Obama in American history
Interview by Kaveh L Afrasiabi
American historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright Howard Zinn is best known as author of the bestseller A People's History of the United States, a cartoon version of which is due out this month. He is currently Professor Emeritus in the Political Science Department at Boston University.
Kaveh Afrasiabi: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is running on a platform for change and, yet, he does not seem decisive on important domestic or foreign policy issues. Do you agree?
Howard Zinn: I agree his proposals do not meet the need. On the war, where we need an immediate withdrawal of troops he asks only a partial withdrawal and seems to want to keep the private contractors there. Furthermore, his peace position on Iraq, if you can call it that, is countered by a "war position" on Afghanistan (he says, bring troops out of Iraq, send troops to Afghanistan!) and also on Iran ("keep our options open", which means military force must be an option). He has talked about not just opposing the Iraq war but the "mindset" that led us into the war.
He clearly has not changed his own mindset about the use of military force. His domestic agenda likewise does not go far enough, despite his rhetoric his "universal health care" plan is not universal. It still depends on individuals taking out insurance, working with insurance companies, instead of the government guaranteeing everyone free health care (the single-payer system, which other countries use successfully at half the cost of our inadequate system, and which both Obama and [Hillary] Clinton studiously avoid).
KA: What is your reaction to the criticism that Obama lacks the necessary experience to occupy the Oval Office?
HZ: The experience argument is ridiculous. No one has the experience of being president until he or she is president. Other experience - being a senator, being governor, are not compatible. We have had "experienced" presidents who have been disastrous ([Ronald] Reagan was a governor, [George H W] Bush senior had loads of experience in various posts) - the important thing is intelligence and values. Obama has the intelligence. Experience is not his problem. His problem is a rather superficial approach to both foreign and domestic policy.
KA: Obama's critics have attacked him for not being patriotic enough, but doesn't his premise of "change we can believe" also entail a new, more enlightened sense of American patriotism?
HZ: The patriotism argument is nonsensical, just a cheap way of drawing on the American culture of "patriotism" which is an inadequate approach to policy. Patriotism is defined in the traditional culture as obedience to government, which is an anti-democratic concept, indeed, totalitarian. It is also defined as favoring militarism and war, which is against the interests of the people, and patriotism should mean defending the interests of the people, not the government, not the wealthy elite. Obama should meet the charge head on and insist on his definition of patriotism commensurate with the 21st century realities rather than the archaic, conventional one.
KA: Should the left in America support Obama?
HZ: Obama will be better than the alternative, so we must support him at the polling booth. But before and after election day he should be subject to sharp, bold criticism to move him forward.
KA: Do you have any recommendations for the Obama camp?
HZ: Stop talking about Hillary, talk about [President George W] Bush and [John] McCain, and their continuation of the war and business as usual. Talk about changing this country from a war-making country to a peaceful one, talk about the need to discipline greedy corporate America, about true health security with a single-payer system, about learning from the policies of the New Deal - government-created jobs, etc, but going beyond that.
All of this will be welcomed by the electorate, who have declared their opposition to the war and will welcome the idea of immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Obama should talk about how American security comes through strength in our relations with the rest of the world, how he can heal the enormous wounds inflicted by Bush, by building bridges to other people when in comparison the Republican nominee perpetuates the discourse of fear and insecurity.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. He is a professor of international relations, Bentley College.