Foreign Affairs Journalist, Stephen Kinzer, Believes Ayanna Pressley and Her Freshman Colleagues Need to Try and Change U.S. Defense Priorities to Pay for the Domestic Programs They Champion

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Stephen Kinzer, a former bureau chief for the New York Times in the Middle East and current world affairs columnist for the Boston Globe, addressed a large audience at the South End library in December by saying he was “very impressed” with the new crop of Congressional representatives elected in 2018. A longtime critic of America’s interventionist foreign-policy, Kinzer’s talk focused on what would be a sensible US relationship with Iran and Syria. The concern he expressed, however, was that the new representatives are “too focused” on domestic issues and not enough on foreign policy. Taking as an example Ayanna Presley, the new congresswoman from the South End who defeated Michael Capuano, Kinzer said she “has not said a word” about the outside world.

“She defeated someone who did,” Kinzer added. “Her goals are domestic ones, free Medicare and so on. But the enormous outlays required for defense will be used to deny her the funding for the domestic programs she would like to see. We have to work on Ayanna Pressley to make sure she understands the linkage between domestic and foreign policies. Our job is to keep asking questions.” As a “refreshing example” of a new approach to world affairs Kinzer referred to Rashida Tlaib (D. -Michigan), the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress, who is not going to take the traditional freshman trip to Israel sponsored by AIPAC but instead hopes to take a trip to Palestine and highlight the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and provide an alternate perspective.

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Kinzer was introduced by the widely admired radio host of WBUR’s Open Source, Christopher Lydon, who also reported for the New York Times, before he started The Connection on WBUR in the 1990s. Lydon said that during the 2016 presidential campaign both he and Kinzer thought Hillary Clinton’s approach to foreign policy was “a problem” and that Trump at that time seemed to be sending a different signal, among other things, by calling the Iraq invasion, and Hillary’s support for it,  ‘catastrophic.’ “He doesn’t seem so bad,” Lydon recalled they thought.

“But now,” he asked, “should we repent?”

The background for the invasion of Iraq, which Kinzer and Lydon agreed was the worst policy decision by any American president ever, was the Carter Doctrine. Laid out in the 1970s by National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, it proclaimed that the US would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf. The 1978 revolution in Iran, which overthrew the US-backed Shah, and the 1979 hostage crisis is what set the stage for a hostile relationship with Iran, as far as the US is concerned. But says Kinzer, for the Iranians, it began much earlier, in 1953, when the US overthrew their democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the Shah of Iran. 

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Now, for the US, Iran is a red flag. “ They are considered the demons in the world. If a country is a friend of Iran, the US can lay waste to them,” said Kinzer. “The US is so deeply involved in Yemen because the Saudi and US justification is that there’s a group in Yemen that likes Iran.” Similarly, he said, negotiations sponsored by the United Nations under Kofi Annan and the Arab League to end the Syrian war early on didn’t proceed because Secretary Clinton would not sit down with Assad. There was little recognition that Iran supports Syria for fear that if it doesn’t, ISIS will take over Syria, remove Assad, kill his (Alawite) supporters, and Iran will next have a Sunni state on its border. “For Iran, there are two existential threats,” Kinzer explained. “Their environmental problems related to lack of water and droughts is one, and the Jihadists under ISIS is the other. This is why Iran would not allow for the destruction of Syria and Assad. We’re now six years into the Syrian war which might have been avoided.”

Kinzer’s position is that we should align ourselves with those countries whose goals are similar to ours. “Why are we in the Middle East at all, we should ask ourselves. Iranian society looks so much more like ours than Saudi society. We have similar goals: They hate ISIS and Al Queda even more than we do.” He suggested we need to “reassess our misunderstanding about Iran after two generations of misguided obsession.”  

Having taught journalism, political science, and international relations at Northwestern University and Boston University, Kinzer appreciates news sources that offer a broad and varied perspective on news. They include TomDispatch (for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of our post-9/11 world and a clear sense of how our imperial globe actually works); Lobelog (A Different Perspective on Foreign Policy): and Consortium News (An Investigative Journalism and Political Review Since 1995). “The lack of agility in American foreign policy is remarkable,” he commented. “The world has changed but our foreign policy goals have not. Iran is a big country in the middle of the Middle East: We can’t ignore it.” He acknowledged that there are terrible dictatorships in the Middle East but the US has not been able to make better countries out of any of them by being concerned about human rights.

In 2006 Kinzer published Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq  which describes the 14 times the United States has overthrown foreign governments, why these interventions were carried out and what their long-term effects have been. He has made several trips to Iran, and is the author of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Word has it, this book was part of John Kerry's library when he was Secretary of State under the Obama administration. It described, among other events,  how the CIA overthrew Iran's elected government in 1953.

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Kinzer, a South End resident, said that Congress appears to be waking up from its “Iran coma” and show the beginnings of a rebellion against our involvement in the Saudi war with Yemen, as a result of the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But, he warned, the US arms industry is very powerful and has Congress in its grip. “Not just the individual members of Congress are in their corner with contributions, but when Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors get a large contract, it is subbed out to many districts in the US and provides jobs,” Kinzer pointed out. “Cutting back on defense means loss of jobs and politically difficult decisions for politicians.”

Answering a question from the audience about how to make things better, Kinzer circled back to the newly elected members of Congress, including Ayanna Pressley. “We need to make sure that she will advance on her victory and articulate the foreign policy goals that she would pursue that would not be a waste of money. We have to build on their success by encouraging them to do so.”

Kinzer is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, where he teaches International and Public Affairs. “I love my students,” he said. He is currently working on a ne book that will be out in October. It is called, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb, MK-ULTRA, and the CIA Search for Mind Control, about the American chemist and spymaster who was involved in the CIA's assassination and mind control program, known as Project MKULTRA, in the 1950s and 1960s. Kinzer promised he would be back at the South End library to talk about it. Stay tuned…