An Interview with Stephen Zunes
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical
Given that this is the first issue of Empirical in 2013 and the human race has survived yet another turbulent year (despite the predictions of Mayan calendar enthusiasts and others), it may be appropriate to take stock in some way, in keeping with the ancient traditions of New Year festivals across the world.
During the Jewish High Holy Days, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is traditionally a time in which observant Jews are obliged to engage in sustained reflection on what’s been and resolve to do things better in the future. Other major cultural festivals such as Nowruz in Iran, Seol-Nal in Korea, and the Chaitra in the Hindu tradition, among many others, encourage varying degrees of contemplation and self searching amidst celebration of the year’s renewal.
With this in mind (albeit with a political focus), Empirical magazine caught up with the estimable San Francisco Bay Area scholar Stephen Zunes to discuss a cluster of controversial, sobering, and thought-provoking issues linked to the past and present actions of the government of the United States at home and abroad.
Professor Zunes is Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, and is considered one of America’s leading scholars on US foreign policy, in particular Middle-Eastern policy. Professor Zunes has produced many widely read articles on Middle Eastern politics, US foreign policy, international terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, strategic nonviolent action, and human rights. He also spent many hours reading internal government documents in the national archives, as well as travelling extensively throughout west Asia and meeting key political actors in the region.
I began by asking him about perhaps the most explosive issue of the last decade–the Iraq war.
Emanuel: What’s your opinion of the case that was made for the Iraq war? And what influence do you think that Project for the New American Century and its neoconservative membership had on how things turned out? [PNAC were an influential right-wing think tank during the 90s and 2000s who advocated “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.” Supporters of the Iraq war, many PNAC members were part of the Bush administration.]
Stephen Zunes: They were a strong intellectual force behind it, in their intellectual rationalization, and a series of events, including 9/11, helped make it possible, along with some more traditional conservatives and the Christian evangelicals, and so on. So, it was a tragic confluence of various ideological and strategic tendencies, and they were certainly a major piece of it. I think a lot of people overplay their role in a sense–especially the Zionist connection. If you read that famous memo from 1996, it’s more along the lines of what Israel can do for the US, than what the US can do for Israel. While I’ve certainly been attacked quite viciously by various Zionist groups, I’ve generally been one of those who has argued that the whole Israeli-lobby angle is overstated, and so I agree with Noam Chomsky on this point. The invasion had a lot more to do with a broader hegemonic priorities than any one special interest group. I think what PNAC and those guys really were talking about was an idea–in many ways it is not a new idea–but by their very name, it goes back to that post-World War II period, when there really was that sense that the United States could reshape the world in our image. And again, it goes back in some ways to the Puritans. So in that sense I think they were able to capitalize on that part of American culture, by appealing to those that would be susceptible to that sort of thinking.
Emanuel: To what degree do you think that US foreign policy is driven by self-referential ideology?
Stephen Zunes: The older I get, the less I tend to think in terms of conspiracies and the more I am inclined to recognize the power of ideology. It’s huge. Again, Chomsky’s pretty good at recognizing this too. I have disagreements with Chomsky on some things but I think he’s a lot more on target than, say, people like Michael Parenti and other kinds of vulgar Marxists who see political smoke-filled rooms of people planning all these things.
Emanuel: I guess people like Parenti are being self-referential too.
Stephen Zunes: Yeah, and I think that’s the case with much of US policy, including when people realize that we are supporting some pretty nasty characters. I don’t think they like the fact that these people are terrible dictators, but they believe the end justifies the means, basically. And of course you can use the idea of democracy [as a justification], and when people link free markets with that, that’s part and parcel of what freedom means. So you go on to have that play a disproportionate role in your calculations. I think its interesting with the Helms-Burton Bill on Cuba, if you look at what they say–that sanctions will be lifted when there’s “free and fair elections and Cuba embraces a free market economy.” So, if suddenly tomorrow Cuba was democratic, had free elections, but had a democratic socialist government, by law, sanctions would still be in place!
Emanuel: Does neoliberalism [extreme free market economics] necessarily make people more free and countries more democratic, or can it actually intrude on the sovereignty, economic sovereignty at least, of poorer nations?
Stephen Zunes: The current neoliberal model–[governed by] international institutions and the like–greatly compromises sovereignty. Although, I can certainly see how you can make the case that you can get more political space in a system where a government doesn’t have a monopoly on the economy. So in that sense it can be a democratizing force. And it’s interesting, because I know some folks at Otpor, and a number of them are pretty left-wing in their politics, but they actually supported some of the privatization efforts because it was a way of getting rid of the kind of crony capitalism that Milosevic and those guys had put together. In many ways, they had to clean out the old system. Although, again, their views would be well to the left of most of the neoliberals and others. But the main point is that–this is one of the big questions right now–you have all these countries becoming democratic throughout the world. I forget the figures, but the number of dictatorships had decreased by half in the past 20 to 30 years. However, the decisions that affect people’s lives the most are made less and less in the national capitals, and more and more in New York and Frankfurt and London and Geneva, etc.
Emanuel: What’s been your general experience in terms of government secrecy–is it often used to make sure that what the government is doing is held in occultation, in a sense, to provide cover for reprehensible activities as opposed to just things hidden from the public for necessary security purposes?
Stephen Zunes: Very much so, I think it’s particularly true in the United States, because one of the great contradictions in American culture is that on one hand, we’re a superpower, with all the imperial prerogatives thereof, working in a realpolitik environment, at the same time Americans themselves hold on to these strong idealistic values about democracy, about rule of law and that sort of thing. And on the one hand, every empire has tried to rationalize its actions: white man’s burden, “la mission civilisatrice” [“the civilizing mission,” a French colonial saying], that kind of thing. But in general, again to the use the example of France, France intervened in Africa the way the US has in Latin America and the French shrug their shoulders. Of course that’s what governments do. That’s their sphere of influence. Some of it’s pretty nasty. Americans get this real sense of righteous moral outrage when they find out about [their government] supporting terrorists and dictatorships. So, I think because of this, the US government, more than any other, really has to hide [these things], and especially since we’ve supported some of the worst thugs in the world in the name of defending democracy. If people knew what was going on, it would be hard to get away with that. I think in many ways the fact that the US government has to go to the extent that it does in order to cover up embarrassing details about our favorite dictators and that kind of stuff is. . . a validation of the American people that they feel the need to keep this kind of thing under wraps.
Emanuel: I notice that you bring up the term empire in relation to US activities abroad. Can you clarify what you mean by that?
Stephen Zunes: Ok. It’s a term that I don’t usually use that much, as people usually get defensive about that kind of thing. I certainly don’t think there’s a big difference between lowercase i imperialism and uppercase I Imperialism, but it is to some degree about hegemony–any kind of great power trying to maximize its influence for strategic and economic reasons. Again, on the one hand the United States is different from previous empires in that, with a few short-term exceptions, we haven’t controlled colonies outright. But also there is this: because of our own history, in revolution against empire, it’s not something we really like to acknowledge. At the same time, the kind of American exceptionalism we feel goes back to the Puritans: John Winthrop, the City on the Hill, you know, the New Jerusalem, manifest destiny. There is this sense that we are special, that we can get away with stuff that other countries can’t. It is an unspoken assumption, but it’s there, especially at the presidential debate–where the debate is on how American exceptionalism should manifest itself. No one’s questioning anything.
Emanuel: To what degree do you think that religious aspects play into that? For example, not to ask a leading question, but the former Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney–a Mormon–reportedly has a view of America as being a big part of the world’s salvific destiny. Do you think there’s a bit of that which feeds into such exceptionalist worldviews?
Stephen Zunes: Very much so. It also reflects a lot of trends within American Protestantism. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice that. I mostly work on the Middle East. I couldn’t help but notice the difference in public opinion between mainline Protestants and Catholics and more humanist-orientated people on the one hand, and fundamentalist Protestants on the other, was exceptionally wide when it came to Iraq. That many Protestants really did see [the war] in terms that Bush was using–the quasi-religious rationalization. It’s even greater than it is on Israel-Palestine where there’s that evangelical need to ensure the second coming of Christ, that sort of thing. I think that both Mahmoud Abbas and the French Prime Minister said that Bush told them point blank that God had told him to invade Iraq, for example.
Emanuel: Sorry, I know this is a bit speculative, but do you think that Bush actually believed that–or do you think it was a way of, for example, manipulating other people?
Stephen Zunes: I’d doubt it–I can could see him saying it to some fellow American evangelicals, but him saying that to a Palestinian Muslim and an agnostic Frenchman is [pause]–I wouldn’t see how that would carry him very far.
Emanuel: What’s your analysis of the political economy of the relationship between the religious right within America and the government, in terms of foreign policy?
Stephen Zunes: There is this very strong belief in American exceptionalism. I mean it’s an interesting thing that, if you look at it, virtually all the mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic church came out against the Iraq war, and yet Congress–which consists primarily of members of these denominations voted otherwise. The Catholic bishops were very clearly against the war; the Pope was against the war! It’s interesting that in certain ways–that on issues of war and peace–the leadership of American churches are more peace-oriented than their congregants. On the fundamentalist side, they have rarely been among the most militarist. Maybe you’d think it would after the end of the cold war. It was no longer a struggle against Godless communists. But, if anything, these tendencies seem to have gotten stronger.
Emanuel: What do you think of Samuel Huntingdon’s influential clash of civilizations narrative [that major cultural spheres–in particular, Islam and the West–are set to be the future points of international confrontation. Some people have said it’s an attempt to rehabilitate cold-war thinking?
Stephen Zunes: I very much agree with that critique [the “clash of civilizations” thesis]. There’s not much of an historical or empirical basis to back [the narrative] up, but it does help rationalize the kinds of behavior that would not otherwise be acceptable to a large number of Americans. I don’t know if you saw a piece I did maybe five years ago when Ahmadinejad came to the UN and I got to be part of a group (I work at a Catholic University), so I was brought in with a number of clergy and laity who were meeting with him in New York. And I mostly talked about him in many ways as being more pathetic than evil–obviously, I was quite critical of him. But I did explore this whole question of why there is this obsession with Ahmadinejad, especially since the Iranian president is not particularly powerful and doesn’t control the military, and how when there is a moderate Iranian President like Khatami [Ahmadinejad’s predecessor], he was virtually ignored by the US media. I basically argue that Ahmadinejad fits so perfectly with the image of the stereotypical middle-eastern leader we love to hate–prior to him it was Saddam; prior to that it was Gaddafi, you know. You find some crazy dictator who does irrational things, and Idi Amin played a similar role a couple of years earlier–a third-world leader, and some of these people are indeed horrific thugs, but they also play into the whole self-righteousness idea, and this idea that we Westerners need to have a strong military presence to protect us from these crazy, crazy, crazy people. And that’s why I think these guys often get far more press than they deserve, especially when you compare them to some of the thugs that the West supports–N’Guema in Equatorial Guinea; Karamov in Uzbekistan, who boils his enemies alive. These guys have done things at least as crazy as some of these other tyrants, but it doesn’t quite fit into the paradigm.
[An interesting quote from Zunes’ aforementioned piece about his meeting with the Iranian President: “My Meeting with Ahmadinejad,” for Foreign Policy in Focus": “[Ahmadinejad] was quite unimpressive. Indeed, with his ramblings and the superficiality of his analysis, he came across as more pathetic than evil. . . . The Iranian president impressed me as someone sincerely devout in his religious faith, yet rather superficial in his understanding, and inclined to twist his faith tradition in ways to correspond with his pre-conceived ideological positions.”]
Emanuel: With regard to government secrecy, again, can you give examples of secrecy laws being used to cover up reprehensible actions by the US government or its allies–in terms of it being an abuse of government secrecy?
Stephen Zunes: A clear example is during the Gulf War in 1991. A report on a friendly aircraft carrier, about how some of the fighters would watch pornographic movies to get psyched up before their attacks, and governments censored this. And when they referred to them returning from their missions “giddy,” military censors changed it to “proud.” In terms of outright secrecy, certainly the infamous massacre in El Salvador in 1981 [is an example]. The New York Times actually had an article that exposed it, but the government denied it, and had no record [of it]. The Reagan people went after the Times’ editors, and the poor guy who wrote the thing got transferred out of El Salvador to cover school board meetings in New York, or something, as a result. But it turned out the initial account was, in fact, accurate. Certainly, the issues centering around the Contras [in Nicaragua in the 1980s]–[from] their attacks on civilians to their role in the cocaine trade–those were censored. I had [written] an article recently about a human rights situation where the US government was denying one thing, and then Wikileaks came out saying that they, in fact, were quite aware of what was going on.
Emanuel: Changing subjects rather dramatically, with regards to Iraq, were there alternatives to the sanctions there that came about in the 90s and early 2000s? The human cost, which Madeline Albright insisted was “worth it” to the crew of 60 Minutes, was estimated by UNICEF as including the lives of 500,000 children. Why did they persist? Why didn’t they change their policy given that they could see that a huge number of people were being killed?
Stephen Zunes: The only thing that I can think of is that they laid down the rules, or the law, and assuming that consequences would be so bad, they’d give in. But they didn’t, and then couldn’t back down, even though they knew it didn’t work, ‘cause they had to stand by what they said. I don’t know if you’re a parent or not, but if you have any kids, you probably know what I’m talking about. “You can’t go to this birthday party unless you clean your room,” assuming they would, and then they don’t, and you feel terrible about not letting them go to the party, but you don’t want to back down–that kind of thing. I think part of it was that, and bureaucratic inertia, and just the idea that if we compromised it would seem to be rewarding him [Saddam Hussein] and nobody wanted to do that. And I think it was also just like a lot of foreign policies, unfortunately, when we’re frustrated, it’s almost by catharsis: we don’t care if it works or not. When the United States has bombed countries, like bombing Libya in ‘86 around the terrorist attacks, it felt good, almost starting foreign policy by catharsis.
Emanuel: Finally, what do you think about Hugo Chavez in Venezuela? Do you think he’s a monstrous dictator, or is that a bit of a false image?
Stephen Zunes: I think in his election, he won fair and square, though I think that part of the problem is that the old opposition is still dominated by the old elites. And if you’re Venezuelan, you have the choice of the status quo or the status quo anti. So you may not be happy with either, but you’d probably choose the status quo, because at least under Chavez he’s provided the political space for some exciting grassroots socialist initiatives that have helped a lot of people and have given hope to a lot of people that didn’t have much of that in the old system. At the same time, he’s definitely suppressed civil liberties. I have one Venezuelan friend who’s decidedly left-wing in her politics, but she referred to him as the Berlusconi of the poor [Berlusconi was an Italian Prime Minister with a reputation for corruption and media domination.] There’s definitely a demagogic quality to him, and certainly when he embraces Ahmadinejad and Assad and the dictator of Belarus, these guys–I mean c’mon give me a break–that’s inexcusable. On another hand, he’s given money to end Venezuela’s odious debt, he’s given money to Evo Morales, who is more democratic and by certain measures, more left-wing, given him space to do some good things in Bolivia, so I’m very mixed on Chavez.
Emanuel: Professor Zunes, thank you very much.
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