Interview. We spoke with Medea Benjamin, founder of the American feminist association Code Pink, about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ‘I am very worried that this issue has already been co opted by people on the extreme right.’

The American ‘left’ has a problem with pacifism

The first progressive stand for peace ended catastrophically. There’s no other way to characterize the appeal for a negotiated conclusion to the Ukrainian conflict, first signed last week by 30 members of US Congress from the progressive caucus (including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar). It was subsequently “withdrawn” after 24 hours under a rain of criticism from all over, but especially “from the left.”

The appeal was certainly not radical. It reaffirmed solidarity with the Ukrainian people in the face of the Russian invasion, praised Biden’s policies and also the support of the military. It simply hoped, however, for a sincere attempt at dialogue for a possible agreement of peace. That is, the search for the US-Russia dialogue that many privately admit must be a necessary condition for the end of the conflict.

That suggestion of a dialogue, however, was attacked as a capitulation. The sudden turnaround also demonstrated that any variation from the official line of results on the field and the “winnable” war is still unacceptable, despite any indication to the contrary in the dangerous impasse of escalation.

Medea Benjamin is the founder of Code Punk, a historic feminist and pacifist formation, the author of a forthcoming book written with Nicolas Davies (War in Ukraine) as a handbook for a possible peace. We asked her about the perspectives of a pacifist movement that in the United States could be the bearer of the demands of a peace party against the militarist theorem of intransigence.

Why did you want to write the book?

I must admit that I didn’t see this war coming. I had been writing about the conflict for some time but I didn’t think it would end up with the Russian invasion. I have been horrified by the destruction and the suffering that it has caused, the millions of refugees and the potential for an even wider war. So I thought it was important to write a book with my co-author (Nicolas J.S. Davies) to set the context to how this war started, why it started and to help people understand the ways it can play itself out and why it’s so important to push for peace talks.

Code Pink was founded as a pacifist response to neoconservative militarism and the Bush wars. Why do you think it is proving so hard to organize a progressive opposition to this?

It is absolutely a dilemma for progressives. I think on the one hand I assumed progressives would unite to say “We have to find a way to stop the killing, to stop the possibility of a nuclear war and pressure all of the parties to sit down and find a solution.” What I have found though is that people that call themselves progressives have taken the side of Ukraine and have been promoting an endless fueling of weapons, promoting an irrational view that Ukraine can take back every inch of land taken by Russia or Russian supported forces and I also think that it’s astounding that progressives have not been calling for diplomacy and see talking to Putin as some kind of heresy or appeasement. And we see the reaction to the 30 signers of the congressional letter as an example of how when someone puts out a very mild and rational call for talks, they get attacked by their own party members in such a  ferocious manner that they have to retract their letter. That is totally irrational and dangerous.

To some in Europe, the letter initially provoked elation as the first evidence of a pacifist stance in the US, and then chagrin as it was withdrawn. Were you surprised by the signatories’ willingness to retract it?

I was surprised by everything. I was surprised when the letter first came out and started  circulating in the summer. I thought it would be so easy to get all the members of the progressive caucus – about 100 congress members – and maybe more, to sign on. I was one of those who went through the halls of Congress to try to get members to sign on, and got the door slammed in my face so many times. And when I went to Bernie Sanders to suggest that a similar letter be initiated by his office to circulate in the Senate, I was told that I was tone deaf and that you couldn’t talk to Putin. So I was already flabbergasted that only 30 members of Congress would sign on to such a mild letter and then I never expected the response that it got. I guess I have just always been holding on to the hope that, as this war progresses, more and more members of Congress would realize that this is not good for the Ukrainian people, or for the US people or for the world, and that they would be welcoming some initiative like this. But boy was I wrong.

There is much talk about providing Putin with an “off-ramp,” but maybe he is not the only one who needs an off-ramp…?

Absolutely! Biden definitely needs an off-ramp and, of course, Zelensky as well. They have all staked their reputations on this [intransigence] and as a leader of a female led organization like Code Pink, we’re starting to see that same male testosterone-driven war mongering that we saw at the time of the Iraq war and I feel that the issue of an off-ramp, as you said, is not just for Putin that desperately needs one. But where is this war going to lead? And you mention Europe and I think Europeans are perhaps a step ahead in terms of the protests against this war. And here in the US, we can’t even get a couple of hundred people out on the street to say ‘stop fueling this war’. I think we will soon as we educate more people. In every city that I go to I am meeting groups that are starting to put pressure on their elected reps and are beginning to do rallies in the streets and rallies outside the offices of Congress people. We see when they are holding their pre-election town hall meetings many of them have been confronted by anti-war activists, so I think we are in the early stages of building a movement. But I’m hoping it will grow quickly after the elections.

So about the outlook for a pacifist movement in the US…you are slightly optimistic even after the letter debacle?

I am very worried that this issue has already been co opted by people on the extreme right. There have been ads aired during the World Series accusing Biden for all the money sent to Ukraine and setting us on the path for a potential nuclear war. That’s what I expect to see from progressives, not from a very conservative organization with deep pockets. The people speaking up most against the war now are people like Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson. The most far right members of Congress. The progressive movement better get involved in this quickly and I’m worried that their heads are all turned around. Take for example the case of Ilhan Omar who traditionally is one of the best voices on foreign policy. She signed the letter and then she took herself off the letter and said that she had signed months ago but would not have done it now, and when confronted by protesters at one of her town halls, she was totally defending the US support for endless weapons to Ukraine. And I feel that if we can’t even convince someone like her that peace talks are absolutely essential and that she should be putting her energy in trying to convince her colleagues of this, you know, then it’s gonna be harder than I thought to build this movement here. It means we can’t rely on Congress at all. And that we have to go around Congress and build very much from the base and educate people. That’s why we wrote the book and have a 20 minute video that is being shown now in many college campuses and libraries and people doing house parties. We are really up against a huge war machine that encompasses both parties.

And yet, there are some voices that dissent, I mean even Kissinger seems moderate with respect to the need for talks…

Yes there are many voices, there are academics, there are former diplomats, former military generals like Mike Mullen, the former Chief of Staff, international figures like the the Pope, the Secretary General of the UN, and leaders of India, China, Indonesia and small island nations that will go underwater if we don’t deal with climate change instead of pouring resources into the war. I think the majority are not interested in taking sides here — the only side that makes sense is the side of peace. So I think there exists a global majority here, and there are many forces that are trying to find the right formula for pushing peace talks and finding the mediators able to push both sides — many people feeling the danger, getting closer and closer, of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia with the related risks of nuclear war.

So you think any voice for peace is positive, regardless of who it belongs to?

Yes, but I hope we would also lift up the voices of people like Jeffrey Sachs, former US  ambassador Jack Matlock, and former US officials at NATO, even former CIA and military people. There are voices, but they are not getting into the mainstream media. When you take someone as credible and sensible as Jeffrey Sachs who says he can’t get an op-ed in a mainstream paper or on mainstream TV — he got yanked off after he said on a talk show that it was likely the US who blew up Nord Stream 2. I just saw his op-ed in Common Dreams. I love that outlet, but he should be in The New York Times and The Washington Post. We’re getting axed out of the mainstream outlets that can reach millions of people — and are relegated to outlets that reach thousands of people. It just means that it will be a slower process to build a groundswell of opposition — but it will happen.

How important is it to build an international movement?

I would love for the book to be translated. I Just saw the Italian calls for a demonstration on November 5th. I think that is very exciting. We want to reach out to progressive allies and politicians in Europe, asking them to come here and talk some sense into our Congress people. And I have been working with some organizations like Stop the War in the UK and the International Peace Bureau, but we need to make a lot more progress very quickly. And I would be delighted to go there and have some serious discussions with our counterparts.

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