An Open Letter to my Danish Friends

Dear Friends,

This is a letter of apology from an American who has witnessed in horror the extreme anti-Danish reaction in parts of the Islamic world. While the spark may have originated in your country, the tinderbox which caused that spark to explode in such a violent conflagration is largely a result of the policies of the United States.

Comments from U.S. government officials chastising your countrymen to be more sensitive about offending religious sentiments in the Middle East may not be inappropriate in and of itself. However, the United States is the last country to preach to others about unnecessarily provoking anti-Western sentiment among the world’s Muslims, particularly a nation such as yours which has had such an admirable history of supporting United Nations peacekeeping operations and providing generous financial contributions to Third World development.

Radical Islamic movements have risen to the forefront primarily in countries where there has been a dramatic dislocation of the population as a result of war or uneven economic development. The United States has often supported policies that have helped spawn such movements, including support for decades of Israeli attacks and occupation policies which have torn apart Palestinian and Lebanese society and provoked extremist movements in those countries that were unheard of as recently as a generation ago. The U.S.-led overthrow of the constitutional government in Iran in 1953 and subsequent support for the Shah’s brutal dictatorship succeeded in crushing that country’s democratic opposition, resulting in a 1979 revolution led by hard-line Islamic clerics. The United States directly aided extremist Islamists in Afghanistan when they were challenging the Soviet Union in the 1980s, many of whom have gone on to serve as the core of terror cells throughout the Islamic world. To this day, the United States maintains close ties with Saudi Arabia, which adheres to an extremely rigid and repressive interpretation of Islam and spreads such intolerance through the establishment of schools preaching its extremist theology throughout the Islamic world.

Military Assistance

The United States provides six times more military aid to the Middle East than it does economic aid, and arms sales are America’s number one commercial export to the region, strengthening militarization and weakening financial support for human needs. Furthermore, while threatening war at the mere possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, the United States maintains close strategic ties to Israel, Pakistan, and India despite their already-existing nuclear arsenals. In addition, the United States has categorically rejected calls by Iran and virtually every Arab state for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region and the U.S. Navy has brought its own tactical nuclear weapons into Middle Eastern waters since the late 1950s. In a part of the world which has been repeatedly conquered by outside powers over the centuries, the growing U.S. military presence has created an increasing amount of resentment. It is no accident that a region so heavily militarized would give rise to militant religious extremism.

Double Standards at the United Nations

Despite leading the efforts in recent years to impose debilitating sanctions against the people of Iraq, Libya, and Sudan for their governments’ violations of UN Security Council resolutions, the United States has blocked the Security Council from enforcing a series of its resolutions against such Middle East allies as Turkey, Israel, and Morocco for their ongoing occupation of neighboring countries. In addition, the United States has vetoed scores of resolutions calling on Israel to live up to its international legal obligations as an occupying power and has even attacked the International Court of Justice for its 14-1 advisory opinion citing the illegality of Israel’s separation wall in the occupied West Bank. Such abuse of international legal institutions gives the Islamic world little faith in secular law-based means of addressing conflict resolution.

The United States has also been at the forefront of pushing neoliberal economic models of development in Islamic countries which have resulted in cutbacks in social services, privatization of public resources, foreign takeovers of domestic enterprises, reduction of taxes for the wealthy, the elimination of subsidies for farmers and for basic foodstuffs, and ending protection for domestic industry. While this has spurred some economic growth in some cases, it has also led to a dramatic increase in social and economic inequality. This growing disparity between the rich and the poor has been particularly offensive to Muslims, whose exposure to Western economic influence has been primarily through witnessing some of the crassest materialism and consumerism from foreign imports enjoyed by local elites while the majority suffers in poverty. The failure of state-centric socialist experiments in the Arab world has left an ideological vacuum among the poor seeking economic justice which has been filled by certain radical Islamic movements. U.S.-backed neoliberal economic policies have destroyed traditional economies and turned millions of rural peasants into a new urban underclass populating the teeming slums of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, providing easy recruits for Islamic activists rallying against corruption, materialism, and economic injustice.

The United States has also encouraged Islamic radicalism through its large-scale military, economic, and financial support of Israel’s ongoing occupation, repression, and colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. America’s failure to be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has allowed for the dramatic expansion of illegal Israeli settlements which have made the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. Despite the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to accept just 22% of historic Palestine and to live in peace with the Jewish state, U.S. policy has continued to support Israeli expansionism, giving radical Islamists an opportunity to claim that such moderation will never be rewarded.

Despite rhetoric in defense of democracy, the United States remains the primary outside supporter of autocratic regimes throughout the Islamic world from Brunei to Morocco. The Mubarak regime in Egypt, the family dictatorships in the Gulf, the autocracies in the former Soviet Central Asia, and other repressive regimes are kept in power in large part as a result of American support. It is not surprising that those who suffer under such repressive and irresponsible governments will at least in part blame the West for their suffering.

In 2003, in a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter, the United States led a coalition of governments in an invasion of Iraq based upon fabricated claims that the Iraqi government had advanced chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs and maintained operational ties to al-Qaida. Since the conquest and the start of the U.S. occupation, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed, many hundreds of detainees have been tortured and abused, crime and unemployment have reached record levels, basic utilities are available only sporadically, and ethnic strife and religious intolerance continues to worsen. Coming after the 2001 U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan—which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths from air strikes and the countryside being taken over by war lords, ethnic militias, and opium magnates—the resentment at the West for inflicting such horrific violence on Muslim peoples has become so severe that the hypersensitivity demonstrated by so many Muslims in reaction to the Danish cartoons should not be surprising.

There has been widespread debate in your country regarding Denmark’s role in provoking the reaction, ranging from the appropriateness of the cartoons themselves to the Danish government’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Whatever missteps may have occurred on your side of the Atlantic, however, it is hard to imagine that the extent of the violent reaction would have been nearly as severe as it was if not for the pent up grievances in the Islamic world resulting from many years of irresponsible U.S. policies.

And for this, I can only offer my apologies, along with a promise to work along with other conscientious Americans to change U.S. Middle East policy to one which is geared toward promoting peace, justice, and security for all.

The Hamas Victory: Another Side to the Story

Lost amidst the predictably negative reaction to the victory by Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections is the crucial role that the U.S. government had in bringing the radical Islamist group to power.

Both Congress and the Bush administration are on record insisting that Hamas’ virulent anti-Israel stance and the history of terrorist activities by its armed wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, gives Israel the right to refuse to engage or negotiate with the Palestinians. However, Israel had already suspended peace talks nearly five years ago without apparent objections from U.S. officials. A majority of Israelis, according to public opinion polls, had supported a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority under its outgoing secular government, but the administration and Congress continued to back the right-wing Israeli government’s refusal to talk with its Palestinian counterparts on the implementation of the Road Map, a formula backed by the “Quartet” consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Following the 2004 decision of the Bush administration and a huge bipartisan congressional majority to throw its weight behind Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral disengagement strategy in lieu of a negotiated withdrawal, many Palestinians saw the departure of Israeli colonists from the Gaza Strip as a result of Hamas’ armed resistance, thereby giving them even less faith in a U.S.-led peace process.

Exit polls appear to indicate that had Palestinian voters believed that re-electing the more moderate Fatah movement would have allowed for the resumption of peace talks, they would not have backed the hard-line Hamas. Israel cut off negotiations with the Palestinians when right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to office in February 2001, just one month after Israeli-Palestinian talks in Taba, Egypt came tantalizingly close to reaching a final peace agreement. The Israeli government, with apparent U.S. backing, has refused to resume negotiations ever since.

The Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority proved itself incapable of implementing the primary responsibility of any government: the protection of its own people. The PA could do little to resist the face of overwhelming power of Israeli occupation forces, particularly when backed by the world’s one remaining superpower. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority a little more than a dozen years ago, Israel has killed hundreds of Arab civilians, expropriated large tracts of land, bulldozed thousands of homes, built a 30-foot wall bisecting large segments of the West Bank, and destroyed orchards, vineyards, and other farmland. In reaction, radical militias such as Hamas’ Al Qassam Brigades have attacked Israeli occupation forces and settlers in the occupied territories and civilian targets inside Israel.

Faced with endemic corruption and incompetence in areas of the West Bank under PA control under the leadership of Fatah’s old guard, Palestinian voters apparently felt they had little to lose in electing Hamas. Though only a minority of Palestinians supports the terrorist activities of Hamas’ armed wing or its reactionary social agenda, they were propelled by a perceived need to clean house. The secular democratic and progressive opposition to Fatah was divided into five different competing factions. Also greatly appreciated was the network of schools, medical facilities, and social services provided by Hamas for the population suffering from the repressive military occupation and the often incompetent local governance under Fatah.

While rightfully condemning Palestinian terrorism, Bush administration officials and Congressional leaders of both parties have defended the Israeli government’s assassination policy against suspected Palestinian militants despite its violation of international legal norms. In addition, the Bush administration, backed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress, denounced the International Court of Justice for its 2004 ruling calling on Israel to uphold it obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention in the occupied West Bank. The Bush administration and Congress even went on record supporting Israel’s devastating spring 2002 offensive in the West Bank, openly contesting reports by Amnesty International and other human rights observers which documented widespread civilian casualties and damage to the territory’s civilian infrastructure. The Palestinian Authority lost many of its buildings and resources serving the population in those U.S.-backed attacks, a gap that was partly filled by Hamas.

Congress and the administration have made it clear they will not provide any foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel. However, the Israeli government’s failure to renounce violence against Palestinians or rein in its settler militias, and its refusal to recognize a viable independent Palestinian state alongside Israel has never jeopardized the billions of dollars of foreign assistance given annually to the Israeli government by the United States.

The limited amount of aid granted to the Palestinians by the United States generally bypassed the Palestinian Authority, and Congress this past year actually mandated stricter standards for U.S. aid under the reform-minded president Mahmoud Abbas than it did under his notoriously corrupt predecessor Yasir Arafat. Virtually all aid to the occupied territories has gone through various nongovernmental organizations.

President George W. Bush, in defending Israel’s insistence that it will continue to refuse to negotiate with Palestinians, claimed that “I don’t see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform.” In reality, Hamas had excluded such a reference in their electoral platform in an effort to appeal to more moderate Palestinian voters and explicitly expressed their desire to negotiate with the Israeli government. Hamas has also largely observed a unilateral cease fire against Israel for more than a year despite a series of assassinations of suspected Hamas leaders by Israeli forces.

Just as Hamas gained credibility with the Palestinian population through its social service programs, funded primarily by supporters in the U.S.-backed monarchies of the Gulf, it is possible that European and other supporters of secular, democratic civil society organizations would increase the prospects for those currents within Palestinian society to gain in strength. At the same time, a suspension of Western aid could lead the Palestinian government to become more dependent on the support of Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have backed radical Palestinian Islamists for decades.

Harvesting Cynicism

The refusal of the United States to deal with the elected Palestinian government will likely add to the cynicism within the Arab and Islamic world that the United States supports democratic elections only if the results support U.S. policy aims. In December the U.S. House of Representatives, with only sixteen dissenting votes in the 435-member body, denounced Palestinian President Abbas for even allowing Hamas to participate in the election, another indication of the selectivity of American support for democracy in the Arab world.

The core issue, however, remains the Israeli occupation and the U.S.-backed Israeli government’s refusal to allow for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. As President Bush pointed out in reference to neighboring Lebanon when Syria maintained its overbearing presence, “Elections under occupation are not free.” Hamas and radical Islam was never a feature of Palestinian politics until after years of Israeli occupation. Hamas never came close to majority support until more than a decade following the Oslo Accords, when Palestinians saw the hope of a negotiated settlement under U.S. auspices fade.

The best means to stop terrorism is to deny the agenda which propels it, such as foreign military occupation. Indeed, as Great Britain belatedly recognized in Northern Ireland and in countless other examples, incorporating armed groups which represent a significant portion of the population—even those which engage in terrorism—in the electoral process and in negotiations is a better way to end the violence than with your own violence.

A Mis-statement of the Union Address

This essay evaluates some of the key claims made by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address of January 31, 2006.

“In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country. We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom—or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy—or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting—yet it ends in danger and decline. The only way to protect our people… the only way to secure the peace… the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership—so the United States of America will continue to lead.”

This is an extraordinarily simplistic formulation of a series of complex issues facing the United States and the world. Opposing a foreign policy that includes the invasion of sovereign nations on the far side of the globe and prosecuting bloody counter-insurgency wars is not a call to “retreat from our duties.” Opposing neoliberal international economic policies that favor powerful multinational corporations at the expense of American jobs, labor rights, consumer protection, and a healthy environment is not a call to “shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity.” Challenging such dangerous policies of the Bush administration is not advocating “isolationism and protectionism.”

More fundamentally, the pursuit of a foreign policy based upon reckless unilateralism and militarism—which has alienated our country from the vast majority of the international community—is not the same as “leadership.”

Terrorism, Authoritarianism, and Freedom

“On September 11th, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country.”

Actually, the “problems” that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States did not originate in Afghanistan. Sixteen of the nineteen hijackers were from the oppressive, U.S.-backed dictatorship of Saudi Arabia and others were from the oppressive, U.S.-backed dictatorships in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Most of them had received more “training” in flight schools in the United States than they ever did in Afghanistan and the terrorist cells from which the 9/11 hijackers emerged did not coalesce in “failed and oppressive states,” but in Germany and the United States. Furthermore, the rise of the Taliban and the chaos that did take place in the “failed and oppressive state” of Afghanistan came about in part as a result of the $5 billion of aid the U.S. government sent to radical Islamic militias in that country during the 1980s.

“Dictatorships shelter terrorists, feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror.”

Again, this is an incredibly simplistic formulation: The United States is a democracy, but it has sheltered Cuban and Nicaraguan terrorists implicated in attacks that have killed scores of civilians. Similarly, the United States—along with such democracies as Great Britain, France, India, and Israel—have pursued and possess nuclear weapons. Furthermore, a number of democratic nations have failed to respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors. For example, Israel has invaded and occupied its neighbors and India has engaged in serious human rights abuses against its citizens in Kashmir, the Punjab, and its eastern states.

Conversely, there are scores of dictatorships that do not shelter terrorists or seek weapons of mass destruction.

“Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. In 1945, there were about two dozen lonely democracies on Earth. Today, there are 122.”

First of all, this impressive figure ignores the fact that there were only about 60 independent countries in the world in 1945; there are nearly 200 today. So, while there has been a five-fold increase in the total number of democratic governments, if one measures in terms of overall percentage, it is an increase of barely 50%.

More significantly, in those intervening years, the United States helped facilitate the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, and several other countries and actively supported dictatorial regimes that suppressed popular movements for freedom in scores of others.

As a result, the advance of freedom is an important and laudable achievement, yet it has in large part taken place despite of, rather than because of, U.S. foreign policy.

“We are writing a new chapter in the history of self-government, with … men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom.

Despite longstanding domination by Syria, men and women in the Republic of Lebanon have been openly debating individual rights and the necessity of freedom for decades, long before the Bush administration assumed office. The Lebanese people significantly advanced their freedom when they finally forced Syrian troops out of their country through a massive nonviolent uprising they initiated on their own. Though supportive of the Syrian withdrawal, it is important to remember that the United States backed Syria’s decision to send its troops into Lebanon back in 1976 as well as its consolidation of power in 1990. The United States also backed Israel’s 1978 and 1982 invasions and its 22-year occupation of the southern part of that country, also raising questions as to the sincerity of professed U.S. support for Lebanese freedom.

Meanwhile, Egypt is still under the grip of the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship, which has beaten, arrested, jailed, and tortured hundreds of pro-democracy activists while enjoying its status as the second-largest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid. Egyptians may indeed debate “the rights of individuals and necessity of freedom,” but they do so at their own jeopardy.

“At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other half—in places like Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran—because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom as well.”

It is revealing that the only governments President Bush bothered to mention by name are among the minority of autocratic regimes that are not supported by the United States. By contrast, he notably failed to mention Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Brunei, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Cameroon, Chad, or scores of other dictatorial regimes that have received billions of dollars worth of police and military assistance from the United States since President Bush came to office.

“Terrorists like bin Laden … aim to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world.”

First of all, al-Qaida is a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells which has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to launch terrorist attacks around the world without controlling any country.

Secondly, Salafi Sunni extremists of the likes of Osama bin Laden make up only a small minority of the armed Iraqi resistance, so it’s hard to conceive how they would be able to seize power even in the unlikely event of an insurgent victory.

Finally, it is important to remember that outside of a tiny enclave in the northeastern corner of the autonomous Kurdish region outside of Saddam Hussein’s control, Islamist terrorists had no active presence in Iraq until after the United States invaded in 2003. As a result, whatever threat may actually exist of such Salafi Sunni extremists taking over Iraq is a direct consequence of Bush administration policy.

“If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores.”

Despite similar claims during the Vietnam War that “if we don’t fight them over there we’ll have to fight them here,” the Vietnamese fighting U.S. forces did not move the battlefield to America once U.S. troops got out of their country. The Afghans fighting Soviet forces did not move the battlefield to Russia when the Soviets got out of their country. Similarly, the Iraqis fighting U.S. forces will not move the battlefield to America once we get out of their country. It is the ongoing occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces, the bombing and shelling of Iraqi cities, the torture of Iraqi detainees, and the chaos and destruction inflicted upon that ancient land as a result of the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation that is prompting the insurgency. The U.S. war in Iraq is creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.

On Iraq

“There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat.”

There is no peace or honor in violating the United Nations Charter, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and other international legal principles by invading a sovereign nation on the far side of the world and torturing and killing its people.

“And we are on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory.”

In reality, U.S. forces are increasingly relegated to defensive positions. The much hyped “plan for victory” put forward by the administration at the end of last year has since been revealed to have been written not by military commanders or strategic planners, but by a public relations firm.

“First, we are helping Iraqis build an inclusive government, so that old resentments will be eased, and the insurgency marginalized.”

Virtually all accounts of what is really happening in Iraq indicate the following: The government that is emerging, like the outgoing regime, will likely be dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists who have engaged in widespread human rights abuses against the country’s Sunni minority. Ethnic tensions have increased dramatically since the U.S. invasion and are getting worse. And the insurgency is growing.

“Second, we are continuing reconstruction efforts, and helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy, so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom.”

The Bush administration has essentially eliminated additional funding for reconstruction and diverted much of what was originally allocated for security. Corruption is endemic and the economy has largely collapsed. Millions of Iraqis lack freedom from fear or freedom from want, making it difficult to appreciate the post-Saddam right to elect their own government. The “modern economy” imposed in the early months of the U.S. occupation has included the massive privatization of public enterprises, allowing unlimited foreign ownership and repatriation of profits, a 15% flat tax, and scores of other measures restructuring the economy on neoliberal lines, which has proven decidedly unpopular with the Iraqi people, currently suffering from record unemployment and poverty.

“At the same time, our coalition has been relentless in shutting off terrorist infiltration, clearing out insurgent strongholds, and turning over territory to Iraqi security forces. I am confident in our plan for victory … Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning.”

Infiltration by foreign terrorists was virtually non-existent in Iraq in the years immediately preceding the American conquest, but—as a result of the U.S. invasion—it has become a serious problem and has increased every year since. Similarly, areas of Iraq controlled by insurgents have grown each year since U.S. forces took over that country. Few Iraqi units can be trusted to maintain control over much territory without an active U.S. presence alongside them. Furthermore, virtually every published independent strategic analysis as well as leaked documents from a number of U.S. military and intelligence sources reveal that the United States is not winning the war.

“The road of victory is the road that will take our troops home. As we make progress on the ground, and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troop levels—but those decisions will be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington, DC.”

The Bush administration has repeatedly overruled advice from military commanders regarding Iraq since the early planning stages for the invasion. The decision to invade Iraq and place American forces in an extremely vulnerable urban guerrilla warfare situation could have only been made by politicians—few American commanders would support such a foolish decision on their own—but they were the pro-war politicians, not the anti-war politicians to whom President Bush refers. The growing numbers of Democratic members of Congress who have belatedly called for a withdrawal of U.S. forces have done so in large part not out of their own initiative, but in response to the demands of their constituents who elected them to office and to whom they are accountable.

The Bush administration has also repeatedly exaggerated the state of readiness of the Iraqi armed forces. As a result, there are serious questions as to whether a military victory is even possible.

“Our coalition has learned from experience in Iraq. We have adjusted our military tactics and changed our approach to reconstruction.”

The Bush administration, despite its earlier promises, has essentially given up on serious reconstruction efforts. And, while U.S. forces have improved their tactics as a result of nearly three years of fighting, so have the insurgents. And there is not much of a coalition to speak of at this point. The British are the only foreign forces remaining in the “coalition” that are still engaged in active combat operations.

“Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.”

Recognizing that the war is probably unwinnable is not defeatism. It is realism. Aiming for an unachievable military “success” is not responsible. It is a folly of tragic proportions. And insisting the Bush administration be held accountable for the lies, the negligence, and the tragic blunders which have resulted from this ongoing tragedy is a patriotic duty.

“A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison … put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country … and show that a pledge from America means little. Members of Congress, however we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our Nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in its vital mission.”

First of all, Iraqis are already experiencing death and prison as the war and repression continue.

Secondly, after fighting to rid American and British foreigners from their soil, it’s hard to imagine the highly nationalistic and predominantly Shiite Iraqis would tolerate being ruled by a Saudi or Jordanian Sunni extremist.

Thirdly, the strength of such terrorists is growing as long as the United States continues to prosecute its bloody counter-insurgency war in the heart of the Islamic world. Most significantly, the United States has already broken perhaps its most solemn pledge: The United Nations Charter, which resulted from a global awareness that the tragic events of World War II would not be repeated and the writing of which was heavily influenced by Americans, mandates that no nation can engage in an aggressive war. The use of force is recognized as legitimate only if explicitly authorized by the UN Security Council as a last resort to ensure collective security or in self-defense against an armed attack. When the United States signed and ratified the UN Charter in 1945, it made a pledge to the world that it would never engage in anything like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Similarly, according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, treaties signed and ratified by the United States are Supreme Law. When President Bush launched the invasion and when members of Congress authorized the invasion, they chose to pursue a policy in direct contravention of the treaty obligations of the United States, thereby violating their oath of office in which they pledged to uphold and defend the Constitution.

“Ultimately, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change. So the United States of America supports democratic reform across the broader Middle East.”

The United States remains the number one supplier of armaments and police training in the world, most of which goes to governments which engage in a pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations. U.S. military aid to the Middle East is six times U.S. economic aid. In addition, U.S. arms sales to that region surpass that of consumer goods, high technology, and agriculture as the number one commercial export. If President Bush were serious about promoting political freedom and peaceful change, he would end U.S. support of repressive governments and stop fueling the deadly arms trade.

Democracy in the Middle East

“The great people of Egypt have voted in a multi-party presidential election—and now their government should open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism.”

This “multi-party presidential election” barred the largest opposition party from participating, effectively banned independent candidates, and refused to allow for international election monitors. It could not even remotely be considered a free and fair election. While President Bush’s call for the Mubarak regime to “open paths of peaceful opposition” are good words, he has refused to back them up with action, categorically rejecting calls by human rights activists to condition U.S. military and economic aid to the Egyptian government ending its human rights abuses.

“The Palestinian people have voted in elections—now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace.”

While such demands are valid, it is noteworthy that President Bush says nothing about ending Israel’s ongoing occupation and illegal colonization of the West Bank, which has resulted in the dramatic growth of that radical Islamist movement.

“Saudi Arabia has taken the first steps of reform—now it can offer its people a better future by pressing forward with those efforts.”

These “first steps”—some male-only elections for a minority of seats on some local legislative councils—are quite meager. By almost any measure, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a family dictatorship whose Islamic fundamentalist rule and lack of accountable government is significantly worse than even that of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions—and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats.”

It is significant that President Bush chooses to make an issue over Iran’s nuclear program, which is years away from producing nuclear weapons, while making no mention of Israel, which has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, already possesses nuclear weapons, and continues to defy the world through its violation of UN Security Council resolution 487, which calls on that country to place its nuclear program under the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nor does President Bush mention India and Pakistan, which have also refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, already possess nuclear weapons, and continue to defy UN Security Council resolution 1172, which calls on those countries to eliminate their nuclear programs altogether. Indeed, President Bush has sent billions of dollars worth of highly sophisticated weapons to Israel, has agreed to sell nuclear-capable jet fighters to Pakistan, and has signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with India.

“And tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our Nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.”

If this is really the case, why did the United States overthrow Iran’s last democratic government, that of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh? If the United States really respects the rights of the Iranian people to choose their own future, why did successive U.S. administrations support the tyrannical regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, installed by the United States following Mossadegh’s ouster, whose dreaded CIA-trained SAVAK secret police tortured and murdered thousands of dissidents, thereby spawning the Islamist revolution that has since come to power?

Counter-Terrorism and Civil Liberties

“It is said that prior to the attacks of September 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al-Qaida operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So to prevent another attack—based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute—I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America. Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have—and Federal courts have approved the use of that authority. This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaida, we want to know about it—because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.”

First of all, there is nothing under the existing 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court approval before or immediately after the executive branch orders electronic surveillance, that prevented the Bush administration from monitoring the overseas phone calls to al-Qaida operatives prior to 9/11.

Secondly, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution which gives the president the authority to order wiretaps without judicial or Congressional approval.

Thirdly, Congress never granted statutory authority for President Bush to engage in warrantless wiretaps.

Fourthly, previous presidents who have ordered wiretapping have generally done so only with court approval. When President Richard Nixon was discovered to have ordered warrantless wiretaps, it was incorporated in the articles of impeachment that drove him from office.

Most importantly, President Bush has failed to present any evidence whatsoever that warrantless wiretaps have “helped prevent terrorist attacks” or that it is somehow “essential to the security of America.” The choice is not one of either violating the civil liberties of Americans or “sitting back and waiting to be hit again.”

“Our own generation is in a long war against a determined enemy—a war that will be fought by Presidents of both parties, who will need steady bipartisan support from the Congress. And tonight I ask for yours. Together, let us protect our country, support the men and women who defend us, and lead this world toward freedom.”

Unfortunately, President Bush’s foreign policy agenda has for the most part been embraced by a bipartisan majority of Congress. The Congressional Democratic leadership joined President Bush in deceiving the American public about non-existent Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” authorized the invasion of Iraq, and continues to support funding the war. They have also supported his policy of threatening war against Iran while backing other regimes which violate human rights and develop nuclear weapons. Similarly, they have defended President Bush’s support for Israel’s occupation and colonization of the Palestinian West Bank and they have helped the Bush administration undermine international law and discredit the United Nations.

Such policies do not protect America, however, since such policies only increase anti-Americanism and the appeal of extremist ideologies and terrorist groups. They do not support the men and women of the armed forces, who are taken from their homes and families to fight in a bloody and fruitless counter-insurgency war in a faraway land. And they do not lead the world toward freedom, since such policies include the backing of dictatorial regimes and occupation armies.

Western Sahara: The Other Occupation

Imagine an Arab Muslim nation, most of whose people have lived in the squalor of refugee camps for decades in exile from their homeland. Most of the remaining population suffers under foreign military occupation, with a smaller number living as a minority within the legally-recognized territory of the occupier. The occupying power is in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, has illegally brought in tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory, routinely violates international standards of human rights, has built a heavily-fortified separation barrier deep inside the occupied territory, and continues to defy a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice. Furthermore, and despite all this, the occupying power is considered to be a close ally of the United States and receives substantial American military, economic, and diplomatic support to maintain its occupation and colonization of the territory.

This certainly describes the situation regarding Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank (including greater East Jerusalem) and Syria’s Golan region, as well as its quasi-occupation of the Gaza Strip. But it also describes the thirty-year occupation of Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco. Despite all the well-deserved attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the importance of working to end Israel’s occupation, the failure of the international community—including progressive movements in the United States and elsewhere—to also address the Western Sahara conflict raises questions as to why Morocco is getting away with its ongoing violation of human rights and international law with far less world attention than Israel receives.

Western Sahara: A Brief History

Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated territory about the size of Colorado, located on the Atlantic coast in northwestern Africa, just south of Morocco. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the territory was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s, well over a decade after most African countries had achieved their freedom from European colonialism. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975. Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in October of 1975 that the right of self-determination was paramount, despite pledges of fealty to the Moroccan sultan back in the nineteenth century by some tribal leaders bordering the territory and close ethnic ties between some Sahrawi and Mauritanian tribes. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation of the situation in the territory that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania.

During this same period, Morocco was threatening war with Spain over the territory. Though the Spaniards had a much stronger military, they were at that time dealing with the terminal illness of their longtime dictator General Francisco Franco as well as increasing pressure from the United States, which wanted to back its Moroccan ally King Hassan II and did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power. As a result, despite its earlier pledge to hold a referendum with the assumption that power would soon thereafter be handed over to the Polisario, Spain instead agreed in November 1975 to partition the territory between the pro-Western countries of Morocco and Mauritania.

As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, most of the population fled into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination. The United States and France, meanwhile, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the United Nations from enforcing them. At the same time, the Polisario—which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country—declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Thanks in part to the Algerians providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies. Mauritania was defeated by 1979, agreeing to turn their third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed that remaining southern part of the country as well.

The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and by 1982 had liberated nearly 85 percent of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war was reversed in Morocco’s favor thanks to the United States and France dramatically increasing their support for the Moroccan war effort, with U.S. forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counter-insurgency tactics. In addition, the Americans and French helped Morocco construct an 800-mile “wall,” primarily consisting of two heavily fortified parallel sand berms, which eventually shut off more than three-quarters of Western Sahara—including virtually all of the territory’s major towns and natural resources—from the Polisario.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers—some of whom were from southern Morocco and of ethnic Sabrawi background—to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining indigenous Sahrawis by a ratio of more than two to one.

While rarely able to penetrate into Moroccan-controlled territory, the Polisario continued regular assaults against Moroccan occupation forces stationed along the wall until 1991, when the United Nations ordered a cease-fire to be monitored by a UN peacekeeping force known as MINURSO. The agreement included provisions for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory, which would allow Sahrawis native to Western Sahara to vote either for independence or for integration with Morocco. Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, due to the Moroccan insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens whom it claimed had tribal links to the Western Sahara. Perhaps in part to help solicit American cooperation with United Nations efforts to resolve the conflict, Secretary General Kofi Annan enlisted former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as his special representative to help resolve the impasse. (Baker’s principal deputy was none other than John Bolton, now the infamous interim U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.) Morocco, however, continued to ignore repeated demands from the United Nations that it cooperate with the referendum process, and French and American threats of a veto prevented the Security Council from enforcing its mandate.

The Stalled Peace Process

In 2000, the Clinton administration successfully convinced Baker and Annan to give up on efforts to proceed with the referendum as originally agreed by the United Nations ten years earlier and instead to accept Moroccan demands that settlers be allowed to vote on the fate of the territory along with the indigenous Sahrawis. This proposal was incorporated in the first Baker Plan presented in early 2001, which would have held the plebiscite under Moroccan rule after a four- to five-year period of very limited autonomy with no guarantee that independence would be one of the options on the ballot. The Baker Plan received the enthusiastic backing of the new Bush administration, which had come to office in part through Baker’s role as lead counsel for the Bush campaign regarding the disputed Florida vote the previous November. This connection led some analysts to note that it was only appropriate that Baker would put forth a plan that would give legitimacy to a rigged election. Most of the international community roundly rejected the proposal, however, since it would have effectively abrogated previous UN resolutions granting the right of self-determination with the option of independence and would have led to the unprecedented action of the United Nations placing the fate of a non-self-governing territory in the hands of the occupying colonial power.

As a result, Baker then proposed a second plan in which, as with his earlier proposal, both the Sahrawis and the Moroccan settlers would be able to vote in the referendum, but the plebiscite would take place only after Western Sahara experienced far more significant autonomy for the four-to-five years prior to the vote. Independence would be an option on the ballot, and the United Nations would oversee the vote and guarantee that advocates of integration and independence would both have the freedom to campaign openly. The UN Security Council approved the second Baker plan in the summer of 2003.

Under considerable pressure, Algeria and eventually the Polisario reluctantly accepted the new plan, but the Moroccans—unwilling to allow the territory to enjoy even a brief period of autonomy and risk the possibility that they would lose the plebiscite—rejected it. Once again, the United States and France blocked the United Nations from pressuring Morocco to comply with its international legal obligations.

In what has been widely interpreted as rewarding Morocco for its intransigence, the Bush administration subsequently designated Morocco as a “major non-NATO ally,” a coveted status currently granted to only fifteen key nations, such as Japan, Israel, and Australia. The following month, the Senate ratified a free trade agreement with Morocco by an 85 to 13 margin, making the kingdom one of only a half dozen countries outside of the Western hemisphere to enjoy such a close economic relationship with the United States, though—in a potentially significant precedent—Congress insisted that it not include products from the Western Sahara.

U.S. aid to Morocco has gone up five-fold since the Bush administration came to office, ostensibly as a reward for the kingdom undertaking a series of neoliberal “economic reforms” and to assist the Moroccan government in “combating terrorism.” While there has been some political liberalization within Morocco in recent years under the young King Mohammed VI, who succeeded to the throne following the death of his father in 1999, gross and systematic human rights violations in the occupied Western Sahara continue unabated, with public expressions of nationalist aspirations and organized protests against the occupation and human rights abuses routinely met with severe repression.

The Significance of the Struggle for Self-Determination

The Sahrawis have fought for their national rights primarily by legal and diplomatic means, not through violence. Unlike the Palestinians and a number of other peoples engaged in national liberation struggles, the Sahrawis have never committed acts of terrorism. Even during their armed struggle against the occupation, a conflict that ended fifteen years ago, Polisario forces restricted their attacks exclusively to the Moroccan armed forces, never towards civilians.

The lack of resolution to the Western Sahara conflict has important regional implications. It has encouraged an arms race between Morocco and Algeria and, on several occasions over the past three decades, has brought the two countries close to war. Perhaps even more significantly, it has been the single biggest obstacle to a fuller implementation of the goals of the Arab Maghreb Union—consisting of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Mauritania—to pursue economic integration and other initiatives that would increase the standard of living and political stability in the region. The lack of unity and greater coordination between these nations and their struggling economies has contributed to a dramatic upsurge in illegal immigration to Europe and the rise of radical Islamist movements.

The majority of the Sahrawi population lives in exile in the desert of western Algeria in refugee camps under Polisario administration. The 150,000 Sahrawis living in these desert camps have developed a remarkably progressive political and social system governed by participatory democracy and collective economic enterprises within a limited market economy. Though devoutly Muslim, Sahrawi women are unveiled; enjoy equal rights with men regarding divorce, inheritance, and other legal matters; and hold major leadership positions in the Polisario and the SADR, including posts as cabinet ministers. While the Bush administration claims it seeks to establish such democratic governance throughout the Arab and Islamic world, in reality the U.S. government is actively preventing the Sahrawis from establishing such a democratic system outside these refugee camps by supporting the occupation of their country by an autocratic monarchy.

Over the past three decades, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has been recognized as an independent country by more than eighty governments, with Kenya and South Africa becoming the latest to extend full diplomatic relations. The SADR has been a full member state of the African Union (formerly known as the Organization for African Unity) since 1984 and the international community recognizes Western Sahara as Africa’s last colony. By contrast, with only a few exceptions, the Arab states—despite their outspoken opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land—have supported Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara.

With Morocco’s rejection of the second Baker Plan and the threat of a French and American veto of any Security Council resolution that would push Morocco to compromise, a diplomatic settlement of the conflict looks highly unlikely. With Morocco’s powerful armed forces protected behind the separation wall and Algeria unwilling to support a resumption of guerrilla war, the Polisario appears to lack a military option as well.

As happened during the 1980s in both South Africa and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, the locus of the Western Sahara freedom struggle has recently shifted from the military and diplomatic initiatives of an exiled armed movement to a largely unarmed popular resistance from within. In recent months, young activists in the occupied territory and even in Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco have confronted Moroccan troops in street demonstrations, despite the risk of shootings, mass arrests, and torture. Yet, here in the United States, a country that has played such a significant role over the past three decades in perpetuating Morocco’s illegal occupation, this revolution is not being televised. Even within the progressive community and among those well-versed in foreign affairs, very few people are aware of the Western Sahara struggle or could even find Western Sahara on a map. However, despite the lack of media coverage, the Sahrawi intifada will likely intensify as a result of the international community’s failure to resolve the conflict.

Building an Anti-Occupation Movement

Israel and Morocco are unique among the world’s occupying powers. While Turkey and Armenia have also violated a series of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their illegal conquests of territories belonging to other sovereign states and should be similarly obliged to withdraw, the vast majority of the peoples native to those territories are of the same ethnicity as, and largely supportive of, their conqueror. Likewise, there are other occupied nations whose peoples deserve statehood, such as Tibet and Chechnya, but these nations are legally recognized by the United Nations and the international community as part of the sovereign territory of their occupier.

Western Sahara is the only land—outside of the remaining territories still held by Israel since the June 1967 war—that is recognized by the United Nations as being illegitimately under the rule of a foreign power against the will of the subjected population. (The only other cases in recent years have been East Timor, which finally won independence four years ago following a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation; Namibia, which became free from occupation by the then-white minority government of South Africa in 1990; and Kuwait, which was liberated from six months under Iraqi occupation by a massive American-led military operation in February 1991.)

The moral and legal arguments in support for Western Sahara’s freedom from Moroccan rule and the culpability of the U.S. government in maintaining Morocco’s illegal occupation and colonization of the territory are reason enough to make this a priority for the peace and human rights community in the United States. There is a particularly strong imperative, however, for those of us supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace to address the Western Saharan conflict as well.

One of the major accusations leveled against those of us working to end Israel’s policies of occupation and colonization is that we are somehow “anti-Israel.” While such attacks in most cases are unfair and inaccurate, it is unfortunately true that a significant minority of those active in solidarity efforts with the Palestinians are not simply anti-occupation but are also ideologically opposed to Zionism and to Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state. To counter such suspicions, it would help those involved in the various campaigns to end Israel’s occupation and to stop unconditional U.S. support for the Israeli government to also address Morocco’s occupation and unconditional U.S. support for the Moroccan government.

Imagine, for example, if a divestment campaign included not just Caterpillar, Motorola, and other American companies backing the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank, but also Kerr-McGee, the U.S. energy conglomerate prospecting for oil in the Western Sahara on behalf of the Moroccan occupiers, or Westinghouse, which provides the electronic surveillance equipment along Morocco’s separation barrier? Or a campaign for conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel on the Israeli government ending its occupation that also demanded the same conditions regarding U.S. military aid to Morocco?

Rather than provoking divisive and polarizing arguments along the false dichotomy of “pro-Israel” versus “pro-Palestine,” the debate on college campuses and within labor unions, Christian denominations, and other institutions could instead center on the real issues: the right of self-determination, the repressive nature of foreign military occupation and colonization, and the illegitimacy of invading and annexing neighboring lands. With such an anti-occupation movement also targeting an Arab Muslim country, it would be less likely to provoke the backlash that has occurred against a movement that solely targets the world’s only Jewish state.

There is a sizable movement in Europe supporting the Sahrawis’ right to national self-determination, often working in conjunction with those supporting the Palestinians. By contrast, there is relatively little activism on Western Sahara here in the United States. Yet this can change: just ten years ago there was relatively little activism in this country regarding East Timor either. Working in conjunction with fellow peace and human rights activists in Canada. Great Britain, and Australia, however, supporters of East Timorese self-determination eventually forced the United States and these other governments to end their support for the Indonesian occupation. As a result, East Timor is now free.

A similar campaign may be the best hope for the people of Western Sahara and the best hope we have to save the vitally important post-World War II principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter—currently being challenged most seriously by Israel and Morocco—which forbids any country from expanding its territory through military force. Increased activism in support of the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination will also enhance the struggle for Israeli-Palestinian peace by helping to redirect the debate from bitter ideological disputes unique to that conflict to the defense of universal moral and legal principles. Focusing on the U.S. role in maintaining the Moroccan occupation will also further expose the Bush administration’s false claims that its Middle East policy is based upon supporting freedom and democracy and upholding the rule of law.

In short, supporting the campaign to free Western Sahara from the Moroccan occupation is both an important moral imperative and a smart strategic move for all those who care about peace and human rights.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and a member of the advisory board for the Tikkun Community. He is the Middle East/North Africa editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project ( and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.) His forthcoming book on Western Sahara, co-authored with Jacob Mundy, will be published by Syracuse University Press in 2006.

Source Citation: Zunes, Stephen. 2006. Western Sahara: The other occupation. Tikkun 21(1):49.