After a Siege

American forces in Iraq laid siege to Fallujah twice in 2004. When the smoke cleared at the end of that year the city on the Euphrates lay in ruins. Months of shelling, airstrikes, and house-to-house fighting damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of buildings—including countless homes, shops, schools, and mosques. Most of the approximately 300,000 inhabitants fled their homes, remaining displaced long after the sieges ended, but others were not so lucky. There is no precise body count of Iraqis who perished during the attack, but the figure is likely somewhere over 1,000. The city never recovered from the assault, falling prey to ISIS in 2014, and then another brutal Iraqi-government led siege in 2016.

The Sacking of Fallujah, published in April 2019, is an unusual history of these three sieges. The book is the product of years of work by six contributors inside and outside of Iraq. Personal essays and collected testimony of people marked by the destruction of the city are interposed between the chapters of a chronological narrative. In one affecting essay, Ross Caputi, one of the book’s credited authors, describes his participation in the second siege as a Marine and his gradual disillusionment with the war in Iraq. After leaving the military Caputi became involved in anti-war work and eventually co-founded the Islah Reparations Project, which provides resources to Iraqis and Palestinians in need.

With the fifteen-year anniversary of the 2004 sieges of Fallujah in mind, I reached out to Caputi to request an interview. We discussed The Sacking of Fallujah, his shift in perspective on American foreign policy, and his views on reparations and international solidarity.

Michael Youhana: Can you talk about the timeline of events encompassed in your book? 

Ross Caputi: The Sacking of Fallujah offers a little bit of background information on the city’s early 20th century anti-colonial struggles against Britain. The impact of the 1991 Gulf War and UN Security Council sanctions on Fallujah’s residents is also discussed. But the core of the book starts out in 2003, during the invasion of Iraq. The book describes the two American-led sieges of the city in 2004. It also discusses the more recent operation against ISIS in Fallujah in 2016 and the really difficult position residents of Fallujah find themselves in today. 

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The Quartermaster’s Tools and the Quartermaster’s House

When the next executive term is inaugurated on January 21st, 2021, it will have been 19 years, 3 months, and 15 days since the start of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Not since 2008 has the left in the United States had such an opportunity to re-imagine foreign policy from the executive branch. Should a Sanders or a Warren or another left-curious candidate assume the presidency in 2021, they will inherit a massive American security bureaucracy, with key positions waiting to be staffed by political appointees. 

To the extent that there is a bench for foreign policy within the big tent of the Democratic party, it is a bench that is almost exclusively aligned with the pro-intervention sides of both the Obama and Clinton camps, leaving few people of an anti-intervention bent for a president to call on. To better understand how this situation came to be and how it might be mitigated, I spoke over email with Daniel Bessner, a historian of American defense intellectual culture.

Kelsey D. Atherton: Let’s start with the most immediate question: should we get a Sanders or a Warren presidency, and a foreign policy to match, where would those administrations look to hire people into the administration to manage the national security apparatus? 

Daniel Bessner: I think this will be one of the foremost problems confronting a future progressive president. There is simply not a bench for left wing foreign policy thinkers, analysts, and bureaucrats in the same way that there is for conservatives or liberals. This is, in fact, my biggest gripe with the previous generation of left wing thinkers: though they were mostly correct in their moral condemnations of US foreign policy–its imperialism, its brutality, its feigned innocence– they fundamentally misunderstood how power works, at least in the foreign-policymaking realm.

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Political Science

Science diplomacy is part of the basic blocking and tackling of American foreign policy. The State Department’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation, for example, manages a US Science Envoy Program and an Embassy Science Fellows Program in an effort to “build relationships and partnerships that advance American foreign policy and scientific priorities”. Yet it is rare to hear any real debate about the role of science in America’s work abroad, or about how science came to be incorporated into the core functions of American foreign policy. Enter Audra Wolfe, a historian whose recent book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science covers the rise and consequences of science diplomacy as a tool of the American state and the rationalizations scientists made along the way. I spoke with Dr. Wolfe over e-mail about how the Cold War shaped American science in the 20th century and how effects are still felt today.

Sam Ratner: Your work centers around the idea of “scientific exceptionalism”, which isn’t a concept that we hear a lot in foreign policy discourse. What exactly is scientific exceptionalism, and why does in matter to broader questions of diplomacy?

Audra Wolfe: Scientific exceptionalism is the claim that science — and scientists — somehow exist beyond the reach of politics, and especially international politics. It’s a claim that obviously isn’t true, and yet it is also a core belief among many American scientists. I wanted to figure out why that is, so I dug into the history of American science. What I found kept bringing me back to Cold War propaganda. 

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A Dream of Spring

Yanis Varoufakis and the DiEM25 movement are making headlines with their call for a more democratic and just European Union. Varoufakis brings his experience dealing with the EU as the former finance minister of Greece to the table for the European Spring, a European Parliament electoral slate that includes an ambitious and audacious vision for Europe. Their recently-released manifesto can be found here. I spoke with DiEM25’s policy director, David Adler, over email.

Emma Steiner: Tell us a little more about the European Spring.

David Adler: The premise of European Spring is that Europe is ripe for a grassroots transnational movement. The financial crisis of 2008 not only revealed the interconnections between European economies — bound together by a Single Market and, in the case of the Eurozone, a single currency — but also between European democracies. These political dynamics were not pretty, pitting core against periphery, and most memorably, Germans against Greeks. But in the process, they illustrated the extent to which every European country is, for better or worse, bound to every other. In other words, this crisis had the effect of giving birth to a European demos: a single public that — despite differences in class or country — is beginning to understand the role that institutions at the European level play in shaping life at the local level.

All of this to say: our movement has grown out of Europe not because of some sense of European exceptionalism, but because the conditions for transnational politics were most favorable, and most urgent.

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“Interior” by Design

The US Department of the Interior is one of the federal government’s neatest rhetorical tricks. Built largely to manage land in the American West that had become “interior” to the United States only recently, through the colonial logic of Manifest Destiny, the department’s name serves to legitimize US territorial expansion. Interior’s role in expanding, managing, and obscuring American empire, however, does not stop at the California coast. Megan Black, an assistant professor of history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has a new history of the Interior Department out that traces the department’s leading role in America’s pursuit of mineral resources around the world. Her book, The Global Interior, is a crucial contribution to our understanding of the the hidden ways American power functions around the world. I spoke with Dr. Black over email about her book and the role Interior has played in the construction of American foreign policy.

Sam Ratner: What brought you to the international history of the Interior Department as a topic for close study? Is there something about Interior in particular that speaks to your broader project as an historian?

Megan Black: I came to study the Interior Department’s global mineral pursuits in a circuitous way. In graduate school at George Washington University, I was interested in connections between US policies toward indigenous peoples and US policies toward Third World nations. Minerals became one prism through which those connections were visible. For example, I encountered the dynamic and controversial activism of an organization that claimed histories of mineral exploitation linked American Indian nations and Third World nations: the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, which self-labeled as the “Indian OPEC.” I filed this history in the back of my mind while searching for evidence of interwoven mineral histories.

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Beyond Good and Evil

Scholars Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg have recently published a piece in The Nation regarding the need for nuance in left foreign policy, and in particular how an over-reliance on moral frameworks may create weaknesses in Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy proposals. They argue that it is important to avoid falling back on harmful Cold War logics and that policymakers must instead focus on areas of cooperation. I asked them some questions about their piece and related topics over Facebook.

Emma Steiner: I’ve noticed a real trend of pieces about progressive foreign policy lately. What do you think precipitated the recent demands for a progressive and left foreign policy? It seems there has always been a real hunger on the left for an alternative to endless militarism, but that this is finally starting to be taken seriously.

Udi Greenberg: As we wrote in our piece, I think that the main instigation behind this is the election of Donald Trump. Trump is probably the first president to speak about foreign relations in terms that truly move beyond the Cold War – no platitudes about moral benevolence, no pretense to care about democracy promotion. Trump is also the first president in decades to run on a platform that was not committed to unmitigated free trade. So I think that the left has recognized breaking with orthodox American rhetoric on foreign relations may not be as electorally problematic as has long been assumed.

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Enacting a Reparative Internationalism

“The Ninety-third Congress (1973-75),” observes Greg Grandin, “was perhaps the most anti-imperial legislature in United States history.” In this era, lawmakers passed the 1973 War Powers Act and began closely scrutinizing the intelligence community, laying the groundwork for the Church Committee’s work in 1975-76. By 1976, Congress had curtailed aid to reactionaries in Angola, Turkey, South Korea, Chile, and Indonesia. Elected officials even abolished abusive national security institutions, like the Un-American Activities Committee and the Office of Public Safety.

Susan Schnall is part of the generation that voted the Ninety-third Congress into office. As a Navy nurse in Northern California at the height of the Vietnam War, Schnall organized service members opposed to America’s most ruinous Cold War crusade. In 1968, she attended a peace march in uniform and dropped thousands of antiwar leaflets onto military bases across the Bay Area from a single engine plane. In 1969, the Navy court-martialed Schnall for her activism. Undeterred, she continued organizing in the decades after.

Today, Schnall is working to make Congress anti-imperialist again. As a core member of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign (VAORRC), she’s had some success. Representative Barbara Lee introduced the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act in the House last year. The bill aims to recompense victims of defoliation missions, which saw millions of gallons of Agent Orange sprayed over southern Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. Schnall played a pivotal role in drafting the legislation, which currently has 25 cosponsors. In a recent phone conversation, she shared her thoughts on our legacy in Vietnam, an unpleasant encounter with John McCain, and the prospects for enacting a humane and reparative American foreign policy in the coming years.

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