Israeli Human Rights Abuses and the U.S. Attack on the United Nations and the NGO Community

The Bush administration, like its predecessors, has frequently taken advantage of the idealism and values of the U.S. citizenry to justify foreign policies that most Americans would otherwise find morally unacceptable. The recent emphasis on justifying Washington’s imperial goals in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East in the name of spreading liberty and democracy is a case in point. The fact that the United States is the world’s principal supporter of autocratic Middle Eastern regimes is conveniently overlooked, as the administration focuses solely on the human rights abuses of governments that challenge U.S. hegemony in the region, such as Iran and Syria. Similarly, repeated emphasis of the fact that Israel has established advanced democratic institutions (at least for its Jewish citizens) and an accountable government (relative to anything that currently exists in the Arab world) makes it possible for most Americans to ignore the pattern of gross and systematic Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Successive White House administrations, along with the leaders of both major political parties and the vast majority of their members in Congress, have justified U.S. support for the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by defining the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Israeli security rather than Palestinian rights under international law or the inherent relationship between human rights and security. Given that Israel’s survival is no longer threatened by the armies of neighboring Arab countries, as it may have been in the early history of the modern Jewish state, security emphasis has instead been placed upon the threat to Israeli civilians from individual terrorists, which is correctly recognized as a violation of international humanitarian law expressly forbidding armed attacks against noncombatants. By contrast, Israeli violations of international humanitarian law—which also include armed attacks against noncombatants—are largely ignored, denied, or defended by the U.S. government.

(This is certainly not a new phenomenon, nor one restricted to the Middle East. For example, during the 1980s, real and alleged human rights abuses by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua were given much greater attention by the U.S. government and media than the far greater human rights violations by the U.S.-backed rightist government in neighboring El Salvador.)

Because Israeli violations of internationally recognized human rights have been so flagrant and widespread, and because most of these violations have occurred in territories under belligerent occupation—thereby bringing them under the purview of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War—the United States has had to go to rather extraordinary lengths to minimize the impact of international concern over the occupation policies of its most important Middle Eastern ally. It is especially important for Washington officials to deny, downplay, or excuse Israeli human rights abuses, since the prevailing attitude toward U.S. foreign aid is profoundly skeptical, particularly when such financial support is provided to relatively affluent countries and to governments that violate human rights. A frank acknowledgement of Israeli human rights abuses could result in domestic political pressure to reduce or condition aid to Israel, which for more than 35 years has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid and now receives over $100 billion.1

U.S. Policy and Intergovernmental Organizations

Although the majority of Middle Eastern governments engage in serious human rights violations, most Israeli abuses occur in non-self-governing territories (outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders), subjecting these crimes to special scrutiny by international organizations, particularly the United Nations. In the UN General Assembly, the United States has repeatedly been isolated as the only country other than Israel itself (and sometimes a few states economically dependent on Washington, such as the three that emerged from the former U.S. Pacific Island Trust Territories) to vote against resolutions condemning Israeli human rights violations. Other such resolutions, although passing by comfortable margins, garner some negative or abstaining European votes, because they are strongly supported by tyrannical governments guilty of even worse human rights abuses.2 Since Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, some European nations consider such resolutions hypocritical and motivated by anti-Semitism. When this happens, the substantive human rights issues that prompted these resolutions become lost in the debate over whether Israel is being unfairly singled out for criticism by the world body.

Resolutions critical of Israel passed by the UN Security Council have been more problematic for U.S. administrations. Such resolutions are legally binding and enforceable, and the Security Council enjoys more credibility than the General Assembly, which most Americans view as dominated by authoritarian Third World states.

As a result, nearly half of Washington’s 84 vetoes since 1984 have been cast to block resolutions critical of Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. Recent examples have included resolutions criticizing ongoing Israeli violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in the occupied West Bank (1997), establishing an unarmed human rights observer force in the occupied Palestinian territories (2001), deploring the killing of UN employees and the destruction of a World Food Program warehouse by Israeli occupation forces (2002), calling on Israel to cease construction of a security barrier in the occupied territories (2003), and decrying Israeli assassinations of alleged Palestinian militants (2004).

Until the early 1990s, Washington allowed certain UN Security Council resolutions to pass requiring Israel to comply with provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention and to withdraw from its illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Like the Clinton White House, the current administration contends that the United Nations no longer has any standing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that the applicable UN resolutions have been superseded by the Oslo Accords. As a de facto result, the United States claims that the United Nations no longer has the power to address such human rights issues as the fate of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, or the status of Jerusalem.3

However, this attempt to unilaterally negate the authority of the United Nations has not been seconded by the international community. No UN resolution can be rescinded without a vote of the body in question. Neither the UN secretary-general nor any other member of the Security Council agrees with the U.S. assessment discounting the relevance of the applicable UN resolutions. Furthermore, no bilateral agreement between two parties can supersede the authority of the UN Security Council. This is especially true when one of the two parties (in this case, the Palestinians) has made it clear that the UN resolutions are still very relevant. Washington’s move is part of a broader effort to challenge the Security Council’s jurisdiction regarding international humanitarian law in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The UN Security Council has jurisdiction over the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because, as territories under belligerent occupation, they are protected by the international humanitarian statutes of the Fourth Geneva Convention. But early in the Clinton administration, the U.S. government began referring to these occupied territories, as well as the Golan Heights, as “disputed territories.” Not only does the term imply that both sides have an equally valid claim to the land in question, disputed territories—unlike occupied territories—are not encompassed by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

With the United States veto effectively preventing the Security Council from upholding and enforcing international humanitarian law, the General Assembly voted in 2003 to place the question of Israel’s construction of a separation barrier inside the occupied West Bank before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion. In July 2004 the ICJ ruled that the wall’s construction was illegal.4

Within hours of the court’s ruling, the credibility and jurisdiction of the ICJ were challenged by the U.S. government. The Bush administration denounced the World Court’s 14-1 advisory ruling, arguing that the route of the wall should be determined solely through U.S.-managed negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israeli government.5 In reality, substantive negotiations were unilaterally suspended by the Israeli government in February 2001, and even while negotiations were ongoing, the United States had effectively sidelined consideration of international humanitarian law. The U.S. House of Representatives—by an overwhelming bipartisan 361-45 majority—voted to deplore the World Court’s decision and commended President Bush for “his leadership in marshalling opposition to the misuse of the ICJ…”6 The congressional resolution also warned other countries not to utilize international humanitarian law with regard to the occupied West Bank, stating that nations would “risk a strongly negative impact on their relationship with the people and Government of the United States should they use the ICJ’s advisory judgment as an excuse to interfere”7 with the U.S.-managed peace process. Under U.S.-brokered negotiations, the number of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land has doubled.

U.S. Policy and the NGOs

With the United States effectively preventing such intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) as the United Nations from addressing the human rights situation in the Israeli-occupied territories, the burden falls on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to challenge abuses by the Israeli government. Nongovernmental organizations have historically been crucial players in the struggle for human rights around the globe, not just in challenging the behavior of governments that engage in gross and systematic human rights abuses but also in questioning the policies of governments in Western democratic countries, which—in order to advance their perceived strategic and economic interests—would otherwise ignore human rights abuses of key allies. For example, were it not for the pivotal role of NGOs in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, it is highly probable that East Timor would still be under Indonesian occupation and South Africa would still be under apartheid.

Therefore, it is in the interest of great powers like the United States to routinely discredit the NGO community in order to get away with supporting allies that engage in gross and systemic human rights abuses, as does Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories. Indeed, there appears to be a systematic effort to undermine the credibility of NGOs, both those operating within Israel and the occupied territories and those operating globally.

NGOs Operating in Israel/Palestine

Several tactics have been utilized in an effort to hamper nongovernmental organizations operating in the occupied territories or on behalf of Israel’s Arab minority. One has been a concerted effort to deny U.S. financial support to NGOs suspected of having links to individuals and governments identified by Washington as “terrorists.” It is not uncommon for militant groups to use charitable organizations as a cover to raise funds from overseas donors, particularly from the Islamic community in Europe and North America, and all governments have the right to screen for such potential abuses. But given how loosely and selectively U.S. officials use the term “terrorist,” the potential for abusing this designation for political purposes is very real. More seriously, since the U.S. government can hold private foundations accountable for even unwittingly funding a group with alleged terrorist connections, foundations have had to divert enormous time and energy into screening applicants and recipients. Since Washington’s terrorist watch list changes almost daily, foundations must maintain constant vigilance, if they wish to avoid having their assets frozen, staffs arrested, and reputations ruined.

In addition, U.S. officials have successfully pressed a number of private grantmaking institutions, such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, to deny funding to individuals or organizations unless they are able to prove that the grantees do not promote “violence, terrorism, bigotry, or the destruction of any state.”8 Certainly, there is nothing inherently wrong with any government or nonprofit organization denying grants to NGOs that pursue a political agenda contrary to well-established moral and legal norms. However, such a political litmus test can be problematic, particularly given the highly polarized debate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, even in cases where an NGO provides a clear distinction both fiscally and operationally between its humanitarian and political efforts, restrictive government conditions could deny funding for worthwhile efforts.

The vague language in the government’s stipulations is also problematic. For example, a group that advocates the eventual creation of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state could be viewed as supporting the “destruction” of Israel, even though it might never advocate the physical annihilation of the nation and its inhabitants. Moreover, since Washington considers assaults against Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be acts of terrorism, a group that categorically rejects attacks against civilians but acknowledges the legal right of residents under foreign military occupation to engage in armed resistance would similarly be rendered ineligible for foundation grants.

Even groups that explicitly support a two-state solution and exclusively embrace a nonviolent resistance strategy could find their funding at risk given Washington’s current policy. For example, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a project of the pacifist Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and winner of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for its work with Jewish refugees in Europe, has maintained development projects and relief operations for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip since 1948. The AFSC, which also has an active U.S. peace education program addressing Israeli-Palestinian issues, has been accused of advocating the destruction of Israel, because it has called on the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories and end their human rights abuses. The Quaker group has even been accused of supporting terrorism when it urges the United States and Israel to include the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as a negotiating partner and when it notes the correlation between certain Israeli policies and the propensity of some Palestinians to resort to violence.

Any investigation of the AFSC’s writings, public statements, and activities regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would indicate that it has consistently opposed terrorism in any form and has always supported Israel’s right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish national homeland. Yet, as a result of terrorism-liability policies recently adopted by several major U.S. foundations, funders must shift valuable staff time to investigate spurious allegations—like those made about the AFSC—thereby diverting financial and human resources away from more useful pursuits. To avoid wasting time and energy, foundations could understandably choose to fund less controversial NGOs, though they may less qualified to administer a proposed humanitarian project.

By creating a climate of proactive caution, Washington gives NGOs an incentive to depoliticize their activities in the occupied territories for fear of losing the funding necessary to carry on their valuable humanitarian work. Some NGOs will decide that their political activities—whose impact is hard to measure—are not worth risking discontinuation of funding for their humanitarian efforts, which do provide demonstrable and tangible results for people. However, the critical economic, legal, and humanitarian problems that these NGOs are working to alleviate are a direct consequence of the occupation and will inevitably continue or even worsen unless and until the occupation ends. Recognizing the need to continue to speak out against the occupation and its manifestations, many NGOs are faced with a serious moral dilemma. What government officials are hoping, of course, is that a more quiescent NGO community will put less energy into raising public awareness over the humanitarian consequences of Israel’s policies, making it easier for Washington to continue support for the Israeli occupation.

Human Rights NGOs Internationally

Since the U.S. government is less capable of applying financial pressure on NGOs that do not engage in direct humanitarian relief and development assistance, the emphasis has been on ignoring them, discrediting them, or citing their work only selectively. Few Americans, for example, are even aware of the existence of such Israeli human rights organizations as B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, Yesh G’vul, the Committee Against House Demolitions, and others. Even fewer U.S. citizens are familiar with the work of Al Haq and various Palestinian human rights groups, and—given the widespread anti-Arab racism in the United States—these organizations generally have less credibility than Israeli or international groups.

NGOs concerned with human rights abuses in Middle Eastern countries whose governments are not supportive of U.S. policy in the region are routinely provided forums at government-sponsored events and are asked to testify before congressional committees. However, most Americans are only aware of groups challenging human rights abuses by U.S.-backed governments through small forums sponsored by allied NGOs in the United States.

Beyond a few U.S. organizations and individuals concerned with human rights issues in the Middle East, the only Americans consistently exposed to human rights abuses by Israel are those affiliated with organizations embracing a global human rights agenda. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for example, include reports on Israeli human rights abuses along with offenses by other nations throughout the world. Washington views such groups as particularly threatening, since they are critical of human rights abuses by Arab and other Middle Eastern countries as well, rendering charges of an anti-Israel bias less credible.

As a result, there has been a concerted effort by Congress and the Bush administration to discredit these groups also. For example, in April 2002, Amnesty International published a detailed and well-documented report on the ongoing military offensive by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank, noting how “the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity.”9 The report goes on to document unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property, arbitrary detention, torture, assaults on medical personnel and journalists, and random shooting at people in the streets or in their houses. Similar reports were issued by Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, and international journalists.

In response, Republican Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas, then the assistant majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a resolution asserting that “ Israel’s military operations are an effort to defend itself … and are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” 10 Given the dichotomy between this resolution and the aforementioned reports from human rights groups, the House of Representatives was essentially given a choice between aligning itself with DeLay, one of the most right-wing members of Congress (who supports Israeli annexation of all of the occupied territories, based on his fundamentalist interpretation of the Old Testament), or supporting reputable NGOs like Amnesty International, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. DeLay’s resolution passed 352-21, a move widely interpreted as an attack against the credibility of the international human rights community. This bipartisan House resolution also called for an increase in military aid—already more than $2 billion annually—for Israel and praised President Bush for his support of Israel’s occupation policies.

Reasons Behind U.S. Support for Israeli Human Rights Abuses

U.S. support for human rights abuses by Israel is neither new nor unique. It is not, as some would allege, primarily the fault of the “Jewish-American lobby,” since it is very doubtful that U.S. policy toward the Middle East would champion human rights even if lobbying groups advocating the Israeli occupation did not exist. Actually, Washington’s sanction of Israeli human rights abuses is quite consistent with a policy that condones abuses by other client states in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. For example, there was no “Indonesian-American lobby” pressuring the United States to back Indonesia’s brutal 26-year occupation of East Timor, nor is there a “Moroccan-American lobby” motivating Washington’s ongoing support for Moroccan human rights abuses in the occupied Western Sahara. The U.S. government has proven perfectly capable of allying itself with governments that conquer, colonize, and oppress neighboring countries without an ethnic lobby inducing it to do so.

A case can be made, however, that congressional support for Israeli human rights abuses is more widespread than for abuses by other U.S. allies. Unlike congressional grumblings about El Salvador in the 1980s and Indonesia in the 1990s, there is no serious organized effort in Congress to suspend military and economic aid to Israel, despite public opinion polls that suggest a sizable majority of Americans oppose unconditional aid to Israel or any government that engages in gross and systematic human rights abuses.

One reason for Israel’s special status is a fear that highlighting Israeli human rights abuses could unwittingly encourage anti-Semitism, particularly since some of the leading critics of Israel’s offenses appear to have ulterior motives. Another reason is that many Congress members, particularly in the Democratic Party, are financially dependent for their re-election upon individuals and political action committees sympathetic with the Israeli government. Likewise, several peace and human rights organizations with a strong universal commitment to democracy and human rights have been subjected to attacks and reduced funding when they have raised the issues of human rights violations by Israel or democratic rights for Palestinians.11

Moreover, U.S. military aid to Israel represents a greater financial windfall for American arms exporters—among the most powerful lobbyists in Washington—than does the aid to any other recipient nations. Since the Arms Export Control Act and related federal laws prohibit U.S. military aid to countries that use these weapons for nondefensive measures or that violate human rights, acknowledging the extent of Israeli human rights violations could conceivably threaten the more than $2 billion in U.S. armaments sent to Israel every year.

As a result, the refusal of the Bush administration and Congress to address Israeli human rights violations is so categorical that activists simply choose to apply their meager resources to more winnable causes. Thus, the reluctance by grassroots movements to more vigorously address Israeli human rights abuses may be more tactical than ideological. This situation results, however, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, an aide to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi acknowledged in the late 1990s that her office received ten times as many phone calls about East Timor as it did about Palestine.12

Nevertheless, a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still possible. Activism by peace and human rights advocates has resulted in forcing change in U.S. foreign policy in the past, most notably in regard to Vietnam, Central America, South Africa, and East Timor. And there is currently an unprecedented degree of activity on university campuses and in the churches opposing the Israeli occupation and supporting Palestinian human rights. If this movement grew large enough, elected officials could no longer ignore the popular sentiment. The role of credible NGOs and others involved in human rights work is and will likely continue to be an important factor in raising popular awareness of the situation in the occupied territories and eventually changing U.S. policy. Indeed, such human rights activism may be the single best hope for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.


1 U.S. Embassy, Israel, “ U.S. Assistance to Israel, 1971-2004.”

2 This is certainly not a unique phenomenon. During the Cold War, repressive right-wing dictatorships would often join U.S.-led efforts to condemn human rights violations by communist governments, and various left-wing dictatorships would join the Soviet Union in condemnation of rightist governments.

3 U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Madeleine Albright, letter to the United Nations General Assembly, August 8, 1994.

4 International Court of Justice, “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” July 9, 2004.

5 Office of the Press Secretary, White House, “Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan,” July 9, 2004 .

6 U.S. House of Representatives, House Resolution 713, 108 th Congress, 2 nd session.

7 Ibid.

8 Ford Foundation, Memorandum to Ford Foundation Grantees on Ford Foundation Policies, January 8, 2004 .

9 Amnesty International, “ Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Heavy Price of Israeli Incursions,” AI-index: MDE 15/042/2002, April 12, 2002.

10 U.S. House of Representatives, House Resolution 392, 107 th Congress, 2 nd session.

11 Stephen Zunes, “ Israel ’s Blank Check: How Congressional Liberals Support Israeli Human Rights Abuses,” The Progressive, November 1989.

12 Background briefing, San Francisco , CA , October 23, 1998 .

Bush Speech Reveals Administration’s Ongoing Deceptions on Iraq

As popular domestic opposition to the administration’s policies in Iraq reaches new highs, President George W. Bush’s efforts to justify the ongoing war seem to have reached new lows. Indeed, in the president’s nationally-televised June 28th speech from an Army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was clearly straining to defend his disastrous decision to invade and occupy that oil-rich Middle Eastern country.

Given that Americans from across the political spectrum have traditionally been wary of foreign military entanglements, both Republican and Democratic presidents have repeatedly tried to portray U.S. military intervention in far-away lands—no matter how weak the enemy or imperialistic the quest—as vital to the defense of the United States. President Bush has an advantage over every other U.S. president in his lifetime in that the United States was attacked under his watch. That Iraq had nothing to do with that tragedy is apparently beside the point.

In his address, President Bush spoke of the horror of 9/11 and subsequent attacks by al-Qaida and related groups elsewhere in the world. In stressing America’s determination to defend itself against future attacks, he claimed that “ Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war.” Since none of the 9/11 hijackers, none of the al-Qaida leadership, and none of the money trail has been traced to Iraq, the only connection President Bush was honestly able to make was that, “Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens.” While this may indeed be true, it is important to recognize that there was virtually no terrorism nor were there organized groups affiliated with al-Qaida and like-minded Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq until nearly two years after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and the rise of such radical movements and the widespread use of terrorism in that country was a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of Iraq’s longstanding secular nationalist government.

Speaking of the Iraqi insurgency and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida movement as a collective “them,” President Bush declared that, “There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them before they attack us at home.” Americans are killing and dying in Iraq, he insisted, “because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand,” as if the underground al-Qaida cells in Europe and the United States allegedly responsible for 9/11 thought it strategically sound to base their terrorist operations in Iraq.

The president also cited General John Vines, the Army commander in charge of U.S. military operations in Iraq, who claimed that “We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us.” This is essentially a repetition of the long-discredited line used to justify the war in Vietnam: “If we don’t fight them over there, we will have to fight them here.”

Despite this often-repeated phrase by both Republicans and Democrats in the White House, Capitol Hill, and the mainstream media during the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, not once in the thirty years since the National Liberation Front marched into Saigon has the United States had to fight the Vietnamese or any other Communists in our country.

Vietnamese stopped killing Americans when our troops got out of their country. Presumably, Iraqis would do the same. It is important to re-emphasize the fact that there was no large-scale terrorist violence in Iraq until after the United States invaded in March 2003 and the terrorist violence which followed came in reaction to that foreign invasion and occupation of their country.

Yet, turning the lessons of history upside-down, President Bush insisted that, “We will prevent al-Qaida and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends.” In reality, the Taliban was able to take over Afghanistan as a result of the radicalization of key sectors of the population which occurred not because of an absence of a counter-insurgency campaign led by non-Muslim foreign military forces in their country but because of a counter-insurgency campaign led by a non-Muslim foreign military in their country.

Though foreign fighters are only a small percentage of the active resistance against U.S. forces in Iraq, President Bush overemphasized their presence in his speech, claiming “Some of the violence you see in Iraq is being carried out by ruthless killers who are converging on Iraq to fight the advance of peace and freedom,” citing military reports that U.S. forces had “killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq” who had come from various Islamic countries. While most of these foreign jihadists probably do subscribe to a kind of religious fascism, they did not come to Iraq to kill and die in order to “fight the advance of peace and freedom.”

Foreign fighters are in Iraq for the same reason many of the foreign fighters were in Afghanistan during the 1980s: to repel a foreign army which had invaded an Islamic country, overthrown its government, and set up a new regime that the foreign occupier hoped would be more compliant with its strategic and economic interests.

With Americans becoming increasingly skeptical of the overly-optimistic reports from the White House on the situation in Iraq, the Bush administration has desperately sought to link some positive developments elsewhere in the Middle East to its policies there, declaring “As Iraqis make progress toward a free society, the effects are being felt beyond Iraq’s borders.”

As one example, President Bush observed, “Before our coalition liberated Iraq, Libya was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons. Today the leader of Libya has given up his chemical and nuclear weapons programs.” In reality, the principal U.S. and British negotiators who arranged the Libyan disarmament agreement have explicitly stated that the successful conclusion of their two-year effort was totally unrelated to the invasion. Indeed, given that Saddam Hussein had also given up his chemical and nuclear weapons programs but was invaded anyway, how could the U.S. invasion of Iraq been an incentive to Libya’s Muammar Qadaffi to do the same?

President Bush went on to say how “Across the broader Middle East, people are claiming their freedom. In the last few months, we’ve witnessed elections in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. These elections are inspiring democratic reformers in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” Those actually familiar with these countries, however, recognize that none of these events had anything to do with the U.S. invasion of Iraq or what has transpired subsequently. The elections in the Palestinian territories in January took place because their former president died and the Lebanese elections earlier in June similarly followed that country’s normal constitutional process which has been in place for many years prior to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile, leading reformers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who have been struggling for many years against their countries’ U.S.-backed dictatorships have been virtually unanimous in their contention that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has actually set back their efforts for greater democratic freedoms as it has strengthened the power and influence of Islamic radicals.

There is no easy answer to the ongoing violence and destruction in Iraq and what needs to happen to create a stable, prosperous, peaceful, and democratic Iraq. But President Bush did not propose a solution in his speech. And after the lies that got us into the Iraq War it should certainly be clear that the Bush administration cannot be trusted to bring peace and prosperity to Iraq.

The United States and the Iranian Election

[, June 28, 2005; Download PDF] The election of the hard-line Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over former president Hashemi Rafsanjani as the new president of Iran is undeniably a setback to those hoping to advance the cause of greater social and political freedom in that country.
It should not necessarily be seen as a turn to the right by the Iranian electorate, however. While Rafsanjani was portrayed as a more moderate conservative, the fact that this 70-year old cleric had become a millionaire while in government service and was widely seen as the penultimate wheeler dealer of the political establishment was apparently perceived by many Iranians as of greater importance than his modest reform agenda. By contrast, the victorious campaign of the young Tehran mayor focused upon the plight of the poor and cleaning up corruption. [, June 28, 2005; Download PDF]

Bush Administration Support for Repression in Uzbekistan Belies Pro-Democracy Rhetoric

Recent revelations that the United States successfully blocked a call by NATO for an international investigation of the May 13 massacre of hundreds of civilians by the government of the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan serves as yet another reminder of the insincerity of the Bush administration’s claims for supporting freedom and democracy in the Islamic world and the former Soviet Union.

A recent report from Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with scores of eyewitnesses, determined that government troops in the city of Andijan used “indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed people,” killing more than 500 people. And, while HRW noted that a small number of armed men were apparently present among the demonstrators, the report asserted that the Uzbek government’s use of force against the crowd was “neither proportionate nor appropriate to the danger they posed.”

By contrast, rather than condemning the massacre, the Bush White House called for “restraint’ from both sides in an apparent effort to convince Americans that unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators were somehow just as guilty as the those who shot at them. A Bush administration spokesman also claimed that Islamic “terrorist groups” may have been behind the protests that prompted the shootings.

Such claims are contradicted by those familiar with the political situation in the eastern Uzbek city as well as by the Human Rights Watch report, which noted that there was “no evidence that any of the speakers at the protest promoted an Islamist agenda. According to numerous witnesses, their grievances were overwhelmingly about poverty, corruption, and government repression.” Similarly, Amnesty International reported that “The vast majority of the thousands of protestors gathered in the town’s main square calling for justice and an end to poverty were unarmed and peaceful.”

Uzbek troops reportedly killed an additional 200 demonstrators the following day in the nearby city of Pakhtabad and still more civilians were shot while attempting to flee into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The British newspaper The Independent reported that Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov had flown from the capital or Tashkent into the area Friday morning “and almost certainly personally authorized the use of … deadly force.”

Dictators and Double Standards

The massacres took place not long after an overseas trip in which President George W. Bush extolled the democratic revolutions in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. American NGOs which supported these pro-democracy movements, such as Freedom House and George Soros’ Open Society Institute, have been threatened and expelled by Uzbek authorities. The ongoing U.S. support for the repressive Karimov regime, then, stands as yet another example of the crass double-standards in U.S. policy.

Such double-standards are not new. During the Cold War, both Republican and Democratic administrations would bewail the human rights abuses of Communist and other leftist governments while sending arms and economic assistance to even more repressive right-wing allies. In Central Asia during the 1980s, the U.S. government was even willing to back extremist Islamist groups as part of its anti-Communist crusade.

Now, however, the United States is using Communists to fight Islamists.

Karimov became leader of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989 and backed the unsuccessful coup by Communist Party hard liners against reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Soon after Uzbekistan became independent later that year, he banned leading opposition parties and has since held onto power through a series of rigged elections and plebiscites. Though acknowledging such votes “offered Uzbekistan voters no true choice,” the Bush administration has yet to called for free and fair elections. And while supporting “human rights training,” the U.S. government has refused to give the kind of support to pro-democracy groups challenging the pro-American dictatorship in Uzbekistan as it did for similar opposition groups challenging less compliant regimes in Ukraine and Georgia.

The Karimov dictatorship has received over one billion dollars in U.S. aid, the vast majority of that coming under President Bush, who has justified the U.S. invasion, occupation, and ongoing counter-insurgency wars in nearby Iraq because of the need to promote democracy in the Islamic world. An estimated 1000 American troops are currently stationed in Uzbekistan and U.S. forces have engaged in military training exercises with Uzbek forces as far back as 1995.

Karimov was invited to the White House in March 2002, where he and President Bush signed a strategic partnership agreement, which included an additional $120 million in U.S. military aid. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has praised Karimov for his “wonderful cooperation” with the U.S. military. President Bush’s former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill spoke admirably of the dictator’s “very keen intellect and deep passion” for improving the lives of his people.

George Bush’s “Man in Central Asia”

The largest country in Central Asian in population and its capital Tashkent is the region’s largest city, with a subway system and an international airport built during the Soviet era. As an independent state under Karimov’s rule, Uzbekistan remains one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics despite its generous natural resources, including one of the world’s largest sources of natural gas and sizable but largely untapped oil reserves. Karimov, however, pockets virtually all of the revenue generated by the country’s natural endowments. Corruption is rampant and his brutal militsia routinely engage in robbery and extortion. Businessmen who refuse to pay bribes are frequently labeled as Islamic extremists and then jailed, tortured and murdered.

Uzbekistan’s jails hold more than 7000 political prisoners, where torture is widespread and systematic. Not long after the Bush administration provided Uzbek police with $79 million worth in assistance in 2002, two prominent political prisoners were found to have been boiled to death. The elderly mother of one of the victims was sentenced six years of hard labor when she protested.

Despite this, Craig Murray, who served as the British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 until last year, observed how “Karimov is very much George Bush’s man in Central Asia” and that no Bush administration official has ever said a negative word about him.

As a result of growing criticism for its support for such repression, the Bush administration reduced its support for “security and law enforcement” last year to $10 million, though much larger amounts of indirect funding from the American taxpayer continues to flow. The State Department has emphasized that, despite the reduction in U.S. aid, Uzbekistan remains “an important partner” and has pledged to “continued cooperation.”

Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials have privately confirmed widespread reports that the Bush administration has been sending suspected Islamic radicals arrested in third countries to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation.

As a result of the Karimov regime’s imprisonment and torture of nonviolent Muslims who dared to worship outside of state controls, a radical armed group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has emerged to challenge the regime. The Bush administration blamed a series of IMU suicide bombings in the capital of Tashkent last year on Al-Qaeda, though British and other intelligence sources report no direct links between the IMU and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

Attacks by the dictatorship’s armed forces have resulted in widespread civilian casualties, not just within Uzbekistan, but also in neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Amnesty International documented widespread human rights violations during a 2001 counter-insurgency campaign, where “villages were set on fire and bombed, livestock were killed, houses and fields destroyed.” By contrast, the Bush administration went on record supporting what it called “the right of Uzbekistan to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity” and praised the army’s measures “to minimize casualties and ensure the protection of innocent civilians.”

Since even this spring’s massacres have not led to a lessening in the Bush administration’s support for the Karimov regime, it is unlikely that there will be a change in policy until the American people demand it. Campaigns in recent decades against U.S. support for repressive regimes in Latin America and Southeast Asia were often successful in limiting or cutting off aid to dictators. Similar campaigns could emerge to challenge the Bush administration’s support for dictators like Karimov. Indeed, given that the U.S.-led counter-insurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank have been justified in the name of advancing the cause of freedom and democracy, the Bush administration is perhaps more vulnerable to criticism than previous administrations for its support of autocratic regimes in the Middle East and Central Asia. The question is whether the American people care enough to make it an issue.

Bush Administration Attacks on Amnesty International: Old Wine, New Bottles

In what appears to be a concerted effort to discredit independent human rights advocates, the Bush administration and its allies in the media have been engaging in a series of attacks against Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organization and winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize.

Amnesty International has received support from literally millions of individuals around the world because of its steadfast defense of civil and political rights against repressive governments regardless of a given regime’s ideology, economic system, or strategic alliances. Avoiding politics, Amnesty provides regular reports of the human rights situation in every country in the world based upon certain objective criteria, and focuses its advocacy work on letter-writing campaigns to free individual prisoners.

Such consistent and credible reporting and advocacy to advance the cause of human rights does not sit well with the U.S. government, however, long the world’s number one military and financial backer of autocratic regimes and whose armed forces in recent years have engaged in widespread torture, extrajudicial killings, and other violations of international humanitarian law.

Following publication of a report on May 26 criticizing the abuse of prisoners by the U.S. military in detention facilities in Iraq and elsewhere, Vice President Dick Cheney blithely dismissed Amnesty International’s well-documented findings, saying “I frankly just don’t take them seriously.” White House spokesman Scott McClellan claimed that the detailed accounting of U.S. human rights violations was “ridiculous and unsupported by the facts,” while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that Amnesty’s report was “absurd.”

President George W. Bush, in a press conference May 31, similarly referred to it as “an absurd report” and implied that the 44-year-old human rights organization was being used by terrorists and those “who hate America.”

Ironically, at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, top Bush administration officials were regularly citing Amnesty International’s human rights reports as evidence of the perfidy of Saddam Hussein’s regime. For example, in reference to the Iraqi government, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld asserted that “We know that it’s a repressive regime” as a result of reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations “about how the regime of Saddam Hussein treats his people.” Rumsfeld added that a “careful reading” of Amnesty International’s reports document “the viciousness of that regime.”

It is one thing to criticize human rights abuses by foreign governments the Bush administration seeks to overthrow, and it is quite another thing to criticize human rights abuses by the United States itself.

A number of prominent American publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, have joined in the attack, calling Amnesty International a “highly politicized pressure group” whose allegations regarding human rights abuses by U.S. forces “amount to pro-al Qaeda propaganda.”

Amnesty International and Double Standards

This is not the first time the U.S. government has tried to discredit Amnesty International, however.

For example, in 1982, Amnesty International reported how the Guatemalan army under dictator Efrain Rios Montt was engaged the slaughter of thousands of Indian villagers in what Amnesty described as a “genocidal policy.” In response, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City insisted that Amnesty International had been duped by Communists. In Washington, President Ronald Reagan insisted that Rios Montt, who had seized power in a military coup a few months earlier, was “totally dedicated to democracy” and that the general had been given “a bum rap.” U.S. government documents subsequently released reveal that the CIA and other U.S. agencies were actually confirming the reports of widespread massacres by the Guatemala armed forces.

During that same period, Amnesty International reported that in neighboring El Salvador, the junta’s armed forces and special security units were engaged in the torture, disappearance and murder of thousands of civilians, the majority of whom were nonviolent activists affiliated with peasant leagues, labor unions, religious organizations, human rights groups, and opposition political parties. However, Reagan administration officials denied such human rights abuses were taking place and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders attacked Amnesty International for being one-sided and acting as apologists for “terrorists.” Subsequent investigations by the United Nations’ Truth Commission have confirmed the accuracy of Amnesty’s findings.

Also during the 1980s, the validity of Amnesty International’s reports regarding the widespread killings of Nicaraguan civilians by irregular forces based in Honduras and of Honduran civilians by security forces of their own government were repeatedly challenged by then-U.S. ambassador John Negroponte. Yet again, the U.S. government’s cover-ups were ultimately unsuccessful and Amnesty’s reports have since been acknowledged as accurate. Negroponte has since served as President Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, followed by a stint as the “ambassador” to Iraq (while still under U.S. occupation), and currently as the first Director of National Intelligence.

Despite Amnesty International’s frank reporting of human rights abuses in Nicaragua, Cuba, and other leftist governments, media outlets supportive of U.S. Central America policy rushed to the Reagan administration’s defense, with the Wall Street Journal falsely accusing Amnesty of applying “a gentler standard to U.S. adversaries in Central America than to U.S. friends” and using “ad hominem attacks” on “those offering conflicting evidence.”

A key figure in the Reagan administration’s efforts to discredit Amnesty International’s reporting on Central America was Elliot Abrams, who succeeded Enders as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. Despite being convicted of perjury in 1991 for lying to Congress under oath, President Bush during his first term appointed Abrams as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs. Abrams currently serves as his deputy national security adviser–ironically in charge of promoting democracy abroad.

Efforts to discredit Amnesty International when it challenged the human rights abuses of U.S. allies continued into the 1990s as well. In 1996, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton dismissed Amnesty International’s reports regarding the Israeli massacre of over 100 Lebanese refugees at a United Nations compound near Lebanese village of Qana, insisting–despite the failure to present any evidence to the contrary–that the killings were accidental.

In 1999, during a visit to Turkey not long after Amnesty International released a report documenting ongoing human rights abuses by the Turkish government, including the use of torture on an administrative basis, President Clinton praised what he described as a “renewed and clear determination of the Turkish government to take a stand against torture and to generally increase protection of human rights.” Despite the report noting structural impediments to any imminent lessening of ongoing abuses, the visiting American president declared “the human rights issue is moving in the right direction in this nation.”

Under the Bush administration, congressional Democrats have supported Republican efforts to discredit Amnesty International when it criticizes American allies. For example, in April of 2002, Amnesty International published a detailed and well-documented report regarding the Israeli military offensive in the occupied West Bank, noting how “the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity.” The report went on to document unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property, arbitrary detention, torture, assaults on medical personnel and journalists, as well as random shooting at people in the streets and houses. In response, a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives challenged Amnesty’s findings, claiming that “Israel’s military operations are an effort to defend itself … and are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” Though the chief sponsor was right-wing Republican leader Tom DeLay, the resolution was supported by such prominent congressional Democrats as Tom Lantos, Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Mark Udall, John Lewis, Lane Evans, Barney Frank, Edward Markey, Major Owens, David Price, Steny Hoyer, Dick Gephardt, Jim McGovern, and Patrick Kennedy, among others. Indeed, there were only 21 dissenting votes against the resolution in the 435-member body.

With the Democrats demonstrating their willingness to team up with Republicans to try to discredit Amnesty International when it criticizes human rights abuses by the armed forces of key U.S. allies, it is not surprising that the Bush administration and its supporters now feel like they can get away with such brazen attacks against the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization when it criticizes U.S. forces.

Yet the influence that Amnesty International has been able to wield over the years in advancing the cause of human rights has never come from the backing of governments or political parties, but from the support of concerned individuals from around the world. It is therefore up to the American people to challenge any and all elected officials who seek to discredit this noble organization in order to cover up human rights abuses by the United States and its allies.

Undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—It Didn’t Start With the Bush Administration

Most of the international community and arms control advocates here in the United States have correctly blamed the Bush administration for the failure of the recently completed review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the course of the four-week meeting of representatives of the 188 countries which have signed and ratified the treaty, the United States refused to uphold its previous arms control pledges, blocked consideration of the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, refused to rule out U.S. nuclear attacks against non-nuclear states, and demanded that Iran and North Korea—but not U.S. allies like Israel, Pakistan, and India—be singled out for UN sanctions for their nuclear programs. Thomas Graham, who served as a U.S. envoy to disarmament talks in the Clinton administration noted that the Bush administration’s demands resulted in what appears to be “the most acute failure in the treaty’s history.”1

However, though the Bush administration may have brought U.S. non-proliferation policy to new lows, the seeds of this defeat were planted way back.

Non-proliferation: Some History

The 1954 Atomic Energy Act allowed the United States to engage in the widespread dissemination of nuclear reactors and fuel to other countries, with certain safeguards to supposedly prevent them from being used to make nuclear weapons. Largely a government subsidy for the nuclear power industry, the so-called Atoms for Peace program grossly overestimated the economic benefits of nuclear power and underestimated its environmental dangers as well as the risks of weapons proliferation. In subsequent decades, recipients of American nuclear technology included such nascent nuclear weapons states as Israel, Iran, India, and South Africa. By 1968, these risks were apparent enough that the international community attempted to create a nonproliferation regime through the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While publicly endorsing the treaty, President Richard Nixon in fact undermined it with National Security Decision Memorandum No. 6, which stated that “there should be no efforts by the United States to pressure other nations … to follow suit. … The government, in its public posture, should reflect a tone of optimism that other countries will sign or ratify, while clearly disassociating itself [in private] from any plan to bring pressure on these countries to sign or ratify.”2

Though the Carter administration showed some initial signs of concern over the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the two Cold War arsenals, it took little concrete action. Under Carter, the U.S. increased its transfer of civilian nuclear technology to Third World countries, despite increased evidence of the lack of adequate safeguards. Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was not an enthusiastic supporter of non-proliferation efforts.3 The administration dramatically increased the development of new American nuclear weapons systems and refused to formally submit the SALT II treaty to the Senate for ratification, allowing Third World countries to correctly observe that the United States was not living up to its own commitment to the NPT as an existing nuclear power to engage in serious efforts to negotiate nuclear disarmament.

The Reagan administration discontinued Carter’s half-hearted non-proliferation efforts, lifting the ban on the export of plutonium, and adding dangerously destabilizing counterforce weapons systems.

The end of the Cold War allowed the senior Bush administration and the Clinton administration to reduce some of the United States’ own nuclear weapons arsenal. At the same time these post-Cold War administrations became focused on the prospects of radical Third World regimes developing their own nuclear weapons and contemplated possible unilateral military actions in response.

U.S. Policy toward Emerging Nuclear Powers

India successfully tested a nuclear device in 1974 and subsequently developed short- and long-range nuclear-capable missile systems. The United States delivered a mild rebuke. But, with the exception of a belated embargo against the Indian Space Research Organization, there was never much pressure until the Clinton administration supported tougher sanctions following a series of nuclear tests in 1998. Those sanctions were repealed by President George W. Bush with bipartisan Congressional support in 2001 when India—along with its historic rival Pakistan—was deemed to be an ally in the “War on Terrorism.” Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan and the senior Bush administrations formally denied that Pakistan was engaging in nuclear weapons development despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In addition, the United States was supplying Pakistan with F-16 aircraft even as nuclear analysts concluded that Pakistan would likely use these fighter planes as its primary delivery system for its nuclear arsenal.4 Publicly acknowledging what virtually every authority on nuclear proliferation knew about Pakistan’s nuclear capability would require the United States to cut off aid to Pakistan, as required by U.S. laws designed to enforce the non-proliferation regime. However, Pakistan was the vehicle through which the United States supplied radical Islamic opponents of the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan, and a cut-off of aid to the Zia al-Huq dictatorship could have jeopardized Reagan’s Afghan policy. The annual certification of Pakistan’s supposed non-nuclear status was halted only in 1990, when the Soviet-backed Afghan regime was finally collapsing. However, the senior Bush administration insisted that the cut-off of aid did not include military sales, so the transfer of spare parts for the nuclear-capable F-16s aircraft to Pakistan continued. President Clinton finally imposed sanctions when Pakistan engaged in a series of nuclear weapons tests in 1998. But that too was repealed by Congress and the Bush administration three years later.

With respect to apartheid South Africa, the Carter administration publicly accepted the regime’s denial that it was planning a nuclear test in the Kalahari Desert when both Soviet and American satellite reconnaissance revealed clear evidence that such a plan was in process in August 1977. The two superpowers did apply strong pressure against South Africa to get the test canceled. When the South Africans did explode a nuclear device over the Indian Ocean in September 1979, the Carter administration scrambled to hide the satellite evidence from the American public, particularly when Israeli involvement became apparent. U.S. law and Carter’s public commitment to non-proliferation would have forced him to impose sanctions against these two pro-Western states, had the evidence become public. Seymour Hersh has quoted a top Carter administration official as saying “There was a very immediate strategic imperative to make this thing go away. Our capturing it fortuitously was an embarrassment, a big political problem, and there were a lot of people who wanted to obscure the event.”5 As a result, when the initial cover-up failed, the Carter administration both denied that such a test had taken place and then formed a commission to complete the whitewash a few months later.

The most obvious case of American protection of nuclear weapons development by its allies is Israel. Israel has long stated that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, which is technically true, since U.S. planes and warships began bringing nuclear weapons into the region back in the 1950s. Israel is generally believed to have become a nuclear power by 1969. The Israeli nuclear program was privately endorsed by the newly-elected President Nixon and his chief foreign policy adviser, Kissinger. They immediately ended the regular, if inconsequential, U.S. inspections of Israeli’s Dimona nuclear center. (Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson demonstrated his lack of concern over the prospects of Israel becoming a nuclear power by rejecting calls that one of the early major weapons sales to Israel be conditioned on Israel signing the NPT.) The Nixon administration went to great lengths to keep nuclear issues out of any talks on the Middle East. Information on Israeli nuclear capabilities was routinely suppressed; the United States even supplied Israel with krytrons and supercomputers which were bound for the Israeli nuclear program.6

The Carter administration, which took the nuclear proliferation issue somewhat more seriously than the administrations that preceded and followed it, did not publicly raise the issue of Israel’s development of nuclear weaponry, either. Even when satellite footage of the aborted nuclear test in South Africa’s Kalahari desert gave evidence of the large-scale presence of Israeli personnel at the test site, the Carter administration kept it quiet,7 just as they did with the successful test in the Indian Ocean two years later. According to Joseph Nye, Deputy Under Secretary of State, the Carter administration considered the Israeli bomb a low priority.8

The Reagan administration made an effort to keep information on Israel’s nuclear capability from the State Department and other government agencies which might have concerns over nuclear proliferation issues.9 Meanwhile, Congress had made it clear to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other responsible parties that they did not want to have anything revealed in an open hearing related to Israel’s nuclear capability. While most restrictions against foreign aid to new nuclear states had been written so as to exempt Israel, a public acknowledgment might still have jeopardized U.S. economic and military assistance. Outside of Washington, top Israeli nuclear scientists had open access to American institutions and many top American nuclear scientists had extended visits with their counterparts in Israel, in what has been called “informational promiscuity” in the seepage of nuclear intelligence.10 In addition, given the enormous costs of any nuclear program of the magnitude of Israel’s, it would have been very difficult to develop such a large and advanced arsenal (now estimated at up to 200 weapons11 with sophisticated medium-range missiles) without the tens of billions of dollars of direct and unrestricted American financial support to the Israeli government prior to the current administration; in effect, the United States has subsidized nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

Support for Unilateral Military Action

The Bush administration has taken the unprecedented step of making the option of preventive war a centerpiece of its national security strategy. Yet the belief that it is legitimate for the United States or an ally to maintain its regional nuclear monopoly through force support pre-dates the current Bush administration. The Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 was made possible only by the U.S. decision to supply Israel with high-resolution photographs of Iraq from the KH-11 satellite, data to which no other nation was allowed access, as well as through U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter planes. Though the United States publicly condemned the bombing, in private, Seymour Hersh reports that in fact “Reagan was delighted … [and] very satisfied” by the bombing. Publicly, the United States suspended the delivery of four additional F-16s but quietly lifted the suspension two months later.12 By 1992, this support had become public, when a Democratic-majority Congress passed a resolution endorsing the Israeli attack. The irony is that the Osirak reactor was not the focal point of Iraq’s nuclear program and it likely encouraged the Iraqis to take greater efforts to evade detection of their primary nuclear development facilities.13

The 1981 attack by Israel against the Iraqi nuclear facility, however, paled in comparison with the much wider bombing attacks ten years later by the United States, which—like the Israeli bombing—violated both the spirit and the letter of the NPT. This action further undermined law-based approaches to nuclear non-proliferation and lent legitimacy to the notion that regional nuclear powers can launch pre-emptive attacks against potential rivals at will. Tragically, such lawlessness creates the very kind of insecurity which has motivated additional countries to develop their nuclear programs in the first place, and thus is more likely to advance proliferation than retard it.

Opposition to Nuclear-Free Zones

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have been skeptical of efforts to establish nuclear-free zones, since it would require the United States to remove its nuclear weapons from certain strategically important parts of the globe and require allies, such as Israel and Pakistan, to dismantle their nuclear arsenals. Indeed, even where nuclear-free zones have gone into effect, such as in Latin America through the Tlatelolco Treaty, the United States has developed contingency plans to violate the treaties’ provisions.14 The United States routinely has brought nuclear-armed ships and planes to Japan in violation of that country’s anti-nuclear constitution. When New Zealand announced its decision to become nuclear-free and bar the U.S. Navy from bringing nuclear weapons into its ports, the Reagan administration put enormous pressure on its government. The Clinton administration put even greater economic pressure on the Pacific Island nation of Palau to induce the repeal of its nuclear-free constitution. For years, the United States has strongly opposed proposals for nuclear-free zones in Nordic Europe or the Balkans.

In short, even prior to the current administration, U.S. nuclear policy in recent decades has been based on the following principles:

The United States and allied powers must maintain a nuclear monopoly in developing regions.
Any challenge to that monopoly will be vigorously opposed, possibly through military force.
The existing non-proliferation regime will be imposed only selectively to maintain US. dominance.
In other words, U.S. policy has long been, in effect, that it is fine for the United States and its allies to have nuclear weapons in a given region but wrong for any other countries to have nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this simply will not work. Such double standards create widespread sympathy in the developing world for demagogues who can argue that their nuclear programs are simply a defensive reaction to the nuclear threat from the United States, Israel, or other pro-Western countries.

Both Iran and North Korea have endorsed calls for nuclear-free zones in their regions, as have U.S. allies like Japan, Jordan, South Korea, and Egypt. Even if such pronouncements proved less than sincere, U.S. support for the concept would provide the international community with the legitimacy it now lacks to help control the threat of nuclear proliferation. U.S. opposition to a nuclear free-zone in the Middle East is what prompted Iraq’s nuclear program in the first place. Located near Israel and Pakistan, the Iraqis saw their nuclear program as largely defensive, a program they had offered to end even prior to 1991 if they were no longer faced with a potential nuclear threat from hostile neighbors.

At the end of the Korean War, the United States moved nuclear weapons into South Korea in direct violation of the armistice agreement. These were not removed until 1991 when the high-yield precision-targeted conventional weapons used during the Gulf War were actually seen as more effective than the tactical nuclear weapons then stationed in Korea. Nuclear-capable aircraft and ships continue to move in and out of Korea. Clinton’s appointee to the U.S. Strategic Command, General Lee Cutler, announced in February 1993 that strategic nuclear weapons which had been targeted for the Soviet Union were being re-targeted to North Korea. By March, American forces in Korea were engaging in nuclear war games, with B1-B and B-52 bombers from Guam and naval vessels with cruise missiles taking part.15

One basic tenet of the nonproliferation regime is that nuclear nations not threaten nuclear attacks on non-nuclear nations. With the Soviet Union no longer the feared enemy in northeast Asia, and with China still on good—if somewhat cool—relations with the United States, the North Koreans could only assume that this was exactly what was going on. It was only at this point that North Korea first announced it was pulling out of the NPT and the crisis—initially defused in 1994 by former President Carter’s intervention, began in earnest. Following U.S. preparations for the invasion of Iraq and bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea, the regime again renounced its participation in the NPT in January 2003. The former nuclear aspirations of Iraq and the current ones of North Korea can both be interpreted as a defensive response to the U.S. refusal to denuclearize the region.

Spreading Nuclear Technology

Iraq’s nuclear program in the 1980s was made possible through imports from the West of so-called “dual-use” technology, capable of producing nuclear weapons or delivery systems while also having civilian applications. Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, William Perry, argued before Congress that it was a “hopeless task” to control such dual use technology, stating that “it only interferes with a company’s ability to succeed internationally.” This view directly contradicted the United Nations inspection regime in Iraq which called for “strict maintenance of export controls by the industrialized nations” to prevent the Iraqi regime from once again developing its nuclear program. Indeed, the Clinton administration was even more lax than its Republican predecessors on controlling the exports of nuclear-related technology.16

It is noteworthy that the Clinton administration’s Defense Department introduced the term “counter-proliferation” rather than “non-proliferation,” suggesting a new emphasis on high-tech military responses to nuclear proliferation after the fact, rather than export controls or diplomatic measures to control it. Clinton’s assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter put forth proposals in violation of both the NPT and U.S. law regarding the transfers of American nuclear technology to India and Pakistan.17

Similarly, the current Bush administration did not invent the double standard of pushing for stricter inspection of nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency while still denying the right of such inspection of any American facilities. This standard was alive and well during all three previous administrations, as was the withholding of the necessary financial contributions to the United Nations to make such increased and effective IAEA inspections possible anywhere.


The Bush administration has made contempt for international law, international organizations, international treaties, and other multilateral institutions for arms control into a signature of its foreign policy. Littered throughout the history of post-war efforts at arms control, however, are examples of U.S. neglect of comprehensive nuclear arms control, much less disarmament, and rejection of universal standards in favor of selective applications based upon a given government’s relations with the United States.

Since 1981, Israel has been in violation of UN Security Council resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since 1998, Pakistan and India have been in violation of UN Security Council resolution 1172, which calls on those two South Asian nations to end their nuclear weapons programs and eliminate their long-range missiles. Yet only Iraq was targeted for strict sanctions and military action for its alleged violations of UN Security Council resolutions calling for the elimination of its nuclear programs, even though those programs no longer existed.

Fear of the charge of “weakness” in the post-911 world propelled nearly all members of the U.S. Congress in March 2003 to allow the administration to reject diplomacy and United Nations inspections of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological programs, and invade Iraq. The rationale was that such “diplomatic and other peaceful means alone” would not “adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”18 Similarly, when a protracted British-led diplomatic effort to eliminate Libya’s nascent nuclear program reached a successful conclusion in December 2003, a Congressional majority supported a resolution which declared—in direct contradiction of American diplomats involved in the talks19—that the elimination of Libya’s nuclear program “would not have been possible if not for … the liberation of Iraq by United States and Coalition Forces.”20

More recently, during the final hours of the Nonproliferation Conference in New York at the end of May, Congressional leaders from both parties validated the Bush administration’s double standard of focusing upon Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program while ignoring the already existing nuclear weapons arsenals of U.S. allies like Israel, Pakistan, and India.

Advocates of nuclear disarmament and arms control must recognize that while the successful American effort to derail the recent UN non-proliferation conference is indeed a serious setback in the struggle against the nuclear threat, the problem runs deeper than simply the policies of the current administration. To the extent that the United States attempts to use its nuclear arsenal to pursue its own strategic advantage, and seeks to place the United States and its allies above the law, it does so at the risk of our very survival.

End Notes

1. “UN Nuclear Treaty Review Ending in Failure, Japanese Envoy Says,” Bloomberg News, May 27, 2005.
2. Seymour Hersh, The Sampson Option, New York: Random House, 1991, p. 210.
3. Seymour Hersh, op. cit, p. 273.
4. Zachary Davis, “Nuclear Proliferation and Nonproliferation Policy in the 1990s,” in Michael Klare and Daniel Thomas, World Security: Challenges for a New Century, second edition, New York: St, Martin’s Press, 1994, p. 115.
5. Hersh, op. cit., p. 274.
6. Ibid., p. 209-14.
7. Ibid., p. 268.
8. Cited in Ibid., op. cit., p. 283.
9. Ibid., p. 291.
10. Helena Cobban, “Israel’s Nuclear Game: The U.S. Stake,” World Policy, Summer 1988, pp. 427-8.
11. Arms Control Association, “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” April 2005.
12. Hersch, op. cit., p. 9.
13. Davis, op. cit., p. 112.
14. New York Times, Feb. 13, 1985.
15. Bruce Cumings, “It’s Time to End the 40-Year War,” The Nation, August 23/30, 1993, p. 207.
16. Gary Milhollin, “The Business of Defense Is Defending Business,” Washington Post National, Weekly Edition, Feb. 14-20, p. 23.
17. Ibid.
18. H. Con. Res. 104, 108 th Congress, 1st session, March 21, 2003.
19. Flynt Leverett, “Why Libya Gave Up on the Bomb,” The New York Times, January 23, 2004, p. A23.
20. H. Amdt.601 (A003), 107 th Congress, 2 nd session, June 23, 2004.