Reading Harry Reid: New Democratic Leader in Senate Unlikely to Oppose Bush Administration’s Foreign Policy Agenda

The overwhelming selection of Nevada Senator Harry Reid as minority leader of Congress’ upper house shows that the Democrats are still willing to give their backing for the Bush administration’s reckless militarism and contravention of international legal norms.

Despite evidence that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction, WMD programs, or offensive delivery systems, Reid voted in October 2002 to authorize a U.S. invasion of Iraq because of what he claimed was “the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.” The Reid-backed resolution falsely accused Iraq of “continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability … [and] actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, thereby continuing to threaten the national security interests of the United States.”

When Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the International Relations committee, tried to alter the wording of the resolution so as not to give President Bush the blank check he was seeking and to put some limitations on his war-making authority, Reid–as assistant minority leader of the Senate–helped circumvent Biden’s efforts by signing on to the White House’s version. As the Democratic “whip,” Reid then persuaded a majority of Democratic Senators to vote down a resolution offered by Democratic Senator Carl Levin that would authorize force only if the UN Security Council voted to give the U.S. that authority and to instead support the White House resolution giving Bush the right to invade even without such legal authorization. (By contrast, a sizable majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the Republican resolution.)

In March 2003, after Iraq allowed United Nations inspectors to return and it was becoming apparent that there were no WMDs to be found, President Bush decided to invade Iraq anyway. Reid rushed to the president’s support, claiming that–despite its clear violation of the United Nations Charter–the invasion was “lawful” and that he “commends and supports the efforts and leadership of the President.”

Following the invasion, President Bush asked Congress for $87 billion to pay for the first phases of the occupation. Despite record budget deficits, major cutbacks in valuable social programs, and polls showing that 59% of the public opposed the funding request, Reid supported the resolution, stating, “ I voted for President Bush’s $87 billion request because we have to support our troops … period.” To this day, Reid continues to defend the U.S. occupation of Iraq and taxpayer funding for it. Reid apparently believes that the best way to “support our troops” is not to demand that the Bush administration allow them to return home to safety but force them to fight in an unnecessary, unwinnable, counter-insurgency war on the other side of the planet.

Losing Checks and Balances

Historically, opposition leaders in the Senate have taken seriously Congress’ role under the U.S. Constitution to place a check on presidential powers. However, Reid has repeatedly demonstrated his naïve faith in President George W. Bush’s judgment, not only twice granting him unprecedented war-making authority, but justifying this betrayal of his constitutional responsibility by claiming that “no President of the United States of whatever political philosophy will take this nation to war as a first resort alternative rather than as a last resort.”

The last Senator from the inland West to lead the Democrats was Mike Mansfield of Montana, who served as Senate majority leader for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He courageously spoke out against the Vietnam War, not only when the Republican Richard Nixon was president, but also when Democrat Lyndon Johnson was president. Unlike Mansfield, however, who was willing to challenge the foreign policy of his own party’s administration, Reid refuses to speak out even when the administration is from the opposing political party.

Perhaps most disappointing aspect of the Senate Democrats’ selection of Reid as their leader is that it underscores the Democrats’ lack of support for international law and their blind support for the Bush administration’s position that the United States and its allies are somehow exempt from their international legal obligations.

For example, Reid justified his support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq by echoing the administration’s claims that “this nation would be justified in making war to enforce the terms we imposed on Iraq in 1991” since Iraq promised “the world it would not engage in further aggression and it would destroy its weapons of mass destruction. It has refused to take those steps. That refusal constitutes a breach of the armistice which renders it void and justifies resumption of the armed conflict.”

First of all, Iraq had not engaged in further acts of aggression and it had already destroyed its weapons of mass destruction, demonstrating Reid’s willingness to defend the Bush administration’s lies in order to justify a U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country.

Secondly, even if Iraq had been guilty as charged, the armistice agreement to which Reid referred–UN Security Council resolution 687–had no military enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, resolution 678, which originally authorized the use of force against Iraq, had become null and void once Iraqi troops withdrew from Kuwait. An additional resolution specifically authorizing the use of force would have been required in order for the United States to legally engage in any further military action against the Baghdad regime.

Iraq is not the only area where Reid’s contempt for international legal standards is apparent: Reid is a cosponsor of a pending resolution condemning the International Court of Justice for its July decision, which held that governments engaged in belligerent occupation are required to uphold relevant provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention and related standards of international humanitarian law. Furthermore, despite a series of UN Security Council resolutions declaring Israel’s occupation, colonization, and annexation of Arab East Jerusalem illegal, Reid sponsored the Jerusalem Embassy Act that insists that “Jerusalem remain an undivided city” under Israeli control. In addition, Reid has supported Israel’s colonization of the occupied West Bank in contravention of a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw these illegal settlements. Despite the protests of human rights groups, Reid has strongly defended Israeli attacks on civilian targets in the occupied territories and the construction of a separation wall deep into the occupied West Bank, also in contravention of international legal norms.

As a number of liberal activists have pointed out, Reid’s positions on trade, abortion, civil liberties, gay rights, spending priorities, and health care are also closer to the Bush administration than most Democratic voters. However, given what is at stake, it is foreign policy where the need for forceful congressional opposition to the Bush agenda is most important. In electing Harry Reid as their Senate leader, the Democrats have once again demonstrated that they are simply not up to the task.

Arafat Was the Excuse, Not the Reason, for the Failure of the Peace Process

While there are many negative things one can say about the late Yasser Arafat, he was not the primary reason for the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At most, he was the excuse.

This is not to say that Arafat did not make quite a number of stupid and unethical choices in his lengthy career which set back hopes for peace and badly hurt the Palestinian cause.

In recent years, however, the late Palestinian leader?s negotiating position regarding the outstanding issues of the peace process?such as the extent of the Israeli withdrawal, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of the settlements?was actually more moderate, more consistent with international law, and more in line with UN Security Council resolutions, the positions of America?s leading allies, and the policies of previous U.S. administrations than the current Israeli or American positions.

When Arafat took control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) thirty-six years ago, he called for the establishment of a democratic secular state in all of Palestine, which would have meant the end of Israel as a Jewish state. (Contrary to popular belief, Arafat never promised to ?drive the Jews into the sea.? That quote was from his predecessor Ahmed Shukeiry, whom Arafat and his followers ousted from the PLO leadership in 1968.) Since 1988, Arafat has been on record supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel, which would constitute about 22% of Palestine.

While in exile, Arafat was responsible for a number of terrorist attacks by his Fatah movement. Most of the more notorious incidents during this era, however?such as the airline hijackings?were done by Marxist groups which, while under the PLO umbrella, were not under Arafat?s control. There is also little evidence directly linking Arafat to any terrorist attacks for at least two decades. The suicide bombings of recent years have come primarily from Islamist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, while nominally affiliated with Fatah, appears to have acted independently of Arafat?s control.

Since Israel reconquered large areas of Palestinian land in early 2002, laid siege to the rest, and confined Arafat to his compound in Ramallah, he no longer had much control of anything. When I last saw him during my visit there in April, he came across as a rather sad and isolated figure.

In any case, it would be hard to argue that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?the recipient of more U.S. foreign aid than any other leader in the world?has any less blood on his hands, both historically and in recent years, than does Arafat.

Camp David Redux

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak?s peace proposal at Camp David in 2000 was not nearly as generous as first reported and it is unlikely that any Palestinian leader could have accepted it. However, negotiations continued and came very close to an agreement during talks in Taba, Egypt in January 2001. Unfortunately, with the election of the right-wing Sharon as prime minister, Israel has refused to resume the talks.

Late last year, a group of Fatah leaders and other prominent Palestinians met with leading Israeli moderates to draft a peace proposal based upon the Taba negotiations three years earlier. Arafat spoke positively of the efforts, signed last December in Geneva, which were roundly condemned by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

In response, Sharon proposed a disengagement plan that, while removing most of the illegal settlements from the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, would annex nearly half of the West Bank and subdivide the remaining Palestinian areas into a series of small noncontiguous cantons surrounded by Israel. The Bush administration and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress have endorsed Sharon?s initiative, which the rightist prime minister?s principal adviser Dov Weisglass has admitted was designed to undermine the peace process and deny the Palestinians a viable state.

The Bush administration insisted that, as a condition for receiving U.S. support for an end of the Israeli occupation, the corrupt and autocratic Palestine Authority under Arafat had to clean up its act and become more democratic. However, the United States did not insist that the corrupt and autocratic government of Kuwait allow for more transparency and democracy as a condition for supporting its freedom from Iraqi occupation.

For while Israel has created exemplary democratic institutions for its Jewish citizens, is a strong American ally, and serves a vital role as the only national homeland of a historically oppressed people, the fact remains that Israel is an occupying power and therefore has the onus of responsibility in ending the conflict.

Although Arafat was certainly not a good representative of the Palestinian people, it is unlikely that his passing will improve the prospects for peace as long as Israel insists on maintaining its occupation and the United States continues to provide the Sharon government with unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support.

Missing Explosives Cache Emblematic of Bush Administration Failures in Iraq

Whether news about the 380 tons of powerful explosives found missing from a major weapons depot in Iraq will have any impact on the presidential election remains to be seen. Democrats hope that these disclosures have given a last-minute boost to John Kerry’s presidential campaign, which is depicting this debacle as illustrative of President Bush’s failure of leadership.

Since the Democratic Party decided to nominate presidential and vice-presidential candidates who, like the incumbent president, falsely claimed that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and who authorized and supported the U.S. invasion, they are unable to challenge Bush on the illegality and immorality of the war. However, the level of negligence and incompetence shown by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the initial invasion has indeed been extraordinary by any measure, and the missing explosives are emblematic of the failures of Bush’s Iraq policy.

These missing explosives are particularly dangerous, since they include plastic explosives like PETN and RDX, which are a favorite of terrorists. Just one pound of a similar material blew up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. These explosives were also used in the bombing of the housing complex in November 2003 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the blasts in a series of Moscow apartment complexes in September 1999, which killed hundreds.

The Bush administration was quite familiar with the Al-Qaqaa facility, as was the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which had overseen the destruction of parts of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program there in the early 1990s. Though primarily used for conventional weapons, the explosives at the site included HMX, which could be used for detonating a nuclear weapon. As a result, the IAEA had carefully monitored the site prior to their departure in December 1998 and resumed their monitoring activities when they returned in November 2002, When the United States forced the IAEA from Iraq immediately prior to the March 2003 invasion, the IAEA publicly warned about the dangers of such explosives. Soon after the invasion was launched, the IAEA specifically told the Bush administration about this particular store of explosives and the need to keep them secured, advice which was apparently ignored.

Despite this, the Bush administration denies any responsibility for the missing explosives. Vice-president Dick Cheney insisted that ‘it is not at all clear that those explosives were even at the weapons facility when our troops arrived in the area of Baghdad.’ President Bush went further, dismissing Kerry’s assertions that the Bush administration should have secured the site as ‘wild charges,’ accusing the Democratic nominee of ‘denigrating the action of our troops.’

The Ministry of Science and Technology and others within Iraq’s interim government, however, have explicitly told the IAEA that the explosives disappeared some time after U.S. forces took control of Baghdad.

Furthermore, Minneapolis television station KSTP showed footage last week of a whole series of bunkers at Al-Qaqaa that were filled with explosives taken by journalists who were embedded with advancing U.S. forces which bivouacked near the site on their way to reinforce units already occupying Baghdad. The footage also shows an IAEA seal on a bunker, which was used at that site only for the HMX explosives, being broken by these U.S. forces before entering. Furthermore, this footage and other photographs of the explosives stockpiles ‘ which were taken on April 18, nine days after the U.S. overthrew the Iraqi government ‘ appear identical to those last taken by the IAEA just before their departure the previous month.

David Kay, President Bush’s former top weapons inspector in Iraq, observed that, due to the intense aerial surveillance of the area in which the facility was located ‘ right on the main road to Baghdad from the south ‘ ‘I find it hard to believe that a convoy of 40 to 60 trucks left that facility prior to or during the war and we didn’t spot it on satellite or UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle].’

Kay also emphasized that, ‘When you break into it, you own it. It’s your responsibility to secure it.’ None of the reporters there at the time noted any effort by U.S. forces to secure the facility, however.

While the Al-Qaqaa site contained some particularly lethal explosives, this phenomenon of leaving ammunition stores and other stockpiles of weapons and explosives unguarded for the taking has not been uncommon since the United States took control of the country in early April 2003.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that it ‘repeatedly gave U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq detailed information about massive stockpiles of unsecured explosives and munitions located throughout the country, but coalition forces took little or no action to secure the stockpiles.’ HRW is particularly concerned about the circulation of such weaponry in the general population: It has been explosives looted from such facilities from around Iraq which are believed to be the primary source for bombs used by terrorists over the past year and half which have killed many hundreds of Iraqi civilians and others. An October 28 HRW report includes the following telling example:

On May 9, 2003, a Human Rights Watch researcher encountered a massive stockpile of warheads, anti-tank mines, anti-personnel mines, and other weaponry at the unsecured Second Military College, located on the main road between Baghdad and Baquba.

Concerned about the safety of the displaced persons at the military college, the researcher immediately went to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and reported the weapons stockpile, showing U.S. military officials photographs of the weaponry, giving the exact GPS coordinates of the site, and showing the location of the site on a military map’ The researcher repeatedly returned to the ‘Green Zone’ over the next days to report continuing looting at the site, but U.S. coalition forces did not move to secure the site.

The road between Baghdad and Baquba is now one of the main locations for attacks using ‘improvised explosive devices’ (IEDs) against passing coalition troops and Iraqi security forces. Typically, suicide bombers and IEDs involve between 25 to 200 kilograms of high explosives.

Under the highly-centralized rule of Saddam Hussein, who trusted no one he could not control, such weapons stockpiles, including the particularly dangerous cache at Al-Qaqaa, were carefully controlled. This was no longer the case after the government collapsed as American troops entered Baghdad. When it became clear that the United States did not place a priority on securing such sites and widespread looting erupted, an internal IAEA memo warned that terrorists could be helping themselves to ‘the biggest explosives bonanza in history.’

Prior to the U.S. takeover, President Bush argued that the best way to prevent weapons in Iraq from being used against Americans was to invade the country and overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, as subsequent events have demonstrated, having dangerous explosives under the firm control of a weakened and contained dictatorship subjected to close international supervision was a lot safer than having them scattered among groups of armed extremists accountable to no one. Indeed, there were plenty of reasons to have suspected that this would be the very result of a U.S. invasion: For example, in an article I wrote for The Nation magazine in September 2002, just prior to the bipartisan Congressional vote authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, I predicted that in ‘the chaos of a US invasion and its aftermath’ the chances of weapons finding their way ‘into the hands of terrorists would greatly increase.’

Thankfully, as many of us suspected, Iraq had already eliminated its chemical and biological weapons long before the U.S. invasion. Otherwise, these weapons would probably now be in the hands of terrorists as well.
Or would they? One has to wonder why the Bush administration seemed to have so little concern about securing weapons caches during the initial invasion. Focusing instead on the drive toward Baghdad may indicate that the Bush Administration had already realized some time before the war that there actually were no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that needed to be secured after all. Their real goal, therefore, may not have been to protect the region and the world from possible chemical, biological or nuclear attack as they claimed, but simply to seize the center of Iraq’s government in order to take control over this oil-rich country in the heart of the Middle East.

Either way, John Kerry has every right to be critical of the Bush Administration.

Of course, since he, John Edwards and most other Democratic Senators granted President Bush license to invade Iraq in the first place, the Democrats must share responsibility for what has transpired as well. In voting to authorize force, they naively trusted that Bush would be a competent commander-in chief, which even back then should have been obvious was an erroneous assumption. This decision, along with his gross exaggerations of Iraq’s alleged military threat prior to the invasion, raises serious questions regarding Kerry’s own competence to serve as commander-in-chief.

Whether George W. Bush or John Kerry serves as president over the new four years, however, the ongoing war in Iraq ‘ made worse by the Al-Qaqaa fiasco and similar blunders ‘ is likely to be what will most define his administration.