An Interview with Jonathan Schell

An Interview with Jonathan Schell

Conducted by Benjamin Dangl

This interview took place after a talk Schell gave at Bard College on March 12 regarding the future of the UN.  Schell’s is The Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent, is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute and the author, most recently, of the The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  In this interview I spoke with him about the direction of the peace movement, the idea of immediately withdrawing troops from Iraq, and how to convince republicans not to vote for Bush.

BD: The main organizers of the March 20, 2004 peace demonstration in NYC have said their overarching demand at the protest will be to “Bring all the troops home now.”  Is withdrawing troops from Iraq immediately a realistic solution?

JS: To me the key is not so much to immediately withdraw the troops, as it is to end the occupation, in other words, to turn the political side of it over to the UN and people of Iraq.  And then to do what they want in regards to the troops and how quickly the withdrawal should come.  At some point in all of this someone who does represent the Iraqi people, or who are at least really indigenous and not just a creature of the occupation, such as al-Sistani, are going to step forward.  And then will they want our troops there or not?  That is going to be a real watershed.  But yes, they should come out, certainly.  What the time table is, that is hard to say.

BD: What do you think of the argument that the US troops are the only group that is keeping the country from civil war?

JS: I think that civil war is definitely possible, at least that is what people from Iraq say.  What is not clear to me is if the US is a force preventing that.  Maybe, in a certain way they are.  And maybe the US forces are coming to play a very unexpected role which would be a sort of stop gap before there is a civil war.  It is possible, but I do not think that they can be the long term solution to head off a civil war.  It is hard at a distance to champion one very specific policy over another, but in broad outlines I am very clear: the United States should not be negotiating with the people in Iraq, the UN should and eventually whoever it is in Iraq that is going to take over, whether they are good, bad or indifferent.  That is what has to happen, and sooner rather than later.

BD: As far as the peace movement is concerned, it had a lot of momentum before the Iraq war started.  Where should the movement go now and what should it focus its demands on?

JS: I think that the peace movement should become part of a broader movement of reform and resistance.  It is very important to get the democrat in, whoever that is, and it will be Kerry, rather than the republican.  But at the same time it is not going to solve every problem. So I think that the peace movement should be establishing a vital, strong movement in civil society for a real alternative to this imperialism, both with respect to domestic policies and international policies.  I like to say we should walk and chew gum at the same time, which means try to get the democrat in, in full awareness that that’s no solution, it is just on the way to a solution, and to create a vital culture and movement of opposition to these deeper tendencies.  I like the idea of what they are doing up in Boston, the social forum.  Together with the democratic convention, very nice idea, sort of saying, “We are the alternative; we have some ideas over here that you’re not going to hear over there.”  I wrote an article in The Nation calling for a thinking demonstration, and a working demonstration, like the social forums.  So – networking galore, ten thousand seminars and meetings and speeches and movies and tables with buttons and everything, the whole shooting match, not just a million people listening to a bad speech.

BD: Right now, there is a distinct polarization between the people who support Bush and the people who support anyone but Bush.  How do we move ahead towards elections trying to convince staunch republicans not to vote for Bush?

JS:  It is not simply a matter of going one on one with a republican and getting them to change their mind.  I think that what you try to do is champion what you really believe in to change the overall political atmosphere.  And already that has happened to a certain extent.  In other words, because there was a Dean and a Kucinich, neither of whom could win the nomination, the whole mood of the Democratic Party changed.  And that changed mood in the Democratic Party has put Kerry ahead of Bush in the polls, however long that lasts.  It is wrong to say that it is a waste of time to preach to the converted, the converted need to be fired up, because we’re in this society too and we have ten thousand connections, formal and informal with people and that radiates outward.