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NOVEMBER 3, 2012 12:55PM

Citizen diplomacy: a balance between leading and following

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Since returning from Pakistan, a number of "armchair critics" have questioned the delegation's motivations and effectiveness. This is my response, first published on OpenDemocracy.

I am one of the 31 Americans from CODEPINK who journeyed to Pakistan to shine a spotlight on U.S. drone attacks that are killing hundreds of innocent civilians along with “militants.” That trip also touched off a mini firestorm when Meredith Tax published on OpenDemocracy an article headlined “Code Pink, the Taliban and Malala Yousafzai” – a stinging critique in which she took the organization to task for what she called the “idiocy of the U.S. peace movement’s one-sided approach to solidarity.”

As Rebecca Johnson eloquently stated in her own response, Tax set up “a false dichotomy – opposing the drones vs. supporting women’s rights.” (Shortly after the CODEPINK delegation joined a convoy to South Waziristan, “ground zero” of U.S. drone strikes, 14-year-old Malala was shot by a member of a Taliban faction, reportedly to punish her for speaking out against the group’s efforts to stop girls from going to school.) 

However, there are two broader issues that explain our focus on drones that were not fully explored by Johnson or others. The first is the very nature of “citizen diplomacy.” I first began traveling with CODEPINK on delegations such as this in March 2009, when I entered the Gaza Strip. Like most of the other delegates, both then and last month in Pakistan, this trip was not just a one-time “disaster tour” (about which I once wrote with concern). I have returned to seven times since then, working to better understand the impact of U.S. foreign policy so I could educate and motivate others back home, while helping many young people in Gaza obtain a broader audience for their views.

CODEPINK will do the same in Pakistan; already the organization has hired a local country coordinator to help determine how to appropriately extend its activism there, largely through consulting with groups on the ground as Tax and Johnson recommended. We have a long-standing commitment to Palestinians; the organization is making the same commitment to Pakistanis.

As an activist and citizen diplomat in Gaza I often face the same choice that confronted us in Pakistan. In addition to the oppression of a military occupation (featuring Israeli drones, funded at least in part by the United States) Palestinians are frequently victimized by both their own government and fundamentalist fringe groups – just as are Pakistanis. The “standard operating procedure” for activists such as myself is to stand in solidarity with local residents as they work to change their government and other aspects of their society, but to limit our leadership to targeting the actions of our own country.

In Gaza, that has meant speaking out in every creative way we can against U.S. funding, votes in the UN, etc. that enable the Israeli occupation. We have demonstrated outside the White House, the State Department and Congress, as well as in Tel Aviv. When it comes to the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian factions, however, we stand back and are simply present in solidarity as the people attempt to resolve conflicts that can at times seem as intractable and violent as Pakistanis’ struggle with the Taliban. When, for instance, Palestinians across Gaza flooded the streets on March 15, 2011, to call for an end to the internal conflict tearing their society apart from within, I (and other international activists) was there. A year later, when youth seemed defeated after being beaten into submission by their own government, I wrote about it. But we did not help organize, and were not in the front lines.

Likewise, when the news of Malala’s shooting took Pakistan by storm at the end of our stay, we immediately considered traveling to visit her family in Swat, and were told it would be impossible to get access to the region so quickly. We contributed $1,000 to the school she attended, which is run by her father, and found a first-rate hospital in the United States ready to take Malala at no charge. We participated in two demonstrations in her support and against the extremist actions of the Taliban organized by several of Pakistan’s feminist groups—one at the Press Club in Islamabad and the other at the National Assembly. We issued a news release decrying all forms of terrorism, including the group claiming responsibility for Malala’s shooting. However, we did not take the lead, and did not feel it was appropriate to do so. (Neither, by the way, did our friends in Pakistan, who did not want the response to be seen as being pushed by Westerners.)

There is yet another reason for the focus of CODEPINK on drone attacks. This is a rapidly proliferating technology that has implications far into the future and well beyond Pakistan – as well as on the United States’ ability to provide for its own citizens.

The Washington Post reported on Oct. 18 that the CIA is now urging the U.S. administration to approve a significant expansion of its fleet of armed drones, a move that would extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force.

The proposal by CIA Director David H. Petraeus would bolster the agency’s ability to sustain its campaigns of lethal strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and be able, if directed, to shift aircraft to perceived threats in regions like North Africa. While the Taliban is an extremist influence ravaging Pakistan and Afghanistan, drones are a menace that promises to have much broader reach.

The Pentagon and the CIA already have acquired more 800 killer drones. Each of those drones costs an estimated $20 million, and each Hellfire missile they carry costs another $68,000. From a very self-interested, pragmatic point of view, those are funds spent on killing that could – and should – be spent on creating jobs and providing healthcare at home. With a major budget fight looming after the presidential election, CODEPINK is advocating major cuts to the bloated Pentagon budget so that we can save essential social services and invest in a green economy.

CODEPINK has learned over its years of activism that to get the attention of a jaded media and electorate, we must often be willing take actions that others consider risky and provocative. We infiltrate closed meetings, we show up at hearings with banners and wearing pink feather boas, and we travel where others will not tread. (A mother of one of our delegates offered to reimburse her airfare and help pay for college if she would stay home!) In the case of Pakistan, we are not aligned with Imran Khan’s PTI party, but yes, we were willing to join a specific event he organized to highlight the drones, because he is the only local politician willing to take them on. The results from this collaboration around a common issue – facilitated by the simultaneous release of the Stanford University report documenting civilian deaths from drone attacks – generated an unprecedented level of U.S. media coverage about drones, which we would not have gotten if we had merely demonstrated at home.

One evening in Pakistan, we gathered with about 100 Pakistani women and exchanged views. At one point, we all held hands and repeated, in English and Urdu, “We will not raise our children to kill another mother’s child.” We must consider what the proliferation of drones as instruments of warfare means to human society. These are instruments that separate killers from their victims, making it increasingly easy to talk about “collateral damage” rather than women, children and men who are struggling to make a living.

If we do not speak out now in an attempt to force our legislators and the public to confront the long-term consequences of remote-control killing, it will be too late – with long-lasting implications for humankind.

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hamas, gaza, taliban, pakistan, drones

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I would be curious where the "thinktank" Meredith Tax works for gets their funding. Her article strikes me as typical of the stuff Gloria Steinem and her buddies used to write for Ms Magazine. This shrill appeal to identity politics is extremely detrimental to feminists who see that women fighting for their basic rights are battling the same monster as women fighting the vast American war and empire building machine.

The Taliban is a 100% CIA invention, created to defeat the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Going further back, it has been extensively documented by serious historians that the Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations were totally inconsequential during the period of pan-Arab nationalism promoted when Nasser was president of Egypt - until both the US and the UK began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into their support. The idea was to bring a bunch of fundamentalists to power to defeat the pan-Arab nationalists. Because the idea of the entire Middle East unifying and (heaven forbid) NATIONALIZING their oil was so utterly terrifying. Funny that Meredith would run a think tank dedicated to fighting fundamentalism and neglect to mention this in her article.

Code Pink is a truly inspiring organization with a proven track record on antiwar and anti-imperialist issues. You must be doing something right to get the armchair "liberal" think tanks after you.