The Democrats’ Support for Bush’s War

The capitulation of the Democratic Party’s congressional leadership to the Bush administration’s request for nearly $100 billion of unconditional supplementary government spending, primarily to support the war in Iraq, has led to outrage throughout the country. In the Senate, 37 of 49 Democrats voted on May 24 to support the measure. In the House, while only 86 of the 231 Democratic House members voted for the supplemental funding, 216 of them voted in favor of an earlier procedural vote designed to move the funding bill forward even though it would make the funding bill’s passage inevitable (while giving most of them a chance to claim they voted against it).

The claim by Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democratic leaders unconditional funding was necessary to “support the troops” and to “not leave them in harm’s way” is a lie. If they really supported the troops and wanted them out of harm’s way, they would have passed legislation that would bring them home. The Democrats had other priorities, however.

Pelosi claimed that they had to provide unconditional funding for President Bush’s war in Iraq because they could not get enough Republican support to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto. However, they did not need a two-thirds majority to stop funding the war. All they needed to do was to refuse to pass any unconditional funding for the war and instead pass a funding measure that allocated money for the sole purpose of facilitating a safe and orderly withdrawal from Iraq, or, at the very least, a funding measure that set a strict deadline for the withdrawal of troops.

As Speaker, Pelosi could have set the legislative agenda and not allowed any funding bill to come to a vote unless it had such provisions. And, if Bush refused to sign it, he would have been the one to put the troops in harm’s way, not Congress.

No Excuses

Some apologists for the Democrats claim that to not support funding for the supplemental would have allowed political opponents to portray them as “not supporting our troops.” However, three conservative Republican senators—Coburn, Burr, and Enzi—voted against the supplemental because of the $20 billion in domestic, non-war-related expenditures without apparent fear of such charges. So why should the Democrats have been afraid to oppose the measure as well?

And it certainly is no longer the case—as apologists for the Democrats claimed when they supported supplemental spending for the war in previous years—that it would be politically difficult to oppose a key initiative of a popular president now that Bush is one of the least popular presidents in history, a ranking that has come largely as a result of the very war policy for which the Democrats have once again given him a blank check to continue.

There are precedents for Congress to stop war funding over presidential objections in the past. For example, in May 1970, Congress was able to eliminate funding for U.S. troops fighting in Cambodia and President Nixon was forced to withdraw them by June 30. The Democrats could have done the same regarding Iraq, but they obviously did not want to. Democratic majorities were also able to suspend U.S. military operations in Angola, limit U.S. troops in El Salvador to 50, end support for the Nicaraguan Contras, and provide similar restrictions to administration foreign policy without claiming that giving these previous Republican administrations a blank check was necessary to “support our troops.”

Polls show that 82% of Americans wanted Congress to either cut off funding for the war immediately or approve funds for the war with strict conditions. However, the Democrats—assuming they knew better than the American people—decided to go ahead and make possible a vote to provide unconditional funding for the war anyway.

Despite claims to the contrary, Pelosi and the Democrats apparently want the war to continue unabated, even if it means sacrificing the lives of countless additional American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, as well as our national treasury and our country’s long-term security, in their support for Bush’s agenda.

True, some senators and representatives voted for some of the previously unsuccessful measures earlier this spring, which included certain restrictions on funding or called for a deadline for withdrawal. However, if they voted for the supplemental funding bill or if they supported the decision to bring the resolution to the floor, they support the Iraq War and Bush’s policy. If they really opposed the policy, they would have voted against providing the unconditional funding to implement it. We need to make this clear and hold them accountable.

Fiscal Implications

The decision by the Democratic leadership of both houses and the majority of Democratic senators to vote for unconditional funding for the war is also a reflection of the majority party’s spending priorities. There is no Democratic proposal for a $100 billion supplemental spending bill for health care. There is no Democratic proposal for a $100 billion supplemental spending bill for education. There is no Democratic proposal for a $100 billion supplemental spending bill for environmental protection.

When I contacted a number of Democratic offices on Capitol Hill as to why they weren’t supporting comparable supplemental spending measures to meet human needs here in the United States, they insisted this was an unfair comparison. In one sense, this is true. Bush’s budget this year in health care, education, housing, public transit, and environmental protection was woefully inadequate, whereas his military budget is extraordinarily bloated. The Democrats should be cutting military spending, not increasing it by nearly $100 billion. And though the Democrats attached some supplemental domestic spending to the appropriations, the supplemental spending for all domestic programs combined is less than one-fourth the supplemental spending for military operations.

It appears, then, that the reason the Democrats are willing to supporting $100 billion for the Iraq War and not for health care, education, housing, public transit, or environmental protection is straightforward: the Democratic Party believes that continuing the war is more important than meeting the basic needs of Americans.

The Democrats’ support for the supplemental war funding is also evidence of fiscal irresponsibility. If the Democrats really want to spend that kind of money for war, at least they should find some way to pay for it, such as cutting spending for some of the Pentagon’s elaborate and unnecessary new weapons systems or by eliminating some of the tax breaks given to the wealthy. Instead, the Democrats insist on borrowing it from primarily foreign financial institutions or from future government revenue. By the time it is paid off with interest, the total cost will likely be more than twice the $100 billion the Democrats claim the war is costing. The costs of paying off the increased national debt as a result of this war will result in severely restricted funding in health care, education, housing, public transit, and environmental protection for decades to come. But that is of little concern to the Democrats, who place a higher priority in allowing Bush to fight the Iraq War as he sees fit.

It is also interesting to note the Democrats’ claim that the $100 billion only funds the war through the end of September and they will try to stop funding for the war again at that point. At that pace of spending, it would come to slightly under $25 billion per month. However, the war is currently costing the taxpayer about $10 billion per month. This means that either the Democrats are anticipating an imminent, costly escalation in the war or they are actually giving Bush the ability to fight the war well into the next year, thereby negating any leverage anti-war members of Congress might have by withholding additional funding after September.

Betraying the Voters

Despite promising during the 2006 election campaign that, if given the majority in Congress, they would no longer give Bush a blank check to prosecute the war, they have done just that. And despite polls showing that a majority of Americans want U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq and support setting a deadline for their departure, the Democrats have voted to instead to side with President Bush against the American people

In fact, the situation is even worse now than it was last fall. Since the Democrats became the majority in Congress and were given the power, through their fiscal oversight, to finally put curbs on the administration’s ability to wage war, the number of U.S. troops and the level of violence in Iraq have increased rather than decreased.

This comes despite exit polls from the November 2006 elections that showed that opposition to the Iraq War was by far the primary factor in giving the Democrats the majority in both houses for the first time since 1994. Particularly important to the Democratic victory were young voters, many thousands of whom volunteered countless hours going door-to-door in swing districts, and whose opposition to the war was strongest. With more than six out of 10 voters under 30 casting their ballots for the Democrats, hopes emerged for a Democratic majority for years to come. However, thanks to last week’s betrayal by the very Democrats whose leadership positions in Congress came as a result of burgeoning anti-war sentiment, the Democrats are likely to lose many of these young activists, embittered that their many hours of sacrifice for the party was for naught and now cynical at any hope for change through electoral politics.

Polls also indicate that an overwhelming majority of voters oppose U.S. military support and strategic cooperation with regimes that engage in gross and systematic human rights violations. But once again the Democrats are as out-of-step with the American public as the Republicans. Indeed, the vote for the supplemental is indicative of how far to the right the Democrats have gone regarding human rights in recent years. There was a time when the Democratic Party was willing to eliminate or restrict U.S. military support for repressive governments like Indonesia, El Salvador, and others due to their human rights abuses and use of death squads against perceived opponents. Despite the widespread and well-documented human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, including the death squads operating out of the Interior Ministry that have taken the lives of tens of thousands of Sunni civilians, the Democrats appear to have few moral qualms about providing the Iraqi regime with unrestricted taxpayer funding.

Signs of Hope

It is important, amid the anger and disappointment at the Democrats’ decision to continue funding the war, to acknowledge the growing strength of the anti-war movement and signs of hope that the American public can still force an end to the U.S. war in Iraq.

In the vote on supplemental funding last year, only 48 House Democrats voted against the Bush White House. This year, the number of Democrats voting against funding nearly tripled to 140.

And, as disappointing as it may be that only 10 Senate Democrats voted against war funding last week, it is important to remember that not a single Democrat voted against war funding in 2006.

All four of the candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination who were in the U.S. Senate in 2002—Christopher Dodd, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Joe Biden—voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in October of that year. All four had supported unconditional funding subsequently. This year, however, all but Biden opposed the supplemental. A fifth Democratic senator seeking the presidency, Barack Obama, who had opposed the war prior to be elected to the Senate in 2004 but had voted for the supplemental funding in his first two years in office, also voted against the supplemental this year. That traditional hawks like Dodd and Clinton, who had vehemently supported the war as recently as last year, feel obliged to vote against it now reflects the acknowledgement of a new political reality. It will be virtually impossible for anyone to win the Democratic presidential nomination without opposing funding for the war.

Shifts within leadership are also happening. Though Reid joined the majority of Senate Democrats on May 24 in voting in favor of the supplemental funding measure, just weeks earlier he co-sponsored—along with Senate anti-war stalwart Russ Feingold—another measure that would have required the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. forces within nine months.

This is a sign of the growing influence of the anti-war movement. The calls and emails to Capitol Hill offices, the tough questions at town hall meetings, the vigils outside district offices, the protests at public appearances, the letters to the editor, the sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience—all targeting the Democratic lawmakers on the Iraq War—are finally having an influence, even though it has not yet translated into effective legislative action.

Next Steps

In certain respects, the movement against the war in Iraq today is in a similar situation to the movement against the war in Vietnam in 1969. After more than four years of fighting, the majority of Americans and increasing segments of the news media and elite opinion are finally recognizing the need for a withdrawal of American troops. However, the Democratic majority in Congress still refuses to challenge the increasingly unpopular policies of the Republican administration. As a result, though it is widely recognized that a military victory is impossible and American forces are going to be pulled out, the administration and Congress remain determined to drag out the war still longer, costing many thousands additional lives and further draining our national treasury.

The United States will be forced to pull out of Iraq sooner or later. The question is how many people will die needlessly beforehand.

The war will last a long time and claim many more deaths as long as Democrats believe they can continue to bankroll Bush’s effort and get away with it. Every Democrat who voted for the supplemental must be challenged in primaries next year. If he or she is re-nominated anyway, a strong Green Party or independent challenger must try to defeat the incumbent in November. We must demand that Democratic Congressional leaders who allowed the unconditional supplemental funding measure to move forward be removed from their posts and replaced by representatives and senators who actually oppose the war. While individual anti-war Democrats still deserve our support, all contributions in time or money to the Democratic Party must cease until the leadership takes a firm and uncompromising position against further war funding.

And it may take heightened measures, including sustained nonviolent direct action. When Congress forced the withdrawal of American troops from Cambodia in 1970, it came only after anti-war protests shut down more than 300 colleges and universities across the country and more than 100,000 demonstrators converged on Capitol Hill in early May.

The betrayal by Congressional Democrats last week should be met not by despair but by escalating popular resistance to the war. The gains of recent months by the anti-war movement must not stagnate as a result of the Democrats’ capitulation on the supplemental funding, but must be built upon to demand an end to Democratic collusion with the war policies of the Bush White House enforced through binding legislative action.

U.S. Role in Lebanon Debacle

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to resist pressure that he resign following the publication late last month of the interim report by a special Israeli commission on Israel’s war on Lebanon last summer. Military chief Dan Halutz has already been forced to step down and Defense Minister Amir Peretz has announced he will also be resigning shortly.

The report from the Winograd commission concludes that “the decision to respond with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan.” In making the decision to go to war in Lebanon, the Israeli government “did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of ‘containment.’”

Unlike previous Israeli commissions that critically examined alleged government misdeeds, and were appointed by the Israeli Supreme Court, the Winograd Commission was appointed by the Olmert government itself. That makes its harsh criticism all the more surprising. It is also indicative of how, despite years of military occupations and war crimes against its neighbors by successive governments, as well as the systemic discrimination against the country’s Arab minority, Israeli democracy is strong enough to allow for a rigorous investigation of their leaders’ decision to launch an unnecessary and self-defeating war. It’s more than can be said for the United States.

During the five weeks of fighting in July and August, 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 Israeli civilians were killed. More than 1,100 Lebanese were killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

The commission failed, however, to address the fact that the Israeli government went well beyond what constituted legitimate self-defense in its response to Hezbollah’s provocative attack on an Israeli border outpost and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by targeting major segments of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure unrelated to the radical militia. The report also failed to directly address the large-scale war crimes committed by Israeli forces in its attacks on civilian population centers.

Bush Administration Exerted Pressure

Nor did the commission directly address the reason as to why Israel, in the words of the report, decided to “launch a military campaign and deviate from the policy of containment.” The answer in large part lies in pressure exerted on Olmert by the Bush administration, which had long been pushing the Israelis to launch a war on Lebanon to cripple Hezbollah, the anti-American Shiite Islamist movement allied with Iran.

Seven weeks before the start of the war, in his May 23 summit with Olmert, Bush strongly encouraged the Israeli prime minister to launch an attack on Lebanon soon, offering full U.S. support for the massive military operation. Just three days later, Israeli agents assassinated two Islamic militants in Sidon, leading to a series of tit- for-tat assassinations and abductions which eventually led to Hezbollah’s July 12 seizure of two Israeli soldiers, which was then used as the excuse for a war that had been planned for many months.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh quoted a consultant with the U.S. Department of Defense soon after the outbreak of the fighting as describing how the Bush administration “has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a preëmptive blow against Hezbollah.” He added, “It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.”
A War Planned in Advance

Rather than a spontaneous reaction to Hezbollah’s July 12 attack on Israel’s northern border, as depicted by the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties, Israel and the United States had been planning the war since at least 2004. Israeli officials had briefed U.S. officials with details of the plans, including PowerPoint presentations, in what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “revealing detail.”

Though the Winograd Commission report cited poor planning on logistics, political science professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University was quoted as saying, “Of all of Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared. In a sense, the preparation began in May 2000, immediately after the Israeli withdrawal…” In addition, Hersh noted how “several Israeli officials visited Washington, separately, ‘to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear,’” soon getting the final approval from Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and soon thereafter President George W. Bush.

Some reports indicated that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was less sanguine about the proposed Israeli military offensive, believing that Israel should focus less on bombing and more on ground operations, despite the dramatically higher Israeli casualties that would result. Still, Hersh quotes a former senior intelligence official as saying that Rumsfeld was “delighted that Israel is our stalking horse.”

As Ze’ev Schiff, dean of Israel’s military correspondents put it, “Rice is the figure leading the strategy of changing the situation in Lebanon, not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz.”
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Martin Indyk–who served in the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and U.S. ambassador to Israel–noted that the United States had no leverage on Hezbollah except “through Israel’s use of force.” As Haaretz analyst Shmuel Rosner wrote during the fighting, “the way has been found for Israel to recompense the administration for its supportive attitudes during the six year of the Bush administration,” illustrating “the regional power’s importance for the great power.”

“America Is Fully Complicit”

As the fighting continued into its third week and with civilian casualties mounting, international and domestic pressure increased on Israel to stop the onslaught, but Rice flew to Israel to push the government to continue prosecuting the war. As veteran Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put it, “Rice was back and forth, dictating when to start, when to stop, what to do, what not to do. America is fully complicit…”

By the first week of August, domestic pressure was forcing the Israelis to rethink continuing the war indefinitely. Fearing the Israelis might seek a cease fire, Bush reportedly told them, “You can’t stop now; you’re acting for all of us.” Israel indicated its willingness to accept a 10,000-member NATO force in southern Lebanon as a condition for a cease-fire, but the Bush administration was demanding that Hezbollah accept a 30,000-member force or be defeated militarily first.

However, by the beginning of the second week of August, it was becoming apparent to U.S. officials that Israelis were becoming increasingly resentful of their role as an American proxy. While the worsening humanitarian crisis and international outcry was not enough for the Bush administration to shift U.S. policy, a senior administration official reported that “it increasingly seemed that Israel would not be able to achieve a military victory, a reality that led the Americans to get behind a cease-fire.”

That the war on Lebanon was fought primarily as an effort to advance America’s hegemonic objectives in the Middle East rather than as a defense of Israel’s legitimate security interests is made more apparent by how damaging the war was to Israel’s political and strategic interests.

An Unnecessary War

In the years prior to Israel’s July 12 air strikes on Lebanese cities, which prompted Hezbollah’s retaliatory rocket attacks on Israel cities, the militia had become less and less of a threat. No Israeli civilian had been killed by Hezbollah for more than a decade (with the exception of one accidental fatality in 2003 caused by a Hezbollah anti-aircraft missile fired at an Israeli plane illegally violating Lebanese airspace landing on the Israeli side of the border), and there had been no Hezbollah attacks against civilian targets since well before the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.

Virtually all of Hezbollah’s military actions between May 2000 and July 2006 had been against Israeli occupation forces in a disputed border region between Lebanon and the Israel-occupied portion of southwestern Syria. Hezbollah’s longstanding policy had been that they would fire into Israel only in response to Israeli attacks on their political leadership or on Lebanese civilians. When the Israeli government, in preparation for the U.S.-backed assault on Lebanon, advised residents in northern Israel to participate in a drill in May 2006, a number of communities reported they could not locate the keys to the bomb shelters since they had been out of use for so long.

Hezbollah was down to about 500 full-time fighters prior to the Israeli assault, and a national dialogue was going on between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government regarding disarmament. As the Winograd Commission report points out, Hezbollah was not enough of a serious threat to Israel’s security that required such a massive strike against it, much less the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon as a whole. Though Hezbollah had hardly renounced their extremist ideology, major acts of terrorism were largely a thing of the past.

War Boosted Support for Hezbollah

The majority of Lebanese had opposed Hezbollah, both its reactionary fundamentalist social agenda as well as its insistence on maintaining an armed presence independent of the country’s elected government. Thanks to the U.S.-backed Israeli attacks on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, however, support for Hezbollah grew to more than 80% according to polls, even within the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities. Within four months of successfully countering the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah was in strong enough a position to launch a civil rebellion to oust Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Sinora’s moderate pro-Western government.

Even Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of State during Bush’s first term and a leading hawk, acknowledged by the third week of the conflict that “the only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”

As Israelis began to recognize how deleterious the war was to Israel’s legitimate security interests, a growing awareness emerged of the American role in getting them into that mess. Not long after the beginning of the war, reports began to circulate how a growing number of Israeli leaders, including some top military officials, were furious at Bush for pushing Olmert to war. This was also apparent at the grassroots level. A Haaretz article on an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv July 22 noted how “this was a distinctly anti-American protest” that included “chants of ‘We will not die and kill in the service of the United States’ and slogans condemning President George W. Bush.”

U.S. Congress Still Backing War

Though Israelis on the streets of Tel Aviv may have been declaring their unwillingness to “die and kill in the service of the United States,” an overwhelming bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress passed resolutions that offered unconditional support for Bush’s backing of the war on Lebanon. The Senate version passed on a voice vote, and there were only eight dissenting votes in the House. The House version – co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), whom the Democrats later named to chair the House Foreign Relations Committee – went so far as to praise Israel for “minimizing civilian loss,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and to claim that the attacks were “in accordance with international law,” despite an a broad consensus of international legal opinion to the contrary.

A number of the otherwise liberal members of Congress who supported the July 20 House resolution responded to constituents’ outraged at their vote by claiming they were simply defending Israel’s legitimate interests. In reality, however, by supporting Bush administration’s support for the massive Israeli attacks and blocking international efforts to impose a cease fire, these self-proclaimed “friends of Israel” were in fact defending policies which cynically use Israel to its detriment in order to advance the Bush administration’s militarist agenda.

Meanwhile, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) – now the front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination – defended the role of the Jewish state as an American proxy, praising Israel’s efforts to “send a message to Hamas, Hezbollah, to the Syrians [and] to the Iranians,” for their opposition to the United States’ and Israel’s commitment to “life and freedom.”

At that time, American journalist Robert Scheer made the far more reasonable observation that “long after Bush is gone from office, Israel will be threatened by a new generation of enemies whose political memory was decisively shaped by these horrible images emerging from Lebanon. At that point, Israelis attempting to make peace with those they must coexist with will recognize that with friends such as Bush and his neoconservative mentors, they would not lack for enemies.”
Overwhelming Bipartisan Support

Even Israelis who recognize the key role the Bush administration had in goading Israel on to attack Lebanon correctly emphasize that rightist elements within Israel had their own reasons independent from Washington to pursue the conflict. And yet, while they certainly believe that Israeli leaders who agreed to serve as American surrogates and prosecuted the war so poorly should be held accountable for their actions, there is still enormous bitterness that the Bush administration – with overwhelming bipartisan support from Congress – was so willing to sacrifice Israeli lives and Israel’s long-term security interests to advance American imperial objectives.

Indeed, given the enormous dependence Israel has on the United States militarily, economically, and diplomatically, this latest war on Lebanon could not have taken place without a green light from Washington. President Jimmy Carter, for example, was able to put a halt to Israel’s 1978 invasion of Lebanon within days and force Israel to withdraw from the south bank of the Litani River to a narrow strip just north of the border. The strident condemnation of the former Democratic president by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean and other leading Democrats in recent months in response to Carter’s recent book in which he reiterates his strong support for Israel but criticizes its occupation policies as contrary to the interests of peace and security is indicative how far to the right the Democratic Party has come under its current leadership.

While the Lebanese people, their infrastructure, and their environment suffered the most from this immoral and misguided U.S. policy, Israel was a victim as well. Just as ruling elites of medieval Europe cynically used some members of the Jewish community as money-lenders and tax-collectors in order to maintain their power and set up this vulnerable minority as scapegoats, so the United States is cynically using the world’s only Jewish state to advance its hegemonic agenda in the Middle East, thereby contributing to the disturbing rise of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments in the Islamic world.

Despite the Winograd Commission’s shortcomings, Israelis should be commended for allowing a serious investigation into their government’s actions. But Olmert and other Israeli leaders did not act alone. Americans who profess to care about Israel should also demand an independent investigation here in the United States as well to examine why the Bush administration, with the support of such a broad bipartisan majority of Congress, goaded Israel into waging an unnecessary war that cost the lives of scores of its citizens and emboldened anti-Israel extremists in Lebanon and beyond.

The Democrats and the “Human Shields” Myth

Israelis from across the political spectrum, emboldened by the interim report from the government’s Winograd Commission, which investigated Israel’s ill-fated assault on Lebanon, are expressing regrets over last summer’s conflict with their northern neighbor. Uproar over the way a relatively minor border incident managed to escalate into a full-scale war is leading to demands for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation and other top government officials are under pressure or stepping down.

Meanwhile, in the United States Congress, leaders of both parties are not only still defending Israel’s decision to go to war, but its conduct of the war as well.

During the five weeks of fighting, 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 Israeli civilians were killed. It was the Lebanese who suffered the most, however. Massive Israeli bombardments took the lives of more than 1,100 people, the vast majority of whom were innocent civilians, and caused more than $3.5 billion in damage to the country’s civilian infrastructure and widespread environmental damage.

Moral and Legal Responsibility

Yet Congress continues to justify last summer’s widespread attacks on civilian targets by the U.S.-supplied Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) by claiming that Hezbollah used the Lebanese civilian population as “human shields,” thereby seeking to protect America’s closest Middle East ally from its moral and legal responsibility for its war crimes.

For example, on April 25, the House of Representatives passed by a near-unanimous voice vote a resolution (H. Res. 125) claiming that “throughout the summer of 2006 conflict with the State of Israel, Hezbollah forces utilized human shields to protect themselves from counterattacks by Israeli forces.” In defense of the Bush administration’s controversial backing of Israel’s 35-day assault on Lebanon, the Democratic-led House cited President George W. Bush’s claim that “Hezbollah terrorists used Lebanese civilians as human shields, sacrificing the innocent in an effort to protect themselves from Israeli response” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that “`Hezbollah and its sponsors have brought devastation upon the people of Lebanon, … exploiting them as human shields.”

In an effort to make the case that it was Lebanese, not the Israeli armed forces, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, the resolution goes as far as claiming that “the majority of civilian casualties of that conflict might have been avoided and civilian lives saved had Hezbollah not employed this tactic.”

Similarly, as Israeli peace activists began protests against their country’s attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon last summer, the House of Representatives passed a resolution (H. Res. 921) defending the Israeli government’s controversial policies, praising “Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss” and welcoming “Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties.” The resolution, co-sponsored by Tom Lantos (D-CA)–whom the Democrats have subsequently elected to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee–passed by a 410-8 vote with four abstentions, also condemned Hezbollah for “cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields, locating their equipment and bases of operation, including their rockets and other armaments, amidst civilian populations, including in homes and mosques.”

The problem is that it appears that none of these claims appear to be true.

No Evidence Found

Investigations by independent human rights groups during last summer’s fighting did not find clear evidence that Hezbollah deliberately used civilians to shield their personnel or equipment from Israeli strikes. For example, a detailed study published at the end of the fighting in August by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that they had found “no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack.” Similarly, Amnesty International, in a well-documented report published in November observed, “While the presence of Hizbullah’s fighters and short-range weapons within civilian areas is not contested, this in itself is not conclusive evidence of intent to use civilians as ‘human shields’, any more than the presence of Israeli soldiers in a kibbutz is in itself evidence of the same war crime.”

Human rights groups noted that the Hezbollah militia–which, like most militias, is a volunteer force whose members lived with their families – did store weapons in or near homes and some of the militia’s hundreds of rocket launchers were found within populated areas, which are indeed violations of international humanitarian law since such practices put civilians at risk. However, Amnesty reported that while “The available evidence suggests that in at least some cases Katyushas were stored within villages and fired from civilian areas,” it was only long after most of the civilian population had been evacuated and that it was “not apparent that civilians were present and used as ‘human shields’.”

As Human Rights Watch noted, even the presence of armed personnel and weapons near civilian areas “does not release Israel from its obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property during military operations.” Similarly, Amnesty International noted how Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention also makes it clear that even if one side is shielding itself behind civilians, such a violation “shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians.”

Wanton Attacks on Civilian Areas

In any case, the vast majority of Israeli strikes in civilian areas were nowhere near Hezbollah military activity. As Human Rights Watch noted, “In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.”

Similarly, Amnesty International reported that Israeli forces “carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on a large scale,” including “those on civilian infrastructure” and “direct attacks on civilian objects.” Furthermore, they reported that “These attacks seem to have been aimed at inflicting a form of collective punishment on Lebanon’s people” and that “based on the available evidence and the absence of an adequate or any explanation from the Israeli authorities for so many attacks by their forces causing civilian deaths and destruction, when no evidence of Hizbullah military activities was apparent, it seems clear that Israeli forces consistently failed to adopt necessary precautionary measures.”

Though subsequent investigations have only reconfirmed that the large numbers of civilian casualties in Lebanon were a result of actions by the government of Israel, not Hezbollah, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), in a debate on the House floor on April 25 insisted that “The key reason that civilian areas were destroyed was the cynical strategy of Hezbollah guerrillas to stage their attacks from the middle of towns and residential areas” and that “the loss of civilian life in Lebanon was due solely to Hezbollah’s cruel and uncivilized use of civilian areas as military bases.”

Kucinich Raised Concerns

When Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) raised concerns about Israel’s use of cluster bombs in civilian areas which have led to the deaths of scores of Lebanese children both during and subsequent to last summer’s fighting, Rep. Ackerman responded by insisting that these dangerous anti-personnel weapons were “used in self-defense.”

Despite Ackerman’s eagerness to defend and cover-up for war crimes by this important Middle Eastern ally of the United States, the Democrats have elected him chairman of the important House Subcommittee on the Middle East, indicative that the new majority party shares their Republican counterparts’ lack of respect for international humanitarian law.

My efforts to ascertain where members of Congress get information to back up their defense of Israeli war crimes have revealed a rather startling inclination to rely on rather dubious right-wing sources for information. For example, following a speech in March, in which Senator Barack Obama repeated the myth that Hezbollah had used “innocent people as shields,” I contacted his spokesman as to what evidence the presidential hopeful had to make such charges. He referred me to a report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies, a right-wing Israeli think tank headed by the former chief of the Mossad which maintains close ties to the Israeli government. Despite repeated requests, Obama’s office was unable to provide any other source supporting the senator’s charge. This underscores serious concerns among human rights activists that Obama and other leading Democrats, like President Bush, have the same propensity to believe the findings of ideologically-driven right-wing think tanks above those of objective scholarship, reputable journalists, or principled human rights groups and other nonpartisan organizations.

Israel’s Use of Human Shields

Ironically, while Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights organizations–including the Israeli group B’tselem–have demonstrated that, while there is little conclusive evidence that the Hezbollah militia used human shields as a calculated policy, the Israeli Defense Forces have used this illegal maneuver as a standard practice, particularly earlier this decade following a right-wing coalition coming to power in Israel in early 2001. A recent HRW report notes how “Human Rights Watch and Israeli and Palestinian organizations documented numerous cases of Israeli forces using Palestinian civilians as human shields.” Similarly, Amnesty International has reported how Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank “have often used Palestinians effectively as human shields, endangering their lives in violation of international humanitarian law.
There have been no Congressional resolutions condemning Israel’s use of human shields, however. Congressional Democrats essentially share the Bush administration’s practice that if you are perceived as an adversary, your crimes will be exaggerated or even manufactured, while it you are perceived as an ally, your crimes will be covered up.

During the April 25 debate over the resolution condemning Hezbollah for its alleged use of human shields, Representative Dan Issa (R-CA)–a supporter of the measure–pointed out that “The use of human shields in the Middle East is unfortunately widespread” and showed a series of photographs of Israeli forces using Arab civilians as shields, including a 2004 photograph of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy tied to the hood of an Israeli police jeep in the West Bank. In response, Ackerman claimed that soldiers responsible “were charged, and the court found them guilty, and the court banned it.” In reality, however, while the Israeli Supreme Court did ban the use of human shields in 2005, no soldiers have been sentenced for engaging in this illegal practice. To the House Democrats’ chief spokesman on U.S. Middle East policy, however, the important distinction is that there is “a difference in moral values” between the Arab “perpetrators” and the Israeli “victims” whose only fault is that they may occasionally “go too far . . . in the pursuit of terrorists and evildoers.”

From the perspective of Ackerman and most of his colleagues, despite the fact that the majority of Israelis killed in last summer’s fighting were soldiers and the vast majority of Lebanese killed were civilians, Hezbollah’s violence constitutes “terrorism” whereas the Israelis’ violence constitutes “self-defense.” In taking this position, these lawmakers are shielding the United States–which provided Israel with most of the ordinance and delivery systems responsible for the carnage and which for weeks blocked a cease fire from going into effect– rom its moral and legal responsibility as well. Indeed, according to this bipartisan viewpoint, neither the United States nor its ally bears any blame for the slaughter of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, since those deaths were actually the fault of their fellow Lebanese.

Discrediting the Human Rights Community

Now having the majority in Congress, the Democrats appear to have made it a priority to use their position to discredit reputable human rights groups in an effort to defend the policies of important U.S. allies. Indeed, some leading Democrats, in a desperate effort to defend human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed Israeli government, have attacked human rights groups directly. For example, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a member of the Democratic Leadership Team, has said that “a lot of those organizations, Amnesty International in particular, have always had bias against Israel.”

In reality, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and similar groups with a universal human rights agenda, rather than demonstrating any bias against Israel or any other state, have been quite rigorous in their uniform standards of reporting human rights abuses. Not only has Amnesty International been outspoken against human rights abuses by Middle Eastern governments opposed by the United States and Israel–such as Syria and Iran–but Amnesty also correctly concluded that Hezbollah, in the fighting last summer, had also “committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes.” HRW demonstrated how “the scale of Hizbullah’s rocket attacks on towns and villages in northern Israel, the indiscriminate nature of the weapons used, together with statements by Hizbullah’s leader, showed that Hizbullah carried out direct attacks on civilians as well as indiscriminate attacks and attacks on the civilian population as reprisal.”

Human rights groups are not the only target of Congress in its desperate effort to advance Bush’s Middle East policy agenda. Members also appear determined to attack the press for daring to report war crimes by America’s most important Middle East ally. For example, House Resolution 125 complains that “the news media made constant mention of civilian casualties but rarely pointed to the culpability…of Hezbollah for their endangerment of such civilians.” In reality, media watchdog groups noted that the

American news media actually tended to underplay the civilian casualties in Lebanon and uncritically repeated Israeli claims that Hezbollah was to blame.
Why Democrats Defend War Crimes

Despite claims to the contrary by some Democratic members of Congress, it is not likely that their support for Israel’s war on Lebanon has been motivated by a sincere desire to show solidarity with Israel since–as the Winograd Commission’s report demonstrated–the war actually harmed Israel’s legitimate security interests. The popular reaction in Lebanon to the widespread killing of Lebanese civilians by U.S.-backed Israeli forces and the successes by the Hezbollah in resisting the IDF ground offensive has led to a dramatic increase in popular support with Lebanon and throughout the Middle East of the radical and fanatically anti-Israel Shiite group.

In defending Israel’s attacks against innocent Arab civilians, the Democrats and their Republican allies will only embolden hard-liners in Israel to use such immoral, illegal and counter-productive tactics in the future.

Nor do claims by apologists for Congressional supporters of such resolutions that to oppose Israel’s illegal and self-destructive assault on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure would endanger their chances of re-election. Polls showed that a majority of Americans found Israel’s assault on Lebanon last summer at best to have been excessive and every one of the 11 Democratic members of the House who refused to support H. Res. 921 in July 2006 supporting Israel’s attacks on Lebanon was re-elected in November by a bigger margin than they were two years earlier.

Perhaps the ultimate reason is that the Democrats’ agenda is essentially the same as the Republican administration and their Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill: to cover up for abuses of international humanitarian law by the United States and its allies and discredit human rights organizations that challenge these practices as a means of enhancing the hegemonic role of the United States in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In insisting that the large number of civilian casualties in Lebanon were a result of Hezbollah using the civilian population as human shields, Congress can try to make the case that–contrary to the findings of reputable human rights groups, United Nations agencies and others – Israel’s actions were not illegal. Otherwise, under U.S. arms control laws, the United States would be forced to restrict some of the lucrative arms exports to Israel by the politically powerful arms industry.

In addition, by challenging the credibility of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their reports on Israeli violations of international humanitarian law in Lebanon, their reports on U.S. violations of international humanitarian law in Iraq and Afghanistan are less likely to be taken seriously by the American public. Similarly, by depicting Arab militias as sinister terrorists who use innocent civilians as shields, it makes it easier for the United States and its allies–which rely heavily on air power in their counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the heavy civilian casualties that result — to deny any legal or moral responsibility, even though the death toll from such air strikes greatly surpasses the numbers of civilians killed by the so-called “terrorists.”

Just as the American and Israeli people are beginning to challenge the morality and utility of their respective governments’ heavy-handed use of military power to address complex political challenges, the Democrats have decided to join the Republicans in rushing to defend it. As a result, it is imperative for peace and human rights groups to challenge the Democrats in Congress who continue to defend Israeli war crimes as vigorously as we do the Bush administration and Republican members of Congress.

Bring ‘Em Home, Bring ‘Em Home

I first heard it while driving home from work on a college FM station. It was a song I had forgotten about but had known, with slightly different opening lyrics, in my childhood:

If you love this land of the free
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
Bring them back from overseas
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

A roar went up for the arena-sized crowd on this live recording. I also recognized the singer’s voice, but it was not one I associated with the song.

It will make the politicians sad, I know
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
They wanna tangle with their foe
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

I then recalled when I first heard it: it was in 1965 at one of the early anti-war rallies in Washington, DC and I had come up from North Carolina with my parents. On the stage, was a 45-year old folk singer named Pete Seeger, with the thousands of demonstrators joining him in the line “bring ‘em home.”

They wanna test their grand theories
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
With the blood of you and me
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

This wasn’t Pete Seeger on the radio, though. It was a recent recording by Bruce Springsteen. And the lyrics are tragically apropos today.

Now we’ll give no more brave young lives
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
For the gleam in someone’s eyes
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

I was born just a few years too late for me and my friends to have been shipped off and killed in Vietnam. I knew only a few people indirectly who had died: The older brother of my classmate David. The boy who used to deliver the News & Observer to our driveway every morning. It was sad and, as I got older, I started going to anti-war protests on my own, but individual deaths still seemed rather distant to me.

The men will cheer and the boys will shout
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
Yeah and we will all turn out
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

I turned 50 this past year. And my first-born went off to college. As a result, the deaths of the young Americans who are being killed in the Iraq hits me on a deeper emotional level than those who have died during other wars in my lifetime: these are the sons and daughters of my generation. I have been a father for nearly 20 years now and now have some sense of just how unbearable it would be to lose one of my children.

The church bells will ring with joy
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
To welcome our darlin’ girls and boys
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

Thousands of American parents and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi parents have lost their children since the U.S. invasion a little over four years ago. And the death toll continues to rise. I have three former students, all of whom opposed the war but who are now being forced to fight it, having joined the ROTC in order to afford a college education.

We will lift their voice and sound
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
Yeah, when Johnny comes marching home
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

At the end of the song, at the top of the hour, the radio station switched to the news. The lead story was that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have required the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within nine months. Congress could have also, with a simple majority and no need for an override, simply zeroed out all war funding except for the costs of bringing our troops safely home, but that option wasn’t even considered. Later that evening, however, my Congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, pushed through a bill providing for $40 billion of unconditional supplemental funding to enable the Bush administration to continue to make war on Iraq at least through July.

That’s not why you and the Democrats were elected to lead Congress, Ms. Pelosi.

No more compromises. Bring ‘em home!

Washington Takes Aim at Syria

While Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s willingness to meet with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallim during last week’s conference on Iraq is a welcome sign, most signals coming out of Washington in recent months are far more ominous. Indeed, the strident opposition by the Bush administration of the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic members of Congress to Syria last month is not just another indication of the administration’s pathological opposition to engaging in dialogue with governments it doesn’t like. It may be a sign that the Bush administration is considering military action against Syria, either directly or through its proxy Israel.

Acting White House spokesperson Dana Perino, speaking of the Pelosi visit, emphasized that the Bush administration policy was to “ask that people not go on these trips… We discourage it.” She added that it “sends the wrong message to have high-level U.S. officials going there to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits.”

Pelosi is no appeaser when it comes to Syria. Just three years ago, she allied with former House Republican leader Tom DeLay and other GOP hardliners to cosponsor legislation imposing stringent sanctions against the Damascus regime. She has even demanded that Syria unilaterally disarm its missiles while allowing its pro-American neighbors Turkey and Israel to expand their larger missile programs. Similarly, she has demanded that Syria eliminate its limited chemical weapons programs while allowing U.S. allies Israel and Egypt to maintain their far larger chemical weapons stockpiles. She has gone on record endorsing alarmist reports by former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and former Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton regard Syria’s alleged threats to region security that were widely ridiculed by the mainstream arms control community as hyperbolic. For years, Pelosi insisted that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon while at the same time refusing to call on Israel to withdraw its occupation forces from southern Lebanon or from southwestern Syria. She has actually taken a harder line toward Syria than did the Reagan administration during the 1980s, when Syria’s support for terrorism, military build-up, and internal repression was worse than it is today.

In fact, Pelosi went to great lengths to emphasize that she did not disagree with the Bush administration’s hard-line policy toward Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and that “there is no division between the president and the Congress and the Democrats on the message we wanted him to receive.” This was not enough for right-wing critics, who went so far as attacking Pelosi for wearing a headscarf when she visited the Omayyad Mosque, though there have been no such complaints when visiting female American political figures have visited Christian and Jewish holy places where such head coverings by women are similarly viewed a requisite sign of respect.

A the end of last year, the commission headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, perhaps the most respected figure in the Republican Party foreign policy establishment, specifically recommended opening up talks with the government of Syria to improve the stability of the region. Like the Baker-Hamilton Commission, Pelosi recognized that talking with the Syrians – however distasteful their regime may be – is vital to the security of the region.

Valid Charges Against Syria?

The dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as Syrian president in 2000, is an oppressive militaristic regime that has supported extremist movements, interfered in the internal politics of its neighbors and oppressed its own citizens. However, it is no worse in this regard than some of America’s leading allies in the region who have received billions of dollars in U.S. assistance for their militaries and internal security apparatuses. Furthermore, many of the specific charges of the administration, most of which have been echoed by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, have been grossly exaggerated.

For example, President Bush insists that Syria is a “state sponsor of terror.” However, according the latest annual State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, the Syrian government has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986. The report continues, “During the past seven years there have been no acts of terrorism against American citizens in Syria. Damascus has repeatedly assured the United States that it will take every possible measure to protect U.S. citizens and facilities in Syria.” In 2002, Syria became a party to the 1988 Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation, making it party to five of the twelve international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.

Syria also cooperated with the United States against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations and individuals. It has passed on hundreds of files of crucial data regarding al-Qaida and other radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and Europe to U.S. officials, including information on the activities of radical cells and intelligence about possible future terrorist operations. CIA sources have acknowledged that “the quality and quantity of information for Syria exceeded the agency’s expectations” but that Syria “got little in return for it.”

During the Syrian-Israeli peace talks in the 1990s, the Clinton administration offered to remove Syria from its list of states sponsoring terrorism if it agreed to terms offered by Israel. During that period, State Department officials admitted that keeping Syria on this list was not a result of direct Syrian support for international terrorism but as a means of exerting political leverage against the regime.

President Bush recently claimed that Syria has “done little to nothing to rein in militant Hamas.” Yet Hamas is not based in Syria, but in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in areas controlled by either Israeli occupation forces or the Palestine Authority (PA), in which the political arm of the movement holds the majority of parliamentary seats. It appears that all the terrorist attacks committed by Hamas’s armed wing – the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades –have originated within the areas under PA or Israeli control and none from areas of Syrian control. Hamas has political offices in Damascus, as they have in the capitals of a number of Arab countries, but no operational bases. Recent reports indicate that the Syrians cut off electricity and water to their offices to pressure them to leave but have not yet physically expelled them as demanded by the United States. Most of Hamas’ outside support has come from individuals and organizations based in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. The Damascus regime has brutally suppressed Syrian Islamists that espouse similar ideological views as Hamas.

President Bush similarly criticized Syrian support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party which the Bush administration, along with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, label as a terrorist organization. However, the terrorist designation remains highly questionable: a 2002 Congressional Research Service report noted, in its analysis of Hezbollah, that “no major terrorist attacks have been attributed to it since 1994.” Hezbollah’s rocket attacks last summer on civilian areas in Israel – the first in nearly a decade – took place only after Israel began attacking civilian areas in Lebanon and the attacks ended once Israel agreed to a United Nations imposed a cease fire. In any case, most of Hezbollah’s foreign support – including its rockets and heavy artillery – has come from Iran, not Syria.

A related charge of the Bush administration is that Syria is supporting the Iraqi insurgency responsible for killing American forces. In his April 3 press conference criticizing the Pelosi visit, President Bush claimed that the Syrian government was “helping expedite – or at least not stopping the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq.” As with previous charges that Syria bears responsibility for attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq, however, the Bush administration has shown little evidence to support their claims. Indeed, Senator Robert Byrd, reviewing evidence presented to him and his Senate colleagues, noted that “I have not seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that it is the government of Syria that is responsible for the attacks against our troops in Iraq.”

Some foreign fighters certainly do enter Iraq from Syria via the long poorly marked desert border, but fewer – according to most accounts – than from U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Syria could conceivably further increase its patrolling of its side of the border. But it is apparently not a high priority for the regime, given its limited resources and the refusal of the Bush administration to reduce its pressure on the government even if it did so.

Commanders of U.S. forces on the ground responsible for monitoring the Syrian-Iraqi border have said that there is no evidence that significant numbers of foreign fighters are crossing into Iraq. Using both human intelligence sources and radar surveillance, commanders from the 101st Airborne responsible for monitoring the northern borders reported that concerns about illegal infiltration appear to be unfounded.

The Syrian government has little reason to support the Iraqi insurgency anyway, which is led primarily by supporters of the former regime of Saddam Hussein and Sunni Islamist extremists. Despite being ruled by its own Baath Party, Syria was a longtime rival of Iraq’s Baath regime. Syria broke diplomatic relations with Baghdad in the 1970s and never renewed them. Damascus was the base of a number of exiled anti-Saddam Iraqi leaders and organizations. Syria was the only Arab country to back Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. It was one of the only non-monarchical Arab states to have backed the United States against Iraq during the first Gulf War, dispatching troops to support Operation Desert Shield. Iraq and Syria backed rival factions in Lebanon’s civil war. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Syria voted in November 2002 in favor of the U.S.-backed resolution 1441 that demanded full cooperation by the Baghdad government with UN inspectors, with the threat of severe consequences if it failed to do so. Subsequently, Syria voted in favor of the U.S.-backed resolution 1511 on post-war Iraq legitimizing the U.S. military presence.

Furthermore, the Syrian regime – dominated by members of the Alawite sect – has ruthlessly suppressed radical Sunni Muslim insurgents within its own country and would therefore not want to see any similar movement gain ascendancy in neighboring Iraq. Syria did oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has called publicly for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. However, there is evidence to suggest that Syria doesn’t want to help drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. A precipitous U.S. withdrawal could increase regional turmoil and negatively affect Syria. Also, if it is bogged down in Iraq, the United States is less likely to attack on Syria.

Why the Bush Administration Opposes Talks

The government in Syria is preoccupied with its own concerns: instability in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, the rise of Islamic extremism and Sunni-Shi’ite divisions in the region, Israel’s 40-year occupation of its southwestern Golan region, serious economic problems and increasing internal political opposition. It is eager for foreign investment and greater international legitimacy. With Syria ready to deal, it is prime time for the United States to reach out and start serious negotiations on matters of mutual concern. For example, Syria has indicated its willingness to end its limited ongoing support for Hezbollah, along with strict security guarantees and full diplomatic relations, in return for a peace agreement with Israel.

However, the Bush administration appears to be more interested in forcing the ouster of the Syrian government.

A number of conservative activists who subsequently moved into major policy positions in the Bush Administration signed a 1999 report by the right-wing Middle East Forum calling for U.S. military action against Syria. These signers included Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s chief Middle East deputy on the National Security Council; Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; Paula Dobriansky Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs; and, Michael Rubin, a prominent Middle East policy consultant for the Defense Department.

Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney appointed David Wurmser, another signer of the paper and a major advocate of a joint American-Israeli effort to undermine the Syrian government, to his national security staff. Wurmser was the chief author of a white paper for then-Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” in which he advocated scuttling the Camp David Accord and toppling the Iraqi, Palestinian, and Syrian governments. Wurmser’s goal is to eliminate nationalist regimes opposed to Israeli and American dominance in the region and replace them by “tribal, familial, and clan unions under limited governments.”

For well over a year, the Bush administration has been pushing Israel to attack Syria on its own and it is widely assumed that any future U.S. attack on Syria would include Israeli forces as well. As a result, the United States has actively discouraged efforts for an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement, even going as far as blocking the resumption of proposed Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

The Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in late 2003, appears to pave the way for possible U.S. military action against Syria. It spells out, in more detail than the administration ever did regarding Iraq, reasons for a U.S. invasion. In declaring that “Syria will be held accountable for any harm to Coalition armed forces or to any United States citizen in Iraq if the government of Syria is found to be responsible due to its facilitation of terrorist activities and its shipments of military supplies to Iraq,” Congress has given the Bush Administration an opportunity – whether based on evidence or otherwise – to blame its military setbacks in Iraq on alleged support from Damascus and thereby launch military action against Syria. Senator Robert Byrd, one of only four senators to vote against the resolution, observed that the “insinuations” of the bill “can only build the case for military action against Syria, which, unfortunately, is a very real possibility because of the dangerous doctrine of pre-emption created by the Bush administration.”

As long as the Syrian government knows that the Bush administration is eager for “regime change” and war, either directly or by proxy, it will be unlikely to cooperate with even legitimate American concerns. However, if it recognizes that dialogue can help end the country’s isolation and better address pressing needs at home, Syria will likely make substantial compromises.

Unfortunately, President Bush appears quite willing not only to criticize congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi for talking with the Syrians, but to also prevent the resumption of talks that could end hostilities between Israel and its most hostile immediate neighbor. Such obstinacy confirms some of the worst suspicions about the Bush administration: that they are more interested in maintaining a policy based upon confrontation and threats than taking the necessary steps to provide peace and security for ourselves and for our allies.

U.S. Blocks Israel-Syria Talks

Even as American officials reluctantly agreed last month to include Syrian representatives in multiparty talks on Iraqi security issues, the Bush administration continues to block Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria over its security concerns. In 2003, President Bashar al-Assad offered to resume peace talks with Israel where they had left off three years earlier, but Israel, backed by the Bush administration, refused. Assad eventually agreed to reenter peace negotiations without preconditions, but even these overtures were rejected.

Beginning in 2005, with the knowledge of their governments, private Israeli and Syrian negotiators began crafting a draft treaty to end the decades-long conflict between the two countries. The Bush administration, however, downplayed the talks’ significance.

Following last summer’s war in Lebanon, several prominent members of the Israeli cabinet – including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avid Dichter – called on their government to resume negotiations with Syria. Although Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a senior aide to prepare for possible talks, such initiatives did not get any support from Washington. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, it appeared that “Israel would be prepared to open a channel with Syria but does not want to upset the Bush administration.”

Indeed, when Israeli officials asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about pursuing exploratory talks with Syria, her answer, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was, “don’t even think about it.” Similarly, the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reports that Israeli government officials “understood from President Bush that the United States would not take kindly to reopening a dialogue between Israel and Syria.”

Such pressure appears to have worked. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly expressed concern that it would inappropriate to counter President Bush at a time when his policies are being seriously challenged at home, since he has such a “clear position on this issue” and he is “Israel’s most important ally.” Similarly, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres was quoted as saying, “The worse thing we could do is contradict the United States, which opposes negotiating with Syria.” Interior Minister Ronni Baron told a television reporter, “When the question on the agenda is the political legacy of Israel’s greatest friend, President Bush, do we really need now to enter into negotiations with Syria?”

Hostility to Earlier Initiatives

Israel and Syria came very close to a peace agreement in early 2000. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to withdraw from Syrian territory occupied since the June 1967 war in return for Syria agreeing to strict security guarantees, normalized relations, the demilitarization of the strategic Golan Heights and the cessation of support for radical anti-Israel groups. Only a dispute regarding the exact demarcation of the border, constituting no more than a few hundred yards, prevented a final settlement.

With the death of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad later that year and the coming to power of the right-wing Likud Bloc in the subsequent election, talks were indefinitely suspended. Assad’s successor, Bashar al-Assad, called for the resumption of talks where they left off, but both Israel and the United States rejected the proposal.

The Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress in 2003, demands that “the Governments of Lebanon and Syria should enter into serious unconditional bilateral negotiations with the Government of Israel in order to realize a full and permanent peace.” Congress and the administration insisted that Syria enter new talks “unconditionally” rather than resume them from the two parties’ earlier negotiating positions – in which both sides made major concessions and came very close to success after several years. In so doing, the U.S. government effectively rejected the position of the more moderate Israeli government of former Prime Minister Barak and instead embraced the rejectionist position of the current right-wing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

As a result, it is unclear how the U.S. government’s demand that Syria enter into such negotiations with an occupying power that categorically refuses to withdraw from its conquered land will “realize a full and permanent peace.” Indeed, Congress and the administration appear to want to force Syria to capitulate entirely and accept Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan region. If so, this demand is unrealistic. The UN Charter expressly forbids any nation from expanding its territory by force, recognizing Israel’s annexation would violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and no Syrian government – even a hypothetically democratic one – could ever accept such a settlement.

It is also noteworthy that Congress and the administration insist that both Syria and Lebanon enter into bilateral negotiations with Israel instead of multilateral negotiations. Such multilateral negotiations, called for by UN Security Council resolution 338, makes particular sense given the interrelated concerns of these three nations. In any case, prior to President Bush signed the Accountability Act into law, President Assad announced Syria’s willingness to accede to U.S. and Israeli demands and resume talks with Israel unconditionally.

In response to these initiatives, Israel announced at the end of 2003 that it would double the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan region of Syria. According to Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz , who also chaired the government’s settlements committee, “The aim is to send an unequivocal message: the Golan is an integral part of Israel.” This renewed colonization drive is also a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits any occupying power from transferring its civilian population onto territories seized my military force, and UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471, which call on Israel to refrain from building additional settlements and withdraw from existing settlements.

Israeli Public Challenges Bush

Within Israel, however, there is also a growing awareness that returning the Golan Heights to Syria would not jeopardize Israeli security. While maintaining the high ground may have constituted a strategic advantage 40 years ago, it is far less important in an era when the principal threats to Israel’s security come in the form of suicide bombers and long-range missiles. Israeli army chief Lt. Gen Moshe Yaalon observes that, from a strategic perspective, Israel could cede the Golan Heights in return for peace and successfully defend Israel’s internationally-recognized border.

With Syria calling for a resumption of peace talks, pressure has been growing within Israel to resume negotiations, with polls showing that a majority of Israelis support such efforts. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, argues for the need to engage with Syria, otherwise the Bush administration “will forfeit another historic opportunity to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however remote that prospect may now seem.”

Many Israelis also recognize the broader implication of resuming dialogue with Damascus, in that it would likely reduce Iran’s regional influence, weaken the threat from Hezbollah, improve Israel’s relations with other Arab states, and encourage more pragmatic Palestinian voices while weakening extremists. “The moment there are negotiations with Syria, then everything changes in the Middle East,” says Danny Yatom, former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, “and we can begin renewing ties with other Arab states.” Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, notes how “the mere sight of Israeli and Syrian official sitting side by side would carry dividends, producing ripple effects in a region where popular opinion in is moving away from acceptance of the Jewish state’s right to exist, an putting Syrian allies than oppose a negotiated settlement in an awkward position.”

As a result, the pressure from the Bush administration on Israel to reject Syria’s offer for negotiations and the Israeli government’s willingness to give in to such pressure has led to growing resentment in Israel. According to the normally hawkish Maariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini, “We’ve always said that our arms are extended in peace. That is, unless the Americans twist them.” The eminent Israeli novelist Amos Oz asks, “Why should Israel suspend one of its paramount national interests – peace with its neighbors – for the sake of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of its relations with a foreign government?”

Debra DeLee, head of the liberal pro-Israel group Americans for Peace Now, says that “it takes a lot of chutzpah to tell Israel not to even talk about peace with its neighbor.” She goes on to assert that it was “outrageous…for the President to pressure Israel not to negotiate.”

Putting Syria into a Trap

Ironically, the Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress in 2003, contains a provision prohibiting any U.S. assistance to Syria until the U.S. president “determines that substantial progress has been made . . . in negotiations aimed at achieving a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.” Given the administration’s repeated efforts to block such negotiations from taking place in the first place, it obviously makes it difficult for Syria to comply.

The primary motivation may be more sinister, however.

The Jerusalem Post reported on July 30 that President Bush pushed Israel to expand the war beyond Lebanon, with Israeli military officials “receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria.” In the early days of the fighting, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams reportedly met with a very senior Israeli official to underscore Washington’s support for extending the war to Syria, but Israeli officials described the idea as “nuts” and decided to limit their military operations to Lebanon. Haaretz noted that some in Washington were “disappointed by Israel’s decision not to attack Syria at the same time.” Meyrav Wurmser, head of the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute and wife of the principal Middle East advisor for Vice-President Cheney, went further, declaring that there was “a lot of anger” in Washington that Israel did not attack Syria, which she argued would have served “U.S. objectives.” U.S. officials also hoped that an Israeli invasion of Lebanon might lead Syrian troops to re-enter Lebanon to defend the country from the Israeli invasion, which could then be used as an excuse to expand the war to Syria itself.

Not everyone in Israel supports attacking Syria on behalf of the United States. As bad as the Assad regime may be, forcing its overthrow could result in a new regime that is far worse. Following a forced departure of the Baathists who have ruled for over 44 years, radical Sunni Islamists would be most likely poised to take advantage of the inevitable chaos.

However, the Bush administration appears quite willing to continue its divide-and-rule policies in the Middle East by preventing the resumption of talks that could end hostilities between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It is yet another reminder that the problem with U.S. policy is not that it is too “pro-Israel,” but that it is anti-peace.