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Stability comes from within not from without, says Bennis. "Do no harm", must be the first step. But stopping arms trades and bombings in the Middle East would not be easy. The weapons manufacturers in the United States have one of the most powerful lobbies. A look at the recent refugee crisis shows that a diplomatic solution is urgently needed. 65 million people have fled their homes, among them a lot of Syrians. This “global refugee nation” had even a team at the latest Olympics. “We have to move, that's a message that this is not ok”. In the wake of the crisis, the United States has only taken 10,000 Syrians “and has bragged about it. It’s shameful! My government should be so ashamed!” There was no refugee crisis in the States but a racism crisis, says Bennis. In Europe you could see the beginnings of a crisis. But there has also been a racist backlash. “The effect is new border controls, new border fences, new border police, new border guns”. But Bennis still has hopes for the Middle East. The Arab Spring has started a revolutionary process. A whole generation has said: “Enough. That’s a huge model.”


Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C.


David Goessmann: How could the region be stabilized and what could the role of the US and also European countries, Germany, be in this stabilization?

Phyllis Bennis: I think, we have to understand that stability comes from within, not from without. Foreign intervention in a military sense always de-stabilizes, wherever you are. That's the first thing. The lesson, I think, has to start with what every medical student learns on her first day of class. The Hippocratic oath. First: do no harm. If your goal is to stop ISIS, or whatever government that set this, the Syrian regime or whoever, from killing people: stop killing people yourself. That means: pull back the bombers. Stop the drones. Pull out the special forces. No boots on the ground, make that real. That's step one, that's not step last. But that's step one. Then start talking about real arms embargoes. On all sides. You're not going to have any credibility calling on the other side just stop arming anybody, as long as you're arming everybody. So stop arming all these players. And for regional allies – whether allies of Europe, allies of the United States, the Saudi, Turkey, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, all these countries, make clear to them that until they stop sending those arms into Syria they will never again buy arms from the United States. Now that's not easy. The arms lobby in the United States is one of the most powerful lobbies out there. I have no illusions this is easy. But if we're serious – and God knows, given the level of humanitarian catastrophe we're facing, given the enormous loss of live, people being slaughtered in this war – we have to be serious about it. And if we are serious we have to be prepared to take in this lobby and fight for it. Then you talk about diplomacy. International diplomacy, where the major powers, the United States and Russia take it up, and involving all the players in the region. And crucially all the players inside Syria. That means the non-violent opposition; that means the women's organizations; that means everybody that has so far been excluded from all of this.

David Goessmann: Talk about the refugee crisis, especially in the Middle East and in Africa. If you look at the public debate in Europe, you get the impression the crisis started last year when the increased influx of Syrians, Afghans and Eritrean went to the European Union. Talk about what you call the global refugee nation and how it is connected to the US foreign policy.

Phyllis Bennis: When we talk about a refugee crisis, there is no question that the current war in Syria, earlier wars across the Middle East sparked from the war in Iraq, the war in Libya, all of these wars, Mali, all of the wars that spread from this so-called global war on terror, have created a huge refugee crisis. But the refugee crisis is certainly not in the United States. And it's not really in Europe. There is a real refugee crisis in the region. There has been for a generation a refugee crisis in Iran and Pakistan of Afghan refugees. From brutal wars in Afghanistan, that began two and a half decades ago. There has been a set of these regional refugee crisis that have been on the rise much more dramatically in the last year or two. If we look at Turkey: Turkey now has almost three million Syrian refugees alone. Turkey is a relatively wealthy country, they can afford that. But even the Turkish economy – which is struggling after there's been a coup effort in Turkey; there's been a series of political crisis in Turkey – even Turkey is struggling to protect that many refugees from Syria. A country like Lebanon, a tiny little country: In Lebanon now, one out of every three or four people in the country is a Syrian refugee. In the United States it would be as if there were, I don't know, maybe a hundred and twenty million Canadians that somehow ended up on our doorstep with nothing but their shirt on their back.

David Goessmann: In Berlin it would be almost one million …

Phyllis Bennis: In Berlin it would be almost a million. It's a shocking reality to think about. So that's the real refugee crisis that we're talking about. In Europe, there is a bit of a crisis, because for the first time, so many of these refugees realize that the possibility of going back to their country was so far away that they had do find protection for their children somewhere else. They had to find at least temporary refuge some place safe. So they took to these dangerous Mediterranean crossings, dangerous boats. So many people have drowned crossing the Mediterranean. From the Libyan way, going to Italy. From Turkey, trying getting to the Greek islands. Ending up in Europe, and suddenly you have hundreds of thousands, now millions of refugees streaming into Europe. A very important statement from Federica Mogherini, the European head of Foreign Affairs, who said last summer at the height of this refugee stream, when there were 15-20 thousand refugees a day streaming into Europe – keep in mind that this entire year the United States has taken only 10,000 and has bragged about it – its shameful! My government should be so ashamed. But in Europe you do have the beginnings of a crisis. This is a huge number, there's no question about that. But Federica Mogherini said: "Look, we are big territory. We are a very wealthy territory. We can manage this. This is not a crisis. We can manage this." And indeed there was an effort in Europe. The backlash has been enormous. Just as we are seeing a backlash in the United States to immigration. We don't have anything close to the kind of refugee numbers. Europe has much more, far more generously taken in. But nonetheless we have seen a racist backlash. And what we see in the United States is certainly not a refugee crisis. It's a racism crisis. It's a racism crisis. And there is some of that in Europe as well. It's fuelled by islamophobia. By xenophobia. The effect is new border controls, new border fences, new border police, new border guns. The notion that the unity of Europe is really at stake now is suddenly a very serious reality. So this notion of refugee nation – I wrote about this in the context of the Olympics when we saw the Team Refugees – it was moving, powerful stories of these ten young athletes from Ethiopia, from Congo and certainly from Syria, who had faced enormous obstacles, forced out of their homes, forced to find refuge somewhere else and yet kept up with their sports and managed to get to the Olympics. It was a huge powerful human story. But it also spoke to the very real danger of normalizing this level of displacement. The fact that we have now 65 million people around the world who have been kicked out of their homes by violence, by terror, by all of these factors – and that's more than there's ever been since WWII. Three generations we haven't seen numbers like this. And the notion that we could think about making this somehow normal that "yeah we have a refugee team at the Olympics". Are they going to have a seat at the United Nations? Are they going to be part of the G20? I mean if you look at populations this would be the 23rd largest country in the world. 65 million – not all refugees, some of them internally displaced – but 65 million displaced people. We have to move, that's a message that this is not ok. The urgency to end these wars that cause the refugee flows is what we have to look at. It's not enough to simply say we have to find a place for them to live. We have to do that, yes. But we also have to stop fuelling the wars that force them into exile in the first place.

David Goessmann: You have been engaged in the Middle East for decades. The future looks very bleak although we have seen the Arab and the African spring. What gives you hope for the region?

Phyllis Bennis: I guess what gives me hope is that – you have to have hope because otherwise you kind of give up, you can't do any work if you give up hope. You can't be stupid about it. You can't have false hope; you can't delude yourself about things. But I have hope because we did see something that was called the Arab spring. I never though of it as "the revolution". I know some people talked about it that way and then said: "oh my god, the revolution was destroyed, we're doomed." It was never "the revolution" in any of these countries. It was a revolutionary process in a certain way. And like every revolutionary process you move forward, you move back. You move forward again, hopefully a little further. You move back but not quite as far. So it's a one step forward, two steps back; two steps forward, one step back kind of process that's underway. What changed with the Arab Spring was that for the first time in more than a generation, two generations, the populations of countries that worked under the control of really brutal military dictatorships in most cases, most of them backed by the United States, took up the demand for human rights. The rights of citizens. It was sparked by all kinds of factors. It was sparked by climate change. In Syria, there were 800,000 farmers that had been forced off their land by three yearlong droughts sparked by climate change. And the presence of those families in cities that didn't have enough jobs … the jobs went to the people who knew someone on power. That meant they were more likely to be allied, therefore it exacerbated the sectarian problem in Syria that had not been particularly sectarian earlier. All of these factors were at work, all of these were at play. But at the end of the day, we saw people rising up to demand rights. We didn't see it everywhere. We didn't see it largely in the countries run by historic monarchies. Maybe that would be the next step. But people took enormous risks. They came together across class, men and women working together, it was new changes. I mean we could look back to the model of the first uprising in Palestine, the first intifada back in 1987, '88, '89, when it was really a "shaking out" of traditional internal relations as much as it was a move against the occupation. We saw a lot of that in the Arab Spring as well. So how can it not give us hope when we saw a generation that had lived and its parents had lived and who's grand-parents had lived under very repressive environments politically, socially and in all those ways, suddenly standing up and saying: enough. Enough. Kefaya. Enough. That's a huge model.

David Goessmann: Thank you Ms. Bennis for the interview.

Phyllis Bennis: Thank you.