Congressman Condemns Bush’s Iraq Policy

by Aly Wane

Elected to Congress in 1986, John Lewis represents Georgia's Fifth Congressional District. He is widely recognized as one of the most influential Civil Rights leaders. His commitment to nonviolent, grassroots tactics is legendary, having endured more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and injuries over his career. He was recently the keynote speaker at a Syracuse conference on the role of the media during the Civil Rights movement. An edited version of this interview appeared in the Peace Newsletter.

Aly Wane: We are here with long-time civil rights leader and US Congressman John Lewis in order to pick his brain on some of the issues which are concerning the Peace and Justice community, and the American community as a whole.

Let's get started with the issue that most people are thinking about right now, the War in Iraq. I guess this is a two-part question. The first part is, "did you, as a US Congressman feel that the war was just or unjust?" The second part is "now that we are in Iraq, what do you feel is the most equitable way of dealing with this situation that would both honor the sacrifices of American soldiers, while making sure that we do promote a peaceful, democratic Iraq in the future?

John Lewis: I felt all along, and I still believe today, that this war was not justified. I said on the floor of the House in the debate about [Iraq] making available the resources, and the dollars to support this military effort that the war is bloody, it is messy, that it destroys the dreams and aspirations of a people, and that we should wait and continue to discuss, continue to debate, and that we should give peace a chance. I happen to believe that war is obsolete as a tool of our foreign policy. On the other hand, it is my belief that this president, and people around him have made a decision, they had made up their mind to go to war even before he took the oath of office. He was hell-bent to have a war with Iraq; he was hell-bent to have, what they call "regime change" to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But in my estimation, nothing justifies this military intrusion into Iraq. There is no way to prove that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. I think that the president, the people around him, and other people in this administration deliberately misled the American People, misled the community of Nations, and they deceived and lied to members of Congress. We have to find a way to get out. On the one hand, I think we can be supportive of our young men and women in harm's way, but I want to see them come home. I want to find a way to get out of Iraq. We must get our allies in the UN and other members of the community of Nations involved. It's not just the loss of American lives, but it's the loss of the lives of hundreds and thousands of Iraqi military people, and also civilians, women and children. I don't think that the spirit of history is going to be very kind to us as a nation and as a people for what we did.

AW: I'm so glad to hear you speak about the lives of Iraqi civilians as well because it seems lie the pink elephant in the room that no one really wants to talk about, but a lot of Americans were concerned about during the run-up to the war in Iraq, and a related question to that would be that a lot of Progressive people and people at the grassroots level were really disappointed at the fact that so many Democrats seemed to endorse the President's current war powers. You and a handful of people in Congress really tried to stem that tide, but it seemed that the majority of the Democratic Party gave the President the powers that he now has. Can you give us a sense of what your understanding was in terms of the rift between what at least half of the American people felt at the time and this seeming majority opinion in Congress that we should give President Bush as many powers that he needs to prosecute the war in Iraq.

JL: I think there was a feeling on the part of a large number of my colleagues on the Democratic side who felt that, in some ways Saddam Hussein and the country of Iraq were real threats to our own national security. We had been told by the Secretary of State, by the Secretary of Defense, by Condoleeza Rice, National Security Director, by the Vice-President and others.they showed us maps, that showed here and there the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, that these weapons were very dangerous, and they said that it was just a matter of time until [Saddam] had the ability to deliver, maybe, some type of nuclear warhead, or biological, chemical weaponry. And some people bought into that, and didn't want to go back home, especially during an election coming up and appear to be on the wrong side. Now, the great majority of Democrats and a growing number of republicans feel like they were lied to, that they were misled. People don't want to appear not to be supporting the troops because they are currently embattled; You can condemn the war and still say we are going to support our young men and women. And the best way of supporting them is to find a way to get them out of harm's way and bring them home.

AW: I am glad that you address the issue of being able to be against the war while at the same time being able to support American men and women on the ground. Some people in the conservative movement claim that if you oppose the war in Iraq that you hate American soldiers. Speaking of misleading, you are here this weekend to attend a Conference that has to do with the role of the media in the Civil Rights movement. A lot of people felt that, at least the major corporate-owned media led the drumbeat to the War in Iraq, and that for individuals to get more objective information they had to go the Internet, Progressive media outlets like The Nation, and foreign news outlets. Do you feel that the [major news agencies] are only now asking some of the questions that they should have been asking before we even went to Iraq?

JL: I think, in dealing with the war, and the whole question of national defense, national security, homeland security, I think that the media is somewhat lacking. This is not an indictment of the media, but I think that it [the media] to some degree is a tail-light rather than a headlight. Certain quarters of the media were almost a bulletin board of the Administration. People were not questioning enough; they took everything [ at face value]. Now, more and more journalists are beginning to raise questions about where, when, and how. The Bush administration, with the help of his cabinet got us into a mess, got us into a fix, and they need to find the most creative way to get us out.

AW: Speaking of giving the President a pass on a lot of issues that he has talked about, now we are talking about going from Iraq to the whole concept of the "War on Terrorism." I know that many people the very concept a little bit absurd since you can't go to war against Terror; Terror is a concept rather than a specific country. What do you think of this concept of war on Terrorism, and can this war actually lead us to greater freedom and security, or do you think that this very idea of the war on Terror the Administration's using language to justify whatever it wants to promote?

JL: I think it is important for us to combat Terrorism, maintain a strong national defense, and do what we can to keep our people secure, but I think this Administration has really gone too far. It is trying to frighten people for different reasons. It's almost like, they used to say "The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" Well, the Russians are not coming. They're gone. But indirectly, what this Administration is doing is seizing the frustration, the discontent, and the hatred. My greatest fear is that hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of young Arab children will grow up hating America, and hating everything we stand for because of what we are doing in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We, as a nation, have poisoned the well, and it is going to be almost impossible for there to be at any time some cooling [of relations]. The people are mad, the people around the world are mad at us. They really question whether we have lost our way, whether we have lost our sense of direction. You know, when we went into Iraq, they [the Administration] that we would come in as liberators, and that people would be welcoming us. And the people are not doing that. I just happen to think that America is on the wrong side of History. There's no way to justify what we have done to the people there, to justify the cost, the billions of dollars that could be used to do something about our infrastructure, about education, health care, and other unmet needs.

AW: Getting to your own personal history, obviously, you are quite the leading figure in the Civil Rights movement along with many other luminaries. Many of us grassroots activists take inspiration from the work that you and many others have done over the years. What do you think the role of nonviolent tactics and grassroots education is in this very politically fragmented country? Do you think that nonviolence techniques are still effective nowadays, looking back on your own history?

JL: I think that the Way of Nonviolence, the philosophy of Nonviolence, direct action, passive resistance, and the tactics of Nonviolence are still relevant as a way of meeting the needs of people so that they could vent their sense of discontent, to vent their frustration, to display a sense of righteous indignation. This is still relevant, in spite of all of the changes, in spite of the different techniques and tactics of nonviolence that were used during the 50's and 60's. I don't think we really explored all of the possibilities that we could have in the use of nonviolence. You know, some people think that when you practice nonviolence you are soft, or meek. They don't understand it. Nonviolence can be a very powerful tool, a powerful means of bringing about change.

AW: In relation to this, you have people like Kathy Kelly who have gone to Iraq in order to bring needed food and medicine to the people there. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at least twice, and yet when it comes to the mainstream media coverage, you are not likely to hear about her. What made your tactics so effective in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, in terms of getting the media attention that you needed to dramatize the situation. Nowadays, you still have people who use some of these tactics, but they tend to be marginalized; you don't really hear about them, even when they have accomplished many things. Do you think that there are things that Kathy, and others like her, should be doing that they haven't been exploring, or are the very structures of the media such that this type of activity might be seen as less effective?

JL: I think, some of both. The members of the media today have no idea, no concept of what the civil rights struggle was about, because they didn't get first-hand experience. They may read about it in a book, or see it in a video, or maybe a movie, but these people in the media, and some not in the media have to go through certain steps in order to really feel what the movement was about. It is very hard, it is very difficult. You can talk about it, you can sing about it, you can pray about it, but not until people feel it, and see it can they believe that they are themselves a part [of the historical process].

AW: I agree, which reminds me of my involvement the last two years in some of my first protests against the war in Iraq. We occasionally had members of the local media in Chicago come and interview us, but they would insist on speaking to our "leaders," whereas, in fact, we were informal groups of individuals without a specific structure or a hierarchy. Nevertheless, the members of the Press absolutely wanted to speak to our "leaders." They could not get their heads around the concept of real grassroots, popular action from individuals.

JL: Yes, well this is not new. We had the same thing during my SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) days. We had what we called "group leadership." Every now and then, one of us may have emerged, but for the most part, it was group leadership, and people spoke as a group. But in today's age, television, in particular, and the print media to some degree, promotes quick, little sound bites, and testimony from single individuals. But the movement was mass-based, and it was church-based.
AW: How do you think very small grassroots organizations like us at the Syracuse Peace Council, and others around the country, can be effective in reaching the public, which I do not believe is apathetic, but feels disconnected from the political process which they see as co-opted by money and power? Many people don't want to participate in what they see as a "dirty game." How do we reach people, and let them know that it is their country and that it is important that individuals participate in ways that go above and beyond just voting?

JL: I think that you have to organize indigenous, local organizations and groups, and people have to have ownership [of these organizations]. So we can come together, and organize this community, this block, or this precint, and get four or five hundred people registered, and then they can become a thousand or more. I think that, in this way, the people will feel more like they own a part of it, so that they have the resources that are needed to conduct a campaign. You can go to these people and say, "we need your help, we need your support, and are you willing to help?" They can come in on the ground floor.

AW: Comparing the work the work that you did as a grassroots activist, and the work that you are doing now in Congress, what do you see are the parallels and the differences between these two types of positions?

JL: First of all, it's a different world. Sometimes, when I am working in Washington, I feel this pull to be back in Atlanta, and when I am in Atlanta, I feel a push to be back in D.C. But in a real sense, one doesn't change, one remains the same, and the movement is an extension of us. You have to find a way to set an example that one will be able to involve other people, especially young people. I say some time to my own generation, that the people that we try to help are far ahead of us. It's almost like Ghandi said, "there go my people, let me catch up with them. I think that the people are in front of us, and that they are afraid that we are moving too slow, and they are demanding that we make a little noise, that we make some progress, that we get in the way.

AW: You seem to be a politician who tries to follow his conscience the best that he can. What room do you see for such a politics of conscience when you see people like Kucinich, Sharpton, and Nader who try to follow what they believe, pushed aside from the "mainstream?" How do you try to live out that sense of being a politician who tries act according to his conscience while having to deal with the machinery of Washington?

JL: First of all, I must tell you that it is not easy at all, but you have to make up your mind, and say, "I have to live with myself." I don't want to become bitter or hostile and get lost in a sea of despair. I am here to be faithful, as we would say, I want to "keep my eyes on the Prize", stay focused, so that when someone beats you, or pulls you to the side, or try to crush in your skull, you just keep on hanging on, keep on looking ahead. I have this feeling that everything is going to work out.

AW: It seems that your life of faith is something that sustains you.

JL: Oh yes, by all means. I see my involvement in the Civil Rights movement and in politics as an extension of my life of faith.

AW: It is interesting to see how you use your life of faith, and the way certain conservatives promote their own lives of faith in ways that seem to many to be contradictory to some of the very basic dictates of the biblical call to serve the poor. It is nice to see a progressive who is not afraid of using faith as a way to find direction

JL: You hear people who, in the name of faith say things like "I won't do this, I won't do that, this is absolutely wrong, this is absolutely right." But the great Teacher teaches us that we all have sinned, that we all have fallen short of Grace, and what right do I have to sit in judgment of another person? People ask me from time to time, "why do you stand up and fight for the Gay community, why do you stand up and fight against the prohibition against same-sex marriage?" And my response is very simple: I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race not to stand up and fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I believe that.

AW: The very last question is the 1 Million Dollar question: What should Democrats be doing in order to defeat Bush in the coming elections?

JL: More than anything, you have to get the unregistered registered, those who are registered mobilized, and we have to go out and vote like we have never voted before. No candidate is perfect; neither Republican nor Democrat. But, as of this moment, I am convinced that Kerry, or anyone, would be better than George Bush.

AW: I agree. Congressman, thank you for your time.

Aly is a resident staff member at Unity Acres in Orwell, NY and member of the Peace Council's Program Committee