War on Iraq

What Are We Fighting For?

In a provocative interview, Naomi Klein talks about Bush, the Iraq war and the need for progressives to “answer the language of faith with the language of morality.”
Best known for her brilliant analysis of corporate marketing in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies — a book once described as "the Das Kapital of the anti-corporate movement" — Naomi Klein has long been a voice for moral accountability in the media.

Since 2003, the 34-year old Canadian has found a new calling: speaking out against the war in Iraq. She offers a unique perspective on the U.S. occupation as an unholy marriage of free market theology and imperial ambition. In her internationally syndicated column — which appears in The Globe and Mail in Canada and The Guardian in Britain — Klein exposes the sadly under-covered economic colonization of Iraq in the name of "reconstruction," which is no less brutal or devastating than the Pentagon-led destruction of the countryside. Be it Paul Bremer's illegal "reforms" or spurious debt-adjustment programs, the United States is busy transforming Iraq into an outpost of the neoconservative empire, ensuring its continued enslavement to U.S. interests long after the troops have returned home.

In her writings, Klein has been equally outspoken when taking the anti-war movement to task for errors of omission — especially its relative silence on Bush's economic agenda in Iraq. In her interview with AlterNet, she speaks eloquently and with passion for the need to refocus the movement on demands for both genuine democracy and economic revival coming out of Iraq.

She spoke to AlterNet from her home in Canada.


Klein
Naomi Klein: "... the anti-war movement allowed itself to turn into an anti-Bush movement."


Lakshmi Chaudhry: What is your take on why the Democrats lost in 2004?

Naomi Klein: The Democrats didn't fully understand that the success of Karl Rove's party is really a success in branding. Identity branding is something that the corporate world has understood for some time now. They're not selling a product; they're selling a desired identity, an aspirational identity of the people who consume their product. Nike understands that, Apple understands that, and so do all the successful brands. Karl Rove understands that too.

So what the Republican Party has done is that it has co-branded with other powerful brands — like country music, and NASCAR, and church going, and this larger proud-to-be-a-redneck identity. Policy is pretty low on the agenda, in terms of why people identify as Republicans. They identify with these packets of attributes.

This means a couple of things. One, it means people are not swayed by policy debates. But more importantly, when George Bush's policies are attacked, rather than being dissuaded from being Republicans, Republicans feel attacked personally — because it's your politics. Republicanism has merged with their identity. That has happened because of the successful application of the principles of identity branding.

The difference is that Bush fully inhabits his character, his character being the most powerful enduring character created by Hollywood: John Wayne, who in turn actually modeled himself after McCarthy. There are no more powerful icons in American culture. And it's not something Bush does for campaign commercials, or just something he does when he plays dress up. It's a 24-hours-a-day performance. Kerry tried to counter that by playing dress-up a couple of times, wearing costumes and things like that. A real honest populism could answer that fake marketing. Instead, the Kerry campaign just did bad marketing.

So the answer is not to beat the Republicans at their game but counter it with something real.

When you have genuine conviction standing next to extremely expert and successful marketing, it exposes the latter as marketing. Whereas when you have bad marketing next to expert marketing, it actually makes the other person look good. The more Kerry tried to be a third-rate John Wayne, the more believable Bush looked as John Wayne.

You've also taken on the Kerry campaign for their failure to tackle Iraq. How did that play to the GOP's advantage?

Karl Rove understood that if he wanted to galvanize his base, he should make sure they could vote for the things that stirred the strongest passions — which in his analysis were abortion and gay marriage. The Kerry campaign took the exact opposite approach. They felt that the best strategy was to muzzle their base on the issue that they cared most passionately: the war in Iraq. And the campaign so took for granted their loyalty that they ran a pro-war campaign.

Another part of the failure has to do with the way you answer the language of faith. You don't answer the language of faith with the language of more effective bureaucracy, which is the image that John Kerry's campaign presented: more effective administrators, more effective bureaucrats of war. You have to answer the language of faith with the language of morality. You can speak in powerful moral terms about the violence of war and the violence of an economic system that's excluding ever more people.

That didn't happen because there were no policies in the Kerry campaign that coincided with that language of morality. These were policies such as a withdrawal from Iraq, an end to the violence, and serious economic alternatives at home, which weren't on the table either. The campaign, in essence, tinkered with the Bush agenda, along with a message that they were more credible than Bush.

When you talk about moral language, it's remarkable that Kerry didn't once mention Abu Ghraib.

I think there was a lot of disdain in the Kerry campaign. The disdain that bothered me more was the disdain that they showed for the Iraqi people in their total unwillingness to condemn the basic violations of human rights and international law. He didn't mention Abu Ghraib. He didn't ever mention civilian deaths as one of the problems in Iraq. He was too busy showing how tough he was. They clearly made a decision that speaking about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo would seem to be critical of the troops. And to speak about Iraqi civilians and international law would be to appear soft on the war on terror.

Once you accept these premises — which are premises that were laid out by the Bush administration — you're playing on their turf. You don't win on their turf; you win by redefining it. I believe that Kerry's campaign was utterly morally bankrupt and I blame the Kerry campaign for the total impunity that the Bush administration is now enjoying.

First of all, I believe that an anti-war campaign could have won the election. But even if you think I'm crazy, I believe that an anti-war campaign would have done a better job at losing the election (laughs). Elections are also moments where issues get put on the national agenda. If there had been (an anti-war) candidate with courage, for instance, it would have been impossible for Bush to name Alberto Gonzales as his candidate for attorney general. It was Kerry's silence more than Bush's win that allowed Bush to make such a scandalous appointment.

When the siege in Fallujah happened (days after the election), and the violations of the Geneva Convention were at a completely new level, there were no questions raised in the mainstream press. The New York Times reported these incidents without even an editorial or interview of experts on international law about whether it was legitimate to attack all the medical care facilities and so on. This to me is Kerry's legacy. I blame Kerry for this more than Bush because we expect this from them. We expect them to do whatever they can get away with. And Kerry let them get away with it. An election campaign was the one time there was a real opportunity to put the war on trial. And even if a principled anti-war campaign had lost, these issues would still be on the agenda.

In a way, Kerry actually confirmed the marginalization of anti-war ideas as being outside the purview of a national debate.

Right, they bought the idea that these were marginal concerns.

... And therefore confirmed it.

Exactly. They also confirmed the idea that there is no political price for violations of international law of this kind. Bush paid no price in the election. And by paid no price, I don't simply mean paying the price at the polls. I mean paying a price during the debates and paying a price in terms of being called on these issues. He paid no price and that is a license to continue with new impunity. It was a shameful, morally bankrupt campaign.

So where does the anti-war movement go from here? What kind of rethinking is necessary now?

The great error made during the electoral campaign was that the anti-war movement allowed itself to turn into an anti-Bush movement. So as the logic of anyone-but-Bush set in — and there wasn't a candidate speaking on these issues — the war itself disappeared. What I mean by that is that the reality of war itself disappeared. The truth is that we were talking about Iraq in the past tense — not about what was happening on the ground during the campaign. And indeed, I believe that continues to be true to a scandalous degree, especially what we've just seen in recent months in Iraq. I'm worried that we haven't learned from that mistake yet.

We also need to more clearly focus on policy demands. I have been arguing for a long time that the anti-war movement should turn itself into a pro-democracy movement, i.e., support the demands for democracy in Iraq.

As an aside, I want to make a clear distinction between democracy in Iraq and the elections being held right now because they're not the same. The elections are, in fact, being used as a weapon in Iraq at the moment.

One of our great failures was in January of 2004, when there were a hundred thousand people in the streets in Baghdad demanding direct elections and rejecting the idea of an interim government. We didn't mirror those protests, unlike the time when we had protests around the world opposing the war.

This is just an example to make the point that it's not a question of us deciding what the demands are from here. There are clear demands that are coming out of Iraq. And if we care to listen, we can mirror them and bring them home to where the decisions are being made in Washington, in London, and so on. We haven't done much of that.

What we've really done a lot of is proving ourselves right to have even opposed the war in the first place. And I even sometimes get the sense — in some anti-war circles — that we who oppose the war don't have any responsibility to talk about how to improve the situation in Iraq beyond just advocating pulling out the troops.

We need to be talking about our moral responsibility toward Iraqis. I'm glad someone is finally saying that.

There's almost a sense that to do so would be to weaken our position. I was talking to a journalist a few weeks ago and I was saying that I believe our responsibility is to hold Bush to his lie. They promised democracy, sovereignty and liberation. They haven't delivered, but our job should be to demand that these become realities. His response was, "So what you're saying is that something good could come from the war, right?" He was trying to trap me. I realized when he did this that this was a big reason why anti-war forces have refused to have positive demands — precisely because it will be used against us. It will seem as if something good could come from this war. My response to this is: Who the hell cares? Who cares about our anti-war egos? Which is really what this is about.

Because this war was never about bringing democracy to Iraq — at every turn democracy has been suppressed — we have a very clear role to play here. Our role is to support the demands for democracy that are coming from Iraq, where Iraqis are being violently repressed for making those demands.

So we need to move beyond our desire to prove ourselves right because I think that it really has come, honestly, at the expense of the people we are supposedly working in solidarity with.

Do you think it also weakens our moral credibility when some anti-war advocates say immediate withdrawal is the only way out, irrespective of the consequences for the Iraqi people? Some argue that it doesn't matter how much bloodshed ensues, it's still better than having the U.S. in there.

I agree that there's a profound responsibility not to abandon Iraq. But the presence of troops is not the solution, which is why we need to talk about reparations. What we need to talk about is the fact that so little of the reconstruction money has actually made it to the ground. That money is still owed. The reason why this money was approved was because Americans accepted that as part of the invasion they did owe something to Iraq in terms of the reconstruction. But that money hasn't gone to Iraq's reconstruction, and is an ongoing debt. There are programs that could be developed that could bring real hope to Iraq — that can be a real bulwark against civil war.

One of the ways in which the Kerry campaign was morally bankrupt was that it refused to speak about this issue. Bush and Cheney talked about what was owed to Iraq and talked about the responsibility of not to cut and run.

I have heard people on the left in the U.S. say that we don't owe Iraq anything, that they have oil revenue, that our only responsibility is to just pull out. That is wrong. Our responsibility goes far beyond that. Anybody who says that has really not taken a hard look at the level of devastation of that country.

I also just heard recently from some people who said that they don't want another U.S. taxpayer dollar going to Iraq. Barely any U.S. taxpayer dollars have gone to Iraq. In fact, Iraqi money has gone to U.S. companies because it's the Iraqi oil money that's bankrolled their reconstruction contracts.

What's a specific policy or issue that the anti-war movement could rally around?

For me the easiest issue is debt. The Iraqis should not have to inherit Saddam's debt. This is a very simple issue. Now this is something Bush has said and James Baker has said. And that's why we feel we don't have the right to say it. The truth is that when Bush and Baker say it, they're lying. What they've actually done to Iraq instead is reduce the debt just enough to make sure that Iraqis can repay it. It was at a completely unsustainable level and was never going to be repaid previously so it was restructured — so that they could demand that it be repaid. Then it was attached to an IMF structural adjustment program that makes debt forgiveness contingent on adherence to incredibly damaging and dangerous new economic (free market) policies.

We said nothing about this in the anti-war movement when we should have been demanding total debt erasure. We had a window when Bush was using our language, but instead we responded as if we didn't have any responsibility to do so because he was using that language.

Of course, there are some exceptions. There's this great group called Jubilee Iraq that has been working on these issues. I think that these campaigns — which are working on issues that are real practical solidarity — need to be funded better and get more support.

There's another campaign that's evolving around plans to eliminate the food ration program in Iraq — which is just another brilliant idea. Right now, the whole country receives a food basket, and 60 percent of Iraqis depend on them for basic nutrition. But this program is seen as a relic of state socialism by the neocons in charge. So in the middle of this brutal economic recession in Iraq where 70 percent of the country is unemployed, they're proposing eliminating the main source of nutrition for the country and giving people cash instead so they participate in a market economy.

We need to develop an agenda based on the demands coming from Iraq for reparations, for total debt erasure, for complete control over the oil revenues, for a cancellation of the contracts signed under the occupation, and so on. This is what real sovereignty would look like, real self-determination — we know this.

You've been to Iraq — how do Iraqis view this demand for immediate withdrawal?

The country is so wrecked. In the absence of any other source of hope, there are people in Iraq who worry that the troop withdrawal would just signify a complete abandonment of country.

Quite frankly, there's a lot of skepticism in Iraq — from what I saw — about the international anti-war movement. In part, it's because anti-war forces were not critical enough of Saddam. But it's also because we haven't proposed this kind of practical solidarity that has to do with improving people's lives, and not just absolving our conscience. Or saying “Not in our name,” and then going home.

I know progressives who think that somehow the world will cheer if the U.S. just gets the hell out. I know at least a lot of Indians would see it as just another example of American irresponsibility: they first invade a country and destroy it and then just leave without repairing the damage — and all in the name of morality.

The people who really would be cheering are the people who see a political opportunity. There are people in Iraq who understand that the wreckage of the country creates an opportunity for them to build their own powerbase.

Right. The Moqtada al Sadrs of this world, who may not have the well-being of the Iraqi people in mind. One of the criticisms against the anti-war movement is also that we haven't put forward policy alternatives. Do you agree?

It's very, very frustrating. What I keep coming across in the U.S. anti-war movement is the acceptance of this idea that Americans are incapable of caring about anyone but themselves. The progressives in the U.S. are fairly self-loathing, in that, basically we allow ourselves to oppose a specific policy, but we completely internalize the values and the principles of the right — ideas such as Americans can only care about selfish demands; they can't really care about people in another country; to talk about international law in the United States is to be seen as giving up U.S. power to foreigners.

We basically accept all of this instead of making passionate arguments in favor of international law that would actually convince people. In a lot of cases, the policies are there but we don't have the strength of our convictions to make them. We buy far too easily the belief that these are too far outside the mainstream, too far outside the box, and Americans will never go for it. So we're too cowardly to put forward real policy alternatives and we only allow ourselves to critique, and therefore, become not credible.

So what are the immediate tasks facing the anti-war movement right now?

The first task is to develop a positive agenda with progressive forces in Iraq — to support deep democracy and genuine sovereignty in that country, which would make the demand for troop withdrawal credible.

The second goal is to have an international strategy to increase the pressure on the U.S. military so that continued U.S. presence becomes increasingly untenable. That means trying to further break the coalition and identifying points of vulnerability. The coalition is very vulnerable – particularly in countries like Italy, Japan and even the UK, where a majority of the population is clearly against the war. Increasing the pressure there for withdrawal then increases the burden on U.S. troops and makes the demand for troop withdrawal stronger. In Canada I think we have a role to play by supporting the war deserters who have come here, particularly the push for a legal precedent to be set for American soldiers claiming refugee status in Canada. If we win a couple of these legal cases, there will be many more American soldiers who will want to come. The goal should be to get the Bush administration to the point where they have to choose between staying in Iraq and bringing in the draft.

Isn't that a little hazardous from a political point of view — in the sense that you could be seen as advocating against the soldiers or pushing for a draft?

Everything I'm saying is slightly politically hazardous. But I'm talking about the global anti-war movement now. There are certain demands more important to be made in the U.S. and then there has to be a strategy for the rest of the world. And the strategy for the rest of the world should be to send a clear message to the Bush administration: If you truly want to be the unilateral administration then you must bear the burden of your unilateralism.

In the U.S., part of advocating for the soldiers is not just to bring them home but also raise awareness to the problems they are facing on the ground. For example, many progressives have spoken out on behalf of National Guardsmen who are poorly equipped. How do you feel about that?

That one is a little hard for me, to be honest. It's really important that we make the connections between the domestic policies that are forcing many of these soldiers to feel they have to choose the army — where this is their only way to get an education, to get a job, to support their families. Those connections should be at the heart of any progressive movement in the States. So that's a way to support the troops. I also think that we need to support veterans when they come home.

But in terms on the whole emphasis on body armor and so on, I really don't know if I'm the best person to ask about that. I feel that everyone in Iraq needs body armor. The truth is that when you're there, what you see is American soldiers in heavy armor, who never walk the streets, but patrol the streets in Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Yes, it's true that it's mostly minority soldiers who get the job of sitting on top of the tanks, where they're most vulnerable. Every foreigner's house is surrounded by blast walls and checkpoints to protect them from Iraqis. The same Iraqis who have no protection, who don't have blast walls.

There is something really powerful about the idea that these kids who are risking their lives are scavenging for scrap metal to align their vehicles. But the truth is that they're doing community policing with F-16's in Iraq. I can't bring myself to ask for them to have more armor.

This interview is excerpted from the forthcoming book by AlterNet, "Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics." It will be available in March, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet.
Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Education
Drugs
Economy
Environment
Labor
Food
World
Politics
Investigation
Personal Health
Water
Media