Interview with Prof. Stephen Eric Bronner


Stephen-BronnerKourosh Ziabari – Noted U.S. political scientist says that although the United States and Iran have some differences and disagreements on regional and international issues, they will finally put aside the conflicts and move toward reconciliation and rapprochement because they have certain common interests.

“Iran and the United States have certain common interests in the region that should be brought to popular attention. But ultimately something more is involved than policy or politics. There is so much that our two nations can learn from one another: You know that Hafez’ “Divan” is the basis for Goethe’s “West-East Divan.” That is probably the point at which world literature was born. Tensions exist now between our two states and perhaps they will exist for the near future – but, luckily, forever is a very long time,” said Prof. Stephen Eric Bronner in an interview with Tehran Times last week.

Stephen Eric Bronner is a political philosopher and Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Comparative Literature and German Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. His writings have been translated into more than a dozen languages and he is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal for Modern Society and Culture.

What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: Dear Prof. Bronner; almost one year has elapsed since the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its rising to prominence. Has this movement succeeded in realizing its objectives? It seems that it emerged suddenly and then was extinguished very soon. What do you think about the movement and the reasons why it took shape?

A: Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the bursting of the sub-prime housing bubble and the crashing of the derivates market that began in late 2007, the gutting of all corporate oversight and the largest upward shift in wealth and income in American history by the Bush Administration, as well as the timid response initially offered by President Obama to a the Tea Party and its allies in the Republican Party. OWS had an anarchist sensibility from its beginning in 2011 and its more radical activists envisioned a new language, a new consensus, and even a new spirituality that rejects ideology and “political” conflict. They did not transform politics. But its members actually accomplished a good deal. Not only did they produce a chain reaction of other occupations in major cities throughout the United States and nearly one thousand cities worldwide but they changed the priorities of the very system whose total overhaul they desired. OWS energized dormant unions and community groups. It raised numerous radical issues ranging from free higher education and student loans to regressive taxation and the poisoning of our electoral process by big money. OWS helped produce the jobs-oriented left-turn by the Obama Administration and, with its slogan “We are the 99%”, it shifted the national discourse from the celebration of de-regulation, the free market, small-minded individualism, and a mean-spirited attack upon the welfare state to a new concern with the economic imbalance of power, solidarity, social equality, and the responsibility of government to its citizens.

Q: Do you believe that the era of corporatism has come to an end? It seems that the corporative structure has had many benefits for the United States and helped it make enormous economic progresses in the recent decades, but the protesters of Occupy Wall Street movement are unhappy with this model of government. Do you find any disadvantage or deficiency in corporatism?

A: Corporatism is not the word I would use: Capitalism rests on a fundamental structural principle, namely, that the interests of capital must be served prior to the serving of all other interests. That is because, structurally, capital provides investment and investment determines employment. No investment – no employment. To this extent, labor and all other classes are dependent upon capital under any version of the economic system known as capitalism. OWS – or its more radical elements – sought to revolutionize this system and abolish its political parties in favor of a utopian form of participatory democracy known as “horizontalism.” That theory was never really worked out and there was no broader support for it whatsoever. But the fact of the matter is that social movements can pressure the government and also influence elections. That is because securing policies favorable to capital (or its competing sectors) in a liberal democracy requires coalitional support among the broader populace. These coalitions lead to very different political outcomes. Those who cannot see a difference between the Obama and the Bush administrations are living in a night where all cows are black.

Q: Some critics of the foreign policy of the U.S. argue that Washington has always supported and backed reactionary governments in the world. The deposed tyrants of Tunisia and Egypt were once close allies of the U.S. while the White House continues to support the dictatorial regimes of Al-Khalifa, Ali Abdullah Saleh and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This is while the U.S. has always talked of its commitment to democracy and its support for the promotion of democratic values around the world. Hasn’t the U.S. government failed to practice what it preaches, at least with regards to values such as democracy and freedom, in the international level?

A: Very few powerful nations have clean hands. That is certainly true of the United States – but it was also true of the Soviet Union and it is true of China. All of them supported dictatorial regimes that often contradicted their public commitment to human rights or social and economic justice. Admittedly, the United States has shown less discretion and less sympathy for the once-colonized world. Of all the interventions and wars undertaken by the United States over the last 150 years, only World War I and arguably World War II (where most fighting took place against Japan), were fought against “white” nations. Imperialist and geo-political interests have tended to blend with an arrogant and often hypocritical ideology that is intent upon bringing democratic freedom to the rest of the world by force. Eric Hobsbawn, the great historian, once said” nothing is more dangerous than a great power that thinks it is doing the world a favor.”

Q: Do you believe that the public image of the U.S. has been tarnished during the tenure of George W. Bush? A BBC poll in 2010 showed that the U.S. is the third most hated country in the world and the main reason for that was the interventionist war policy of George Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you agree with this idea? If so, then has Barack Obama succeeded in healing and improving this contaminated image?

A: I can tell you that it was embarrassing for me as an American wherever I was traveling while George W. Bush was president: whether in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East. The blatant lying by his administration over “weapons of mass destruction” to justify the invasion of Iraq and the completely incoherent strategy it pursued in Afghanistan were disgraceful. President Obama was a breath of fresh air: he has followed a sophisticated and complex strategy in dealing with your country, Iran, and also Israel. In maintaining sanctions (whatever their terrible impact on the Iranian people) he has – so far – helped prevent an Israeli pre-emptive strike. His administration has – again so far – been prudent in not getting embroiled in Syria as well as in its dealings with Egypt and Tunisia. He has basically gotten the US out of Iraq and a time-table is set for Afghanistan. The verdict is not yet clear on the US military intervention in Libya (but, at least, there was some reliance on international law and international support). Still, there are drones being launched in Pakistan and elsewhere; Guantanamo has not been closed down; and nothing has been done to indict or even incriminate George Bush and his cronies for their irresponsible policies that have done such damage especially to Iraq and US standing in the world. I have tried to talk about this in two of my books: Blood in the Sand and Peace Out of Reach.

Q: The U.S. military forces are continuing to bombard different regions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen under the pretext of demolishing Taliban and Al-Qaeda bases. However, there is sufficient evidence showing that it was CIA which financed, trained and backed Osama Bin Laden in 1990s to use him as an alternative force to empower the Afghan Mujahideen in the Afghan-Soviet war. We also know that Saddam Hussein was once one of the close allies of the U.S. and President Carter financed and equipped him in the 8-year war with Iran to derail the newborn Islamic Revolution of Iran. Why does the U.S. abandon its allies and friends such unfaithfully?

A: Political realism in international relations has always been predicated on the willingness to turn enemies into allies and allies into friends in order to maintain a balance of power that serves the national interest and fosters stability. The practical mistake with regard to the movements you mention is that (even at the time) none of them really served the American national interest or the maintenance of regional stability. The same mistake was made during the Vietnam War. Chalmers Johnson called this policy of financing reactionary and dictatorial forces, which were destined to confront the United States, “blowback.” There is a way in which the force of blowback only becomes evident later. But, still, it should have been clear at the time that the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Mujahideen did not exactly support liberal democratic values and that no plausible connection existed between the means and the ends of US policy. To get a sense of how such disastrous policies were sold to the American public, take a look at Rambo III with Sylvester Stallone.

Q: Your book “A Rumor about the Jews” has not been available in Iran so far. Would you please give us some insight about your book and what it contains? I’m interested in knowing your idea about the concept of anti-Semitism. The Israeli politicians label every criticism of their policies and actions as anti-Semitism and by doing so refuse to confess to the wrongness of their aggression against the Palestinians. What’s your take on that?

A: Nothing would please me more than to see “A Rumor about the Jews” appear in Farsi; it serves as a kind of prequel to my “Reclaiming the Enlightenment” that appeared in Farsi with Chesmeh in 2008. “A Rumor about the Jews” provides a genealogy of anti-Semitism – the religious, social, and political forms it has taken through the ages – as well as a study of the fabricated “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” with its vision of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy that reaches back to the beginnings of Western civilization. Anti-Semitism is grounded in paranoid forms of conspiracy fetishism that project aims and qualities upon “Jews” while ignoring the different traditions and conflicting interests between them. Zionism is one (and only one) of those traditions; it actually held little attraction before World War II and its later appeal was clearly the product of Auschwitz and fears concerning the possibility of another Holocaust in the future. Of course, the irony is that the Palestinians had nothing to do with what happened in Europe – even as they pay the price of Occupation. There is nothing anti-Semitic about saying that or that Israeli policy is counterproductive for all parties involved in the conflict. But there is something wrong when such criticism is identified with fabricated conspiratorial rumors about “Jews” or stereotypical beliefs that have nothing to do with empirical reality. For example, it is not “Jews” but multinational firms like Comcast, Time Warner, Bertelsmann and the Murdoch publishing empire that control the press. Ant- Semitism substitutes a simplistic image of the Jew for a complex empirical reality. There is a significant and growing constituency (including American Jews) who are appalled by Israeli policies toward the Palestinians –but their cause is not helped by inflated rhetoric about a war of extermination or what verges on “holocaust denial.”

Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the influence of Israeli lobby on the U.S. government and congress? One of my interviewees, Naseer Aruri, a Chancellor Professor (emeritus) of Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth has told me that no politician with an anti-Zionist mindset can even dream of living in the White House. Do you agree? What’s the reason behind the enormous influence of the Israeli lobby on U.S. politics?

A: Israeli lobbies like AIPAC obviously have great influence on American foreign policy. But I think that critics make it too easy for themselves. It’s not just money but rather the fact that Jews are politically organized and that they are an important voting constituency in many decisive states like California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and others. Anti-Zionist forces in the United States are politically disorganized. Their public posture makes them appear extreme; their spokespeople usually sound demagogic; and there is no concerted effort to influence elections. There is simply no incentive for any politician to come out decisively against Israel—though, in fairness, President Obama has publicly confronted Prime Minister Netanyahu on settlements in the occupied territories and the bombing of Iran. Netanyahu would clearly have preferred having Mitt Romney in the White House. That is because Obama’s approach to Israel is different from that of neo-conservatives associated with the Bush Administration – and it is important to note that the great majority of Romney’s foreign policy advisors (most notoriously, perhaps, John Bolton) came from the neo-conservative camp. For all that, however, the supposedly Zionist controlled media has helped shift American public opinion away from its former uncritical support for Israel.

Q: In your book “Peace out of Reach” some parts of which I browsed, you talked of your experience in the Middle East nations including Iran. It seems that you think of Iran, like many pundits and academicians who appear on the U.S. mainstream media like Fox News and Washington House, as a sponsor of terrorism and religious extremism in the region. Is that true? You have talked of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy pessimistically and it seems that you share the view of many American officials that Iran wants to build nuclear weapons. Would you please explain more about the image which you have of Iran in mind?

A: Well, I must say, no one has ever associated me with FOX News before! No quite the opposite: I have been a consistent critic of neo-conservative calls to bomb Iran, intervene in Syria, and uncritically support Israeli policy. My book “Blood in the Sand” and also “Peace out of Reach” constitute is a direct attack on the politics advocated by neo-conservative foreign policy analysts and FOX News. If I am critical of Iran for its support of Hezbollah and Assad’s regime, or its policy in Iraq, that it is because, I believe, such politics impede cooperation between the United States and Iran. That is also the case with the pursuit of nuclear energy. Frankly, I don’t know whether your nation is intent upon building a nuclear weapon or not: but I am fairly certain that the impact of geo-political isolation and economic sanctions on your people far outweighs the benefits your nuclear policy might provide.

Q: Even if we accept that Iran’s nuclear program has military dimensions and Iran is moving toward building atomic bombs, there’s already one nation in the Middle East which possesses nuclear bombs and it’s Israel. The Federation of American Scientists has indicated that Israel possesses up to 300 nuclear warheads. So, why shouldn’t Iran have the equal right to develop nuclear power? Is it only a matter of alliance with the U.S. that authorizes nations to develop nuclear energy? And another important question; Is America’s hostility with Iran a result of Tehran’s controversial nuclear program or it dates back to the very origins and birth of the Islamic Revolution which was built up on anti-Western values?

A: In principle I agree with everything that you just said: That the United States should condemn Iran, when it is the only country actually to have used an atomic weapon, is a particularly perverse employment of the double standard. It is also certainly true that Iran is encircled by nations with nuclear weapons and that it should have the right to build its own. Whether it should make use of that right, of course, is another matter entirely. I understand that having such a weapon would have great symbolic value. But the fact of the matter is that Iran is susceptible to attack by two dominant military powers and that, again, the price paid by everyday people for such symbolic power is far too high. You know and I know that having a nuclear bomb will have little military value in dealing with the United States or Israel with its 300 bombs and sophisticated defense shields. I believe that the more rational officials in the United States know that too. The US preoccupation with Iran stems from its hatred of the Islamic Revolution. Its policy is less pragmatic than ideological – that is what makes it dangerous and that is why I am critical of it.

Q: The mainstream media in the West withhold information about Iranian culture and civilization from their audiences. They only trumpet for war against Iran, repeatedly show clichéd footages of Iran’s nuclear reactors and mass demonstrations in which the protesters chant “Death to America.” Don’t you believe that the American public seriously suffers from a lack of information about Iranian culture, its rich civilization and its people?

A: There is no doubt about it. I have had the privilege to travel widely in Iran; I was a member of two peace delegations and I participated in the second International Human Rights Conference at Mofid University. I also attended two dinners at which President Ahmadinejad spoke and I have worked with the American-Iranian Council. I have a particular love for the city of Esfahan. I marveled at Persepolis, and I have the greatest admiration for Hafez, Rumi, and the extraordinary cultural contributions of your civilization. Having said all this, however, as the saying goes – “it takes two to tango.” Inflammatory rhetoric comes from both sides—and it is not as if your leaders are (so to speak) trying to lower the temperature. They are not taking American popular sentiments into account in their public pronouncements and symbolic actions. I can tell you as a friend: most of my countrymen think that, when it comes to the possibility of attack, your leaders are simply asking for it.

Q: What’s your assessment of the war threats of the U.S. and Israel against Iran? Are there chances that they keep their word and launch a military strike against Iran, or the claims are devoid of practicality and seriousness and more of psychological propaganda?

A: I personally believe that the threats are real. It also may be the case that the US and Israel are playing a game of “chicken” with Iran by upping the ante with each pronouncement or blockage in the nuclear negotiations. Perhaps the Iranian leadership believes that Israel and/or the US can step back from the brink. But I don’t think that view is particularly prudent. The idea of a “targeted” strike may well turn out to be a myth given that Iranian nuclear facilities are spread over a wide geographic space with human and military defenses. Perhaps such a strike can be limited. But it is not a wager I would make. Your leaders are responsible for the safety of your citizens and, for this reason alone, they should assume the worst rather than the best possible outcome — – and try to mitigate it.

Q: Stephen Kinzer believes that Iran and the U.S. are not fated to remain enemies forever. What’s your viewpoint regarding the prospect of Iran-U.S. relations? Is this 32-year-long hostility going to last forever, or are there hopes for reconciliation and friendship? At least as to what I have understood so far, they are the two governments, and not the two nations, which are at odds with each other. I have many American friends myself, and I know that the Iranian community is very vibrant and dynamic in the U.S. What’s your viewpoint?

A: I remember a time when Middle Eastern politics was considered an exotic specialty—now it is at the center of our discourse. Iran and the United States have certain common interests in the region that should be brought to popular attention. But ultimately something more is involved than policy or politics. There is so much that our two nations can learn from one another: You know that Hafez’ “Divan” is the basis for Goethe’s “West-East Divan.” That is probably the point at which world literature was born. Tensions exist now between our two states and perhaps they will exist for the near future – but, luckily, forever is a very long time.

Excerpts of this interview were published on Tehran Times daily.