Rep. Dennis Kucinich tried to warn America. A few months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the famously liberal Ohio Democrat assessed the Iraqi threat in a detailed, five-page, point-by-point memo. In it, Kucinich effectively decimated the argument for going to war.
“There is no credible evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction,” Kucinich wrote in his October 2002 white paper. “There is no credible intelligence that connects Iraq to the events of 9/11 or to participation in those events by assisting Al Qaeda. There is no proof that Iraq represents an immediate or imminent threat to the United States.”
The congressman’s view, scoffed at by many in Congress then, is conventional wisdom now. The blunt analysis was vintage Kucinich — informed, unwavering and unapologetically anti-war. The former mayor of Cleveland, one-time presidential candidate and eight-term congressman hasn’t mellowed much in the decade since. If anything, Kucinich is more of a liberal stalwart than ever. And while he doesn’t serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he stays deeply involved in foreign affairs.
The congressman spoke to The Washington Diplomat less than a month after he arranged a controversial freelance trip to Syria to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has killed an estimated 2,200 protestors in recent months, as of press time.
“I did not come to Congress to do this [foreign affairs],” Kucinich told The Diplomat during a lengthy interview in his spacious but spartan congressional office across the street from the U.S. Capitol. “But through my presence here, I’d see the debates in which matters of war and peace were discussed. I came to an understanding that war is not inevitable. People make war inevitable through their decisions, but war is not inevitable.”
During the interview, Kucinich explained his views on a range of subjects from U.S. involvement in air strikes against the Libyan government to his controversial decision to meet with Syria’s Assad to America’s declining economic status and his view that NATO should be dissolved.
At the outset of the interview, before delving into foreign policy issues, we asked Kucinich about his own political future, which has become uncertain in light of congressional redistricting under way in Ohio. Kucinich said he believes his Cleveland-based seat will be eliminated, so he’s looking for a political home outside the state. Several news reports have said the congressman is mulling a possible run in the state of Washington, but Kucinich wouldn’t confirm that.
“Ohio’s going to lose two seats and mine’s going to be one of them,” he said. “Based on that, I’m considering other options. I haven’t made a decision but I’m looking at options beyond Ohio. I’d like to stay in Congress.”
At a time when Tea Party conservatism has dominated the national agenda and specifically the House of Representatives, Kucinich represents the complete opposite end of the political spectrum.
Kucinich, who’s held jobs as a hospital orderly, newspaper copy boy, teacher and television analyst, proudly wears his liberalism on his sleeve. He’s authored and co-sponsored legislation to create a national health care system, lower the costs of prescription drugs, boost economic development through infrastructure improvements, provide universal prekindergarten to all 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, offer tax relief to working families, repeal the Patriot Act, abolish the death penalty, and even create a Department of Peace.
He’s long advocated against expensive conflicts and for refocusing resources back toward Americans. As such, it’s little surprise that Kucinich views U.S. involvement in Libya as ill-advised, going so far as to say it could even be grounds for articles of impeachment against President Obama. The congressman cited Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which says only Congress has the authority to declare war, not the president. Obama is hardly the first commander in chief to initiate military conflicts without congressional approval, but Kucinich said, technically, Obama is in violation of the constitution.
“The president exceeded his authority and that’s not really debatable,” he said.
Kucinich argues that a political solution is always preferable to a military one, and he contends that U.S. officials (he singled out U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz) dramatically overstated the death and destruction in Libya to build credibility prior to the launching of air strikes. Cretz said at the time that estimates of the overall death toll in Libya if the government attacks rebel-held areas could exceed 30,000 — a number that Kucinich said was wildly inflated and helped to justify the NATO bombing campaign that has stretched on for six months.
Kucinich had in fact proposed legislation to withdraw U.S. military support from the Libya mission, though the bill was scrapped by the Republican House leadership. Speaking two weeks before rebel forces entered Tripoli in mid-August, Kucinich was insistent on an immediate ceasefire to “bring the parties together to enable a non-violent transition that would cause unity in Tripoli.”
“People know each other — this is a country of just more than 6 million people,” he added, urging political reconciliation and arguing that the NATO bombing had prevented a settlement from being reached earlier.
Yet there might not have been much to settle between Col. Muammar Qaddafi and the rebel forces fighting to dislodge the mercurial ruler after nearly 42 years in power. And as much as NATO took heat for inserting itself into what essentially became a civil war, reworking its original mandate from protecting civilians to ousting Qaddafi, the temperature quickly changed when rebels finally broke the stalemate and marched into Tripoli, signaling — as of press time — the collapse of one of the world’s longest dictatorships.
Kucinich maintains his position, writing recently that the battle for Tripoli offers a time to “review the curious role of NATO and the future of U.S. interventionism.”
“A negotiated settlement in Libya was deliberately avoided for months while NATO, in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, illegally pursued regime change. NATO chose sides, intervened in a civil war and morphed into the air force for the rebels, who could not have succeeded but for NATO’s attacks,” Kucinich argued.
And despite whatever successes the NATO operation in Libya achieved, Kucinich adamantly believes that on the whole, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has “outlived its usefulness.”
“NATO should be dismantled,” he said matter-of-factly. “The purpose for which NATO was created is gone. The Cold War is over. Only the geographically challenged could argue for NATO’s position on the Chinese border of Afghanistan.
“NATO winds up being an arms bazaar that drains the money of nations for arms that they need for domestic matters,” Kucinich added.
Kucinich even argued that the war in Libya “could well finish NATO as a viable institution.”
“Look what they have done,” he said. “They violated the U.N. mandate when they took the side of the rebels in the [Libyan] civil war, they’ve killed a lot of innocent people, they’ve destroyed civilian infrastructure. NATO commanders should be investigated for war crimes.”
At this point in the interview, Kucinich popped up from his chair and began to rifle through cardboard boxes lined across the floor in the corner of his office. There’s a neatly organized box labeled “Libya,” chock full of files and papers. There’s another one for Afghanistan, and another for Pakistan. He grabbed a stack of oversize cardboard maps resting against a wall and points out his own notes on the location of oil and other natural resources around the world. Kucinich said it’s no coincidence that the fiercest fighting in Libya is near Benghazi, where the most substantial oil reserves are.
“Hello!” he exclaimed.
Kucinich, often dismissed in mainstream political circles as a fringe politician, seems intent on proving that he does his homework — and he makes a compelling case.
“I go very deep into these issues,” he explained. “I don’t do anything off the cuff. I take a lot of time and study in great depths.”
He said the meticulous research is based on his belief that what the government presents to people as rationale for conflict is usually not the full story.
“It’s through this kind of understanding that I led the effort in challenging the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan [although Kucinich voted for the initial U.S. strikes on terrorist camps there], the war in Libya, the war in Pakistan, and the lack of an evenhanded approach in the Middle East,” he said. “In each case, I went deeply into the internal dynamics of the conflict and went to the period prior to the conflict to see at what point war became inevitable. Were people misled as to a cause of war, were people misled as to the purpose of the war or the United States’s intentions?
“What I discovered more often than not is that the public has not been told about the nature of our interventions.”
The congressman said America simply cannot continue to act as the world’s policeman, nor should it do so.
“The U.S. has military bases around the world,” he said. “We can’t afford them and we have to come home.”
In fact, the Defense Department has a presence in nearly 50 countries spread out over more than 800 locations overseas. The area it manages both abroad and within the United States — interestingly — is about the size of Ohio, Kucinich’s home state.
“We have every right to defend ourselves, but we can’t be a global cop. We have an obligation to the American people to have a strong defense without overextending ourselves,” Kucinich told us.
He said diplomacy, not military might, is the weapon of the future, although at the moment, federal spending on international affairs averages about $50 billion a year, while defense spending consumes roughly $700 billion a year.
“There is no military solution,” he asserted. “Increasingly in world affairs, military solutions are false solutions. The world has changed dramatically from the time when diplomacy came at the barrel of a gun.”
He also challenged Americans who believe that the United States must expend its resources to maintain its status as the world’s only superpower.
“We don’t need to be at the apex of the world community,” he said. “I don’t see the model as a triangle where we’re at the apex. If you’re really strong, why do you have to keep telling people you’re strong? There is no question about our strength. I’d like to see America strong economically. I’d like to see us have a full employment economy.”
He pointed to Russia at the end of the Cold War as proof that nations that try to maintain their military dominance over the rest of the world are destined for failure.
“Russia understood that it could not keep up its military interventions within its sphere,” Kucinich said. “What did that lead to? It moved toward Perestroika and Glasnost [the liquidation of the Soviet Union] because they couldn’t keep up.”
Speaking just a week or so before Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating and the U.S. stock market plunged to depths not seen since 2008, Kucinich said American leaders should reassess their priorities.
“The real power in the world today isn’t based on the strength of your bombs. It’s based on the strength of you bonds,” Kucinich said. “It is based on the internal financial security of the nation, of its strength in the world economy, the power of its currency, its power to invest wisely, its ability to have all people benefit from the economy — that’s where the strength is.”
Kucinich also argues that America’s one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sapped its influence and moral authority in the region. He said he supports Palestine’s unilateral bid for statehood at the United Nations as a natural response to unilateral moves by Israel to build on Palestinian territory, even though critics say the issue can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations.
“They ought to be admitted to the U.N.,” Kucinich declared. “There really ought to be a solution that enables the Palestinians to have a state of their own. It’s become very complicated because of facts on the ground that include lines that are redrawn, houses that are demolished, and fences that are put up.
“I support Israel’s right to survive and thrive and be peaceful and be free from attack, and I would not support any effort to try to endanger the physical security of Israel,” the congressman continued. “But there comes a time when we have to realize that Israel has policies that are counterproductive to its own security. The building of more settlements has been counterproductive. The holiday attack on Gaza a couple of years ago is counterproductive. Instead of telling people in the Palestinian territories who their government should be, Israel should be trying to make peace with those who would wish Israel harm, and those who wish Israel harm must be ready to put down any thoughts of aggression.”
Kucinich said he has been to the Middle East several times and has a “great deal of concern and sympathy for the way the Israelis see the world.” But he said it’s not America’s place to take sides.
“When your brothers and sisters are killing each other, it’s not for us to take the side of one brother against another, but to sit with both of them and help heal the breach. We have to be healers of the breach,” he said.
Kucinich’s steadfast belief in universal human rights and justice has oftentimes but him at loggerheads with traditional U.S. policy. For example, he requested an investigation into the role of the Bush administration in the April 2002 coup against Venezuela’s firebrand anti-American president, Hugo Chávez. He’s called for a more balanced U.S. approach to Kosovo that takes Serbian concerns into account. And he’s actively fought to end funding for the School of the Americas, now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, arguing that graduates of the U.S. military education facility have committed numerous human rights violations across Latin America.
Syria represents the congressman’s latest challenge to conventional U.S. thinking. Kucinich said he has no regrets about meeting with President Assad, despite vehement criticism from his colleagues and even a blistering editorial from the Washington Post, which is often sympathetic to Kucinich’s worldview.
“The hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have risked their lives to take to the streets since March are not seeking reforms from Mr. Assad — they are demanding the end of his regime,” the Post’s editorial board wrote in June. “The idea that, having slaughtered so many of his people, Mr. Assad would agree to a political transition that would allow Syrians to vote for or against his ruling party — which is dominated by a minority ethnic group — is absurd. That’s why the only people who take the regime’s rhetoric seriously are those who wish to defend it, who excuse its horrendous crimes and who oppose genuine democracy in Syria. Mr. Kucinich has just made himself one of the more conspicuous members of that camp.”
Kucinich’s position — much like President Obama’s earlier position on Iran — is that communication never hurts. However, Obama has issued sanctions against Assad’s regime (as well as Iran’s), effectively prohibiting any business dealings between anyone in the United States and Assad and top members of his government. As the violence continues unabated, calls for greater action against Damascus have been growing. Kucinich insists the United States, which is already mired in three military conflicts, must be cautious and consider the consequences if Assad falls.
“Syria could be a flashpoint for a much broader war and the disintegration of the region into sectarian violence,” Kucinich warned. “Sectarian violence is not in the interest of the Assad regime. Violence in Syria has the ability to grow into broader violence in the region. That’s why I went there with the understanding of the centrality of Syria and to try to provide some stability.”
At the same time, Kucinich didn’t dismiss Assad’s brutality.
“There have been human rights violations,” he said. “It’s not acceptable and deserves the condemnation of the world. The Syrian nation has to change that. But it does not follow that if there is a violent overthrow of the government that your [new] government has a guarantee of human rights.”
Kucinich said he urged Assad to take a new approach to a multiparty political system and pull back security at major demonstrations. He also said the visit allowed him to voice “my concern and support efforts toward reform.”
“I also met people and to make an assessment of exactly what the situation is and how it relates to Turkey and Iraq.”
Kucinich said there is no harm in talking to leaders of nations who aren’t necessarily allies of the United States.
“I reject a cartoon version of world events, of good guys and bad guys,” he said. “We have to really talk to people in order to know what’s going on and to see for ourselves. It’s when we leave people in isolation that we create problems. That’s true in personal relationships and it’s true in relationships between nations. You have to talk to people — that shouldn’t be a radical notion.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.