Norman Birnbaum served as an adviser to the Kennedy Presidential Campaign, a consultant to the National Security Council, an adviser to the United Automobile Workers, the chair of the Policy Advisory Council of the New Democratic Coalition, and as a member of the editorial board of Partisan Review. His writings include The Crisis of Industrial Society, Toward A Critical Sociology, The Radical Renewal, The Politics of Ideas in Modern America, and After Progress: A Century of American Social Reform and European Socialism. He is a member of the editorial board of The Nation, founding editor of the New Left Review and publishes frequently in the American and European press. He has a distinguished academic career including as a Professor Emeritus of Georgetown University Law Center, and teaching at Amherst College, the London School of Economics, Oxford University, the University of Strasbourg among others. He is a founding committee member of the Campaign for America’s Future and advisor to members of the Congress and Senate.
Kevin Zeese: In my review of the discussion of the Iraq war and occupation I have noted widespread opposition from those in the foreign policy establishment. I cannot remember any war in our history where those who served in the military, foreign service, intelligence and national security have opposed a war like they oppose the Iraq War. Do you agree with this opposition and what do you make of it?
Norman Birnbaum: The opposition in the foreign policy elite is a singular phenomenon. After all, bureaucrats, experts (some of them systematically inexpert), officers, journalists, politicians and the direct servants and proprietors of capital who constitute the foreign policy elite (let us say, the 100,000 or so persons who subscribe to the journal Foreign Affairs) live not for but from our empire.
I suppose it is an instinct in the first place of self-preservation. If the Iraq disaster continues without withdrawal, if Iran is attacked, the empire will be lost more rapidly and at greater cost than would otherwise be the case. I am talking here about the more decent and intelligent persons in this grouping, not of gangsters like Negroponte (who just had the supreme effrontery to criticize Venezuela for its interest in the affairs of other Latin American countries). They, the more decent and intelligent, to some extent take the idea of a US mission to improve the world, of responsibility for it, seriously — and they have been in the world abroad for long periods and know something of cultural differences. Their attitude contrasts, I think, with the instinctive chauvinists who somehow think the US superior, the present day critics have secularized the Protestant ideas of the US redeeming the world so profoundly described in Tuveson’s splendid book, Redeemer Nation.
For all of their success at marketing themselves and their ideas, the neo-conservative ideologues from New York and their fellow travelers in let us say Dissent, are indeed the direct descendants of the City College lunchroom kids for whom a trip to another borough was already an adventure (true of myself, I think, when I was young) and who brought with them into adult life an inextricable provincialism. The opposition in the apparatus, too, is moved by a sense of social decency: they do not like the casual way editorialist’s and ideologues dispose of the lives of younger people obliged by circumstance to join the armed forces.
The opposition so far has expressed itself through helpful leaks to the public of their knowledge and it has not been transmuted into open revolt: there have been few principled resignations, and much of the channel for expressing opposition to the unholy quartet Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice have been their retired colleagues.
KZ: You’ve been involved in national security matters for four decades. Do you see the Iraq occupation making Americans more or less secure? Is the Iraq occupation a useful approach to fighting the war on terror?
NB: I consider the term War on Terror misleading, since it isn’t war in any usual sense — and the danger has been grotesquely exaggerated. This nation is to be mortally threatened by a gang of Islamic fanatics living in caves in the border area, Afghanistan-Pakistan?
The War on Terror like the Cold War has become a public works project of gigantic dimensions (we could use instead a construction project for urban public transport and high speed rail between our cities) for a new terror-industrial complex, for charlatans of every sort like those “terror” experts who disfigure our television screens. It has also become a convenient instrument for the Israel Lobby to pursue its systematic deformation of American foreign policy in the short-term interest of Israel. (Today, 4 April, the American Jewish Committee in an advertisement called for war on Iran.)
Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who served in the Israel army, has been active in trying to block the opponents of the Iraq war in the Democratic Party, and it is the support of the Israel lobby for the most aggressive and unilateralist version of American imperialism that has made figures like Senators Clinton and Lieberman and Representative Harman into allies of the President on Iraq.
The problem is not a problem of terror (I prefer the term asymmetrical warfare) but of the sources and structure of the world wide movement of opposition to the US, of which the bin Laden grouping is but a part. The notion of absolute evil served us badly in World War II and a different policy toward Germany might well have seen the revolt of 1944 succeed, with millions of lives spared.
It is quite clear that the ignorance and onanistic self-confidence with which Bush and his British puppet went into the war (seconded by comical and corrupt figures like Aznar and Berlusconi) doomed the venture from the start. Iraq’s internal ethnic and religious divisions, the inner problems of its neighbors, and the health and security of Iraqis (100,000 dead, perhaps, is not an exaggerated estimate), have been devastated by the war and no end is yet in sight. Even those whose opposition to the conduct of the war is not opposition to the imperial adventure in principle agree that it has increased the strength of what is termed terrorism. The Israelis, despite the incessant stupidities of the US Israel lobby, know this and the criticism of the operation by Israelis with some knowledge, after all, of the region they live in has been devastating. The Israel daily Hhaaretz makes much more informative reading on the war than the NY Times — especially if one ignores their vulgar Washington correspondent, a Mr. Rosner. And think of what figures like the former British UN Ambassador and deputy occupation head in Iraq, Greenstock, and former British Ambassador in Washington Christopher Mayer say — as well as the widely ignored former US Central Command chief, Marine General Zinni.
Our empire in general makes us less secure since it consumes moral and material resources (exactly as in the Cold War) better used for domestic reconstruction — but this venture touches new deaths in blind aggressiveness and cynical exploitiveness. I do not only mean Halliburton and the like, I mean the careerist benefits for the ideologues and placemen of middle and junior levels who are integrated in the imperial apparatus.
KZ: What do you foresee if we stay involved militarily in Iraq?
NB: If we stay in Iraq the question is under what political circumstances?
The White House clearly intends between now and the November elections to announce some sort of partial troop withdrawal, perhaps the retreat disguised as something else of US forces to protected enclaves. However, since it has no real plan or intention or capacity to reach a political settlement in Iraq, and does not wish to join neighboring countries (which would have to include Iran and Syria and an increasingly restive Saudi Arabia) in a comprehensive settlement — the matter has been left to the demonic forces unloosed by the invasion and destruction of the previous regime.
It pays to recall that the Baathists were originally supported by the western intelligence services because the 1958 revolt against Iraq’s Western-oriented regime was backed by the USSR and because the then Iraq Communist party was a large component of the revolt. We aided Saddam against Iran with materials, satellite intelligence and at times the tactical services of US officers in the field. Today’s Post, astonishingly without reference to Iran, called for a regional arrangement.
This government, however, this US government is unlikely to agree to renounce US economic and military claims in Iraq — and so it is difficult to foresee anything but more chaos and the possible forced evacuation of the Green Zone and the military headquarters at the airport. That is why I fear what the French term a fuite en avance, a flight in advance, and an attack on Iran,
KZ: Why are we in Iraq?
NB: To answer that question, one would have to begin with the Seventeenth Century settlement of eastern North America from the UK — I do not think you have allocated me quite enough space.
There is an inertial force to empire, we have the armed forces, an ideology of global mission, we need oil, lots of it and we need bases to guarantee that we control the oil going to others, as well as to get access to our new bases in central Asia between our superpower rivals China and Russia.
Quite apart from these geopolitical considerations there is the fact that successful defiance of the US for any period of time leads to retribution. (We have not attacked Castro because of mutual assured deterrence; his air force could attack nuclear power plants and make much of the US southeast uninhabitable so despite the truly repellent Miami Cubans of the older generation and their gallant allies, the Israel lobby, Castro hangs on). I do not think that the war was caused entirely or primarily by the Israel lobby but certainly Feith, who used to practice law in Jerusalem and may have had or have dual citizenship, Wolfowitz, Libby et al. helped as did the institutes in Washington fronting for Israel with their carefully crafted “analysis.” The Israel lobby was effective but it successfully instrumentalized American imperialism: but that imperialism would be there in any case.
KZ: How do we get out of Iraq? And, if we leave does it increase or decrease the stability in Iraq and the region?
NB: How do we get out — by plane and ship or by land to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. The matter could be turned over to a quadripartite grouping, UN, EU, Arab League, regional consortium and our troops replaced by an authentic security force from other nations.
How could this possibly increase the instability in Iraq and the region instead of decreasing it? What Democratic candidate or group will come forward with this idea? Not Bayh, Clinton, Kerry. Perhaps Edwards and Feingold — and maybe Gore who seems to want to try again, this time in the improved version. But the absence of figures like this should not deter citizens from demanding an accounting of their Congresspersons and Senators, and candidacies like Marcy Winograd’s against Jane Harman in California and Ned Lamont against Lieberman in Connecticut should be supported. What I found shocking some months ago was listening to the very intelligent and worldly Senator Lugar praising the late Senator Fulbright for having had the courage to oppose a President of his own party on the Vietnam war — as Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee — whilst his successor Lugar openly declared that he lacked the stomach for it, even if he so clearly opposed the Iraq war. There is something wrong with our democracy……