traditions of what I would call socialism from below. Not the socialism of the Stalinist type or the various other substitutes that particularly in the sixties we saw people moving toward, but the politics of people looking to their own democratic structures, their own ability to run their lives and to do it far better than the people who are running the world now.

These people have shown that they’re putting the world on a completely unsustainable path and a lot of people are asking, ‘Okay, how can we change this fundamentally?’. I think of Eduardo Galeano and his book Upside Down. It’s such a brilliant formulation. We do live in an upside-down world. I think a lot of people now recognise that, and they’re asking the next question – how do we set it right?

Anthony Arnove is the editor of Iraq Under Siege, and Terrorism and War, interviews with Howard Zinn. His writing has appeared in In These Times, Left Business Observer, Z Magazine, Mother Jones, International Socialist Review, Diaspora, and other publications. An activist based in Brooklyn, he is a member of the International Socialist Organisation and the National Writers Union.

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