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CODEPINK's Medea Benjamin Wants A Future With Less Drones, More Diplomacy

Dec 1, 2014

President George W. Bush enacted the Homeland Security Advisory System after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It designated colors to different levels of perceived threat. In response to the push toward military action they saw, a group of women, including Medea Benjamin, created CODEPINK to organize protests.

“There was code yellow, code orange, code red and we felt that it was really being used to justify a response like the invasion of Iraq which had nothing to do with 9/11,” Benjamin says. “So we called it a 'code pink' alert, saying there had to be a different way.”

The movement focused on providing a platform for women to voice their concerns about the impending conflict in Afghanistan. CODEPINK protesters picketed the White House day after day for four months.

“We built up a very strong movement; we had about 300,000 people on our mailing list,” Benjamin says. “We had about 300 groups throughout the country and throughout the Bush years we focused on trying to end the wars and re-direct our foreign policy to one that focused on due process, international law, diplomacy.”

When President Obama was elected in 2008, the movement lost much of its momentum.

“Unfortunately for a number of reasons, people thinking Obama was going to get us out of the wars on his own, people thinking, ‘I don't want to protest the first African American President,’ people thinking ‘Oh the Democrats are the good guys on this one,’ or the financial crisis that meant that folks had to look inward about how to pay their student loans or keep their homes or find a job, it has been very hard to keep up a peace movement,” Benjamin says.

Benjamin also said the movement struggled because of the relationship between the military, contractors and the U.S. government.

“This is a multi-trillion dollar industry and there is a revolving door between the weapons manufacturers and the Pentagon and other areas of government,” Benjamin says. “You find that even in Congress there is tremendous support for the war machine because the weapons manufacturers make pieces of the equipment in just about every single congressional district.”

Although the peace protests were a struggle for Benjamin, she believes that they did have an effect on the policy decisions of the U.S. government. One of the successes she cites is the United States staying out of a war with Iran.

“The strongest political lobby group in this country, AIPAC was pushing for there to be a ‘military solution’--bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities,” Benjamin says. “We in the peace movement came out very strongly to stop that and the negotiations are going quite well today.”

For the past few years Benjamin has focused on the issue of drone warfare. She discusses the topic in length in her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and argues that the use of unmanned military drones makes the world less safe, rather than more.

“There are about 200 people who were identified as being part of a group called Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009 when the Obama administration started using these drone strikes,” Benjamin says. “You look today and its estimated there are about 2,000. Certainly it hasn't helped because every time somebody was killed, an entire village, and entire tribe would say ‘What? The United States just killed on of ours. Let's join up with this Al-Qaida group and try to take revenge.’"

The alternative, she claims, is twofold. The first part of it is capturing suspected terrorists and putting them on trial. The second is including these groups in political talks and considerations.

“I look, in the book, at a legal study that was done by the Rand Corporation that looked at 268 examples of what were called terrorist organizations and how they came to their demise in the last 60 years,” Benjamin says. “The majority of them were through either better policing, that means taking this as a police issue and finding individuals and capture those individuals and put them on trial. Only seven percent was through military action and the other 43 percent was through negotiations, bringing people into the political process. That's how most wars end, that's how most terrorist groups come to their demise is through negotiations.“

She admits that some groups cannot be negotiated with, for example the Islamic State, but believes that many possible partners haven’t been invited to the negotiating table. She saw this when she sat in on Syrian peace talks in Geneva earlier this year.

“The ones who are the victims of all these guys with the guns, they have to be at the peace table,” Benjamin says. “There was not a woman at the peace table during these talks so.”

In Benjamin’s eyes, gender is a factor in geo-politics and a feminine perspective is the key to bringing an end to conflicts around the world.

“I thinks its become somewhat of a sexist thing in this country where the military solution is seen as the tough guy, the way to go in and really get the job done, where diplomacy is seen as very naive and wimpy,” Benjamin says.

According to Benjamin, the biggest obstacle facing the United States is its dependence on the military as a foreign policy tool. The Congressional Budget Office pegged defense spending for the year 2013 at $626 billion. During that same year, the budget for Nondefense International Affairs was, less than one-tenth that size at $47 billion.

“Diplomacy is the answer,” Benjamin says. “The problem has actually been the war and violence. That's not going to be the solution.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Medea Benjamin welcome to World Views.

MADEA BENJAMIN: Thanks so much for having me on.

GRILLOT: Madea, your work has been so interesting and there's a lot that you've done, but I just think we'll stick with a couple of things and maybe begin with your work on this project called CODEPINK, a women initiated grass-roots peace and social justice movement working to end US funded wars and occupations. So what is it about women initiating these kinds of discussions? Why should it be a women-initiated grass-roots peace and social justice movement? What, beyond trying to stop the war in Iraq, does your organization do?

BENJAMIN: We started after the 9/11 attacks when George Bush did his color-coded alert system. I don't know if you or your listeners remember but there was code yellow, code orange, code red and we felt that it was really being used to justify a response like the invasion of Iraq which had nothing to do with 9/11 so we called it a "code pink" alert, saying there had to be a different way. Let's go after the individuals who attacked us on 9/11 but not invade countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. We never wanted to be an exclusive women's organization, but we felt that the voices of men, or as we said at the time, the testosterone level was so high and we needed some women's rational voices. We had Osama bin Laden, we had Saddam Hussein, we had George Bush, and we had the drumbeats of war war war war. So we have been a movement that over the years really started to try to stop the war in Iraq. We actually were in front of the White House for 4 months, I remember because it was freezing cold, a very cold winter that year, and we were there day in and day out saying no to the war. We build up a very strong movement; we had about 300,000 people on our mailing list. We had about 300 groups throughout the country and throughout the Bush years we focused on trying to end the wars and re-direct our foreign policy to one that focused on due process, international law, diplomacy. Then Barack Obama came in and many people in our movement thought, "Oh he's the Peace President! Things will be a lot better!" And the movement really fell apart, not just CODEPINK, but the peace movement in general. We lost about half the people on our mailing list, most of the groups faded away and we were still as a core group out there saying "Wait a minute, if we're going to get out of these wars we need a strong movement that's going to pressure Obama. Bush didn't listen to us but maybe Obama will." Unfortunately for a number of reasons, people thinking Obama was going to get us out of the wars on his own, people thinking, "I don't want to protest the first African American President," people thinking "Oh the democrats are the good guys on this one," or the financial crisis that meant that folks had to look inward about how to pay their student loans or keep their homes or find a job. For all of those reasons it has been very hard to keep up a peace movement.

GRILLOT: From what I understand, you were also wanting to re-direct those resources, and really focus on things like healthcare, education, environmental sustainable development, other as your organization put it, "life affirming" activities. Not things that are killing people, but things that we need in order to perpetuate life. How have you been able to do that, not just to get out of wars but to move resources in this direction?

BENJAMIN: It's been really really hard. I used to work on economic issues and we'd focus on a particular corporation try to change its labor practices or its environmental practices and when I looked back I said "boy was that easy," because you could protest in front of their store, you could go to their factory. How do you stop the military industrial complex that president Eisenhower warned us about? It is huge. This is a multi-trillion dollar industry and there is a revolving door between the weapons manufacturers and the Pentagon and other areas of government and you find that even in congress there is tremendous support for the war machine because the weapons manufacturers make pieces of the equipment in just about every single congressional district. They have their lobby groups, they give money to congress and the wheels of war keep churning. It's been very hard. If I look back and I say, "what can we say we helped accomplish?" Well perhaps it was not going to war with Iran, which was on the table for quite a while when the strongest political lobby group in this country, AIPAC was pushing for there to be a "military solution" bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities. We in the peace movement came out very strongly to stop that and the negotiations are going quite well today. We also look at a year ago, things were looking very different because there was a broad movement that crossed ideological spectrums from the Tea Party to CODEPINK that came out to say no to Obama's attempt to get the US involved militarily in Syria when he said there was his red line and if Syria crossed the red line we'd go to war and the American people said, "Whoah, we need another war in the Middle East like we need a hole in our head. No, let's not do that." and that war was stopped in its tracks and instead we got diplomacy and we got the deal that dismantled Assad's chemical weapons. So there have been things that we've accomplished. I also have worked a lot on the issue of drone warfare, where the government has decided, "let's not do troops on the ground because our soldiers get killed and we don't like that and the American people are tired of that, let's instead use this remote controlled warfare where we press buttons out of air force bases here in the United States to kill people thousands of miles away." I researched it and did a book called "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control" showing that this is actually making wars more likely because it reduces the barriers to going to war. We at CODEPINK have been protesting at the bases, at the Pentagon, at the CIA at the White House standing up in front of the President when he gave his foreign policy speech saying, "Why are we killing people with drone warfare without giving them a chance to surrender, to be captured, to be tried, to have some sort of due process? Aren't we supposed to be a nation of laws?" We've had a lot of success in that area of reducing tremendously the public support for the use of drone warfare and forcing the government to talk about what was a covert program that they wouldn't even talk about and forcing the government to reduce the number of drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen. There have been some successes, but I would say it’s very very hard to stop the wheels of this terribly profitable military industrial complex.

GRILLOT: So, in reference to your book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, the book refers to the legal and moral implications of using drones. I know that there is a lot of debate about the use of drones and there is some argument to be made that there are times when you need to use these types of weapons, when you don't put people on the ground. On the other hand, you're killing innocent victims, as you've pointed out and created additional enemies. Is there not some middle ground here in terms of standards and legal guidance for the use of these types of weapons? 

BENJAMIN: We've been using the weapons in places where we've been all out at war, like Iraq and Afghanistan. We've also been using the weapons in places where we're not at war and often times against the wishes of the elected government. Take the example of Yemen. There are about 200 people who were identified as being part of a group called Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009 when the Obama administration started using these drone strikes. You look today and its estimated there are about 2,000. Certainly it hasn't helped because every time somebody was killed, an entire village, and entire tribe would say "What? The United States just killed on of ours. Let's join up with this Al-Qaida group and try to take revenge." What was an internal struggle gets internationalized when the United States comes in. In Pakistan, most of the people we have killed have either been low level Taliban fighters, most of them teenagers who were maybe 9 or ten years old at the time of 9/11, had nothing to do with that, or they were innocent people. As you've said I think its immoral, but I also think its counter-productive. If you just look at where Al-Qaida was based in 2001 and say "Okay, mainly Afghanistan" and fast-forward to today, where is Al-Qaida or Al-Qaida type groups? We can go on with the list: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Niger we can go on and on throughout North Africa, Mali, certainly this has not helped. So I would say, whether its drone warfare, whether its boots on the ground or other kinds of air strikes, the US military involvement has been the best recruiting tool for these extremist organizations that want to say that the West and the United States is at war with the Muslim world and we are falling right into that trap and here we're doing it once again now in Iraq.

GRILLOT: So what are the alternatives to use? So they create enemies and that sort of thing. I think we can see evidence of that without a doubt, but what do we do instead?

BENJAMIN: First of all, an alternative that was actually used under the Bush administration is you capture people. You capture people and you give them trials and you use a legal system. I look, in the book, at a legal study that was done by the Rand corporation that looked at 268 examples of what were called terrorist organizations and how they came to their demise in the last 60 years. The majority of them were through either better policing, that means taking this as a police issue and finding individuals and capture those individuals and put them on trial. Only seven percent was through military action and the other 43 percent was through negotiations, bringing people into the political process. That's how most wars end, that's how most terrorist groups come to their demise is through negotiations. I'm not saying that ISIS is a group that is going to negotiate at this point, but if you look at the situation in Syria, the only solution in Syria is negotiations. We've tried it but we haven't put enough emphasis on it and we haven't brought the right people to the table. It's only the guys with the guns that have come to the table. I've been in Geneva at those talks, working with civil society in Syria to say civil society representatives, the ones who are the victims of all these guys with the guns, they have to be at the peace table, women, there was not a woman at the peace table during these talks so broadening that, bringing groups in and countries in that we have not been talking to, like Iran. We need to work with Iran if there is going to be a solution to the problem in Iraq, where the Shia government is supported by Iran but has been alienating the Sunnis and that's what gave the space for ISIS to become so strong. Those are some of the examples of the negotiating the kind of political solutions that we have to do.

GRILLOT: What are the obstacles to getting to them in terms of getting women to the table, getting the right people to the table. What is it that we need to overcome in order to employ and implement the alternatives that you just outlined?

BENJAMIN: I would say one of the biggest obstacles is right here in the United States where our media sensationalizes and really beats the drumbeat for war, where the political scene in Washington is so polarized that the republicans will bash Obama for anything and want to say that he's not strong enough, that he needs to take a much stronger military stand and then you have democrats even in the party who are saying, "War war war," and I talked about the political system being embedded with the military industry. I think our biggest obstacle is right here at home, creating the space for diplomacy. Look at the budget of the pentagon and compare that to the budget of the state department, the state department is a fraction of that. The state department is really like the poor step sister of the pentagon that doesn't have the funds, the resources, yes we have a very famous person, secretary of state Kerry in the position, but he doesn't have the power, so he tends to go also for the military solution. I thinks its become somewhat of a sexist thing in this country where the military solution is seen as the tough guy, the way to go in and really get the job done, where diplomacy is seen as very naive and wimpy. Diplomacy is the answer; the problem has actually been the war and violence. That's not going to be the solution.

GRILLOT: Well Medea, thank you so much for giving us much to think about today.

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