Bush at the UN: Annotated

President George W. Bush’s address before the United Nations General Assembly on September 19 appeared to be designed for the domestic U.S. audience. Indeed, few of the foreign delegations or international journalists present could take seriously his rhetoric regarding the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, given the reality of U.S. policy in the region.

?This morning, I want to speak about the more hopeful world that is within our reach, a world beyond terror, where ordinary men and women are free to determine their own destiny, where the voices of moderation are empowered, and where the extremists are marginalized by the peaceful majority. This world can be ours if we seek it and if we work together.?

Under President Bush, the United States has seriously undermined the ability of the international community to work together to empower voices of moderation and marginalize extremists. For example, the Bush administration has gone to great efforts to undermine the International Criminal Court, which could play a critical role in bringing to justice extremists responsible for crimes against humanity. Similarly, with bipartisan support in Congress, the Bush administration attacked the International Court of Justice for its landmark 2004 ruling on the obligations of signatories to enforce the Fourth Geneva Convention. The United States, the world’s number one arms supplier, has also blocked UN efforts to curb the trade in small arms used by terrorists. Currently, the United States sends more arms and security assistance than any other country to autocratic regimes and other violators of universally recognized human rights in the Middle East and elsewhere.

?Recently a courageous group of Arab and Muslim intellectuals wrote me a letter. In it, they said this: ?The shore of reform is the only one on which any lights appear, even though the journey demands courage and patience and perseverance.’ ? Together we must support the dreams of good and decent people who are working to transform a troubled region ??

What President Bush failed to mention is that that letter, in which 90 of the region’s most prominent intellectuals called on President Bush ?to reaffirm?in words and actions?America’s commitment to sustained democratic reform in the Arab world? also stated that it ?is our belief that the main problem with U.S. policies in the Middle East (in particular in Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere) is precisely their failure to live up to America’s democratic ideals of liberty and justice for all.? The letter also called on President Bush to ?break with 60 years of U.S. support for non-democratic regimes in the region, and to make that known to the world in unequivocal terms? and ?to press for an end to regime repression of democratically spirited liberal and Islamist groups, and to emphatically distance itself from such repression and condemn it in the strongest terms whenever and wherever it occurs.? There is no indication that the Bush administration intends to change its policies, however.

?Some of the changes in the Middle East are happening gradually, but they are real ? The United Arab Emirates recently announced that half of the seats in its Federal National Council will be chosen by elections. Kuwait held elections in which women were allowed to vote and run for office for the first time. Citizens have voted in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, in parliamentary elections in Jordan and Bahrain, and in multiparty presidential elections in Yemen and Egypt. These are important steps ??

None of the ?elections? that President Bush mentioned is very real or important.

The Federal National Council in the United Arab Emirates serves only as an advisory body. All political power rests in the Supreme Council of Rulers, which consists of the seven dynastic emirs of the federation’s emirates.

In Kuwait, in which only 15% of the country’s population has voting rights, the royal family largely sets the policy agenda, dominates the country’s politics, and controls any real political power. The unelected emir appoints the prime minister and cabinet, and the royal family holds virtually all key posts and can dissolve the parliament at will for years at a time, as it has done twice in recent decades.

Only men are allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia and only for half the seats in municipal councils. There is no constitution, no national legislature, and no political parties. The royal family exclusively wields political power in conjunction with input from the unelected ultra-conservative Islamic ulema. Torture, extra-judicial killings, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression are commonplace.

Few consider the most recent Jordanian elections for the lower house of parliament fair, due to the highly unrepresentative drawing of assembly districts in favor of the monarchy as well as restrictions on the political platforms parties can advocate in order to take part. In any case, the elected lower house cannot initiate legislation and cannot enact laws without the approval of the upper house, which is appointed by the king. The king can also dissolve parliament at will, as he did between 2001 and 2003 without any apparent objections from the Bush administration.

Though a more open society than neighboring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s most recent parliamentary elections were boycotted by leftists and leading Shiite groups due to electoral gerrymandering and restrictions on political campaigning. The king?who comes from the country’s Sunni minority?has ultimate control over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Around the forthcoming presidential elections in Yemen, the government and police have been openly pushing for the incumbent’s re-election amid widespread allegations of voter intimidation, ballot-rigging, vote-buying, and registration fraud. Just two days before the vote, President Ali Abdullah Saleh?who has held power for 28 years and claimed victory in the last election by 94% of the vote?announced the arrest on ?terrorist? charges of a campaign official of his leading opponent.

Last year’s presidential elections in Egypt were even worse than Yemen’s in that the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime declared the largest opposition party illegal, effectively banned independent candidates, severely restricted media access and publication rights of opposition campaigns, and refused to allow international observers. Only 23% of the electorate bothered to go to the polls, and Mubarak won re-election with an improbable 88% of the vote. Government security forces beat up and arrested protestors demanding more open elections, and the runner up in the presidential race received a five-year jail sentence.

Perhaps the freest elections in the Arab world last year took place in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Within months, however, the United States backed Israeli attacks on these nations that killed hundreds of civilians and caused billions of dollars worth of damage to their civilian infrastructure?an indication of how the United States really feels about free elections.

?Some have argued that the democratic changes we’re seeing in the Middle East are destabilizing the region. This argument rests on a false assumption, that the Middle East was stable to begin with. The reality is that the stability we thought we saw in the Middle East was a mirage.?

This is a terribly misleading characterization of the administration’s critics:

First of all, the Middle East has not been seen as a stable part of the world since well before the fall of the Ottoman Empire. For many decades, outside observers have widely recognized the serious ongoing conflicts in that region. There was no ?mirage? here.

More importantly, virtually no one argues that the very limited democratic changes in recent years have destabilized the region. Instead, critics of U.S. policy note correctly that the region has been destabilized by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the large-scale killings of civilians in U.S. military operations, and other U.S. violations of international law and national sovereignty.

?For decades, millions of men and women in the region have been trapped in oppression and hopelessness. And these conditions left a generation disillusioned, and made this region a breeding ground for extremism. Imagine what it’s like to be a young person living in a country that is not moving toward reform: ? you have been fed propaganda and conspiracy theories that blame others for your country’s shortcomings. And everywhere you turn, you hear extremists who tell you that you can escape your misery and regain your dignity through violence and terror and martyrdom. For many across the broader Middle East, this is the dismal choice presented every day.?

The observation that having so many people ?trapped in oppression? creates ?a breeding ground for extremism? is quite valid. But the most dangerous extremists in the region have come from among Saudis, Egyptians, and Palestinians, all of whom have been victims of political repression by governments backed by the United States. And while extremists do cynically manipulate those suffering under such oppression into supporting their dangerous ideology and tactics, both the ongoing Israeli occupation and the control of a number of other Middle Eastern governments by autocratic rulers is made possible in large part by U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support. The effected populations already widely recognize this reality, and it is the primary cause of anti-American terrorism.

?To the people of Lebanon: Last year, you inspired the world when you came out into the streets to demand your independence from Syrian dominance. You drove Syrian forces from your country and you reestablished democracy. Since then, you have been tested by the fighting that began with Hezbollah’s unprovoked attacks on Israel. Many of you have seen your homes and communities caught in crossfire ? The United Nations has passed a good resolution that has authorized an international force, led by France and Italy, to help you restore Lebanese sovereignty over Lebanese soil.?

This outreach to the Lebanese people is disingenuous on several fronts. First of all, the United States initially supported Syria’s military intervention into Lebanon in 1976 and their consolidation of power in 1990. Second, Israel planned its assault in close consultation with the Bush administration long before Hezbollah’s July 12 attack on an Israeli border post. Third, Lebanese homes and communities were not ?caught in crossfire? but were victims of massive bombings and shelling by the U.S.-supplied Israeli armed forces, the vast majority of which were many miles from any Hezbollah military activity. Fourth, the United States repeatedly delayed and then ultimately weakened the UN Security Council resolution authorizing an international force.

?To the people of Iran: The United States respects you; we respect your country ? The United Nations has passed a clear resolution requiring that the regime in Tehran meet its international obligations. Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions ? We’re working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis. And as we do, we look to the day when you can live in freedom?and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace.?

Given that the United States was responsible for the coup that overthrew Iran’s last democratic government back in 1953 and subsequently backed the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime for a quarter century, platitudes regarding respect for the people of Iran and hope that they may live in freedom do not carry much weight. Indeed, though Iran’s electoral process is seriously flawed on many levels, elections there have tended to be freer and more representative than those in the seven U.S.-backed regimes praised by President Bush.

Regarding Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, the UN Security Council has indeed passed a resolution requiring Iranian compliance with the unusually strict safeguards demanded by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, President Bush has shown little regard for the enforcement of other UN Security Council resolutions regarding nuclear issues. For example, the United States has not only blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolution 1172 requiring Pakistan and India to eliminate their nuclear weapons arsenals but President Bush has also signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with India and has announced the sale of sophisticated nuclear-capable jet fighter-bombers to Pakistan. In addition, the United States has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolution 487 requiring Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the trusteeship of the IAEA and has continued to provide Israel with nuclear-capable jets and missiles.

Finally, given the Bush administration’s rejection of Iranian diplomatic overtures, its lack of support for European diplomatic initiatives, and widespread reports of Pentagon preparations for a U.S. military assault on Iran, there are serious questions as to whether the Bush administration is really ?working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis.?

?To the people of Syria: ? Today your rulers have allowed your country to become a crossroad for terrorism. In your midst, Hamas and Hezbollah are working to destabilize the region, and your government is turning your country into a tool of Iran. This is increasing your country’s isolation from the world. Your government must choose a better way forward by ending its support for terror, and living in peace with your neighbors, and opening the way to a better life for you and your families.?

While the Syrian regime certainly does not have clean hands, that country is hardly a ?crossroad of terrorism.? Few governments, for example, have been more helpful to the United States in the struggle against al-Qaida. Syria has also ended support of the Kurdish PKK.

The political wing of Hamas has offices in Damascus, as it does in a number of other Arab capitals. But their military operations are based in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, not Syria. Similarly, Hamas’s financial support has traditionally come from the U.S.-backed monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, not Syria. In addition, Syria has long ceased its once-active support for leftist Palestinian groups guilty of a series of terrorist attacks in the 1970s.

Syria has substantially reduced its ties with Hezbollah, which had not attacked Israeli civilians for well over a decade until Israel began attacking Lebanese civilians on July 12. Similarly, Hezbollah ended its attacks on Israelis when Israel ceased its attacks on Lebanese. Indeed, the European Union and most governments do not characterize Hezbollah as a terrorist group anymore.

No educated observer sees Syria, with its strong tradition of Arab nationalism, as ?a tool of Iran.? Ironically, Bush administration officials have recently been claiming that Syria was backing Sunni Iraqi factions fighting Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi factions.

And rather than refusing to ?live in peace with your neighbors,? Syria has offered a peace treaty and full diplomatic relations with Israel in return for its withdrawal from Syrian territory seized in the 1967 war. The current Israeli government has refused to consider such a proposal, however, with no apparent objections from the Bush administration.

Finally, Syria is hardly isolated from the world, having recently signed trade deals with Russia, Turkey, and the European Union and having won election just a few years ago to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

?I’m committed to two democratic states?Israel and Palestine?living side-by-side in peace and security. I’m committed to a Palestinian state that has territorial integrity and will live peacefully with the Jewish state of Israel ? Yet extremists in the region are stirring up hatred and trying to prevent these moderate voices from prevailing. ?

This is a good and important vision. But?as with President Bush’s visions of a democratic Middle East?his actual policies tell a very different story.

In endorsing Israeli Prime Minister’s Ehud Olmert’s ?convergence plan,? President Bush has demonstrated he is not really interested in a viable Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. The Israeli government, with the support of the Bush administration and a large bipartisan majority in Congress, appears ready to annex large swathes of occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank that would leave the Palestinians with a small non-contiguous archipelago of territories surrounded by Israel. Across this archipelago, Israel would control air space, water rights, and the movements of people and goods between each segment of the Palestinian ?state? and neighboring Arab states.

Finally, the hatred one finds in many parts of the Palestinian community toward Israel stems from years of suffering under a brutal and humiliating U.S.-backed Israeli occupation. Instead of blaming “extremists” for ?stirring up? such hatred, the best way to help moderate voices to prevail is to press Israel to end its illegal occupation and colonization of occupied Palestinian land.


Bush on 9/11: Annotated

Despite promises from the White House that the address to the nation on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy would be non-political, President George W. Bush devoted much the speech to defending his unrelated policy on Iraq.

Below are some annotated excerpts from President Bush’s speech:

“[T]he regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat. My administration, the Congress, and the United Nations saw the threat?and after 9/11, Saddam’s regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take.”

Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of banned weapons had been destroyed and his biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons program had been completely dismantled long before 9/11. His armed forces were just a fraction of their original size, and a strict international arms embargo had made rearmament impossible. In 2002, the United Nations correctly insisted that UN arms inspectors be allowed to return to verify that Iraq had indeed disarmed. When Saddam Hussein consented and the inspectors were allowed unimpeded access inside the country, the UN Security Council recognized that Iraq was no longer a threat and thus did not authorize the use of military force as the Bush administration demanded.

“The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.”

Though one of the world’s worse tyrants, Saddam Hussein’s ability to do harm to other nations had been severely limited as a result of the UN-imposed disarmament regime, military sanctions, and imposed limitations on military movements within the country. Today, however, the extraordinary violence, instability, civil conflict, foreign intervention, and possible breakup of the country threaten to destabilize the entire region. In addition, a new generation of radical foreign jihadists, which has come to Iraq to fight the U.S. occupation, is now getting invaluable training that could be used later against other countries.

“Al-Qaida and other extremists from across the world have come to Iraq to stop the rise of a free society in the heart of the Middle East.”

According to extensive interviews with captured insurgents in Iraq, their motivation appears to be the same as what motivated extremists who came to Afghanistan in the 1980s: to fight what they see as a Western neo-colonial conquest of an Islamic nation. Furthermore, Freedom House and other groups that monitor levels of freedom rank at least a half dozen Middle Eastern countries as having greater freedom than Iraq. So if the goal of al-Qaida and other extremists was really to stop the rise of free societies in the Middle East, they would presumably be fighting in those countries instead.

“We’re training Iraqi troops so they can defend their nation. We’re helping Iraq’s unity government grow in strength and serve its people. We will not leave until this work is done.”

By all accounts, despite three and a half years of training Iraqi troops and supporting the Iraqi government, the United States appears to have made little progress in creating a functioning government in Iraq or an armed forces capable of defending it. During the 1980s, the Soviets provided extensive military training and government support for the Afghan regime. Prior to that, the United States provided extensive military training and government support to the South Vietnamese regime. What ultimately mattered, however, was that the people of those countries did not see these foreign-installed regimes as legitimate, and as a result, were not willing to fight and die to defend them. This appears to be what is happening in Iraq. As a result, the United States will be in Iraq for a long, long time.

“Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us.”

This assertion is simply a retread of the long-discredited line used to justify the U.S. 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 more than three decades since the National Liberation Front marched into Saigon has the United States had to fight the Vietnamese or any other communists in our country. The Vietnamese stopped killing Americans when our troops left Vietnam. Presumably, Iraqis would do the same once we got out of their country.

“The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad ? If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened; they will gain a new safe haven; they will use Iraq’s resources to fuel their extremist movement.”

There are dozens of different armed militias battling U.S. forces. Supporters of Osama bin Laden represent only a tiny percentage of the insurgency. Even if the U.S.-backed Iraqi government falls, supporters of al-Qaida could in no way end up in control of that country. Their ideology and tactics are opposed not only by the vast majority of Iraqis but by the majority of the insurgents as well. The safety of America is threatened by a continuation of the U.S. occupation and the bloody counter-insurgency war that is fueling anti-American extremism throughout the Middle East and beyond.

“We are now in the early hours of this struggle between tyranny and freedom. Amid the violence, some question whether the people of the Middle East want their freedom. For 60 years, these doubts guided our policies in the Middle East. And then, on a bright September morning, it became clear that the calm we saw in the Middle East was only a mirage. Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither. So we changed our policies, and committed America’s influence in the world to advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism. With our help, the people of the Middle East are now stepping forward to claim their freedom. By standing with democratic leaders and reformers, by giving voice to the hopes of decent men and women, we’re offering a path away from radicalism.”

There is no question that people in the Middle East want freedom; for President Bush to imply that those who disagree with his policies feel otherwise is incredibly misleading. Despite a shift in rhetoric, however, U.S. policy regarding freedom and democracy in the Middle East has not changed. Under President Bush, U.S. security assistance and arms transfers to autocratic regimes in the greater Middle East has actually increased. The United States still provides unconditional military and police support for the brutal Islamic fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia and other family dictatorships of the Persian Gulf. U.S. taxpayers continue to give billions of dollars annually to prop up the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt. It was from these countries that the 9/11 hijackers, the al-Qaida leadership, and the terrorist organization’s financial support came, not from Iraq and Afghanistan, whose despotic governments were overthrown by U.S. forces, nor from Syria or Iran, whose repressive governments are now the focus of U.S. threats.

In addition, in the two years after 9/11, President Bush provided over a billion dollars of aid to the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan “which has massacred hundreds of pro-democracy activists” and will shortly be welcoming the corrupt dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev of neighboring Kazakhstan to his summer home in Maine. From Pakistan to Azerbaijan to Tunisia to Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, the Bush administration has provided aid and comfort to the forces of repression. By contrast, soon after the people of Lebanon and Palestine voted in free elections, the Bush administration backed brutal military assaults against those countries by the government of Israel. And, rather than being a model for democracy, the U.S. backed government in Iraq and militias of its ruling parties have engaged in widespread extra-judicial killings, torture, ethnic cleansing, and other gross and systematic human rights abuses.