Former Bloomington resident Anthony Arnove's latest book, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (The New Press, 2006) is a bold statement of the rationale for the immediate removal of U.S. armed forces. He spoke with The Bloomington Alternative during a recent visit.
TPH: In the introduction to your book you write of the "need to transform the irrational economic and political system that led to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and that is today very directly threatening the survival of the human species." Why is that important?
AA: The moment you start looking at the situation in Iraq, you can't escape other political questions, like what are the real interests that the United States has in the Middle East? I think a number of people see you have to talk about oil. If not for oil do you think we would have gone into Iraq?
Oil is the essential commodity for the world capitalist system. Why do we have such an irrational relationship to oil rather than developing alternative means that are more environmentally sustainable and less politically destabilizing? Because it's not profitable for those who are in positions of power under the existing profit system.
TPH: You write extensively on the racist aspects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Why isn't racism covered more in the antiwar movement and in the mainstream media?
AA: I think that there's been a failure both by the mainstream antiwar movement and by the media to deal with the racist elements of the invasion and the occupation of Iraq. It finds expression in a number of issues. It certainly comes out in the way in which the media portray Iraqis and Muslims generally as a kind of universally violent, universally backward people.
And the language is reminiscent of the colonialist era. If you look at how the United States described its project of pacifying the people of the Philippines, or how the British described their project in India, or the Belgians in the Congo or the French in Algeria, all of those impositions of colonial and imperial authority relied on racist characterization of people who were subjected to occupation.
That same discourse, the idea that the benevolent imperial power — the white power — was bringing civilization to a backwards people, informs all of the discussion of Iraq today.
I think the antiwar movement should have centrally taken up the question of racism and hasn't for a couple of reasons.
One, the antiwar movement in this country overwhelmingly is a white movement, so it very consciously needs to seek to become more diverse and to educate itself about these issues.
I think it's very important to form alliances with groups that are doing work around civil liberties for immigrants in the wake of 9/11 and the kind of climate of fear that's been created around the country with the USA Patriot Act and the domestic spying program. All of that has been escalated by the invasion of Iraq, which relies on racism and helps fuel it at home, not just in the treatment of Iraqis under the occupation.
I also think that the antiwar movement has been seeking to mainstream its message in a way that is thought to downplay issues that are seen as controversial. Personally I think there's nothing controversial about combating racism and xenophobia, and I think some in the antiwar movement are afraid of rocking the boat. That's the strategy that isn't going to work. We need to rock the boat. We need to raise uncomfortable questions, and we need as a movement to see the connection between fighting racism and fighting this unjust war and occupation.
TPH: You make the point in the book that the media's current refrain, "They're on the brink of civil war!" reflects a racist attitude that Iraqis wouldn't have the skills or abilities to make any decisions about their own governance.
AA: It's a very common trope in colonialist discourse, "If not for the presence of the imperial power, if not for the presence of the colonial administration, the natives would be at each others throats." It also very conveniently deflects attention away from the main conflict, which is the division between occupying power and the Iraqi people who overwhelmingly reject that occupation, who see it not as liberation but who see it as a suppression of their sovereignty, a suppression of their human and civil rights.
That's the main division in Iraq. But if you pick up a newspaper, listen to the radio or turn on the TV, the main division that's presented is between Shia and Sunni. It creates the idea that there's this ancient, age-old, irrational hatred between Sunni and Shias. Now, certainly it's a division, and there are at times sectarian attacks, Shia on Sunni, Sunni on Shia, Arab against Kurd. But those pale in comparison to the level of violence that's been committed by the U.S. occupation and the international allies it has brought on board against the Iraqi people, as witnessed in Abu Ghraib and the siege of Fallujah and as witnessed in the daily brutality that Iraqis are experiencing under occupation.
Moreover, inter-ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Iraq haven't always existed. In fact, Sunni and Shia live side by side, work together and intermarry. It's been the logic of the U.S. invasion to encourage conflicts between those groups through a "divide and rule" strategy, which has seen the U.S. seek to arm various factions — particularly Shia factions — and to encourage them to carry out attacks against Sunnis and to set up a way of dividing parliamentary and political power in the country that encourages people to form blocks along sectarian lines. Therefore, the U.S. is increasing the likelihood of civil war in Iraq, not decreasing it.
They use racism to promote the fear of civil war in order to justify their ongoing presence, even though the overwhelming majority of Iraqis have made it clear that they would like to run the country themselves.
TPH: The social and economic justice and peace movement is fighting a battle on a number of fronts. While we're opposing war and racism and economic injustice, we're seeing this administration moving forward with a very radical agenda.
AA: I think it's important to see we need to fight on many fronts because these issues are interrelated. I'm reminded of Martin Luther King's speech at the Riverside Church one year before his assassination, when he spoke out very powerfully on the Vietnam War. As he said at the beginning of that speech, a number of civil rights leaders didn't want him to speak out on the war in Vietnam. They said it would be a distraction — that it might even undermine the fight for civil rights to speak about Vietnam. And Dr. King said you can't separate the issues of racism, racial oppression, economic oppression, militarism and imperialism — all those things are combined.
So you have to find a way of fighting on multiple fronts but also see the connections between the fights we're engaged in. I think right now is the time where those connections are very clear, and what's encouraging to me is that people are making those connections
Also, look — we're the majority! On the Iraq war, on healthcare, on the idea of raising taxes to support social spending — Social Security, care for the elderly — we're the majority. When you look at society overall — in terms of working people, poor people, people who are affected by these issues we're talking about, we're the majority. So there isn't a reason to feel embattled or isolated. We have serious challenges, but we also have serious opportunities.
Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com.