We Have to Keep Agitating

An Interview with Ann Wright

Ann Wright is a retired Army Reserve colonel and 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She served as a diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. In March 2003, she made headlines when she resigned from the State Department to show her opposition to the invasion of Iraq. She is a co-author of Dissent: Voices of Conscience.

In the run-up to the demonstrations against the NATO summit in Chicago this month, Ashley Smith interviewed the State Department official-turned-antiwar activist.

Ashley Smith: You had been a career military officer and State Department official. What compelled you to resign and join the antiwar movement?

Ann Wright: I was in the military for 29 years –13 years on active duty and 16 years in the reserves, and then another 16 years while I was in the State Department as a U.S. diplomat. So I was a part of the system under seven different presidents, from Lyndon Johnson all the way to George Bush Jr.

I didn’t believe in, or agree with, all the policies of all these administrations. I disagreed with many of them, but I never resigned. I always found other things I could work on that I felt were not harming people. It was only at the end of my government career that I finally resigned over something, because there were plenty of things I could have resigned over earlier, but I didn’t. I held my nose about them, like most government employees do.

The tipping point for me was the decision of the Bush administration to invade and occupy Iraq. They used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction. I didn’t believe them. We all knew that there had been two no-fly zones over the country over a period of 10 years. There had been quarantine, a blockade around the country, and there had been endless inspections for weapons of mass destruction.

On top of that, the UN inspectors, most of whom were U.S. intelligence agents, didn’t find anything, or the few weapons they found they destroyed. But, in general, the consensus of the international community was that there were no weapons of mass destruction left in the country.

So I just didn’t believe what the Bush administration was saying. When Colin Powell gave that lengthy address to the General Assembly in February 2003, I remember sitting in our embassy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I watched it on live TV with all of our staff around, because we all realized that this was a momentous event, and we knew that our lives would again be changing if the U.S. decided to invade and occupy Iraq.

With the buildup of rhetoric that was coming out of Washington in the fall of 2002, I was very, very uneasy, and I had trouble sleeping. I ended up having to be medically evacuated to Singapore because they thought I was suffering symptoms that are often the precursor of a stroke. I was having all sorts of light-headedness, shortness of breath, and I had arrived at the age where you need to watch out for this sort of stuff.

After an intense week of every type of medical exam possible, the doctor said, “Are you under any particular stress?” And I said, “Well, yes, I’m under stress. My nation is about to blast the hell out of another country.”

I continued waking up in the middle of the night, not being able to go back to sleep, and then staying up and just reading and writing out my concerns about what was going on. Every night I was reading materials, underlining passages and writing comments in the margins like, “This is the stupidest thing they could ever think up!” I was piling up pages and pages of writing detailing all my disagreements with Bush’s policy.

When I finally resigned, I ended up writing what I’ve been told was the longest resignation letter in the history of the State Department. It’s about three pages long and it not only talks about the war in Iraq, but other concerns about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the Bush administration’s lack of effort to engage North Korea, and its unnecessary curtailing of civil liberties under the Patriot Act.

When I resigned, I got over 400 e-mails from friends and colleagues in the State Department and other agencies saying, “You’re doing the right thing. We wish we could resign, but we’ve got kids in college, mortgages, you know, the whole financial thing.” But there are plenty of people in the government I think that have retired early and with severe cases of ulcers from having had to go through all of the horrors of the Bush administration.

AS: After you resigned, you became an antiwar leader while Bush was in office, but you did not stop when Obama was elected. What’s your assessment of Obama and his policies?

AW:  Everyone was hoping for a real change from what George Bush had dished out during his eight-year reign. But let’s remember that even during the campaign, candidate Obama did tell us that he felt the Afghanistan war was a good war, and he intended to escalate it. On that bad promise he’s delivered, but on many other good ones he has not.

He’s not closed Guantánamo. We still have the military commissions trying a few prisoners in Guantánamo. Virtually nobody has been released during the Obama administration, or even put on trial — these people are in imprisoned with no hope of resolution of their cases.

On the issue of curtailing of civil liberties, it’s worse under the Obama administration. Whistleblowers are getting the worst of the raw deals — six people have now been charged with espionage for revealing classified information that shows government malfeasance and criminal acts.

I’ve been very disappointed and displeased with Obama’s tenure. Like many other people, I have been challenging those policies, and writing and speaking and having endless vigils out in front of the White House. I, like many others, have gone to protest the president at various events, disrupting them over a variety of issues and getting arrested, just as we did under the Bush administration.

How to deal with the Obama administration has been a big debate in the movement. At our recent Veterans for Peace convention, we had a long and good discussion about whether we should call for the impeachment of President Obama as we had called for the impeachment of President Bush. While we were hesitant to come out against the first Black president, after we laid out all the evidence we decided that we had no choice but to call for Obama’s impeachment.

AS: What do you think of Obama’s policies in his Afghanistan?

AW: I think his escalation of the war in Afghanistan is perhaps his worst decision. He’s caused a huge number of civilian casualties, wasted a tremendous amount of money on sweetheart deals for private contractors, and enabled enormous amounts of corruption among Afghan businessmen as well as in the Afghan government itself.

Many of these Afghan corporate and governmental elites are part of the warlord class. We’re training and equipping their militias in the police and army. They will be there to fight not for the country of Afghanistan, but for the warlords to whom they belong.

Obama has decided to extend his patronage of the corrupt Afghan elite with this new 10-year strategic pact. He’s supposedly closing the door in Afghanistan as he supposedly had closed the door in Iraq. This is all, in fact, a public relations ploy. Behind the supposedly closed door, the U.S. is spending billions of dollars in Iraq and there will be billions for the next 10 years in Afghanistan.

AS: What’s your analysis of Obama’s new focus on Asia to contain Chinese power?

AW: Obama sees China as a rising rival, a huge economic powerhouse as well as a regional military power with the largest land army in the world and with an increasingly advanced air force and the navy. As you said, he wants to contain it.

He and the Congress are whipping up anti-Chinese rhetoric here in the U.S. Just recently the administration denounced the Chinese for building their first aircraft carrier. This is pure hypocrisy. The U.S. already has 14 of them. And for the first time, the Chinese have one, and they talk about it as that’s the greatest threat to all of the world.

That’s not to absolve the Chinese government of its problems and its own bad policies. But the U.S. should not be adding them to the “axis of evil.” This pivot to Asia will only push China into a corner and may lead them to do something that will give the excuse for the U.S. to make even more hostile policies.

And the U.S. pivot seems almost designed to provoke China. Obama has increased the military to military relationships with the Philippines. We still have a huge number of soldiers stationed in Okinawa in Japan.

He’s opened a new base for 2,500 Marines in Australia and an airfield that will be dedicated toward big Global Hawk drones that can stay indefinitely in the air for surveillance in Asia. And in South Korea, we still have over 30,000 troops and he’s pushing for a new naval base in a pristine place called Jeju Island. Obama wants that to be the homeport for Asia’s part of America’s worldwide missile defense system.

This last decision is very significant since it will increase tensions with not only the Chinese but also Russians. The missile shield in Europe as well as the new one proposed for Asia is one of the reasons that Putin did not attend the G8 meeting. He wanted to send a signal that he is going to be putting more and more pressure on the U.S. to stop this missile defense system. Otherwise, he’s going to put one in, too, which will not be good for world security.

AS: Why is the U.S. putting an increasing emphasis on drones as a central part of its new strategy?

AW: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are an easy, clean way for the U.S. to wage war. You don’t have to have your own military on the ground. These drones are capable of flying long distances, they can be refueled in the air, and they can do the dirty work of the U.S. without any American’s life being risked.

They are automating warfare. Some of these drones are as large as the 727 and can carry payloads that are enormous. They can put big bunker buster bombs under these things and fly them over and just drop wherever they want.

But this new automated military will not, in fact, protect American lives. Just like traditional military actions or missile strikes, drone warfare will inevitably precipitate blowback. We’ve already seen attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates specifically in response to drone attacks. So, the administration’s claim that these are the safest things that we could be using isn’t true.

We’ve already had examples of blowback from Obama’s drone war. Remember the young Pakistani-American guy who had planned to detonate a carload of explosive in Times Square. Luckily a hot-dog vendor thwarted his plot, but afterward when he was asked why he planned the attack, he explained, “Well, it’s the drones. The U.S. is using them to kill families in Pakistan.”

We also have the incident of the Jordanian doctor who was recruited to be an asset of the CIA. The CIA wanted him to infiltrate al-Qaeda and bring back information. But, this agent became horrified by the U.S. drone war. So he went to a CIA base in Afghanistan and blew himself up and killed all eight CIA agents.

Afterward it came out that he left a letter for his wife saying, “I am so horrified about what the U.S. is doing with these drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I refuse to work with them anymore.”

The drone war is even complicating U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Pakistan closed the main supply route for over three months in protest against CIA drone strikes. The U.S. has been forced to bring in equipment into Afghanistan through the northern road network from Latvia, which is extraordinarily expensive. Despite Obama’s hopes, war, including drone war, will never be bloodless and clean.

AS:  A lot of people think that Obama is bringing an end to the wars Bush’s started. What is the real picture of U.S. militarism today?

AW: First of all, we have to be very watchful of what the Obama is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. The truth is he has not really ended the U.S. domination over either of those countries. The U.S. has hoards of American private contractors in each of those countries, and many of them are private security firms who have every bit as much firepower as the U.S. military.

Beyond that, the U.S. has increased its bases throughout the Middle East. We don’t even know the total number of bases, outposts, runways and landing strips in Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We do know that there are CIA and U.S. military bases in Yemen. There’s a huge base in Qatar. There are, I think, seven bases now in Oman.

In Africa, the U.S. has established a military base in Somalia. They are using various alibis to justify increased military presence throughout the continent. The U.S. is sending the military into Ethiopia all the time. We have U.S. military forces in Kenya. And then we have U.S. Special Forces in Uganda to supposedly to go after Kony. Well, you can be sure that once they’re in, they’ll never leave.

Over in Mali and West Africa, the U.S. always has what they call mobile training teams, groups of Special Forces that will come in and do specialized training for militaries. That’s their way to establish relationships between senior leaders of the military, to try to get some sort of compatibility with the military in case the U.S. decides it needs to go in there. So the U.S. has a large number of small groups of military all over Africa.

In Asia, the U.S. pivot against China is ratcheting up tensions throughout the region. We have Special Forces in the Philippines, down in the island of Mindanao that are using drones and have assassinated 11 people already. And there are members of the Philippine government and legislature, their parliament, who are outraged about what’s going on.

Walden Bello, one of the wonderful international activists and member of the Philippine parliament, has already written to his government saying, “What’s going on? These are things you’re doing without any consultation — allowing U.S. military and armies, military operations that are killing Filipino people.”

And then, of course, we have many U.S. military forces in Korea, Japan and Okinawa. We’ve had a large naval base down in Singapore for a long time. We do have military to military relationships now with Vietnam, with Laos, Cambodia. So, the U.S. has its tentacles everywhere and, depending on who gets out of line, the U.S. may put great military as well as economic pressure on that country. And the U.S. will use the global “war on terror” to declare its right to go anywhere, anytime, do anything.

AS: So what do you think the key tasks for the antiwar movement today?

AW: Well, to be vigilant, to be vocal, to be on the streets, to keep after the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t let them fade out of view. And one can use a variety of levers on it, because we’ve got to have some hook to make the public aware. In Iraq, we have to call attention to the issue of private contractors and the numbers that are there — who they are and what they’re doing — and also where U.S. oil companies are and what sort of contracts they’ve got there.

And in Afghanistan, we will be seeing war sponsored by the U.S. well after 2014. We have to debunk the idea that U.S. forces will be leaving behind an independent country. I think that the next 10-year period we will see U.S. forces there in large numbers fighting Taliban, conducting night raids and drone strikes, and violating the sovereignty of Pakistan. We should also watch out for U.S. using its power to control pipeline routes in the region as well as exploit the natural resources of Afghanistan.

Pakistan will likely be the most volatile of all of the areas. What the U.S. is doing there just has the potential to be a greater catastrophe than even Afghanistan. The U.S. is killing untold numbers of people with drones and essentially thumbing its nose at the Pakistani government, which has pleaded with us to stop because of the reaction that they are getting from their own people.

I mean it could explode in just so many horrific ways. People are furious with the U.S. The U.S. embassy in Pakistan has already been burned twice over the past decades.

We really have to follow what the U.S. is up to in Asia and the Pacific. We have to be watchful of the rhetoric of the administration and do everything we can to tamp it down, to call the hand of the government.

We also need to keep agitating against the occupation of Palestine. We need all sorts of international citizen activism to highlight the illegal settlements in the West Bank, the apartheid wall, and the treatment of Palestinians within Israel and the blockade of Gaza. I think that campus activists have played a key role doing all sorts of things like building walls to bring home what the apartheid structure of Israel is like.

We have to keep up the international effort to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Very soon, we’ll be announcing a new project called Gaza’s Ark. Rather than trying to get boats to break the blockade from outside, we are going to work with Palestinians to break the blockade from the inside. We’re going to help sponsor a Gaza boat building and sailing school. This will provide some much needed jobs for the people of Gaza.

This is an important shift. We all have felt badly about spending so much money on flotillas from the outside that gets a lot of publicity for the issue but they don’t really help the people inside Gaza that much. With this new approach, we can get work for people and help stimulate the economy to a small degree.

Once the boats get built, we’ll solicit people all over the world to order products from Gaza. We’ll put these products on the boat and have them set sail from Gaza to deliver them to the world. Everyone will know that the probability of ever getting this stuff is pretty low, but they can be a part of helping break the blockade and also help the people of Gaza earn money for the beautiful work that they do. It’s an important new step for the continuing struggle to liberate Palestinians from Israeli occupation.

Finally, we need to keep the pressure on the American government and the Israeli government to stop any drive to war against Iran. We really need to pester the hell out of the Obama administration on this rhetoric that they’ve been saying about Iran developing weapons of mass destruction.

I mean we’ve heard all of this before. These same allegations against Iraq lead me to resign my post. Instead we should be encouraging them to talk with Iran. We should be in dialogue, not in military confrontation.

*  This article first appeared at Socialist Worker.

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at ashley05401@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Ashley.