April 4 was a historic day on Capitol Hill. For the first time ever, Congress passed a War Powers Resolution directing the president to end American military participation in an unauthorized war. In particular, the bill demanded that the U.S. military stop supporting a Saudi-led coalition which has waged a brutal war on Yemen since 2015 in hopes of restoring the Kingdom’s preferred government to power.
The resolution was ultimately vetoed by Donald Trump, and an effort to override it came up short. The resolution’s passage was nonetheless a major victory in a hard-fought legislative battle for its sponsors, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna, who had fought to pass it for more than a year.
But Sanders, Khanna and their Congressional allies weren’t the only ones doing the fighting. Behind the scenes, a number of grassroots advocacy groups were also playing a key role in generating support for the bill in the face of opposition from some of the nation’s most powerful special interest groups. Among the advocacy groups was Win Without War, an organization that’s dedicated to promoting a more “progressive,” non-interventionist foreign policy.
If the kind of foreign policy Win Without War envisions ever becomes mainstream in Washington, April 4, 2019, may very well be remembered as a watershed moment in its rise. And though a very different kind of ideology remains dominant in both major parties, there are signs that the consensus that’s come to define U.S. foreign policy in recent decades could be fragile.
To discuss all of this and more, The Globe Post spoke with Kate Kizer, Win Without War’s director of policy.
The Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. I think the name of your organization, Win Without War, in some sense is somewhat self-explanatory. But more specifically, could you tell us what the mission of the group is and also, what a “progressive foreign policy” means to you?
Kizer: Win Without War was founded in the run-up to the Iraq war when a bunch of like-minded, multi-issue, digital grassroots organizations came together and realized that the invasion of Iraq would fundamentally affect how they could win on domestic priorities and obviously have disastrous impacts around the world and in the region. And over the ten years that we’ve been around, we’ve shifted to still be a national network of organizations working for progressive policies, but we work on much more than just anti-war issues now.
We’re trying to really pierce open the debate on what a progressive foreign policy looks like. For us, a progressive foreign policy really means looking at policy as a vehicle for actually doing good in the world. For fomenting policy for U.S. engagement abroad that actually lifts up and builds safety for other people around the world in the belief that building safety for others actually makes us safer here at home.
What that primarily relies on is a lot of non-military solutions that, in the post 9/11 era, have for the most part been left to the wayside as our foreign policy and national security strategy have become further and further militarized.
Q. Earlier this week, you published an article responding to some recent comments made by former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. As you note in the piece, the majority of Americans, particularly younger Americans, seem to agree with a lot of the principles that you just laid out. Do you think there’s a significant generational divide on foreign policy and if so, what do you attribute that to?
Kizer: It’s more than a generational divide. Polling actually indicates that there’s less of that generational divide than we might think. The real divide seems to be between Washington and the rest of the United States. Because on so many issues, particularly on war and peace, the American public fundamentally really only supports military action in reaction to an attack on the United States and as a last resort.
Whereas in D.C., the fist tool being talked about most often when there is a crisis is the use of military force. So, I think there actually is a growing generational divide in foreign policy in that there is a recognition that for people, particularly who have grown up in the post 9/11 era, that what we’re doing around the world is not really making anyone safer. U.S. actions are actually causing a lot of harm around the world, which has obviously only been exacerbated by Trump’s election.
But it’s much deeper than that. It goes back much further. There’s a fundamental kind of reckoning with what the United States is doing, how that affects other people around the globe, but also how that’s affecting our own society and how militarized our own domestic policies have become. Whether that’s mass-incarceration, mass-surveillance, the militarization of our police and our communities. Younger generations are seeing those connections. That’s why U.S. foreign policy really is a useful organizing tool because it really is an intersectional issue. You cannot think that we can advocate for certain values abroad that are different than what we advocate for here at home.
“There are really powerful institutional, entrenched interests that benefit … from the status quo.”
Q. With that being the case, does it seem almost inevitable to you that in the coming years and coming decades, we’ll see a paradigm shift of sorts away from the foreign policy that’s currently entrenched in Washington?
Kizer: There absolutely needs to be a paradigm shift away from the preemptive war framework that we find ourselves in in our foreign policy. However, I don’t think that’s inevitable at all. There are really powerful institutional, entrenched interests that benefit – financially or otherwise – from the status quo.
Whether that’s defense contractors obviously, other special interests, foreign governments, or members of Congress themselves through campaign donations, a lot of the institutional infrastructure needs to be changed to actually see the paradigm shift that needs to happen to really reorient U.S. engagement.
Q. In the article, you also point out that while we’ve spent trillions of dollars on the military and our many overseas wars, “our own infrastructure is crumbling and thousands of Americans are dying due to lack of health care.” But when people propose cutting the military budget, they’re opened up to what I think are cheap-shot attacks about being “soft on the military” or “not supporting the troops” and things along those lines. How much of a challenge do you think that kind of rhetoric could be going forward? And how do you think progressives might be able to effectively counter it?
Kizer: One way to counter that is by doing deep organizing within our communities across different issue areas. Organizing better so that they have a seat at the table in determining what a progressive foreign policy means. And there’s a lot of progressives that are already doing that.
That argument that if you cut the Pentagon’s budget, you’re not supporting our troops belies fact because the majority of the Pentagon budget is not going to support our troops. It’s not going to have good housing for our troops and their families. It’s going to defense contractors and their CEOs’ bonuses at the end of the year. Nearly half of the Pentagon’s budget actually goes to contractors.
If we’re really concerned about supporting our troops, we should be thinking about ways that we can actually improve veterans benefits, how we take care of them after they serve our country, how we can pay them a better salary when they are serving our country. As well as getting rid of weapons systems and other things that really aren’t necessary and are just kind of grab bags for defense contractors that don’t really make anyone safer. They”re just about giving profits to already hugely wealthy, multinational corporations.
Q. When progressives advocate against a military intervention, often neo-conservatives on the right and liberal interventionists on the left accuse them of being apologists for whatever regime is being targeted. We saw this in the run-up to the Iraq war and more recently as the Trump administration has threatened military action against the Maduro government in Venezuela. How do you respond to those kinds of criticism?
Kizer: I think the reality is is that human rights has been instrumentalized by interventionists for years to justify a military action that often harms more people in the end than the original repression of the dictator themselves. I think the best way to combat it is to be very honest about the situation. In Venezuela, Maduro is an illegitimate ruler who should not be in power. But the way to actually have a successful, peaceful transition that actually allows the Venezuelan people to choose their next leader is through a negotiated, electoral transition and figuring out a way to have conditions that are necessary to actually having legitimate elections.
There are multilateral, diplomatic institutions like the International Contact Group that have been set up to do just that. That is their mandate. But instead, you have certain segments of both the Democratic and Republican parties basically saying, “no, military intervention or a military coup is the only way for a transition to happen.”
But what happened in those cases most often is that – especially in Venezuela – the more likely outcome is a civil war that will not put the country on a path to democratic change or democracy. It’s only going to create more challenges and more humanitarian harm than what we’re already seeing.
When you actually look at the facts and the second order effects of the policies that people are proposing, that’s the best way to defeat them. Because anyone who is advocating military intervention, whether in Venezuela or in Iran, is also not presenting a 20-year plan for peacekeeping or a 20-year plan for a democratic transition in the country. Because they don’t really think about that.
They only think about the short term way to get the outcome that they want without actually thinking about the second and third order effects that will happen. That was the mistake of Iraq and Libya and all of our other military interventions that only end in more chaos and more bloodshed and harm the people who we say we want to help. We’re better served by advocating for policies that actually will uplift and help the people that we say we’re concerned about and protect their rights in the long term.
“We’ve seen this movie before.”
Q. Moving into some more specific issues, the Trump administration has significantly escalated tensions with Iran recently and seems to be preparing for a potential war. Just how devastating do you think an Iraq-style invasion of Iran would be for the region and for the United States? And what do you think needs to be done in order to ensure that that doesn’t happen now and going forward?
Kizer: First of all, it would be catastrophic, both for the region and the United States. Experts have said previously that a war with Iran would be the Iraq war times ten. There would be way more bloodshed, way more troop commitment, much longer terms than the Iraq war, and I don’t think that most Americans are being made aware of that when war with Iran is being put on the table as an option.
John Bolton, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have long advocated for military action against Iran and are doing everything they can to create a narrative that war is the only viable solution. Not only would that devastate the region, it would further destabilizing it and further harm the people of Iran who are already being harmed by extreme sanctions.
It would also reinvigorate the permanent war footing that the United States is already on in the Middle East. It would commit our men and women and non-binary service members to even more service in a war that the American people, according to the polls, do not want. And it would basically benefit defense contractors and other moneyed interests, like right-wing Israeli as well as Saudi and UAE interests who have long advocated for a U.S. war with Iran.
It will do little to actually benefit the American people. It’ll just take more resources from domestic priorities like health care, like infrastructure, like job creation or green technology. In five to 10 years, you’ll see people from the D.C. policy establishment once again trot out op-eds about how wrong they were. But we’ve seen this movie before.
What we need to be doing right now is calling it out for what it is. This is an intentional strategy going on in terms of inflating threats and cherry-picking intelligence to justify going to war. People need to be up in arms about what is happening. They need to be calling their member of Congress demanding that they take action because Congress is the only entity that is allowed to declare war and there is absolutely no congressional authorization for war with Iran.
There’s a lot that regular Americans can actually do right now by showing members of Congress that they care about this issue. Most members of Congress aren’t really feeling pressure on the need to do something and that’s what really needs to change.
Q. Speaking of seeing this movie before, the American media was widely criticized in retrospect for its coverage of the lead up to the Iraq war. Does it seem to you that the mainstream television and print outlets have learned at all from that saga? How would you assess the coverage so far of the situation with Iran now?
Kizer: Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the media has learned the lesson from the Iraq war. Once again, you have reporters at various outlets reporting administration claims verbatim without really any scrutiny or opposing viewpoints about these “threats from Iran.” When you actually look at what’s being reported, it’s pretty clear that these are claims that are grossly inflated.
These are claims that have been trotted out to justify military intervention in other venues. For example, the administration has been claiming that Iran has been transferring ballistic missiles to the Houthi rebels in Yemen for years and that that could harm American service members who are stationed in Saudi Arabia. It’s not to say that the Houthis should be launching ballistic missiles or that or those would not harm our troops. There is absolutely a risk that it could.
But that risk has been in existence for a number of years and these claims have been trotted out for a number of years. The idea that this is somehow new and that a new deployment of troops is justified to deal with these threats, and to be reporting that without any scrutiny just kind of replays what happened in 2002 and 2003.
It’s really disheartening to see an institution like The New York Times, which got basically conned in the run-up to the Iraq war, potentially do it again without actually being critical in their reporting and seeing if there are opposing viewpoints to actually verify it before they put it out that this is legitimate.
“The U.S. government is complicit in enabling a mass famine in a country where most Americans don’t even know where it is.”
Q. I also wanted to ask you about your organization’s work in pushing for the Congressional War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The bill was passed in a historic win for Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna and its other proponents but then was vetoed by Trump. For those who might not know, can you tell just a bit about what is happening in Yemen and why this issue is so important to you and the organization?
Kizer: Yemen has historically been one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. In 2015, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and a coalition of other countries launched a military intervention into Yemen’s ongoing civil war. The war pitted a transitional Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels, which is a local group that’s fought wars over a period of decades against various Yemeni governments over political and economic grievances.
When that intervention was launched, the U.S. began military support for the coalition in the form of in-flight refueling, targeting assistance, and other logistical support that made the high tempo of airstrikes in Yemen possible. Over the last several years, we’ve seen a systematic pattern of targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure that has led to mass civilian casualties. And the U.S. supported coalition airstrikes are the leading cause of civilian casualties.
A naval blockade by these countries has kicked off a giant humanitarian crisis which the U.N. calls the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Millions are on the brink of famine and now more than three-quarters of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. Over ten million are on the brink of starvation if the war does not end.
There are members of Congress over the years who saw all of this happening and knew it had never been authorized by Congress and thought it was just a disastrous strategic and moral decision. The Obama administration started this assistance and then under Trump it’s been expanded.
Over the past several years, there’s been a series of votes on stopping weapons sales and withdrawing U.S. support altogether, which culminated in the Senate and the House, in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion, passing a War Powers Resolution demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the conflict. One of those resolutions has never been passed in U.S. history since the law that allows them to do that was created after the Vietnam war. So it was a huge victory for Congress reasserting its war powers, which it basically has avoided doing since voting for the Authorization of Use of Military Force after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2002.
It’s such an important issue, particularly for progressives, because it’s such a clear cut case of everything that is wrong with U.S. foreign policy. It’s essentially a policy that’s been bought and paid for by foreign interests in Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have largely went unquestioned in Washington for years because of fear that politicians have of rocking the boat with the U.S. alliances with these two countries.
As a result, the U.S. government is complicit in enabling a mass famine in a country where most Americans don’t even know where it is. Our policy is having severe civilian harm. Yet, most Americans before the last year or so didn’t really know anything about it. And it was grassroots pressure from organizing that really got Congress to finally act and speak in a unified way in support of ending the war.
It’s disappointing that Trump vetoed it, but there’s still more fights on that to come. It’s such a useful example of what we’ve done wrong and what we can do better. By withdrawing military support, the U.S. could actually be a credible actor in diplomatic negotiations. It could be a credible actor in giving humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to the country that it has helped destroy. And it could focus on accountability for what’s gone on, even if that includes holding the U.S. military accountable.
Q. What’s the next chapter in the fight? Now that the resolution has been vetoed, what else can be done in the coming months in order to try to end American involvement in the war in Yemen?
Kizer: Congress can essentially override the veto through other means. Because they have the power of the purse and they appropriate money for the federal government, they can defund U.S. assistance to the coalition. The other main point of leverage that the United States has that Congress can take action on is ending weapons sales to the coalition countries.
Congress can do that in legislation like the appropriations bills as well as the National Defense Authorization Act that gets passed every year. They can proactively ban the transfer of weapons that the coalition uses. And they can also go further and just cut off all security cooperation with countries for what they’re doing in Yemen as well as their other human rights abuses domestically and around the region.
So there’s a lot that they can do. I think that as we see these appropriations bills and the NDAA come out over the summer, we’ll see more of these efforts to do just that.
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