Phyllis Bennis tells Paul Jay that the platform debates ignored the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and instead included a call to audit the Pentagon rather than cut the military budget
PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. The two-day meeting at the Democratic National Platform Committee in Orlando ended this weekend. In article for the Nation titled What the Democratic Party Platform Tells Us About Where We Are on War, Phyllis Bennis writes, the 35-page draft reminds us of two crucial realities, the limits of party politics while corporate and military interests dominate both parties and crucially the necessity of social movements to challenge those limits and sometimes to win. Now joining us to talk about the Platform Committee and whether progressive forces led mostly by Sanders nominated representatives at the committee hearings. To talk about that is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a Fellow and Director at the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She’s the author many books including her most recent, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer. Thanks for joining us Phyllis. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Paul. JAY: So there’s sort of mixed messages coming, I would say from the Sanders camp and generally that there seems to have been some gains for the camp to consider itself as progressive and some serious loses one would say. What’s your assessment on what came out of this? BENNIS: I think there’s no question that on certain areas, particularly on the economic front, there were some significant gains. There were also gains on issues of the fight for 15. The issue on the $15 an hour minimum wage. On abortion rights. There were some small advancements on climate questions. So there were a number raising the federal minimum wage as well as taxing the rich. That was an interesting balance. There was talk about a call for a financial transactions tax. Now what all of those things have in common is that one they were taken up as major priorities of the Sanders campaign which of course had the right to choose I think it was 6 members of the drafting committee. And then they were up against 7 members chosen by the Hillary Clinton campaign. And 4 chosen by the Democratic National Committee. So they remained a minority but they had a very vocal presence. And you saw some of that there. The second big thing that you saw was the role of social movements. All of those issues, abortion rights, LBGT rights, the fight for 15, all of them were characterized by very powerful social movements that brought enormous pressure to bear on policy makers overall and specifically within the Democratic Party. Where you saw a reconfiguration was very visible on the questions on war and peace, diplomacy versus militarism, Israel-Palestine. On all of issues there had been some efforts to make some real breakthroughs. Most of them failed. JAY: Okay just before you go on, one of those efforts was Sanders nominee to the process Cornel West who spoke about Palestinian rights, trying to get the language changed in the platform on Israel-Palestine issues. Here’s a little clip of what Cornel had to say. CORNEL WEST: A commitment to security for [persons] Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel, can never be predicated on an occupation of precious Palestinians. If we’re concerned about security it seems to me we’re going to have to talk seriously about our occupation. I don’t know whether you would allow the use of that or you know New York Times said we have to put it inverted commas. No occupation is real, it’s concrete. For too long the Democratic Party’s been beholden to APC. That didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters. We’re at a turning point now and of course it’s going to be a slow on in the Democratic Party but some of us are going to be working outside the Democratic Party to make it quicker. And that’s why I support the BDS. Not because I think it’s anti-Semitic. We’ve got to fight anti-Semitism anti-Jewish hatred. It goes hand and hand with every Christian civilization and many Islamic civilizations. It’s wrong. It’s unjust. But that cannot be the excuse of in anyway downplaying the unbelievable misery of Gaza, the West Bank, and other places. JAY: So on some of the economic issues the Clinton appointees were able to have I guess persuaded into a somewhat a change of language. Some people change of optics that may be of some importance. At least those issues got aired and created some change of language although strikingly not on TPP which was one of the critical economic issues that platform committee did not give into. Any change of language left some ambiguous thing about saying there’s a difference of opinion on these things. BENNIS: But that was a very different–that was a fascinating thing to watch, the Trans-Pacific Partnership issue which is this horrifying trade agreement that the US has been—that President Obama has signed and is going to fight for ratification and one of the issues there was that what was clear was Clinton herself had been forced to come out rather grudgingly and weakly but officially against the TPP. But even with both major candidates, both opponents, the Clinton camp and the Sanders camp, both officially opposing the TPP–they couldn’t bring themselves to oppose it officially because too many were afraid to contradict President Obama. PAUL: And too many of them believe in the TPP. Most people think Hillary does as well. BENNIS: I have no doubt that she does. But as I said she grudgingly agreed to oppose it but then refused to allow her delegates to make that real. And finally it was also about not being willing to undermine President Obama. JAY Now the clip we just played of Cornel is rather remarkable to hear anything like that at a hearing where there’s a television camera, a DNC hearing of sorts was remarkable. On the other hand, on the foreign policy issues the Clinton nominees would not budge even on optics. BENNIS: Well it was very important. That particular clip was from an earlier hearing when there was the first effort to get some decent language on Israel-Palestine. That failed. As you saw there. In just this last weekend in Orlando, at the meeting of the full Platform Committee not just the drafting committee, Cornel and his colleague Maya Berry from the Arab American Institute had put forward a proposed amendment–two proposed amendments, both of which were incredibly mild. They were really kind of weak I would say. But–and in fact Maya Berry in introducing those amendments used Hillary Clinton’s own words to say, even Hillary Clinton has said this. So it’s not something new. This was not anything significant. It was using the word, occupation. The other one had to do with calling for greater humanitarian support for Gaza. It didn’t condemn the Israeli assault on Gaza. It didn’t reference the fact that 22 hundred people, half of them women and children were killed during the Israeli assault. It didn’t mention any of that. It just said that the US should participate in helping the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Very mild, very small steps and yet—and passionately responded by Cornel who brilliantly linked it to the moral necessity and the political necessity to do so. And the answer which came from Nancy Soderberg, the key Clinton representative there said, well we’ve already negotiated this in the earlier drafting committee. We really shouldn’t take it up again. She didn’t even try; she didn’t even feel a necessity to try to respond in any substantive way because there wasn’t any substantive answer. PAUL: Now in your article, maybe one of the main themes of the article is the lack of dealing within any kind of antiwar position in the platform committee. The continuation of the underlying assumption of American foreign policy have always been in the Democratic Party Platform and the whole question of where is the anti-war movement in all of this? BENNIS: This is the very critical weakness of the peace movement, the anti-war movement that we saw playing out in these platform debates. On the questions of the wars in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Yemen, there was nothing. There was really, really, nothing. There was talk about militaristic responses. Even the grudging response, the grudging support of the Iran nuclear deal. President Obama’s own deal, was very grudging and it went immediately to the question of, we will have no hesitation to use military force if Iran steps out of line by the slightest amount. It was a really threatening, really militarized response to it. Very much Hillary Clinton’s approach. And the Sanders campaign did not make them a priority and did not try to reengage with that enormous movement that newly emerged to fight for that agreement last year. That was really unfortunate. On the broader questions for example on Barbara Lee’s long standing effort to get the Congress to debate a new authorization for the use of military force against ISIS, something that is being going on for 2 years now without any authorization. Relying on the 2001 George Bush authorization against Al-Qaeda. That was passed of course during a time which ISIS didn’t even exist. And at a time when ISIS seized Al-Qaeda as one of its enemies. So there’s no legitimacy for this and Barbara Lee has tried for years now to try for a new authorization. All they did was say yes there should be one that should be a little more specific about what we’re trying to do against ISIS but with no language about the need for a sunset policy that would end it at some point, that would identify any kind of geographic limits, limits on weapons, nothing. So it didn’t actually call for that. On the broader questions on militarization, all it would say is that the military budget should be based on us having the strongest military in the world and that yes we should look at issues of the possibility of an investigation of problems in the pentagon budget. But never mentioned the idea of cutting the budget. The only mention of the word budget cuts was to oppose the republican links to budget cuts in the pentagon’s budget that are linked to cuts in domestic spending. It was really a throwaway line. It talked about we should audit the pentagon. That’s as far as they were prepared to go. When we all know that right now if you look at for example how the Pentagon has said, we don’t want the F35 bomber. We don’t need it. It’s relic of the Cold War. It’s costing billions of dollars and we don’t want it. We can’t use it. And Congress had said, we don’t care. We’re going to fund it anyway. We’re going to fund it anyway. And that was supported by Bernie Sanders. It was supported by Hillary Clinton. It was supported by virtually every Democratic, as well as the Republicans, every Democratic member of Congress who’d district had any connection to the F35. Despite the Pentagon itself saying, we don’t want it. So the notion that we’re going to investigate and end waste at the Pentagon was really a throwaway. JAY: Now in your article, you characterized the American strategy against ISIS and the Platform Committee’s support for it as wack-a-mole. What’d you mean by that? BENNIS: Well what the U.S. is doing by trying to use military force against terrorism, they’re failing. They’re going after the areas in Iraq and Syria where ISIS has created what it calls its [Kalafed]. Where it’s actually controlling territory and controlling populations. Now in the abstract of course it’s important to not have people to live under ISIS rule. Under the incredibly cruel, violent version of Islam that ISIS claims to be upholding. But what happens is when they lose territory on the ground, they turn to more traditional means of terrorism. So they go and attack civilian targets whether in Baghdad, in Istanbul, in Paris, in San Bernardino. All of those attacks have taken place right after ISIS has lost territory. So what happens is, and there is no accounting for this, there’s no discussion of this, there’s no recognition of this as the result of these military assaults on ISIS held territory. What happens is they turn back against civilians all around the world. And then the U.S. says well we have to go over there and fight them there. And then we have to go there and fight them there. So it’s like playing wack-a-mole. They pop up here, we fight them. They pop up there, we fight them there. It’s not a strategy that can win against terrorism because military force cannot win against terrorism. All it does is create more terrorists. JAY: Now so if you look at the whole process of this fight in the Platform Committee, some people suggest that in the end it really won’t mean very much. The significant positions weren’t changed. A little bit of change in the language on some of the economic issues but not significant and certainly Hillary’s not bound by any of this. On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders is expected to be on a platform in New Hampshire with Clinton and endorsing her. How does he deal with the very profound difference between his campaign and hers’ on very significant issues and endorse her and this priority he’s established on defeating Trump. It’s a complicated path he’s going to walk here. BENNIS: Well I think his path is less complicated. His path is a more traditional path of party politics. The goal is to defeat Trump and so I will put beside all of these areas where we disagree. The problem is once he does that, he no longer speaks for a huge sector that emerged in such a profound and exciting way. Particularly of so many young people and first time voters who were pulled into the political process by the idea that Bernie Sanders stood for something different. Once he endorses Hillary Clinton and says this isn’t the time to fight about those other issues, if indeed he says or implies. JAY: We don’t know if he’s going to say exactly that. BENNIS: I said that. If he says or implies that, that will be a huge problem. But at the end of the day this isn’t about Bernie Sanders. This is about a movement and that movement exists, whatever its titular leader does. So I think that that movement is going to survive. What we saw again, it comes back to the power of movements. It’s true that platform committee hearings and the platform language doesn’t really have any impact in the real world. Parties are not bound by it but the process of reaching it is important because it shows who has power and who doesn’t. Who has to be listened to and who has to be ignored. Social movements that are powerful whether it’s for the fight for 15, whether it’s black lives matter, have shown themselves powerful enough that they cannot be ignored. It doesn’t mean that they get what they want just by declaration. But it means they have to be taken seriously in the political arena. Movements that are going to through a down period like the peace movement right now unfortunately, the Israel-Palestine movement, the movement for Palestinian rights, the movement against support for Israeli occupation and apartheid. That movement is on the rise. And so you saw all of the global issues around war and peace, it was the issue of Israel-Palestine arguably in the past, the hardest one. This time was the one that came up was the one that was fought for because it’s the movement that’s the strongest. JAY: And this issue of the Platform Committee, the Platform committee itself has done its work but the convention still has to vote on this and we’ve talked to a lot of Sanders delegates that are planning to continue the fight and in fact it’s up until today at least Bernie Sanders has said himself that they are going to continue the fight at the convention over these platform issues. BENNIS: I think that they’ll probably continue the fight on the TPP most particularly. I hope that they will fight on the Israel-Palestine stuff. I hope they will fight on the military stuff. But again it depends on which of those delegates bring something back. Every one of the defeated amendments on Israel-Palestine, on Gaza, on militarism, on the TPP, all of them can be brought back to the floor of the convention. They all had more than 25 voters and that’s all you need to bring it up as a minority position. The question will be which campaigns actually do that. And that’s when the campaign themselves, the Clinton campaign and the Sanders campaign, are going to have a lot of power. Whether individual members are able to do that–if one or the other campaign doesn’t want them to, I don’t know how that plays out. JAY: Some of the delegates we talked to over the last couple of weeks, apparently there’s a lot of plans for organizing even sit-ins, sit-downs, walk-outs. We’ll see where it all heads but I don’t think this is as likely to be as peaceful as Secretary Clinton will like to see it. BENNIS: I think it will be peaceful but I think it will be– JAY: By peaceful I mean people are not simply going to go along with the script. BENNIS: Exactly, it’s not going to be passive. People are not going to go along with the script. And this is why at the end of the day this is about movements. It’s not about campaigns for president alone. It’s about the movements that rise up around those campaigns. Now that’s what we’ve seen in such strength around the Sanders campaign and hopefully that’s going to grow. JAY: Alright thanks for joining us Phyllis. BENNIS: Thank you. JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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