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Johan Galtung on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mideast Peace Talks, and Why Obama Is Losing His Base

StorySeptember 16, 2010
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We speak with Johan Galtung, known as a founder of the field of peace and conflict studies. He’s spent the past half-century pursuing nonviolent conflict resolution in international relations. Galtung discusses the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Mideast talks, why President Obama is losing his base, and much more. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue here in Bonn, I sat down with another of the Right Livelihood laureates, Johan Galtung. He won the award in 1987. We talked about the Mideast talks, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of China as a superpower. Yes, Johan Galtung, we’ve had him on the broadcast a number of times, and he started by talking about the Middle East.

    JOHAN GALTUNG: I think the only viable solution is a Middle East community consisting of Israel and the five bordering Arab states, meaning Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine — fully recognized according to international law — and Egypt. That was also the solution for Europe, with Germany in the center, this time with Israel in the center. I think that could work, and I think what they’re negotiating is a nonstarter from the beginning. With the formula I just indicated, I think Israel could get peace, with open borders, free flow, and perhaps the possibility of Jews settling in the neighboring countries, too, but not trying to mess them up with too much investment and too many tricks of various types. There has to be some rules. And what they’re doing now would, in Europe, have been a treaty between Germany and Luxembourg. That was not the way Europe solved its problem.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you think — how would you describe what is happening now in Sharm el-Sheikh? Who are the negotiating parties?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: Well, formally speaking, it is Abbas from the Palestinian Authority and Bibi Netanyahu from the Israeli government. But the settlers have threatened to withdraw from Netanyahu’s coalition if he gives too much to the Palestinians. And by giving too much, I don’t think there’s much margin from the Russian settler point of view. And I think there are similar threats from Gaza and from Hamas. I don’t think this will work. It is not a solution on the horizon. I think it is, to some extent, a maneuver and that both of them will try to blame the other or some third party.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about the role of the United States?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: Role of the United States — the United States was never a mediator. A mediator cannot be an ally of one of the parties and having a joint concern, since United States and Israel came into being the same way, by some kind of divine mandate, that we are chosen peoples and this is our promised land. The people onboard the Mayflower took over the Jewish metaphors before they landed on the Plymouth Rock. So I think they are obsessed with the idea that if one falls, so does the other. Now, that’s an asymmetry which is unacceptable for a mediator.

    A much better mediator would have been the European Commission. The European Commission should enter here not only as a mediator, but as a model, just simply revealing what happened, laying the cards on the table. How did they manage to integrate Germany, that had committed so many atrocities? That is quite some story, and that story would be inspiring for them. And out of it came something that works. Right now they have a little currency crisis, but they’re overcoming that much better than somebody else.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did they manage to integrate Germany? What year was it?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: It was started with the coal and steel authority in 1950. And from 1st of January, 1958, came the Treaty of Rome. And the basis was mutual and equal benefit. Germany entered as a full member from the beginning. I think it was told that “You better shut the first twenty years. Don’t talk too much. And if there’s some bills to pay, you pay them.” Now, I don’t think that would work with Israelis. First of all, they cannot shut up. And secondly, I don’t think they are willing to pay any bill. But I’m just mentioning it, not quite as a joke, because that was the way it worked. Germany was more obedient, to put it that way. That’s become a glittering success, in terms of accommodating Germany. That they have other problems is obvious.

    AMY GOODMAN: Professor Galtung, what about Iraq, where we stand today with Iraq, where Iraq stands?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: I think the basic point about Iraq is that it is an artificial construction by two civil servants of the British Foreign Service in 1916. And I think they had the assignment of constructing a country out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, consisting — but it could, within the borders of one country, accommodate the oil in Kirkuk, Mosul, in the north, and Basra, in the south. And so they did. Now, that’s not a rationale for a country. Mesopotamia, between the rivers, would have made sense. Iraq, I think, is doomed to disintegration. This is one reason why they still don’t have a government, in spite of elections in March. They cannot agree on the formula for it. So I would say that it will disintegrate as either a very loose federation or a confederation.

    There is some Iraq that has come into existence. I am quite willing to say that. But it is weak. And I don’t think the capital can be in Baghdad, which is in one of the four Sunni provinces out of the eighteen provinces. And, you see, the Sunnis have been ruling this system not having oil. And the others are not quite willing to bail out the Sunnis. So I think it’s a nonstarter. It was a nonstarter from the beginning, and Obama is now following in the footsteps of George Bush. I don’t think there’s anything new, actually, in Obama’s proposal, and it doesn’t look promising.

    AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have about 50,000 troops. You have the largest US embassy in the world there, something like eighty football fields in size.

    JOHAN GALTUNG: Unbelievable, inside the Green Zone. Unbelievable. Are they going to dismantle that? Well, those bases, I guess, were inspired by the idea that there will be a war with China. That’s always been the Anglo-American idea, that the biggest power, be that on the continent or be that in Eurasia, is our born enemy. It’s always been the Anglo-American idea, some kind of paranoia. And totally unnecessary. So I guess the bases are essentially for that purpose, like the purpose of the Bagram base in Afghanistan, the same.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a similar way of the US so-called withdrawing in Afghanistan — do you think they’re going to follow the model with the US in Iraq?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: They are going to withdraw from both of them, because it is a mission impossible, a mission unachievable. They’re going to withdraw, and I think the most likely future for the US in both countries is to become neither a winner nor a loser, but irrelevant, and that that whole area will be managed by some cooperation between Turkey and China and the countries in between, the countries in between being Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan. And that means the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — I’m just back from a meeting with them in China, and some other people from the Central Committee — and the defunct Regional Development Cooperation between Turkey, Iran and Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, this is a massive belt of countries, so I would watch out for this — for Ankara-Beijing cooperation.

    AMY GOODMAN: For what?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: Cooperation. Watch out. It’s not there yet, but Beijing is now building a railway from Xinjiang, the western province — where the Uyghurs, that Beijing, by and large, have treated not only badly, but stupidly — into Kazakhstan. Now, if that railroad ends up in Istanbul, they are in business. And it could easily do.

    AMY GOODMAN: You have spoken to a number of US Congress members about what you think needs to be the solution in Afghanistan. What have you proposed, and what is their response?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: I proposed withdrawal of all foreign troops; coalition government with the Taliban; Afghanistan as a federation, relatively loose, because of all the centripetal tendencies, probably with a capital not in Kabul; a confederation with the surrounding Islamic countries, meaning a Central Asian community, with the five former Soviet central republics, plus Iran, plus Pakistan, plus maybe the Muslim part of Kashmir; and a policy of equality between genders and nations. I have spoken with Taliban about that, and they say, “We know we are behind on the gender issue, but we’re not going to be told that by foreigners. We’re going to learn from countries, Muslim countries, that are ahead — Tunisia, [inaudible] Tunisia, since 1956 already, Turkey, Indonesia, southern Philippines. We know we are behind, and we are going to develop on our own premises.” OK?

    Number five is security. It’s a very violent culture, probably organized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in cooperation with the UN security conference — not NATO, not USA, not ISAF, nothing of that type. Get it out, and get the work started. Personally, I think that the future Afghanistan will be handled by that belt from Turkey to China. It’s a very powerful one.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do US congressmen respond?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: They shrug their shoulders, and they say, “Dear Professor Galtung, it’s impossible to convey to American voters, because that means that we have to concede that the other side has a couple of good points and that we have a couple of wrong points. It’s very difficult to do that.” And one of them, a very famous one, who shall remain unmentioned, put it this way: “Our instinctive reaction whenever there’s a problem is to send the Marines and not to try to solve the problem. We have done that too many times.”

    And, you see, here comes a little point about China. China, within what classical China regards as their pocket in world geography, between the Himalayas, the Gobi Desert, the tundra, meaning Siberia, and the sea, is theirs. That doesn’t mean it’s all part of China, but China has the upper hand, and they have treated parts of it very badly — wars with Vietnam, Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia. Hong Kong-Macau has found a rather good formula. Taiwan is heading in that direction. Korea is doing not badly. With Vietnam, they have had warfares. But outside that pocket, China has not had a single invasion, occupation. What they did in October '62 about India, they withdrew immediately. And I, myself, am not on the Indian side on that issue. But leaving that aside, this means China has a free hand all over the world, because there is nobody who can say, “You were here 300 years ago, and we remember what you did.” And that, I can say about all Western countries, and particularly about the US, with its tendency to send the Marines. China has much more freedom to act than the US has.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about China? You just recently met with the Central Committee. What was that like?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: Central Committee members. Well, I was sitting with the Deputy Foreign Minister, and we had a map, a world map, on the floor. And, you see, peace studies, as opposed to the somewhat paranoid security studies, is about solutions. It's about equity, mutual and equal benefit. And this is exactly what the Chinese say they believe in — no, not inside that pocket, as I mentioned, but outside it. It was very easy to talk with them. We just went through the whole map and were discussing Chinese options.

    I can mention one example. And I’m not — I’m just saying these were things that I mentioned, and — to build a four-lane highway from Dar es Salaam to Kinshasa’s harbor on the Atlantic, expanding the Silk Route that was the world trade from 500 to 1500, globalized, incidentally, much before current globalization, run by Buddhists from China and surrounding countries and Muslims, ending in Somalia, and to expand that through the highway I just mentioned, maybe a railroad, too, to the Atlantic and then on to South America. And then trade the other way, exchange for students, sub-South, developing country, developing country, not dominated by China, but China as an anchor. That would be something, quite something. And not excluding North-South trade, but that was the imperial trade, you know. That was the United States to Latin America, and that was Europe and all the eleven colonial countries in Europe to Africa and other places. We cannot exclude it. We don’t want to exclude it. But we want the East-West trade.

    AMY GOODMAN: What is China’s view of the United States?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: They used to have a strong distinction between the US people, who are all good, and the US government, that’s all bad. I think both of those have changed a little bit. There are good elements in the US government, and there are not-so-good elements in the US people. I think they start getting to know the US a little better, so yin-yang, black-white perspectives, nuances, are coming up. They want cooperation.

    They have three avoidance principles: avoid being encircled; avoid counter-revolution — and here, they are thinking, in particular, of North Korea and Myanmar’s — now, all of that leaves open quite a lot of discussion — and avoid confrontation with the US. They don’t want confrontation. They want friendship. And right now they’re, of course, very much concerned with the maneuvers in the Yellow Sea and also in the China Sea and —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Who’s maneuvering there?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: US, an aircraft carrier, together with South Korea in the Yellow Sea. Now, that’s very, very close. So, you could imagine the Chinese navy having maneuvers outside San Francisco or Los Angeles. It would not be very well received by Washington. So they are protesting, but are -— the need, the need to avoid confrontation. If the US could do it the same way as the China does, try to stay away from such things, it would be very, very useful.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why doesn’t the US avoid that? Why are they doing the maneuvers in the Yellow Sea?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: Old habits, considering the world their playground. We did it before; that’s the way we always did it. US has to reset, to quote somebody who talks about it, but hasn’t quite done it.

    AMY GOODMAN: How do you think the US should end the conflict in Afghanistan?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: I can start with what I hope. If the US could support a real peace plan. So I’ve indicated points that I believe in, and the many who believe along these lines. Something along these lines. That would be the best option for the US. The question is, as my Congress representative friends say, whether that can be sold to the voters and to other parts of Congress.

    Now, let us say that you have about sixty-five progressive members of the House of Representatives, “progressive” meaning going along with solving conflict and not with military responses. Well, many people, good people, but we are talking about 435, aren’t we? So, we know where we are. We also know that, of the hundred persons in the Senate, it would be very difficult to mobilize sixty-five people. Very difficult. So, given that, the US has, in a sense, been digging a grave for itself, meaning that becoming irrelevant is the option, like they did in Vietnam. They did in Vietnam, and Vietnam came together, after 30 April, '75, somebody climbing up a ladder to a helicopter hovering above the US embassy. And there might be similar things happening here.

    Now, if the US wants to become irrelevant, if they prefer that, do so. I would much rather see the US supporting a conference for peace and security — or let us call it security and cooperation — in Central Asia, maybe not even as a participant, but as an observer, because the US is not quite known as a Central Asian country. Incidentally, it's not an East Asian country, either. As far as I can see from the map, it belongs to the American hemisphere, and maybe it’s in cooperation with Mexico and Canada, a kind of MexUSCan, where the future US will be very well located, more modest, like an Israel contracting to June '67 but getting peace as a reward. Not a bad reward.

    AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of President Obama?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: I have never believed in him. Never. I have lots of editorials and things written in the election year. I think that I sense something slightly megalomaniac in him, which is disturbing. The idea of being able to unite all of the US, just as he unites skin colors and faiths and origins in his body, and for that reason, leaning over backwards to negotiate with the Republicans and taking on Republican points, whereupon the Republicans vote no. Now, maybe the Republicans will now change from being a “no” party to some couple of “maybe” or “yeses,” maybe. But in the meantime, he has lost the support of the people who are voting for him. If I had been working like mad in 2008 to get him elected, because of some beauties in his rhetoric, and had experienced what I have experienced now, I would not work for the midterm elections.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you think he has gone back on, in terms of his promises?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: Practically speaking, everything. Guantánamo is still there. Rendition is still there. There is the saying that no torture should take place; I haven't seen the mechanism to ensure that that’s the case. The withdrawal from Iraq, with 50,000 remaining. Stepping up, escalating the war in Afghanistan. And as we know, whatever withdraws from Iraq essentially goes to Afghanistan instead.

    I think it’s very contrary to the kind of thing that he was exuding, including the nuclear point. What kind of thing is this, to get rid of old-fashioned weapons with the Russians and then arguing for $180 billion to modernize the nukes — $100 billion for the weapons carriers, $80 billion for new warheads? What kind of nuclear-free world is this? He should have had the decency, when Norway made the mistake of giving him the Nobel Peace Prize, of saying, “I graciously, gratefully decline. I haven’t earned it yet. Let’s come back when possibly I have earned it.” He didn’t say that, and dispensed with the prize money in a disgraceful way.


    JOHAN GALTUNG: To all kinds of irrelevant organizations. He didn’t even give it to US peace organizations. Let me just mention one: the American Friends Service Committee, which is a fantastic organization doing marvelous work all over the world. Could have given the whole thing to them.

    AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything else you’d like to add here in Bonn, in this year, 2010?

    JOHAN GALTUNG: This is a remarkable gathering of people who are working on very positive things. And there isn’t one single person here who doesn’t have a solution to something. I would say the world should pay attention to these people. These are very positive people. And these are not people who have just derived some expertise from one conflict. The Nobel Peace Prize winners usually know nothing except that one conflict, and too much is demanded of them, because they are not able to generalize from that. These are people who have done a lot of thinking and a lot of practice. I am just very grateful that this so-called Alternative Nobel Prize — Peace Prize exists, and the Right Livelihood Award — five prizes every year, thirty years, 150 — eighty of them, a slim majority, are assembled here.

    AMY GOODMAN: Professor Galtung, thank you very much.

    JOHAN GALTUNG: My pleasure. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Founder of peace studies, Johan Galtung, speaking here in Bonn. Tomorrow, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser versus Monsanto.

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