An interview with Peter Bohmer, conducted in late March, 2018
Matt: What are your thoughts about Trump’s selection of Mike Pompeo, John R. Bolton, and Gina Haspel for his cabinet?
Peter: Going back to January 2017, I’ve been concerned about the Trump administration going to war with Iran and/or North Korea. Trump could try to “unite the right” by going to war because he’s not going to meet people’s economic needs, notably people who voted for him. He’s also trying to gain support by increasing his racist, anti immigrant agenda, but war has been a real danger from the beginning of this administration. Trump’s original cabinet included people like McMaster, Mattis, and Flynn—all career generals.
I have been particularly worried about North Korea—that if they, for example, did some testing of nuclear weapons the United States would attack them, initially not with nuclear weapons. But then if North Korea attacked South Korea the United States might use nuclear weapons.
So the threat of nuclear war, even before these people were selected for the administration, seems a real possibility. I am more afraid than I was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These recent appointments include the same neoconservatives who, going back to the 90s or even earlier, have targeted Iran for regime change.
Do these new appointees indicate a shift in the Trump Administration?
I think these changes indicate more hostility toward Iran. Trump, from the beginning, has talked about overturning the agreement with Iran that was signed in the last years of the Obama Administration. The treaty was one of the positive things Obama did with the European Union—the US would drop the sanctions and Iran wouldn’t develop nuclear materials.
The replacement of Tillerson with Pompeo is another indication of a shift. Of course, that’s not to speak highly of Tillerson. He was the head of Exxon Mobil—a protector of the oil industry— and a liar about climate change, but he didn’t seem to be against the treaty with Iran. He also had talked about negotiations with North Korea, which Trump held against him and made fun of until recently.
Pompeo was formerly head of the CIA, a big supporter of the Iraq War, and opposed the treaty with Iran. He’s treated war with Iran as necessary. With him as Secretary of State, the United States could resort more quickly to war. Potentially we could find ourselves in more than the six or seven wars we are already in.
Gina Haspel, who was selected to be the new Director of the CIA, was openly involved in torture after 9/11. She was the head of a black site in Thailand and talked openly about using torture there. She helped destroy the tapes of enhanced interrogation, which is a euphemism for torture.
Regarding Bolton as the new National Security Adviser, I was listening to Lawrence Wilkerson, a former aide to Colin Powell, say:
“John Bolton is one of the most dangerous Americans (…) that I have ever met in all my 40, 50 years of service. […] Bolton is the very last person on the face of this earth Trump should have chosen for this position”
I don’t often agree with him but I did about that.
Who is Bolton and why is he in positions of such power?
He’s a leading neoconservative like Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Pearl: the people that brought you the Iraq War. In fact, he was one of the most outspoken advocates for attacking Iraq in the Bush Administration. He was involved in the lies about weapons of mass destruction there. Before that he advocated going to war with Iran. He’s very close to AIPAC and holds a totally pro-Israeli position. When I say Israel I mean the most right-wing part of Israel, like Netanyahu and Likud. His advocacy for Israeli policy is connected to his fears of Iran.
During the Bush Administration they tried to sneak Bolton in as UN ambassador but a lot of Republicans didn’t go along with it. He also talked about regime change in Cuba and Venezuela. He was also a director of the Project for a New American Century.
Compounding the dangers that these new appointees bring, Saudi Arabia’s prince escalates the possibilities of war. Thomas Friedman—influential New York Times writer and kiss-ass of the ruling class—described Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as a moderate modernizer because he’s extended driving licenses to women. But he has been a major architect of the incredibly destructive war in Yemen. He has also been frothing at the mouth to attack Iran. He’s compared the Supreme Leader of Iran to Hitler. Adding bin Salman to this mix is bound to escalate attacks on Iran.
I’m not a big supporter of Iran but it has a legitimate government. The verbal attacks by the United States and Saudi Arabia ironically build support inside Iran for the current government. It keeps them in power by weakening movements that challenge the religious leaders in the country because it creates a siege mentality.
What should people in the United States to do to challenge these developments?
Both the threat of nuclear war and a weak anti-war movement are very scary, humbling, and depressing. The last time the anti-war movement was this weak was before the first big SDS march against the Vietnam War in 1965. I can give reasons.
Firstly, the people who are fighting against the United States are difficult to support. This is different from the wars in Central America or Vietnam. Even though the movements there had problems, critical support was right. Secondly, the ruling class, government, and foreign policy analysts have figured out that people protest less strongly when there are fewer US casualties.
What we need to do is challenge the normalization of nuclear war and torture every way we can.
During Vietnam Summer in 1967 we went door to door, and we had things for people to do. We asked them to invite their neighbors to talk about Vietnam, to sign petitions, to go to city hall meetings, and to plan rallies in their communities.
Instead of forming new anti-war groups, we should make anti-war organizing part of existing organizations. Having some kind of structure that can organize campaigns like pressuring Congress and being in the streets is essential. Not that they should drop the other work that they are doing, but they should make opposition to US war, militarism, and intervention a part of their work. The military budget is projected to include a 60 to 70 billion dollar increase over the next year by the Trump Administration—that could be linked to the serious cuts from energy assistance, Medicaid, Food stamps, EPA, education, you name it. Many connections can be made.
Young people are also going to be central to an anti-war movement because we are talking about their futures. Despite the demonstrations about gun control not dealing with war, the amount of people that were involved is very hopeful.
And how do we do that?
Environmental justice groups, for example, could talk about the incredible environmental damage that war creates. That’s one way that you could connect the issues.
I did write a note to someone in DSA, Democratic Socialists of America, advocating that they make anti-war, anti-nuclear war, anti-US expansionism, a major part of their program. They have national networks and they are a multi issue group that has grown a lot around the country, so their participation would help an anti-war movement.
There is validity to the observation that you cannot simply create a movement. There are factors that are difficult to create when it’s not the “right” time. Sometimes there isn’t energy around a particular issue despite it being incredibly important and as persistent as when people focused on it.
Just because there is a need for a powerful action with many people involved, at a variety of levels, it doesn’t just happen. It is hard to predict when it will. Still, there is a need. Movements are created by people, not just the existence of an issue. When an idea’s time has come it can spread by the work of organizers, nationally and globally. Students, for example, might take over a building or block military recruiters from coming to campus and suddenly it just spreads.
Building infrastructure is essential to maintaining that energy. If we work with existing organizations, then people have the capacity to seize the moment when there is mass protest. There were mass protest both just before the Gulf War and February 15, 2003. Before the Iraq war, 10 million people around the world protested, but there wasn’t the capacity to keep it going.
What I am hoping is that the objective conditions can support people rising up. There’s a need for an uprising now but that’s clearly not enough. We need the capacity so it isn’t just a one-shot affair with a lot of righteous anger.
Are there good historical examples of people building effective infrastructure? Can you explain what infrastructure is?
Good examples exist in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne and Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement by Barbra Ransby. The development of organizations and spaces where people meet, educate each other, bring people in, and form network are shown in these books.
Strong infrastructure develops people’s skills, whether it’s writing press releases, engaging with electoral politics, or crafting movement strategies with the people and not above them in a vanguard way.
The clock feels like it is ticking on a lot of issues. Does panic organizing—acting in a way where we think time is running out—prevent us from infrastructure building?
The clock is ticking in a serious way and it’s keeping me up at night. But one of my mantras is that we have to be marathon runners for change, and occasionally we have to sprint. But you can’t sprint the entire marathon—that’s impossible. You cannot will a movement into existence, but we can build its foundations.
Peter Bohmer teaches political economy at the Evergreen State College. Matt Lester and Peter Bohmer organize in Olympia with Economics for Everyone