It was a stunning display of Phyllis Bennis' intimate knowledge of Middle East machinations, aspirations, and failed American efforts to get it right. A darn good performance, considering that she'd already spoken at two events earlier in the day.
I felt at home in the audience, organized by Brooklyn for Peace, as a grey-haired, over 60, liberal activist. I suspect there were more than a couple of old-line socialists in the crowd...a few lefty, commie, pinko keepers of the flame. About 50 of us sat in front room of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, across from Prospect Park.
She focused mainly on how past US Middle East policy (create stability by support for dictators, control the oil and water, unflinching support for Israel) is now empty since 'the people' have thrown the dictators out, or are in the process of doing so. She did not describe a detailed US policy going forward, but concentrated instead on the importance of US civil society keeping the pressure on politicians to steer away from the 'problem, therefore use force' mentality.
She did, however prescribe a broad conceptualization of future policy that would help guide the world to more peaceful tomorrows: end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stop the military support of Israel which come to some US$3 billion/year. She called for US civil society to demand, and US government to admit, the discourse has changed. We must move from the militaristic, simplistic "support the dictators at all cost" mode of thinking. It just doesn't work.
Some point that caught my attention:
- Although Obama takes credit for pulling the troops ouf of Iraq the American civil society movement had more to do with it, and the Iraqi people are the most responsible. Maliki found almost no internal support for keeping troops there, although he would dearly love the occupation, and it's tacit support for his regime, to stay... "after all, Gaddafi was our guy."
- Obama's "we stand with the fruit sellers" is a painful distortion, given that we supported/continue to support so many dictators in the Middle East; those same powers that led to the self-immolation of a fruit seller in his misery of oppression.
- Even if we remove all Department of Defense troops from Iraq by the end of the year, as the SOFA demands, the State Department has already signed contracts that will put 5-10,000 mercenaries on the ground, not under DoD control. Many contracts are right now being moved from Dod to the State Department to avoid counting the troops uner the SOFA agreement.
- Afghanistan is now holding about a quarter of a million occupation forces: 100 thousand US military, 100,000 US mercenaries, and the rest from NATO countries.
One of my favorite moments was her acknowledgement (I love people who validate my own ideas) that U.S. media, in fact most Western media outlets ignore the facts of peace movements in the Middle East. Palestinians have been peacefully active for at least 10 years. Their Palestine Spring had no positive media attention. The first intifada was, in fact, a peace movement. There are many Budrus-like activities that take place in Palestine each and every day.
[Iraq has a fast-growing civil society that embraces non-violence. All the Arab and non-Arab nations of the Middle East have withing them non-violent movements that are pressuring their governments to transform into more democratic regimes, even Saudi Arabia! b]
Now what? The moral equations have failed to move the American public to pressure the US government to alter policy. Dead children, collateral damage, the destruction of Iraq, ... none of this has led to widespread moral outrage. What is moving people today? It's the economy.
Civil society in America must hammer home the relationship between the costs of war and the failure of the US economy to recover quickly. The US$10 billion/month that feeds the war machine could go a long way to helping create jobs, increase technical education, decrease class-size (by hiring more teachers), and repair our failing infrastructure (creating more jobs in the process). The list is longer, but the aim is clear. Make the economic facts known.
In the Q/A session that followed her talk she was asked if she was worried about the Islamists taking over the Egyptian government. Her response was a succinct, "I am not afraid of the Islamists. I am concerned that the people of Egypt get what they want." We may not like their chosen path, but if it is democratically chosen then let us support it, deal with it, and move forward.
Bennis closed by saying, "US civil society has to speak up, and keep speaking. I know it is frustrating...but the discourse must change. You can't give up. Let them know, "We are not going away."