Dennis Kucinich is a Democratic congressman from Ohio. He was one of only 14 Democrats to oppose the current Iraq supplemental bill, which sets a deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The bill, the Iraq Accountability Act, did not, however, cut funding for the war. Here he speaks with Michael Shank about the reasons for his vote, his fears of an attack on Iran, his concerns about the future of the Democratic Party, and his faith that new American leadership will craft a different partnership with the world community.
Michael Shank: As one of the handful of Democrats that voted “No” on the Iraq supplemental bill, can you share the motivation for your decision?
Rep. Dennis Kucinich: It’s very simple: the bill kept the war going. I want to see this war end. I have created, with the help of people who have worked on security and peacekeeping missions for years, a plan to end the war. It’s embodied in H.R. 1234. It would end the U.S. occupation, close the bases, bring the troops home, establish a parallel process creating a peacekeeping and security force, reach out to the nations of the region and the international community for help – something we won’t get as long as we continue to occupy Iraq. That plan is much more expansive and in the course of this interview I’d be happy to go over it with you but in short, I oppose the resolution because it kept funding the war. And I say we need to end the war now. Not a year from now, not two years from now, not five or ten years from now, but now.
Shank: There has been some criticism of the supplemental’s timelines for withdrawal, i.e. that they are arbitrary. Why are timelines politically important, what message do they send?
Kucinich: I reject the idea of timelines. Now means now. If we set in motion a plan to end the occupation, close the bases, and bring the troops home, then we begin to establish the metrics of moving peacekeepers in and moving U.S. troops out. I’ve been told that such a plan would take 2-3 months to complete. But other than that, we have the capacity to get out. And I still advocate that.
Shank: And with the recent Senate vote that kept the timelines in the supplemental?
Kucinich: Let’s look at timelines and let’s look at the real budget. As we speak, the Senate said they want to create a timeline to end the war a year from now. The House advocated a timeline: by the end of August 2008. The budget that the House will pass this week contains $145 billion to keep the war going through the end of 2008 and another $50 billion to fund the war well into 2009.
Let’s talk about timelines in the context of funding because it’s funding that guides the timelines not the other way around. So now we’ve not only given the president the money to continue the war but we’re planning to give him money to keep the war going through the end of his term and into the next president’s term. What’s that about? Either we want to end the war or we don’t. If you’re for peace then you vote for peace and you vote to end the war. If you’re for peace then you can’t be voting to keep the war going and say that you are a peace advocate.
Shank: Many people feel that the November elections were a referendum on the Iraq war. If so, how have the Democrats performed in their response to that referendum?
Kucinich: Democrats were elected to bring an end to the war. Now if we had told the people in October to “vote Democrat and keep the war going to the end of President Bush’s term, vote Democrat we’ll fund the war through 2009, vote Democrat we’ll privatize Iraq’s oil,” I don’t think people would’ve voted Democrat. They would’ve said, “Well, there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans.” I want there to be a difference. That’s why I proposed H.R. 1234, which says: end the war, bring the troops home now, get out of Iraq, stop the privatization of Iraq’s oil.
Shank: Critics say that Congress is micromanaging the war, that it is not Congress’s business, but rather the responsibility of the commander in chief. What in the U.S. constitution allows Congress to engage at this level?
Kucinich: President Bush has a strange understanding of the duties of his office. He’s not a king. He’s subject to the will of the people, as expressed through the Congress, as to whether or not a war is authorized and as to whether or not a war is funded. He can make the decisions once he gets the money. I’m saying we shouldn’t give him the money, period. We should not have even offered a bill. We should’ve told the president that we’re not going to fund it, period.
Shank: So why has Congress been so timid in exercising its authority to fund or not fund the war?
Kucinich: I think that’s a question that requires a deeper understanding of the primary process that produced candidates that may not have been so strongly in favor of ending the war. But the surge that happened in the November elections was a profoundly anti-war surge that carried in all the Democrats, whatever their positions were. And now we find ourselves in this paradox: the American people demanding an end to the war and the Democratic Congress saying “hey, not so fast, here’s a Democratic version of the war that we want you to look at as opposed to a Republican version of the war.”
I think that as the American people realize what’s happened here they’re going to be outraged and they’re going to lose faith in the Democratic Party.
Shank: In the supplemental there was a clause that was pulled at the last minute stipulating that if the president chooses to wage war on Iran he must first seek authorization from Congress. Why did that clause get dropped and what are the ramifications of that edit?
Kucinich: First of all, we should be engaging in diplomacy with Iran. And in connection with that, I’m convening a meeting with members of Congress to talk about setting steps toward a diplomatic initiative that would begin to connect us with leaders in Iran. We need to do this. This idea of the United States trying to separate communities from integrating with the international community is wrong. So I raised objections to taking out from the supplemental language that would have mandated the president to come back to Congress for any action that he may intend to take against Iran.
Why is this significant? Because the administration has had a whole series of initiatives that would lead a prudent person to believe that it intends to attack Iran. Let’s look at the administration’s conduct with respect to Iran: declaring Iran part of an “axis of evil”; sending a fleet out to the Gulf region with the idea of sending a message to Iran; sending nuclear bunker busters and patriot missiles to the region; intercepting Iranian diplomats in the Kurdish area of Iraq who were there legally and lawfully; freezing Iran’s financial assets; pushing for sanctions at the UN.
This administration has been on the war path and they’re on the war path not only against Iraq but against Iran as well. They want a war. We need to take a different direction. If we really believe in diplomacy we’ve got to start practicing it with Iran. And taking out of the budget a provision that said that the president has to come back to Congress if he wants to take action against Iran essentially gives him a green light. Congress has the authority to determine whether or not the president takes action.
The president has been trying to build a phony case blaming Iran for improvised explosive device technology and using that as a reason to call upon the authority of the War Powers Act to initiate an attack against Iran and to circumvent Article 1, Section 8 requirements of the U.S. constitution. I reject that approach. I think the war talk alone brings the president and the vice president within the orbit of a justifiable discussion of impeachment. According to the UN charter, a nation cannot even threaten aggressive war against another nation. And Article 6 of the U.S. constitution states that treaties constitute the law of our land. So the president is violating not only the UN charter but the U.S. constitution.
These individuals occupying the White House need to be held accountable to international law. There must not be an attack on Iran. It would destabilize the region and the international community, it would jeopardize our troops in Iraq, and it could lead to a cataclysm.
Shank: The State Department says that the United States is engaging in diplomacy with Iran, but in fact they’ve set conditions on diplomacy. If Iran meets those conditions then the United States will dialogue with Iran. But the United States hasn’t set those same conditions on North Korea…
Kucinich: It’s worse than that. Iran made a diplomatic initiative in 2003 that would’ve not only addressed their use of nuclear power but would have taken huge strides to open a diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. The Bush administration rejected it. This administration doesn’t want diplomacy in the Middle East. It’s almost pathological. They have a lust for control and a desire to steal resources, to grab oil, to control nations for the purpose of a narrow economic group. Everything about it is wrong. It’s almost at the level where it is a criminal enterprise operating as a government.
Shank: And the difference between how the United States is treating Iran and how the United States is treating North Korea is because of these issues? You mentioned oil…
Kucinich: North Korea was much further along in a nuclear program than Iran. So I think in ameliorating tensions with North Korea proves they could’ve done it with Iran. But it also makes the case of how egregious the saber rattling over Iran has been.
Shank: The Saudi government recently resurrected the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, it’s on the table this week. In thinking about U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, is this something that the United States will support?
Kucinich: There should be a peace process. Any peace process requires that details grow organically. No proposal that is offered should be seen as an ultimatum. It’s important that the Arab nations make a peace initiative. It shows a willingness to move from the current climate of stalemate and war. The United States can facilitate peace initiatives by being an honest broker and by not supporting policies that undermine peace.
The United States should have intervened when Lebanon was being bombed and south Lebanon was being destroyed and when missiles were being fired into areas in Israel. We had an obligation to intervene and I said so on the floor of the House many times. We had an obligation to offer a path towards peace at that moment. We not only chose not to do it but there’s plenty of information to suggest that the United States was encouraging a continuation of the war against Lebanon.
We can play a central role in securing peace by addressing the existential threat that Israelis perceive, by addressing the violation of human rights and the economic deprivation that the Palestinians have experienced, and by doing it in a way that is compassionate, that understands the suffering on both sides, and that is determined to relieve the threat and to affirm human rights and economic rights. We can do that but we have to want to do it, and at this point the U.S. government has no interest in working for peace.
Unfortunately this administration has a singular talent for war. Everything King Midas touched turned to gold. Everything this administration touches turns to conflict and to destruction.
Yet that’s not where the world is. The world has an underlying unity. The world is waiting for American leaders who understand that human unity is an imperative, leaders who reject war as an instrument of policy, leaders who will stand for the tenets of the UN that say that we should end war for all time. They are waiting for leaders who understand the imperative of enforcing the non-proliferation treaty, which calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They are waiting for leaders who believe in the biological weapons convention, the chemical weapons convention, the land mine treaty, the small arms treaty, and will cause America to join the International Criminal Court. They are waiting for leaders who believe in human dignity and human rights, who believe in workers’ rights, environmental quality principles, and fair trade agreements. They are waiting for leaders who will use trade as an instrument to lift up the condition of people everywhere.
The world is waiting for an American leader to come forward like that and so are the people of the United States. But this administration has take a departure from the real values of America, from the things that made this country great, from the greatness that connects us to civil liberties and a constitutional government that upholds the right to free speech, the guarantees of assembly, the right to be free of government interference in your private life.
This moment is a pivotal moment for the history of the United States and its relationship with the world. I see the world as being one; I understand the world as being interconnected and interdependent, that the decisions that any one of us makes will affect people all over the world. Certainly the decisions that any nation makes can affect people positively or otherwise around the world. That’s why I challenge war, that’s why I call for fair trade, that’s why I affirm human unity.