CODEPINK founder Medea Benjamin stopped by the Progressive’s offices last week, just before Congress voted to override President Obama’s veto of the law allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia.
Benjamin, a leader of the U.S. peace movement, was on a tour to promote her new book, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection, which she describes as a primer covering:
“everything you wanted to know about Saudi Arabia but were afraid to ask for fear you’d get your head cut off.”
Benjamin’s petite, pink-clad person has become a familiar sight in the halls of Congress, at hearings, press conferences, presidential speeches, and many other high-profile events she somehow manages to crash. She interrupted President Obama’s major foreign policy address on the War on Terror at the National Defense University in 2013, prompting a grudging acknowledgement from the President, as Benjamin was being hauled away, that she had something important to say. She and her CODEPINK sisters disrupted both major party conventions this summer. She made the news when she heckled Donald Trump during his speech accepting the Republican nomination.
Benjamin has been one of the chief critics of the United States military’s use of drones, has organized peace delegations to Gaza, Iraq and Iran, and been arrested and deported from Pakistan and Bahrain. How, I asked her did she find the time to write a book?
“I just realized how we have no movement that focuses on one of the biggest foreign policy problems we have, which is our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Benjamin said.
“We the American people have allowed our government to continue this cozy relationship with one of the worst governments in the world. Here we are saying we’re fighting terrorism— well, we’re selling weapons to the terrorist state of Saudi Arabia.”
Since the book came out in September, Benjamin has been speaking on university campuses, in mosques, and to peace groups around the United States. She sees a growing left/right coalition coming together to criticize the U.S. government relationship with Saudi Arabia.
People across the political spectrum recognize that “we still don’t have the information we deserve about the Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” Benjamin says—including information obtained through U.S. government investigations the public has not yet seen. “And the best way to get that information out is through lawsuits.”
More broadly, Benjamin sees an opening for a major movement that questions U.S. weapons sales that spread violence and instability around the world. “It’s been fantastic to see this coalition come together. I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says.
Saudi Arabia is the biggest purchaser of U.S. weapons.
Under pressure from a coalition that includes the Red Cross and the American Bar Association, the Obama Administration put a hold on sales of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also purchase white phosphorus from the United States and, as with cluster bombs, they appear to be using that weapon in a civil war that has caused massive civilian casualties in Yemen. Human rights advocates worry that, like cluster bombs, the Saudis are using U.S. made white phosphorus indiscriminately in civilian areas. The weapon is particularly horrific since it can cause people to burn alive.
One weapon at a time, activists are pushing the United States to re-examine Saudi arms deals, says Benjamin.
“I think we’re going to make great inroads. . . . Lawmakers are embarrassed.”
Benjamin is using her book tour to help launch a divestment campaign targeting the weapons industry.
The United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, which used to revolve around oil, is now based on weapons sales, Benjamin writes in her book.
She walks the reader through the history of the Saudi royal family, the country’s effort to spread its version of Islam, its role in quashing the Arab Spring, and how it has become so entwined in the U.S. economy that it can threaten to do serious economic harm by withdrawing investments in retaliation for 9/11 lawsuits.
Benjamin also covers Saudi “checkbook diplomacy,” including Saudi support for U.S. universities, law schools, and think tanks.
She believes a broad coalition that objects to the repressive and destabilizing Saudi regime could get traction this year: “Whether you are an Ivy League school or a law school or a think tank, don’t take dirty dictator money.”
Saudi Arabia is a perfect case for raising public awareness of destructive U.S. foreign policy.
“The beauty of this is it is a way to hit at the military industrial complex in a way that I have not found before,” says Benjamin.
A whole generation of young people are open to a strong anti-war message, she says, describing how exciting it was to see the “No More War” signs all over the floor of the Democratic Convention (and how disgusted she was to hear Hillary delegates drowning out the antiwar delegates with chants of “USA! USA!”)
“Too bad Bernie Sanders didn’t make a stronger connections between the need to rebuild our country and have a Medicare-for-all system and free college education and . . . the Pentagon budget,” Benjamin says. “If you don’t confront that, you are not looking where the real money is.”
She is optimistic that a generation of young people is ready to disentangle from foreign wars.
“At some point there will be an opening for a candidate, a platform, a movement . . . that comes out and says, ‘No more war!’ . . . Young people see through all this glorification of war and militarism.”
Benjamin sees President Obama as an impediment to the peace movement, since so many progressives believed he would be better than he was on issues of war and peace (although she counts the Iran nuclear deal as a major victory for peace activists, who she believes helped support the Administration in making the deal.)
In Benjamin’s view, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are hawks.
“Now there are no illusions that we are going to have a peace President,” she says. “I think we are going to have big peace movement in the next four years.”
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive. You can listen to the whole 40-minute conversation she and Progressive Publisher Norman Stockwell had with Medea Benjamin by clicking below or here.