Obama Sucked the Steam Out of the Anti-War Movement - Medea Benjamin on RAI (pt 3/4)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on February 17, 2014. Ms. Benjamin talks with Paul Jay about the founding of Code Pink and the need for a movement independent of the Democratic Party.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. This is Reality Asserts Itself.


DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Is it the responsibility of free people to do something, to take steps to deal with such a threat before such an attack occurs?

MEDEA BENJAMIN, COFOUNDER, CODE PINK: Yes, Mr. Rumsfeld. I think we need weapons inspections, not war. Why [incompr.] the inspections? Is this really about oil? How many civilians will be killed?

UNIDENTIFIED: Mr. Secretary, would you suspend for a minute and–.

BENJAMIN: How many servicemen will be killed? Isn’t this really about oil? Why is it [incompr.]

UNIDENTIFIED: If we could ask the staff to see to it that our guests are escorted–.

BENJAMIN: We want inspections, not war. Inspections. Not war. Inspections. Not war.


JAY: So that was Medea Benjamin after the founding of Code Pink, having one or two things to say to Donald Rumsfeld.

Now joining us in the studio again is Medea Benjamin.

Thanks for joining us again.

BENJAMIN: Good to be here.

JAY: So Medea is cofounder of Code Pink with Jodie Evans, and she’s the author of the book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

So talk a bit about what inspired and the early days of Code Pink.

BENJAMIN: It was after 9/11, and as the whole country was in mourning, so was I. I grew up in New York, have a lot of family there. But I saw, as the days went by, what direction this was going in, and that was going to be more killing of more people, more innocent people dying.

And at the time, when it was being talked about, invading Afghanistan, I reached out to the Afghan community. I was living in San Francisco, and there was a big Afghan community in Hayward there. And we organized a beautiful event with about 1,000 people coming together to say no to violence. And then Bush went ahead and invaded Afghanistan.

I went to Afghanistan a week after the invasion, saw that the story that was being told to the Americans was not true, that we were killing a lot of innocent people in our invasion, and came back to the U.S., tried to go to Washington and hold a press conference and say, why in the world, when we’re mourning the lives of innocent people, are we killing more innocent people? And nobody wanted to listen to it.

JAY: Now, I made a film in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002, and while there was certainly significant resentment about the kind of civilian deaths–and a lot of the American bombing seemed to be–there was a certain point where the Northern Alliance was kind of sitting north of Kabul, and the Americans hadn’t quite decided whether they’re going to let them come in or not, and they’re just bombing anything so that it could look like they were still bombing.

But on the other hand, I found most people I talked to were so furious at the Taliban, so didn’t want to live under that regime, that they were more, I should say, accepting of the American overthrow of the Taliban. I think, you know, they thought something positive would come out of all this, other than years of war. But at the time, I don’t think it can be underestimated how much people wanted the Taliban gone.

BENJAMIN: Well, yes.

On the other hand, I think that what was concerning to me was people who were a part of the collateral damage who weren’t being acknowledged anymore. And if we allowed that to keep happening, it would keep happening. And so what we did is brought people from–who had direct family members killed on 9/11, brought them to Afghanistan, took them back to meet with their counterparts, which–there were many, unfortunately.

And they would say, yes, we hated the Taliban, but what did I have to do with that? And why was my family hurt? And why won’t the U.S. government apologize for what they did to my family? And now how am I going to feed my kids? And my husdand’s gone.

And so we did a campaign to get compensation for innocent victims. And it was–actually ended up, after a couple of years, being a successful campaign. The first pot of money was a $40 million fund in the name of one of the women that we worked with, Marla Ruzicka, to compensate innocent family victims.

JAY: And this was all under the roof of Code Pink.

BENJAMIN: This was before–it started before Code Pink, when we had a group of women that gathered–actually, it was a gathering around women concerned about the environment was when we had already invaded Afghanistan and there was talk about invading Iraq. And at that point we were saying, how can we allow the U.S. to go in and invade another country, this one that really had nothing to do with 9/11? We’ve got to do something about it.

And that’s when some of us were playing around with this color-coded alert system of George Bush. Remember? He had the yellow, orange, red. And we said that that was a very insidious thing, actually, because it was making people feel living in fear and that it was justifying more military intervention. And so we came up with this idea of Code Pink, almost kind of a lark. And we thought maybe we’d go to Washington, D.C., do some action, and then go back to our other work, ’cause we were all very involved in other things. But it didn’t work out that way.

JAY: Now, Code Pink has become one of the most known organizations on the left, as I said in one of the earlier segments, you know, one of the favorite targets on the list of evildoers of Glenn Beck. You’re usually on the list there. But there’s so much we can talk about in terms of the history of Code Pink and this whole era, and I don’t think we’re going to get into all of it now.

So I want to kind of focus on one thing, which is, in the leadup to the Iraq War, there was a massive upsurge in opposition to the war, and tens of thousands of people hit the streets all across the United States, you know, in the end, millions of people around the world.

But what happened to that movement? You know. Some people suggest, although I don’t think it’s directly timed, but there’s a suggestion that there’s a–you know, you can get the antiwar movement going in the United States when it’s against the Republicans, but once the Democrats are in power, you know, it takes the steam out of it. It wasn’t so true under Vietnam, but other issues, such as the draft and such. But in short, what happened to that upsurge?

BENJAMIN: Well, you said it. It’s a one-word answer. Obama. And it wasn’t Obama getting in; it was the leadup, it was the campaigning for Obama, when people were so desperate for an alternative to Bush that they said, I’m going to throw myself into this, I’m going to take off of work, students taking off of semesters, I’m going to put my life into getting this guy elected who said he was against the war in Iraq. And we put all our hopes and dreams into Obama, thinking that because he was against the war in Iraq and because he said Afghanistan was a good war–he didn’t really mean that; you know, he was just saying that to get elected. But he was a smart guy, and he understood that war was not the answer, and he was going to get us out.

And so the steam was just taken out of the whole movement. And it was amazing to see, because you said tens of thousands. I mean, there were eight times, during the Bush administration, that we got over 100,000 people. And we had a huge movement. You just look at one group, like Code Pink: we came out of nowhere, and suddenly we had over 300,000 people on our mailing list, and we had over 300 groups around the country and, really, around the world. We weren’t even trying to set up chapters, and they were just springing up on university campuses, small towns, big towns, everywhere. (08:34) When Obama started to gain steam as a candidate, those started fizzling out. And when he won the election, we had half the numbers of people we had before on our mailing list. And most of the groups started to disintegrate.

So that was indicative of what was happening to the whole peace movement.

JAY: And had you drunk any of the Kool-Aid yourself?

BENJAMIN: I drank the Kool-Aid myself, in the sense that I voted for Obama the first time around and I’m usually a Green Party voter, always voting for something other than the Democrats and Republicans. I drank the Kool-Aid in that I was very, very anxious to vote for somebody who was going to win and have somebody who was going to be an alternative to those eight horrible years of Bush.

And I was–we immediately did up a list of Obama’s promises. That went from, you know, getting out of the war in Iraq to closing down Guantanamo and other things. And we started out right away: Obama, keep your promise.

And I physically moved from San Francisco, where I’d been living for 26 years, to Washington, D.C., to say, now is the time to be there to make sure Obama fulfills his promises like closing Guantanamo, getting out of Iraq.

And so I was full of hope, I would say. Yeah.

JAY: Now, if you actually read the speeches–and we covered this on The Real News. I mean, I have to say, we didn’t ever drink the Kool-Aid, ’cause we actually used to read his speeches. In fact, the best thing to do with Obama is don’t listen to him, ’cause he sells the speeches, usually, so well. But if you actually read them, you would come to a different conclusion. And the interviews he did about the Iraq War, it was always, this is just stupid, I’m not a pacifist, the Iraq War is a stupid war. But he certainly was–in fact, what was stupid about it is, he said, it weakened America’s ability to project power around the globe. But he certainly believed in projecting power around the globe.

BENJAMIN: Well, you’re smarter, perhaps, and perhaps it’s because–.

JAY: Maybe ’cause I’m Canadian.

BENJAMIN: Well, and maybe it’s ’cause you’re not an activist, because we were just so desperate. You know, we saw firsthand so much of the devastation of the Bush years. The choice was between Hillary and Obama in terms of who was going to win from the Democratic side, and we knew Hillary was a hawk. In fact, we had a campaign bird dogging Hillary everywhere she went. And so our only real option for somebody who was going to win was Obama, and we projected our hopes and dreams on him like so many others did.

And I remember–you know, you selectively listen, and I selectively listened to a lot of his campaign rhetoric, and also to the debates. And I remember one debate when he said that the role of a good leader is to talk to our adversaries and I will talk to our adversaries. And he got huge applause for that. And so I thought, alright, here’s a guy who really understands that talking, dialog, negotiations are much better than war.

JAY: And I have to say the one thing I had hope for in ’08 with Obama–and I didn’t have a lot of high expectations, and I wasn’t disillusioned, ’cause I didn’t have much illusions–but I thought he’d be rational on Iran when it was clear McCain wouldn’t be. And then, after that, it was clear Romney wouldn’t be. And, actually, so far it looks like–I mean, from the point of view of the same thing, he wants to project American power, and he knows Iran, you know, is stupid, even from the point of view of empire building. But I don’t think you would get that from the Republican side. They seem much more willing to want to go for that kind of a fight. So I actually give him that. I think there is a rationality there.

BENJAMIN: Well, that, you know, jumps us fast-forward into today, and I’m not sure if that’s where you want to go, but–.

JAY: [crosstalk] We can jump around. It’s okay.

BENJAMIN: Yeah? Okay. But I’m amazed at the fact that after 12 years of war, Obama would be so stupid as to do the thing with Syria and say, oh, here’s my red line, and actually even contemplate U.S. physical military involvement in Syria. And that was one of my most exciting moments as an antiwar activist in recent years was to see this spontaneous uprising from left, right, Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, you name it, saying no way.

And I think that you could say, yeah, Obama wants to have a rational approach to Iran, but I also think it’s the mood of the country right now, and that it’s forcing Obama to untether himself so much from AIPAC, the lobbyists that were gunning for war in Syria and Iran, and to take a more rational approach. I think it’s a reflection of where we are as a nation. And I think there are a number of Republicans–and some of them are Tea Party Republicans–who really do not want to see the U.S. involved in another war.

JAY: I think that’s true. But if you go back to the Iraq War, there are a lot of people against the Iraq War, and it happens anyway. I think it had–.

BENJAMIN: But that wasn’t under Obama. That was under Bush.

JAY: No, but I’m saying–yeah, but it’s not just about public pressure. What I’m saying is–.

BENJAMIN: But I think that Obama is more sensitive to public pressure than Bush was.

JAY: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: And it’s his own party.

JAY: Yeah. My but is is he was saying–. I think this is hilarious, me defending Obama, ’cause if you watch The Real News, we spend most of our time rather critical. But in the debates in ’08, or, you know, leading into ’08, he was saying things like, if you didn’t want Iran to become such a dominant power in the region, you shouldn’t have overthrown Saddam Hussein. You know, he was giving rational arguments back then.

But I guess what I’m really getting at here–and this ties together with the antiwar movement question: it’s not about him. He represents a section of the American elite. He represents probably the predominant opinion of the American professional foreign policy establishment. He represents the more professional Pentagon establishment. And all of them, you know, when they look at their grand chessboard, a war with Iran’s not in American interest. And the same people were actually opposed to the war in Iraq on the whole. But Bush wouldn’t listen to them.

But what I’m getting at is that, when you drink the Kool-Aid, somehow you have to say to yourself that it’s not a class that’s in power, it’s not a section of the American elite that’s in power. It’s, like, this guy, Obama. And if you start thinking that, then you can project things into this guy as an individual. But he never could have gotten where he was if he didn’t represent a whole section of the American elite. And that section of the American elite seems awfully good at taking the legs out of–whether it’s the antiwar movement or whether it was the upsurge in Wisconsin, of kind of turning the movement to become an appendage of the Democratic Party.

BENJAMIN: Well, exactly right. And that’s–you know, when I made the decision to come to Washington, it wasn’t because I thought Obama was just going to follow this nice antiwar path. I knew he was going to be confronted with this tremendous military-industrial complex that was going to push him on the militaristic path, and that we had to keep the momentum up.

And we turned around as Code Pink and said, you know, where are our forces? Well, our forces had dwindled away, as we said. And even then, looking at Congress at the people that we had worked so much with under the Bush years, the Progressive Caucus, it was hard to get them to speak out, to say anything.

And that’s been tremendous frustration over these years is to see that the people who we were allied with and working closely with under the Bush years had suddenly–either they were part of the Democratic establishment and they were going to go with their guy, or they were willing to let down their guard and waited now for years for Obama to do the right thing.

So I don’t want to–I mean, when I say drank the Kool-Aid, I drank the Kool-Aid excited that things were going to change under Obama. But I was assuming that we were going to still have a movement, which we didn’t have.

JAY: One of the first things Obama did is not charge Bush and Cheney. I mean, there was a lot of talk about charging them on torture issues. But I always thought, if you’re going to charge them, it should have been on war crimes of launching an illegal war, of which hundreds of thousands of people died.

BENJAMIN: Totally. And to this day, we at Code Pink are one of the few who follow these guys around, whether it’s on a book tour or they’re in a speaking engagement. We try and go whenever we can and bust into the room and saying, arrest that guy for war crimes, because we don’t forget.

JAY: And clearly President Obama–and for those of you that are going to write in the comments section, oh, there’s Paul defending Obama on Iran, I only say this from the point of view of clearly it’s to strengthen the empire. He doesn’t want to get embroiled in Iran, but he has no problem. We’re going to talk more about drones and such later. He’s–clearly has no problem launching wars in the defense of that empire.

BENJAMIN: Yeah, and killing a lot of innocent people.

JAY: So you were in touch with large numbers of people at the height of the movement and when Code Pink had lots of forces. What do they say? How can they, by this point, not get that Obama’s essentially continuing Bush-Cheney policies?

BENJAMIN: Well, in the first years of Obama, people got very angry at us and say, how could you be criticizing Obama? How could you be protesting what Obama’s doing? And so we lost a lot of people from that end of things. It’s funny, ’cause some of the people from the right who hated us so much under the Bush years were saying, well, at least we have to give them credit that there’s equal-opportunity protesters. But we were small, ’cause we had lost so many people.

And then, over the years, we’ve started to grow again, because people have seen that Obama is just continuing so many of the policies of the Bush administration.

And sure there are people who–lots of people who will continue to defend Obama’s foreign policy and try to make it as very differentiated from the Bush years, but we don’t do that. And we would love to have the numbers that we had under the Bush administration. We don’t have that.

So we’ve tried to compensate through doing different things, like going into press conferences and speaking out when you know the national media’s already there.

But we certainly and unfortunately can’t get tens of thousands of people out anymore. We’re lucky if we can get 1,000 people out.

JAY: Part of it is the complexity of the situation, is that, you know, as much as one can critique Obama and his administration and his section of the elite–and I keep saying it that way ’cause I don’t want it to be about this one guy, ’cause it clearly isn’t. That being said, the other section of the elite, the far right of the elite, are thoroughly sociopathic–not to say anyone that can, you know, send drones doesn’t have a good dose of sociopathy themselves, but the other–you know, it’s very likely, I would think, that if it had been a President Romney, for example, we might have been more directly heading towards war with Iran. And that’s still not, quote-unquote, off the table with the Obama administration. Not to have illusions about them, but right now we don’t seem to be headed there. You know, McCain, his war, he wanted to have a new Cold War with Russia. Who knows what the hell he would have started in terms of provocations against Russia? So it’s complicated, because it’s not that there’s no difference between these two sections.

BENJAMIN: Right. And I think it’s very interesting to see Kerry and how he has been acting as secretary of state. I was recently in Geneva when the talks around Syria started. And on the one hand, it’s kind of schizophrenic, ’cause you see him with the foreign minister of Russia and shaking hands and trying to show to the media that we’re good friends. And they actually are working together for the Syria talks. On the other hand, it’s that American arrogance that’s, you know, we will not contemplate any future of Syria that includes Saddam Hussein [sic]. Well is that up to you, John Kerry? Or is that up to the Syrian people? And the U.S. continuing to be funding the rebels while they are organizing these peace talks. So it’s–.

JAY: And the Russians doing the same thing on the other side.

BENJAMIN: And the Russians doing the same thing.

JAY: And the other thing about this whole thing is the absolute–what’s the word?–marginalization, ignoring the refugee crisis in Syria, which is on an apocalyptic levels, and both in terms of the media and the politicians. It’s like, oh, just, oh, yes, there are some refugees.

BENJAMIN: A couple of million refugees. That’s right.

And the other thing ignoring is civil society, ignoring–. We were there to push women being at the table, women who had not taken up arms on either side, but who had huge constituencies ’cause they were working with refugees, they were working with displaced people, they were risking their lives to try to get humanitarian aid to people. And we could not get any kind of formal representation for women at these talks. So you have peace talks where the guys with the guns are sitting around a table and barely even talking to each other. They’re only talking through the UN envoy, and the peacemakers are not at the table. And it was very profound to be there with many of these Syrian women who had been trying for months to get their voices heard and ignored at all levels from the U.S., the Russian side, and the UN side.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to do one more segment. We’re going to talk a little bit more about the American antiwar movement and its ups and downs.

Please join us with Medea Benjamin on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News.

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Medea Benjamin is an American political activist who was the co-founder of Code Pink with Jodie Evans and others. Along with activist and author Kevin Danaher, she created the fair trade advocacy group Global Exchange. Benjamin was the Green Party candidate in California in 2000 for the United States Senate.”

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