Section: News

On the Record: Phyllis Bennis

On the Record: Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a writer, activist and analyst on Middle East and United Nations issues. She currently directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. Bennis came to Kenyon on Tuesday to speak about the role of the U.S. in the Middle East and discuss her new book, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.

What kind of activism do you do for IPS?

We assign what we do at IPS as public scholarship, which means we do a lot of analysis, research and writing. I write books, and I spend a lot of time on the road speaking at rallies and helping plan strategies with anti-war groups and Palestinian rights organizations.

We also help create organizations. We were central in creating the United for Peace and Justice Coalition during the run-up to the war in Iraq. I’ve been very involved in creating and working with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. So we do a whole lot of things, but all of it ends up having to do with turning ideas into action.

What is your long-term goal in educating the public about social justice in a global perspective?

Our goal is to change U.S. policy. The first step toward changing U.S. policy is changing public opinion and discourse. Now, we all know that that’s not enough, because the democracy in our country is significantly flawed. And public opinion doesn’t necessarily determine what policy is. But it has to happen first. So if we look, for example, at Israel-Palestine, there’s been an extraordinary change in the last decade or more on how people in this country perceive Israel, how they perceive the Palestinians. There’s been a huge shift. Compared to what it was a decade ago, it’s night and day.

The strategy that we need now is how to transform discourse change into policy change. And that, of course, is much harder. You have money interests that you’re up against, you have ideological interests of the right wing, the neo-conservatives, you have Israel and its lobbies led by AIPAC. But we’ve had extraordinary success by going out to the American people doing education. The rise of organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace has absolutely transformed public opinion.

In your opinion, what does it mean for America to be at war with “terror”?

You can’t bomb terrorism out of existence. You can bomb terrorists. Sometimes you even get the right guys; more often you don’t, and even when you do, the numbers of people killed are up to 90 percent civilians. The Drone Papers indicate that in 2012, out of all of the drone attacks, there were 20 people who had been approved by the White House “kill meetings” to be killed by drones. There were over 200 people killed by drones that year, which means that 90 percent of them were not even terrorists by the terrible standards of the U.S., which seems to think it’s fine to have decisions made about identifying someone without trial, without judge, jury and executioner all being played by some group in the White House.

What do you want people to understand about ISIS after reading your new book?

I think the most important thing in the book is actually in the last section, which is not about ISIS at all. It’s about, What should the policy be toward ISIS and this global war on terror? What should we be doing? And last, what do people have to do to get there?

So the strategy part has to do with abandoning war as a method of going against terrorism, taking seriously President Obama’s own words when he says there is no military solution. To which I say, absolutely right! So stop acting as if there were. Stop the bombing. Pull the troops out. Make real the commitment to having, quote, no boots on the ground. You know, we now have 3,500 pairs of boots on the ground in Iraq. Who knows how many pairs of sneakers with CIA and special operations groups there are that we don’t even know about?

It’s not only that it’s not enough — I mean, we sometimes hear that the military part isn’t enough — but we also have to do X, Y or Z. That’s not capturing it right. Every time we drop a bomb, it makes the part about negotiations, about new talks about diplomacy — it makes all of that impossible. So it’s not just that it’s not enough to go to war; it’s that every time we attack militarily, we are undermining our own capacity to someday engage in the real diplomacy that’s going to be needed to end this war.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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