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Bring on the Iraq Syndrome

In the 1960s Tom Hayden was a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, a member of the Chicago Eight, and a leading figure in the movement against the Vietnam War. Since then, he has remained a committed social justice activist, spending nearly two decades in the California legislature. His latest book, Ending the War in Iraq, was published in June by Akashic Books.

Rail editor Theodore Hamm sat down with Hayden in mid-June, at a diner in Midtown.

Rail: In the book, you stress the role of what you call the “superpower mentality” of the U.S. in creating the disaster in Iraq. Can you explain that term?

Hayden: It’s another form of prejudice based on our nation’s sense of superiority. It makes us blind to potential adversaries, because we automatically view other nations as inferior. It’s an impossible trap that affects all of our analysis; even our supposedly scientific military doctrines are infected by this prejudice. It’s as old as empire. But if you understand that perspective, you also understand why our side can win, why we can end the war. The continuous underestimation of all forms of opposition by the U.S. puts the peace movement and the antiwar Democrats at an advantage—it’s always better to be underestimated. In reverse, clearly our problem is that we can get paralyzed by overestimating them; we can internalize our own inferiority and say we can’t win.

Rail: So you believe that the antiwar movement can win?

Hayden: Yes, but only if you understand how nebulous winning is, and how much suffering there’s been. It’s hard to put any kind of rosy spin on it at all. Certainly we can say that we’re going to politically defeat the neoconservatives and the hawkish Democrats, and that we’re going to circumvent the mainstream media—and end the war.

Rail: It seems that the most powerful argument for the U.S. to stay in Iraq at this point is the notion that if the U.S. leaves, the civil war will only escalate. How do you respond?

Hayden: Our government has no business believing that we can somehow repair the damage. The apparatus of occupation is never going to turn into a peacekeeping economic development agency. We need to withdraw our stamp of approval and our tax dollars from supporting the occupation. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be some attempts at remedies but there should never be used as an excuse to stay. Once the U.S. announces its intention to leave definitively, it will at the same time be able to activate international assistance for security and reconstruction from the surrounding countries—first and foremost, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League; secondly, Europe; and third, the Russians and the Chinese. The U.N. could be asked to rewrite the authorization of the mission, outlawing the U.S. and U.K. occupation. I think that the other countries would do their utmost to try to stabilize the power vacuum that would be created. But if we don’t leave, they won’t lift a finger. This is particularly the case for the other Arab nations— they don’t want to be collaborators, and so they won’t do anything as long as the U.S. plans to stay.

Rail: Do you think the antiwar movement is too close to the Democratic Party?

Hayden: No. I would be happy if the Democratic Party was closer to the antiwar movement. But the difference between social movements and political parties is that the focus of movements should be to apply deeper pressure to the pillars of the policy. That’s how the war will end. Community-based campaigns against military recruiters put pressure on the pillar of resources needed for the prosecution of the war. You need to recruit soldiers and you need to keep them, so anybody who is supporting dissent within the military is putting pressure on that pillar. Anybody who is building a coalition focused on how much money New Yorkers have spent on the war and how many clinics that would open or schoolteachers who could be employed is putting pressure on the budgetary pillar. Anybody who is working locally to make a difference in a close electoral race between a hawk and a dove is putting pressure on the political pillar. Wars are an extreme contradiction that can only sustain themselves with pillars of support for a brief period of time. To ignore the Democratic Party in this process would be foolishness. But there are plenty of people who are foolish, I suppose. It’s a wide movement and there’s room for people who are for third parties or anti-two parties or anti-politics, but they shouldn’t think that that perspective should govern how to end the war. They may be right in the long run but what I’m saying is that it’s difficult for people who are used to being dissidents on the left to deal with those occasional moments when your issue is on the verge of success and you have vast majority support. It takes a different consciousness and different tools, and certainly you wouldn’t want to rule out pressure on the Congress or the Democratic Party.

Rail: Just to be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that there’s a third-party solution. I was saying that the antiwar movement should also focus on winning over antiwar Republicans. Significant antiwar constituencies, in particular the netroots, only focus on Democrats.

Hayden: True, there are the moderate New England Republicans—the so-called endangered species—from New Hampshire and Maine, Norm Coleman out of Minnesota, Hagel from Nebraska, and a few others. Some people may say that it’s not worth the effort to target the Republicans, but it’s not a futile exercise to keep putting them on record with their votes. From a grassroots perspective, you want to know for future local organizing and local electoral politics how they voted—and they’re very uncomfortable with effectively having to cast ten votes this year for the war. They may crack, but if they don’t, everything becomes really intensified. Bush has to make a decision in September whether to begin withdrawal or stay the course, based on his assessment of the surge. The presidential primaries will then start to heat up, and activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada can help keep the pressure on and get all the presidential candidates to compete for the antiwar vote. Right after the big February primary is also a crucial time to target Congress, because it’s going to be harder to pass next year’s supplemental budget for war because of the presidential campaign. In any case, even if you’re raging and you’re urgent and you’re passionate and you’re impatient, the results unfortunately will come like a slow dripping of blood. The withdrawal will be ugly and will be nothing to cheer about, but you gotta think it will come.

Rail: What do you think of Cindy Sheehan’s “retirement” from the antiwar movement?

Hayden: The sad thing about Cindy’s resignation is that she’s emblematic of many people I meet all over the country who believe that the sheer power of their moral anger should translate into changing the behavior of politicians. And I try to tell them that political parties are Machiavellian institutions. Their purposes are to put together governing majorities and they always have internal contradictions, conflicts and so on. So, in my view, for Cindy to say that both parties are the same is only partially accurate. She means that they’re Machiavellian. But it’s really not true that they’re the same because their underlying constituencies are radically opposed to each other. I think it’s a sign of the strength of the peace movement that 170 Democrats and two Republicans voted to end funding, especially since there are no polls showing that a strong majority favors cutting off funding. It means that the peace movement has prevailed in 172 congressional districts. And, as we’ve been saying, there will be several more votes in the days and weeks ahead, and the Republicans may begin to crack.

Rail: In the book, you discuss the so-called Vietnam Syndrome, seeing it as actually a healthy condition, when public opinion prevented direct American interventions. Is there an Iraq Syndrome developing?

Hayden: Yes. Once the war has ended, there will be a brief opportunity for progressives to play a key role in discussing the lessons of the war, and to prevent the next one from happening. But the war makers will always try to recover and they’ll be keeping their eye first and foremost on Iran, and maybe Venezuela. We can’t rely on the media or the political parties to be at the forefront of challenging the next war. We have to rely on a huge outpouring of creativity from civil society, from activists and intellectuals. There’s a chief myth about the war that I’d like to demolish—that it only went wrong because it was badly managed. When you say that we could have won, you’re in denial, and it’s a reflection of the superpower mentality. It means that we can somehow demolish Iran or Venezuela more efficiently. The problem in Iraq was not the lack of a coherent plan or good management. It was the idea that we could takeover someone else’s country. And where did this idea of supremacy come from? I think it’s a natural problem for white people towards people of color, rich people toward poor people, and the United States towards the world.

Rail: So in a way, when the Iraq War is over, the real battle of transforming the superpower mentality begins.

Hayden: I think that the networks that constitute the broad antiwar movement are a learning school, and it’s a self-taught movement in the absence of any leadership from government or the media. People are learning on their own and how to see through propaganda and spin and they’re reading and discussing and they’re constructing their own history of Iraq and how this came about. What happened after Vietnam in this school of learning was that a consensus came to be reached. I would actually call it a norm, or a very powerful cultural agreement. It was that there should be no more Vietnams, which meant no more U.S. policing of the world, no more sending our troops to faraway countries, no more imperial presidency, and reconciliation rather than antagonism between Vietnam vets and antiwar activists. There was a normative political consensus, which was reflected in a fragmentary way in the War Powers Act and in Jimmy Carter’s amnesty for draft dodgers who’d gone to Canada. When Reagan’s Central American wars came in the 80s, they had to be covert. All that changed after the Gulf War. But perhaps beginning in a couple of years, we’ll again have that interlude, and the antiwar movement can be part of both the learning and the teaching process.

Rail: Are you talking about reviving the idea of the “peace dividend,” which was discussed as the Cold War ended?

Hayden: Not really, because the peace dividend came from on high. I’m talking about more about the creation of a new progressive majority that’s inclined away from intervention and more towards jobs, social justice, and the environment. The leading presidential candidates won’t do this, because they seem preoccupied with the need to first end the war and then rebuild America’s military reputation. The only one who might be different—and it’s a long shot—could be Gore, because he’s been through enough, and suffered enough to kind of get it. Before FDR died, there was a strong liberal coalition in the 30s and 40s. Before Bobby Kennedy and King were murdered, there were potential coalitions in the late 60s that could have prevailed. Carter took over in a partial direction but he got caught up with fighting his perceived weakness on foreign policy, and above all he led us into neoliberalism, the marriage of the Democratic Party with the private sector which Clinton then made into a doctrine. Still, I think there’s a potential for 50-55 percent American majority to support the ideas I’m talking about. Whether it can manifest outside of some of the congressional districts in New York or California remains to be seen. But I would like to see an America that reexamines its imperial presumptions, militarily and economically, and that confronts its problems of race, class and the environment here. Foreign policy would be an extension of this discussion. Meanwhile, the main presidential candidates will just say that Iraq was a nightmare and that we need to get back on track.

Rail: It is depressing to hear the progressive Democrats stake out such positions. Obama has called for expanding the military, and in the May debate, Edwards said that his first priority would be to rebuild America’s image around the world.

Hayden: Well, that’s not a bad idea to change our image, but it has to be connected to some meaningful sense of what are you delivering. For example, Palestinians are making 1/25th of what Israelis make, which in many ways is a result of American economic intervention and subsidy. Nobody talks about the 50-60 percent unemployment among Palestinians. And that’s only the most brutal manifestation of the problem of growing inequality around the world. That’s the problem that Edwards and company should be dealing with. In general, the humanitarian hawks don’t deliver on the humanitarian side of the argument. Trying to run the world is bad enough, but trying to run a world with these kinds of income disparities is unbelievable. Just today, there was an article in the Times about why Bedouin nomads are smuggling weapons across the desert in Gaza. A Bedouin guy with a pickup truck said that “If we were provided jobs, we would work. If we are not provided jobs, we smuggle.” It’s that simple, and that’s the big issue. I think that Hillary and Bill Clinton, Obama, and all the rest know that this is the issue. But it’s their stubborn political certainty that it can’t be put on the table.

Rail: It was the Depression that really was the catalyst for FDR to make that turn.

Hayden: We now have a depression, but it’s more of a global one. You’d have to be a magician with your arguments. You could turn the issue of the perceived terrorist threat into an economic issue. You’d have to dress it up to say, “Yeah, I’m going to have a strong defense, I’m going to go after terrorists who are actually planning or in the midst of trying to carry things out, but let’s not blow this out of proportion, we can survive these occasional attacks.” But we have to undermine the basis of terrorism which is humiliation and inequality. Most of our current leaders put all of their emphasis on security and only serve up rhetoric about inequality. I want to turn it around. I’d put 90 percent of the attention on inequality and ten percent on defense, because we already have a defense budget that is bigger than everybody else’s on earth. We spend 40 billion on intelligence and we are still clueless. I think that the issues of jobs and so forth have to be raised from the outside; the political order is not ready for it. Bread and butter issues have majority support, but if a politician advocates them, the whole establishment gangs up on them—calling them soft on defense, soft on crime, etc. The attacks are really driven by the military industrial complex and the politicians who sustain it, as well as anybody whose well-being depends on a strong military budget. They don’t leave you alone. You become seen in the established discourse as a dissenting voice at best, and a crackpot at worst—even though your views are quite close to most Americans.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2007

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