Earlier this year, Benjamin spent time in Iraq helping set up the International Occupation Watch Center, an organization created by people around the world to monitor the state of Iraq during the ongoing US occupation.
While you were in Iraq, what did you discover that corporate news outlets weren't relaying to us in the States?
I don't think people understand how betrayed a lot of Iraqis feel by the US. They were told their lives would be better, but their lives aren't better; they live in terrible heat without electricity, their hospitals are looted and barely functioning, there's a shortage of clean drinking water, there are no telephones. There's a crisis of unemployment because so many thousands of people have lost their jobs.
On top of that is the issue of no physical security. The army and police were disbanded and people fear for their lives on a daily basis. They're afraid of looters, thieves, and general lawlessness, and they blame the U.S. for not providing them with basic services.
Why do you think this is happening? Was our government simply unprepared to stabilize the country after the invasion?
Some Iraqis were saying that maybe the US wants it this way; maybe they want chaos so [the Iraqi people] need [the U.S.]. There's an Iraqi saying: "if you make a dog hungry, it will follow its master." I can't imagine this is on purpose, because the result is making people angry enough to shoot American soldiers. I feel it must be due to an incredible lack of planning; an insensitivity to the needs of the Iraqi people. It's hard to imagine the people in charge could be so clueless.
But on the other hand, they send in all these businessmen from Texas, who have never been to Iraq, to run government ministries. They know nothing about the culture; they don't even speak the language.
Is there incentive among Iraqis to organize themselves without the help of U.S. troops, or is it too difficult, given the circumstances?
Even within the chaos, local neighborhoods have started to organize themselves--but it's mostly through their mosques, so it's the religious groups trying to bring order. Secular groups are trying to demand basic rights--there are women's groups trying to stop kidnapping and rape, human rights groups trying to stop abuses by the US military. People are definitely trying to defend and organize themselves. But remember, it's 120 degrees, it's really hot and miserable, and people are afraid afraid of getting on the bad side of the US. Some newspapers critical of the US have been shut down. And I would say the Occupation Watch Center is an example of people being brave despite the risks.
What would help improve the situation?
A quicker transition to Iraqi self-rule; that's the whole issue. Now there's a puppet government that's been hand-selected by the US that doesn't have legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Is that because of US foreign policy towards Iraq over the past 20 years?
I think it's an issue of a foreign force telling people who will rule them. There are certainly many people grateful to the US for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and would have welcomed the US had conditions improved. But for now, this occupying force is not seen as fulfilling its promises. To be handpicking the next government is not seen as credible. Everybody knows it's the US Government in charge. The US representative Paul Bremmer has veto power over any decision the governing council makes.
What should be our responsibility in Iraq now that we've already commenced war?
I think we have a responsibility to improve the lives of Iraqis. I think it's our responsibility to put a significant amount of money into rebuilding the damage we've caused. We've spent a billion dollars to keep our troops there, and only 2.8 million into reconstruction. We should be putting money into sewage, water, electric, and the basic economic infrastructure.
Speaking of economics, it's not right for the US to control Iraqi oil resources that should be in a UN fund right now. Security wise, there should be a quick transition to building an Iraqi police force. And politically, we already talked about the governing council not being legitimate, so there should be UN-supervised elections as soon as possible.
And we should bring the troops home. We spoke to the troops every day while we were there--this was before the gag order instructing them not to talk to anyone--and just about everybody said the same thing: "The Iraqis hate us, we hate being here, we wanna go home."
The conditions were miserable; they were working twelve-hour days, eating rations, and not getting enough drinking water. They're not trained for policing Iraq. Many feel their job was to get rid of Saddam Hussein from power; they did it and they should go home. They're angry at Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush for keeping them there indefinitely.
What can US citizens do about this situation from home?
We're calling on the people who came out against the war to organize and come out against the occupation; to put pressure on their congresspeople, and to work with military families who are feeling frustrated.
George W. Bush is coming to Portland this week; it feels as though traditional methods of protest fall on deaf ears. What sort of creative activisms would you advocate for protesting his presence?
First, I'd say our protests aren't falling on deaf ears; the world community came out against this war, and it was so important for people around the world to see Americans protesting. It gives people a very different image of Americans. It's not falling on deaf ears as far as the world community--and the world community is part of our community.
In terms of US policy, we have to be thinking in terms of preventing the next war--the war in North Korea and the war in Iran--we have to come out against the policy of militarism. I think we have to get out there and emphasize that we were lied to; lies got us into this war, and now we're in a quagmire.
The tactics, I think, vary from place to place. In L.A., Code Pink constructed a 60-foot "pink slip," in the form of a woman's slip, and we hung it out the window next to the place where George Bush was having his $2,000-a-plate luncheon. Now we're making a big report card for Bush's "Hundred Days of Occupation" and grading the results--as you can imagine, there are a lot of "F"s.
It's all part of a larger campaign to get Bush out of office, to emphasize how we were lied to, and how dangerous the Bush Administration is. It should be seen as part of a larger campaign to get him out of there in 2004.
Do you think it's plausible to get him out of office before then?
I think it's pretty impossible. But I'd love to be proven wrong!
Medea Benjamin will speak about Iraq and other issues as part of a larger program entitled "Eyewitness Report on US Occupation of Iraq: The Bush Agenda from Baghdad to the WTO," on Tues Aug 19 at PSU Smith Center Ballroom, 1825 SW Broadway, 6 pm. There is a $5-10 suggested donation, but no one will be turned away.