Rabbi Michael Lerner, Tikkun

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Mother Jones: How soon should U.S. troops leave Iraq?

Rabbi Michael Lerner: They should be out as soon as we can take the steps necessary to make sure there is a safe withdrawal. But there are some things that we’re saying that are somewhat different than what the rest of our peace brothers are saying. We’re saying that there are steps that will make for safety for our troops and the United States:

Number one, that the United States go to the United Nations and apologize, repent for what we have done. And acknowledge that we should not have done what we did and that we were wrong. Because this is a tremendous change in the way that an empire works if an empire says, “Hey, we shouldn’t have been trying to dominate there.”

Number two, we should ask the United Nations, and any other force that is willing, to come together to constitute an international force that could take our place in Iraq so that our withdrawal would not simply allow for a huge escalation of the current civil war, but instead there would be an international force to provide security there. And I believe that would bring much greater security than we could provide because this force would be understood not as an occupying force or as a proxy of the West but as a force whose tenure there is only about trying to achieve some degree of security. The U.S. should give over our arms and bases there to some kind of international force.

The third part is that simultaneously the United States should announce that it will take the lead, although it wants to try to bring in the other G8 countries, but that it will take a lead by example by creating a global Marshal Plan to end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care all over the world, including in the United States. It will do that because it now recognizes that our well-being depends on the well-being of everybody else on the planet and that we no longer believe that our security can be achieved through domination but only through generosity.

Now, those three steps, if taken together, will create a very different world situation of the United States and in fact for all of the West.

MJ: What is going to convince the U.N. and the countries that would constitute the international force to intervene in Iraq when they haven’t done so in other countries in the past, for example, in Rwanda or Sudan?

ML: In the case of Iraq, there is a global interest in it because a large number of countries want the United States out of the Middle East. So here’s a way to get the United States out.

If the United States were taking these steps and nobody was willing to step up to the plate, then the United States would have lost nothing and gained the moral high ground. The United States would no longer have a domestic or international peace movement critiquing it, because the answer that they would be able to give at that point is, “Hey, we want out, we just want to protect these people, we have no interest in maintaining control over the oil, we have no interest in our corporations staying there to rebuild Iraq, we want out, but nobody is willing to step up.” So even people who are skeptics in the way that have just said should embrace it anyway. If what they really want is a stable Iraq, and not the domination of oil wells, then this is a perfect move for them to make.

The problem with the liberal line is that “Out of Iraq” doesn’t answer the question that most Americans have, which is, “Then what? What’s going to be our role in the world?” And all that has to be answered by the Democrats coming up with a new paradigm. America has been acting as though our security depended on how much military power we had, and it doesn’t. It depends on how much friendship we can generate, how much cooperation we can generate. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be an army on our borders or that we shouldn’t search every plane. We should have plenty of security on our borders, but really fighting against the terrorists is to dry up the cesspools of anger and hatred that are generated by a world situation in which one out of every three people alive today on this planet is living on less than two dollars a day. According to the United Nations, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 children dying of starvation or inadequate health care every single day—about 12 million a year. You can’t have two holocausts a year going on and then expect that the people who are subject to that are going to not respond to calls for anger. Unfortunately the liberal and progressive forces don’t understand this yet. They think they can just put a negative position forward—what we’re against—but they haven’t yet articulated what we are for.

MJ: So basically all these things have to happen simultaneously.

ML: The United States has to take these three steps together. Any one of them will not be sufficient. You can’t proclaim a global Marshal Plan and then still be killing people in Iraq. You have to change the way the United States relates to the world, and this is the exact right moment for that to happen because the American people are deeply disturbed about what the United States is doing. They just haven’t had an alternative that is coherent enough.

MJ: If we do these three things, then after that, to what extent is the United States responsible for the effectiveness of the international peacekeepers in Iraq?

ML: I think the United States should help fund it and help finance it, and it should make clear to the people of Iraq that it feels a moral responsibility; that’s why we are atoning for what we have done in Iraq, and the second that there is stability, that we will send in as much money as necessary in the rebuilding of Iraq.

We can’t be the stabilizer. We are the incendiary force. Our presence there is perceived, correctly, I think, as an occupation and not as an active friendship to the people.

MJ: Should the peace movement offer a contingency plan for peacekeeping?

ML: It’s hard to find many alternative strategies. In the days of the Vietnam antiwar movement there were tremendous fights among these different strategies. Here, there’s no fight whatsoever. Nobody even thinks strategically.

These people are thinking all in terms of the next two months. This war is going to likely continue into the next administration, and that next administration is going to be facing the difficulties ending this war—how to do it, whether they want to do it, whether there is going to be a stab in the back from the right. They are thinking, “What’s the next demonstration? We are going to have a fast on this day, civil disobedience on the other day.” But they are not thinking, “How are you going to change the American public?” You have to have a positive answer to the question: What’s going to happen next?

MJ: What’s your answer?

ML: Replace the strategy of domination with the strategy of generosity. It’s a change in the fundamental paradigm in how you achieve security in the world.

We need the kind of conceptual shift that the right was able to achieve in the past 30 years in its politics, which was to bring forward a different way and thinking about government and our relationship to the world. They essentially beat the Vietnam syndrome and they beat the New Deal with their new paradigms of how to deal with the world and how to understand Americans’ political and economic reality. We need that same level of thinking. We can’t go with thinking that we can make fundamental progress in changing the situation with the war without having a different understanding of our situation domestically and internationally. And that’s what’s absent here. People end up arguing about how many troops, how fast, all these details, but they don’t have a different vision of what the world should be.

If you saw Thomspon when he declared, I watched it on Jay Leno, the guy was very convincing. He didn’t convince me, because his worldview is one I find abhorrent, but he gets up there and in very short time he puts out a picture of the world. He says, “Look, here we are we’ve got a world filled with people who really hate us and they want to destroy the United States and will succeed unless we stand up to them in countries like Iraq.” That it’s all lies or based on a total distortion of the world, that’s a different question. It’s a vision that puts the Iraq War in a context of a global picture. There has to be a comparable worldview that comes from the liberal and progressive forces.

It should say that Thompson’s view is not the nature of the world. There are a lot of decent people in this world, but we and other Western countries have managed to create a global reality in which there is a lot of suffering. We certainly didn’t intend it, but these circumstances engender a lot of anger, and terrorists build on that anger. So we have a solution. We will end the global suffering and as a result we will dramatically increase the security in our country.

MJ: What do the other peace groups say about your global Marshal Plan?

ML: Basically what people say to me is, “That’s all very nice, but that’s for after we end the war.” And what I’m saying to them is you are not going to end the war without having a vision because people are legitimately scared about what will happen in this world. And you have to recognize that the fear is not just coming from an evil place in people.


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