Reasons Not to Like Ford

Through the obligatory accolades that inevitably follow the death of a former president, it is important to remember Gerald Ford’s problematic legacy in leading the United States in its international relations during his time as president. However decent and moral Ford may have been as a person, his foreign policy was anything but.

From Southeast Asia to Africa and Latin America, Ford made unsavory alliances and pursued unpopular policies that ignored international human rights standards. His short tenure of office only solidified the American reputation for unprincipled realpolitik that was a hallmark of the Nixon-Kissinger era.

Waging War

Despite brutal repression, massive corruption and widespread violations of the Paris Peace Agreement, President Ford continued to send billions of dollars of aid to prop up the tottering dictatorship of General Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam. This support needlessly prolonged the war until the Communist-led uprising finally ousted the regime in April 1975.

The following month, Cambodian naval forces seized the Mayaguez. The civilian U.S. merchant ship and its 40-member crew was sailing in a shipping lane that the Cambodians claimed to be within their international maritime boundaries. Without even attempting negotiations for their release, Ford ordered air strikes on the port city of Kompong Som and a Marine assault on the heavily fortified Koh Tang Island. This operation took the lives of 44 American servicemen and scores of Cambodian soldiers and civilians.

Despite reports that the Mayaguez crew had already been released before the U.S. military assault began, the media and leaders of both parties praised Ford for his “decisive” action. The failure of Congress to enforce the recently passed War Powers Act served to severely weaken subsequent efforts to challenge unilateral presidential war-making authority.

Unsavory Alliances

In November 1975, President Ford pushed the Spanish government to renege on its promise of independence for Western Sahara. As a result, Morocco seized the territory with Spanish support and in violation of a ruling by the International Court of Justice and a series of UN resolutions. To this day, Western Sahara remains under a Moroccan military occupation that brutally suppresses pro-independence activists and has sent much of the population into exile.

The following month, on a visit to Jakarta, Ford gave the Indonesian dictator Suharto the green light to take over East Timor, then just emerging from Portuguese colonial rule. Less than 24 hours later, Indonesian troops invaded the island nation, embarking upon a series of massacres that would eventually take the lives of 200,000 people – one third of the country’s population – before the occupation finally ended six years ago.

In both cases, Ford blocked the UN Security Council from enforcing its resolutions demanding the withdrawal of the occupying armies and respecting the right of self-determination.

Ford also set back efforts for Middle East peace by vetoing the first UN Security Council resolution that called for the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from Arab lands and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in return for strict security guarantees for Israel.

Ford provided military and economic aid, including training for repressive internal security forces, to more than a dozen Latin American dictatorships, including that of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. He sent large-scale arms aid and security assistance to scores of other brutal dictators, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and the Shah of Iran, both of whom routinely used U.S. equipment and training to repress their own people.

In Africa, Ford purchased millions of dollars worth of chrome from the white minority regime in Rhodesia in violation of the mandatory UN embargo. He allied with both the Mobutu dictatorship of Zaire and the apartheid regime in South Africa to arm rebel groups against the internationally recognized government of Angola. This support only ended when Congress voted to block U.S. military involvement in the Angolan civil war. Ford also stifled international efforts to impose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government despite its illegal occupation of Namibia and the unprecedented wave of repression following student protests in Soweto in June 1976.

Ford’s Legacy

Such alliances with dictators and rights-abusing regimes were well-known and, according to public opinion polls at the time, not popular among the American people. Indeed, Ford was defeated in part because the Democratic nominee, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, promised to pursue a different foreign policy agenda based on greater respect for human rights and international law.

Yet, despite Ford’s lack of support for such principles, he was wise enough to oppose the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He recognized that Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a threat to American security, that there were better ways of containing any potential threat, and that an invasion and occupation would create far worse problems for the United States and the region. That the majority of Democratic senators and the Democratic leadership of both houses of Congress voted to authorize the invasion anyway, thereby placing themselves to the right of this conservative Republican president, is indicative of how much foreign policy discourse in Washington has deteriorated in the past 30 years.

Reasons to Like Ike

The fiftieth anniversary of the Suez Crisis came and went this past November without much notice. That’s too bad because the Bush administration could learn a lot from the crisis, which ensued when the armed forces of Great Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, then under the rule of Gamal Abdul-Nasser. In a move that earned the United States respect around the world, the administration of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower denounced the tripartite invasion as a violation of international law and used America’s considerable diplomatic leverage to force a withdrawal of these American allies.

The goal of the British, French, and Israelis was regime change. They compared Nasser to Adolph Hitler and insisted he was threat to the region’s security and to the world. He was believed to be developing chemical and biological weapons, and there was fear that he might even have long-term nuclear ambitions. He was accused of supporting Palestinian and Algerian terrorists. His nationalization of the Suez Canal Company from its British and French owners was seen as a dangerous socialist initiative that they hoped to reverse by re-opening the country to foreign investment and market principles. His autocratic rule and ruthless repression of dissent led to calls to liberate the country in the name of bringing democracy to the region.

Yet, despite this, the Eisenhower administration wisely recognized that, should our erstwhile allies succeed in their overthrow and occupation, it would set a dangerous precedent. The United States had led the world just weeks earlier in condemning the Soviet Union for its brutal invasion of Hungary and its denial of their right of self-determination. Recognizing that consistency in the application of international law was critical for U.S. credibility, Eisenhower figured that it would be wrong to allow its Cold War allies to get away with what it condemned its Cold War adversary from doing.

Indeed, Eisenhower realized that such an overt violation of the UN Charter and could risk a breakdown of the post-World War II international legal system critical to international stability. He also recognized that democracy could not be imposed from above and that free elections in the Middle East would not necessarily bring to power stable pro-American governments. The Eisenhower administration also recognized that the re-conquest of an Arab state by Western powers would breed widespread popular resistance, including guerrilla warfare and terrorism in Egypt and throughout the Arab/Islamic world, and would encourage anti-Western extremism.

The threat of U.S. economic sanctions against Britain and France, still heavily in debt to the United States from World War II, as well as against Israel, which was even more dependent on U.S. contributions in its early years than it is today, was enough to force these countries to withdraw from Egypt within weeks. Eisenhower initially challenged the Israelis and our European allies just days prior to the 1956 presidential election, in which he was seeking his second term. Despite the widespread belief – even at that time – that it’s politically dangerous to criticize Israel during an election campaign, Eisenhower was re-elected by a landslide.

This policy was even more popular overseas. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, in his biography of Eisenhower, “Eisenhower’s insistence on the primacy of the U.N., of treaty obligations, and of the rights of all nations gave the United States a standing in world opinion it had never before achieved.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles noted, “This has been a policy which has evoked greater international support for the United States than we have secured at any time in our history.”

The Eisenhower administration was certainly not above violating international legal norms, such as clandestinely sponsoring coups against democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Iran. Yet at least the United States at that time had the sense to recognize the dangerous consequences of a full-scale invasion and occupation of an Arab nation by a Western power.

It is profoundly disappointing how much our country has regressed in the past 50 years. President George W. Bush, with the support of the Republican and much of the Democratic leadership in Congress, launched an invasion of Iraq using the same flawed rationalizations that the British, French, and Israelis used in1956. Not surprisingly, the dangers of such an offensive war recognized by Eisenhower have largely come to pass.

There is an important historic lesson here: when the United States defends our historic principles of enforcing the rule of law, support for the right of self-determination, and rejection of imperialism, we are respected and supported in the Arab and Islamic world. When we do otherwise, we become the targets of terrorists and extremists.

In short, we are not hated for our values. We are hated because we have strayed from those values.

The United States and Lebanon’s Civil Strife

The ongoing popular challenge to the pro-Western Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora marks yet another setback in the Bush administration’s attempt to impose a new order on the Middle East more compatible with perceived U.S. strategic interests.

The success of the nonviolent people power movement against Syria’s overbearing role in Lebanese politics during the spring of 2005?dubbed the Cedar Revolution?was an impressive triumph of popular democratic forces, forcing the withdrawal of Syrian forces and enabling the country to proceed with parliamentary elections without Syrian interference. However, despite claims by the Bush administration to the contrary, the elections?which, like all Lebanese elections, took place under the country’s colonially-imposed confessional representation system?did not constitute a victory for ?reformers.? Instead, the victors were primarily a group of corrupt pro-Western elite politicians from the same traditional political families who have ruled the country since independence.

Their credibility among the Lebanese people was reduced further this summer when the United States rejected their pleas to use its considerable influence to stop Israel’s brutal 35-day military assault against their country which took the lives of more than 1,000 civilians and caused billions of dollars of damage to the country’s civilian infrastructure.

Little Credibility

The recent U.S. assertion of ?the unwavering commitment of the United States to help build Lebanese democracy and to support Lebanese independence from the encroachment of Iran and Syria? carries little credibility among the Lebanese: The United States has twice intervened militarily in Lebanon during the past 50 years to prop up unpopular minority governments, defended repeated Israeli incursions onto sovereign Lebanese territory?including a full-scale invasion in 1982?and supported Israel’s 22-year occupation of the southern part of that country, which did not end until 2000. (See my article The United States and Lebanon: A Meddlesome History.)

The United States has also tried to blame Syria for the November 21 assassination of Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel. Yet, while the Syrians have likely been responsible for a number of assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese political leaders, there are serious questions regarding Bush administration assertions of Syrian responsibility for Gemayel’s death. Given the heavy international scrutiny of Damascus over its likely role in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year, it is improbable they would engage in such a high-profile murder. Furthermore, being assassinated by gunmen in broad daylight is more typical of the method used by rival Lebanese groups; Syrian intelligence has traditionally used timed or remote-controlled bombs as a means of more easily denying their responsibility.

Many Enemies

Perhaps more significantly, Gemayel had plenty of domestic enemies. He was a leader in the Phalangist Party, originally a fascist movement modeled after Hitler Youth, founded by his grandfather and namesake in the late 1930s, which vehemently opposed the left-wing Arab nationalism which swept the Middle East over subsequent decades. The Phalangist militia, led by his uncle, was responsible for the massacres of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians during Lebanon’s civil war, including the infamous 1982 Israeli-backed massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. His father was soon thereafter installed as president under Israeli guns and was forced to suppress a popular uprising in large part through the deployment of thousands of U.S. Marines on the southern outskirts of the capital and U.S. air strikes against anti-government forces. As a result, there were plenty of Lebanese who did not wish to see the continuation of the Gemayal dynasty.

Though Syrian responsibility certainly cannot be ruled out, it is also quite possible that the eagerness by the Bush administration to affix blame on Damascus may be yet another attempt to take advantage of Lebanon’s ongoing tragic political struggles to advance its regional political agenda of isolating the Assad regime.

Similarly, criticism of what the Bush administration refers to as ?attempts by Syria, Iran, and their allies within Lebanon to foment instability and violence? bear little weight in a country against which the United States has supported decades of violent and destabilizing Israeli attacks which have taken many thousands of civilian lives, destroyed many billions of dollars worth of property, and have inflicted serious damage to the country’s fragile environment.

Domestic Issues

Though Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran, undoubtedly hope to take advantage of the country’s instability, the current political crisis is primarily rooted in domestic issues, specifically the ongoing under-representation in government by Lebanon’s Shiites, the largest and poorest of the country’s three major religious communities. The opposition is led by the country’s two largest Shiite parties, the radical Islamist Hezbollah?backed by Iran?and the more moderate Shiite Amal Party, historically backed by Syria. Added to the mix are an assortment of Lebanese leftists and the Machiavellian retired general and former interim Prime Minister Michel Aoun, a Christian who, in previous political incarnations, had been backed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and later by the United States.

What is most worrying to the United States is the leading role of Hezbollah in the opposition campaign. However, it should be remembered that the Bush administration itself is largely to blame for Hezbollah’s ascendancy. The failure of the Lebanese government to fight this summer’s Israeli onslaught, combined with the surprisingly tough resistance by Hezbollah’s militia, shifted the allegiance of many Lebanese?even those who do not support Hezbollah’s extremist brand of Islam?away from the pro-Western government and toward the Hezbollah-led opposition.

The United States, which for many months had goaded Israel into attacking Lebanon (see my article How Washington Goaded Israel), had hoped this summer’s massive military assault would turn the Lebanese population against Hezbollah, which had failed to disarm its militia as required by both the 1990 Taif Accords and a 2005 United Nations Security Council resolution, and which had sparked the Israeli assault by its provocative July 12 attack on an Israeli border post and its seizure of two Israeli soldiers. However, as is usually the case when a powerful armed force wages a devastating air campaign against a guerrilla force and the country’s civilian population, it actually strengthened Hezbollah’s standing by allowing the radical Islamist group to assert its nationalist credentials as defenders of the nation against foreign aggression.

Few Islamist Slogans

Indeed, it is striking how the Hezbollah-led protests in the streets of Beirut have featured few Islamist slogans or Hezbollah colors and have instead been dominated by protestors displaying Lebanon’s national flag. Bush administration officials and congressional leaders who try to lump Hezbollah with mega-terrorist groups like al-Qaida fail to recognize that it is Hezbollah’s nationalist appeal more than its radical brand of Islam that is the basis of its power. And just as Hezbollah’s opponents try to depict them as puppets of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah and its allies are having greater success depicting the Lebanese government as puppets of France and the United States.

As dangerous and reactionary as Hezbollah’s brand of Islamist ideology may be, they represent an important departure from the traditional Lebanese politics of Western-backed Christian and Sunni Muslim elites by also offering a populist economic program that gives priority to the country’s poor majority and challenges the endemic corruption of the government. Prime Minister Siniora, who has strong ties with international finance, is an outspoken supporter of free trade and big business, positions that put him in favor with Washington and Paris, but are not popular with most Lebanese.

In addition, Hezbollah?thanks in part to generous financial support from Iran?has been far more successful in leading reconstruction of the war-ravaged country than the corrupt and inefficient central government. Furthermore, while willing to provide Lebanon’s relatively wealthy neighbor Israel with more than four billion dollars of unconditional aid annually, the Bush administration has offered Lebanon only $230 million in reconstruction aid in response to the estimated $3.6 billion in damage caused primarily by U.S. weapons and ordinance provided to Israel.

Thus, while the growing instability in Lebanon is indeed troubling and any undue Syrian and Iranian influence should indeed be challenged, it would be a mistake to over-simplify the complexities of Lebanese politics through the lens of the Bush administration’s world view or to underestimate the United States’ role in contributing to the conditions which have led to Lebanon’s current crisis.

The Democrats’ War

With power comes responsibility. Once they take over both houses of Congress on January 3, the Democrats will have the responsibility to get American troops out of Iraq as soon as practicable.

The United States has now been at war in Iraq longer than it fought the Axis powers in World War II. The American public has lost patience. Currently, public opinion polls show that only 31% of the population supports Bush administration policy toward the conflict. A majority of voters surveyed wants a withdrawal of American troops, and a majority of registered Democrats wants an immediate withdrawal. Despite efforts by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to provide extensive funds for pro-war Democratic candidates while denying them to anti-war Democratic candidates, anti-war candidates actually out-performed pro-war candidates in defeating Republican incumbents.

However, in defiance of their constituents and oblivious to the polls, very few Democrats in the House and none in the Senate have been willing to call for immediate withdrawal, at most calling for some kind of “phased withdrawal” or “strategic redeployment.” Although most Democrats who have spoken out against the war have criticized the Bush administration’s conduct of the war, they have fallen short of declaring the war itself illegal and immoral. Nor have many acknowledged that the conquest by a Western power of such a large Middle Eastern state was doomed from the beginning.

Where’s the Spine?

The November 7 election provided a mandate to change U.S. policy toward Iraq. Early signs, however, indicate that the Democrats are unwilling to fulfill their anti-war mandate. By more than a 2:1 margin, the pro-war Rep. Steny Hoyer beat the anti-war Rep. Jack Murtha in the race for majority leader. Perhaps more significantly, it appears that the Democrats will have two outspoken supporters of the Iraq war as their chief foreign policy spokesmen.

Tom Lantos is slated to become chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Lantos has repeatedly denounced the United Nations and the International Court of Justice for their defense of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. In acknowledging the disproportionate impact the war has had on poor and working class Americans, Lantos–rather than calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces–has instead issued a “call upon all of the people of this country to do more to carry their fair share of the load.” He has criticized the waste, fraud, and abuse in Iraq resulting from U.S. policies but he has not pressed the administration to do more than simply, in the words of last year’s “United States Policy in Iraq Act,” create “the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq.”

Lantos was also one of the chief congressional backers of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2001, in order to frighten the American public into supporting President George W. Bush’s calls for a U.S. takeover of that oil-rich Middle Eastern country, Lantos and other key Democrats claimed that Iraq was developing long-range missiles “that will threaten the United States and our allies,” even though–as arms control experts correctly noted at the time–this was not actually the case. Similarly, though the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed that Iraq no longer had a nuclear weapons program and strict international sanctions prevented that country from restarting it, Lantos claimed that such peaceful and diplomatic means to eliminate Iraq’s nuclear program had actually failed and that military means were necessary to prevent Iraq from developing its nuclear capability.

Meanwhile, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden is expected to take the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rejecting the UN Charter and other basic principles of international law, Biden is an outspoken supporter of the extremist view that the United States had the right to invade Iraq–and, by extension, any other country–simply on the grounds that the government might pose a threat some time in the future. In response to those who argued that there was no clear threat to America’s national security from Iraq, Biden declared, “If we wait for the danger to become clear and present, it could be too late.” In response to the ethnic and sectarian conflict that engulfed Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion, Biden has emerged as a leading advocate of splitting Iraq into three, an action likely to lead to ethnic cleansing and other bloodshed.

Thanks to constituent pressure, however, Biden now advocates a withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2007. Like most Democratic senators, though, he continues to support unconditional funding for the war.

It is certainly a positive sign that more and more Democrats in Congress are finally distancing themselves from President Bush’s Iraq policies. However, Democratic calls for “strategic redeployment” may mean little more than concentrating U.S. forces in Kuwait or other nearby pro-U.S. dictatorships where they can escalate the air war, resulting in fewer American casualties but far greater Iraqi civilian casualties.

The year 2006 may be remembered in the same way as 1968, when elite opinion finally caught up with public opinion in recognizing that an increasingly costly counter-insurgency war was unwinnable and that the United States needed to develop some kind of exit strategy. Thanks to continued support for the Vietnam War by the Democratic-controlled Congress, however American troops were finally withdrawn only in 1973, with the strategic situation no better than it was five years earlier. Unless the Democrats are willing to show more spine this time around, U.S. forces could continue to fight a no-win war in Iraq War until at least 2011.

Turning Off the Spigot

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president has enormous power over the disposition of the U.S. military in Iraq ever since Congress–with the support of Democratic leaders–authorized the invasion in October of 2002. However, Congress holds the power of the purse. The House and Senate could force the withdrawal of American troops by withholding funding for U.S. military operations in Iraq after a certain date.

Congress has precedent for so using its influence. In May 1970, the Cooper-Church amendment eliminated funding for U.S. ground forces in Cambodia just weeks after President Richard Nixon launched a U.S. invasion of that Southeast Asian country. In January of 1976, the Clark amendment banned funding for U.S. military operations in Angola’s civil war (though this was later repealed during the Reagan administration after the Republicans captured the Senate.) The Boland amendment of 1982 restricted U.S. support for the Contras, forcing the Reagan administration to use illegal means to fund the war against Nicaragua. In late 1989, after the Salvadoran Defense Minister ordered the murder of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, Congress finally cut aid to El Salvador, leading to a peace settlement in that country’s decade-long U.S.-funded civil war.

However, Democratic Senator Harry Reid, slated to become Senate Majority Leader, explicitly stated on November 15 that the Democrats would not cut funding for the war, a position reiterated by other Democratic leaders. Indeed, rather than call for a reduction in spending for the Iraq war and other military boondoggles, Reid has promised to increase military spending by an additional $75 billion. Currently, U.S. military spending tops $500 billion annually, more than the military budgets of all other governments combined.

Democrats in the 1980s followed a similar strategy when they undermined the campaign for a mutual and verifiable U.S.-Soviet freeze in the research, development, and deployment of new nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons systems. The majority of Democrats–who controlled the House during this period and the Senate after 1986–were willing to vote for non-binding resolutions in support of a nuclear freeze. Yet they continued to expend tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars to fuel the arms race through the development of new, dangerous, and destabilizing nuclear weapons programs. This way, they could tell their constituents they supported the freeze while funding efforts to undermine it.

It appears, then, that congressional Democrats are likely to pass non-binding resolutions calling for the redeployment of American forces while continuing to unconditionally fund the ongoing prosecution of the Iraq War. So, the victory by anti-war voters on November 7 should be seen as only the first step in changing congressional policy on Iraq.

Movement Power

With only a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic politicians have rarely led on foreign policy. They have generally come around to taking progressive positions only as a result of constituent pressure through lobbying, legal protests, civil disobedience, and public education campaigns. For example, in 1980 Vice President Walter Mondale and others in the Carter Administration strongly opposed the call for a nuclear freeze. By the time he ran for president in 1984, however, Mondale was an outspoken freeze supporter. In the intervening four years, the Nuclear Freeze Campaign and disarmament activists had mobilized grass roots initiatives across the country, including the massive 1982 protest in New York City.

In 1977, Andrew Young–the African-American clergyman and former aide to Martin Luther King who then served as President Carter’s ambassador to the UN–vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions against South Africa. By 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate joined the Democratic-led House in overriding a presidential veto to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime. This dramatic shift came as a result of the divestment campaign and other actions of the anti-apartheid movement that sprung up on college campuses and elsewhere throughout the United States. The imposition of sanctions proved to be instrumental in the downfall of white minority rule.

Grassroots movements also proved essential in shifting U.S. foreign policy on El Salvador, East Timor, Burma, and many other issues. Both Democrats and Republicans have had to respond to organized pressure from an outraged citizenry. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

The Democratic victory in the midterm elections does not automatically translate into meaningful legislative action to end the war. But the anti-war movement now has the potential to pressure Congress to take such meaningful action. The most critical phase of the anti-war struggle, then, did not end with the Republican defeat on November 7. It will only just begin when the Democrats formally assume power on Capitol Hill on January 3.