Bush’s Last State of the Union

On January 28, President George W. Bush gave the last State of the Union address of his two-term tenure. Many of his remarks centered on foreign policy. FPIF’s Stephen Zunes annotates the president’s claims and statements.

“On trade, we must trust American workers to compete with anyone in the world and empower them by opening up new markets overseas. Today, our economic growth increasingly depends on our ability to sell American goods and crops and services all over the world. So we’re working to break down barriers to trade and investment wherever we can.”

The record at this point is quite clear that free trade has hurt American workers. The resulting lower tariffs has made it easier for transnational corporations to shut down manufacturing facilities in the United States and take advantage of cheap labor, lower taxes, and weaker worker safety and environmental standards in foreign countries. This has contributed directly to the decline in economic growth in the United States and the real income of American workers in recent years. Meanwhile, through U.S.-backed structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions and other measures, wages and government spending in most countries of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are kept low. As a result, there is not enough money left for foreign consumers to spend on U.S.-manufactured goods that could make up for U.S. losses in wages and tax revenues from the runaway shops.

“These [free trade] agreements also promote America’s strategic interests. The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror, and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life.”

Though Colombia holds competitive elections, it hardly provides its Latin American neighbors a very good model for “democracy” or “a better life.” There is indeed a lot of violence and terror directed at the Colombian government and its supporters, but the U.S.-armed Colombian government is itself guilty of violence and terror as well. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported a “steep rise in reports of extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military” in recent years and months, making this a particularly inauspicious time for Congress to approve a free trade agreement with that repressive government. Amnesty also reports how Columbia has become “one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists,” who are routinely murdered by government forces and government-backed death squads, raising questions as to why Congress should support “free trade” with such an unfree country in which labor rights are so severely repressed.

“The United States is committed to strengthening our energy security and confronting global climate change. And the best way to meet these goals is for America to continue leading the way toward the development of cleaner and more energy-efficient technology.”

If the United States were really concerned about climate change, the Bush administration would sign and support binding agreements to reduce greenhouse emissions. Currently the United States is the only advanced industrialized country that has failed to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. The United States would also dramatically scale back its military operations and basing throughout the globe, which contribute enormously to carbon emissions. In addition, U.S. foreign aid would primarily support the development of appropriate technology and sustainable agriculture that stresses self-sufficiency rather than help facilitate the massive carbon-emitting international trade of commodities that can be produced locally. Furthermore, rather than subsidize giant corporations for dubious capital-intensive oil-substitution projects, the Bush administration needs to get serious about dramatically increasing federal support for public transportation, encouraging conservation efforts, and backing the development of renewable sources of energy.

“In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny. And that is why the terrorists are fighting to deny this choice to the people in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories. And that is why, for the security of America and the peace of the world, we are spreading the hope of freedom.”

The Bush administration has been doing more than the terrorists to set back the hope of freedom and deny people the right to determine their own destinies. Bush has been an outspoken supporter of Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf – who has brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators, censored the press, fired independent judges, rigged elections, and jailed human rights activists – subsidizing his tyranny with billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. They have denied these countries’ democratically elected governments their sovereign rights to determine the nature and scope of U.S. military operations inside their borders, to prosecute criminal activity by those working under U.S. contracts, or to pursue economic development and trade policies of their choosing. The United States is the principal military, financial, and diplomatic supporter of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory seized in the 1967 war and has refused to pressure Israel to allow for the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state. The United States was the world’s key supporter of Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, which resulted in the deaths of more then 800 civilians and billions of dollars in damage to the country’s infrastructure, and is currently applying heavy pressure on the country’s more conservative parties to block efforts to compromise with opposition groups to form a sustainable representative coalition government.

“While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago. When we met last year, many said that containing the violence was impossible. A year later, high profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down.”

Terrorist attacks and sectarian killings are down, but they are still alarmingly high. Such terrorist attacks and sectarian killings were not happening at all prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. So it is odd that – to the sound of bipartisan applause – President Bush is taking credit for the recent, and likely temporary, drop in such violence. It is also unclear as to whether the “surge” or any Bush administration policies during the past year have contributed to the lessening slaughter. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was responsible for much of the sectarian killings and terrorist attacks, has seen its operational capabilities eroded primarily by Sunni tribal leaders who have focused their militias for an indefinite period on defeating the transnational organization, a decision that took place six months prior to the launch of the surge. Furthermore, another reason for the decline in sectarian violence – which had been the leading cause of civilian deaths in the past couple of years – has been a consequence of the ethnic cleansing and displacement of millions of Iraqis from mixed neighborhoods, many of whom are now in walled-off communities behind fortified gates, which can hardly be considered a positive development.

“When we met last year, militia extremists — some armed and trained by Iran — were wreaking havoc in large areas of Iraq. A year later, coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or captured hundreds of militia fighters. And Iraqis of all backgrounds increasingly realize that defeating these militia fighters is critical to the future of their country.”

The decline of militia violence cannot necessarily be attributed to U.S. policy. Rather, the reduction has come about as a result of decisions made independently by the leading Shiite groups, which had been largely fighting each other, to observe a ceasefire and settle their differences by other means. Sunni militias – which have never been armed and trained by Iran and which are responsible for the vast majority of attacks on U.S. forces – are still active.

“Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.”

Not only have al-Qaeda’s setbacks been a result, not of the surge, but of Iraqis themselves turning against them, al-Qaeda has always represented well under 10% of the insurgents fighting U.S. forces. Polls show that a majority of Iraqis – both Sunni and Shiite – see the United States as an occupier rather than a liberator and approve of attacks against U.S. forces. Such popular resistance to the U.S. military presence in their country raises serious questions about having that kind of confidence in a military victory.

“When we met last year, our troop levels in Iraq were on the rise. Today, because of the progress just described, we are implementing a policy of “return on success,” and the surge forces we sent to Iraq are beginning to come home.”

U.S. military commanders have made it clear for some time that American forces simply can not sustain the current level of combat troops in Iraq and that there would need to be a withdrawal to pre-surge levels at this point regardless of the situation on the ground. The current drawdown had been planned many months ago as there are insufficient fresh forces available to sustain the escalated troop levels.

“… a failed Iraq would embolden the extremists, strengthen Iran, and give terrorists a base from which to launch new attacks on our friends, our allies, and our homeland. The enemy has made its intentions clear. At a time when the momentum seemed to favor them, al Qaida’s top commander in Iraq declared that they will not rest until they have attacked us here in Washington.”

It was the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq that emboldened extremists, strengthened Iran, and provided terrorists a base of operations in that country. There was no radical Islamist insurgency in until after the United States invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. Similarly, there was no “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” That group was formed only after the U.S. invasion. And, except for a tiny enclave in the Kurdish region outside of Baghdad’s control, there were no base for Islamist extremists prior to five years ago. A recent National Intelligence Estimate, based on analysis of all 16 of America’s intelligence agencies, revealed that the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation and counter-insurgency campaign had actually increased the threat to the United States from Islamic terrorism and had become the primary recruiting vehicle for a new generation of extremists from the Arab world and beyond. The longer the United States stays in Iraq, then, the greater this threat will grow.

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

“Tehran is also developing ballistic missiles of increasing range, and continues to develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon.”

Bush makes it sound like Iran is the only country in the region to pose this kind of threat. Yet Iran’s neighbors Israel, Pakistan, and India already have nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, with no objections from the Bush administration, which provides these countries with billions of dollars worth of weapons to increase their offensive military capabilities. While Iran’s nuclear capabilities and missile development are subjects of legitimate concern, they can only be realistically addressed in the context of regional disarmament efforts, not demands by the United States for Iran to halt their programs unilaterally.

“Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you. We respect your traditions and your history. We look forward to the day when you have your freedom.”

If this is really true, why hasn’t the Bush administration apologized for the 1953 U.S. overthrow of Iran’s last democratic government and the critical role of U.S. security assistance and training for the repressive and autocratic regime of the Shah for the quarter century that followed? The United States has historically demonstrated little regard for Iranian traditions, history, or freedom.

“Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin.”

Why must Iran unilaterally suspend its enrichment program before negotiations can begin? Virtually every successful negotiations to end a country’s potential for developing nuclear weapons – including the one ending Libya’s nuclear program in 2003 – involved some kind of quid pro quo and were not subjected to such unilateral pre-conditions. Iran offered to end its enrichment program more than four years ago in return for an end of U.S. threats against its regime and normal relations, similar to the deal worked out with the Libyans. But the Bush administration refused.

“But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops. We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.”

This is a clear threat of war against Iran, made all the more chillingly real by the bipartisan cheers that followed this statement. This comes despite the fact that virtually every claim and reported incident by the Bush administration regarding alleged Iranian threats to U.S. forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf have later been shown to have been false or grossly exaggerated.

“Protecting our nation from the dangers of a new century requires more than good intelligence and a strong military. It also requires changing the conditions that breed resentment and allow extremists to prey on despair. So America is using its influence to build a freer, more hopeful, and more compassionate world. This is a reflection of our national interest; it is the calling of our conscience.”

This noble calling is not supported by the facts. By virtually any measure, there has been an increase in repression, despair, and intolerance in the world since Bush launched the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq, as the United States and other countries have diverted their resources towards military spending and away from meeting human needs, as governments around the world have used security rationales to crack down on civil liberties, and as xenophobia and religious extremism has grown as a result.

“We support freedom in countries from Cuba and Zimbabwe to Belarus and Burma.”

The United States should indeed support freedom in those countries, yet Bush has been curiously silent about supporting freedom in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, Chad, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, and other countries suffering under repressive regimes kept in power in large part through billions of dollars worth of U.S. arms transfers and security assistance. As long as the U.S. government only goes on record supporting “freedom” in countries whose repressive governments oppose U.S. hegemony while propping up other repressive governments that support U.S. hegemony, this double-standard makes it easier for the regimes of these targeted countries to depict the genuine freedom movements challenging their rule as agents of the United States.

“This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem, I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year.”

Rather than doing “everything we can,” the Bush administration rejects taking the necessary steps to make peace possible. It has refused to insist on a full Israeli withdrawal (with possible minor and reciprocal border adjustments), an end to Israeli colonization in the occupied territories, and the acceptance of a shared co-capital of Jerusalem. Nor has Bush even demanded that Israel engage in confidence-building measures, such as a putting a freeze on the expansion of settlements, ending its siege of Palestinian cities and the construction of its illegal separation barrier deep inside the occupied West Bank, and releasing Palestinian prisoners not involved in terrorism.

President Bush was asked at a press conference during his recent Ramallah visit why the United States refused to insist that Israel abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions addressing the outstanding issues in the peace process. He responded by proclaiming that “the choice was whether to remain stuck in the past, or to move on.” This was necessary, according to the president, because “the UN deal didn’t work in the past,” ignoring the fact that these earlier UN efforts failed as a direct result of the United States blocking the Security Council from enforcing its resolutions regarding Israel’s international legal obligations.

Bush has rejected calls by the international community that the conflict must be settled on the basis of international law, which forbids the expansion of any country’s territory by force. The United States has ignored the kind of settlement called for in the longstanding UN Security Council resolution 242 and recognized by previous presidents as the basis for Arab-Israeli peace. Instead, the Bush administration has opted to use as its starting point the status quo based on Israel’s 40-year occupation. This underscores the longstanding and inherent contradiction between the United States simultaneously playing the role of chief mediator in the conflict and being the chief military, financial, and diplomatic supporter of the more powerful of the two parties. As a result, Israel, the occupying power, has little incentive to compromise, and the relatively powerless Palestinians under occupation have little leverage to advance their struggle for an independent viable state.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/bushs_last_state_of_the_union

Arming the Middle East

President George W Bush announced during his recent Middle East trip that he is formally serving notice to Congress of his administration’s decision to approve the sale of bomb-guidance kits to Saudi Arabia. This announcement follows notification on five other arms deals to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait that are part of a $20 billion package of additional armaments over the next decade to the family dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf emirates announced by President George W. Bush last summer.

At that time, the Bush administration also announced taxpayer-funded military assistance totaling an additional $13 billion over this same period to the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt. Also part of this package is an additional $30 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry bound for Israel.

Altogether, these arms deals represent a major setback for those struggling to promote peace and democracy in that volatile region.

The Democratic-controlled Congress has the authority to block any or all of these proposed sales. It could also refuse to approve the military assistance packages, which altogether total $63 billion. Congress has until February 13 to block the latest portion of the arms package, consisting of 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, valued at $123 million. In addition to these highly advanced satellite-guided bombs, the Bush administration’s proposed arms sales to the Gulf monarchies include sophisticated guided missiles, new naval ships, and upgrades to fighter aircraft for Saudi Arabia and the five other Gulf monarchies.

However, no one among the top House or Senate leadership in either party has yet to come out in opposition to any aspect of the administration’s plans to dangerously escalate the regional arms race.

Still More Arms

Arms control analysts have consistently argued that the Middle East is too militarized already and the recipient governments already possess military capabilities well in excess of their legitimate security needs. Yet President Bush is effectively insisting that this volatile region does not yet have enough armaments, and the United States must send even more.

As disturbing as this is – depending on the time frame for the arms sales – it does not necessarily represent a dramatic increase in the rate of arms transfers. For example, since 1998, the United States has sent over $15 billion of American weaponry to Saudi Arabia alone. By contrast, even though Israel’s strategic superiority vis-à-vis all its potential regional adversaries is stronger than ever and Israel is already by far the highest recipient of U.S. military assistance, the proposed arms package to Israel marks a dramatic 25% increase over current levels.

The administration has claimed in recent years that it has disavowed the policies of its predecessors that propped up undemocratic regimes in the name of regional stability and was now dedicated to promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Nevertheless, all seven of the Arab countries included in the proposed arms packages are led by autocratic governments that have engaged in consistent patterns of gross and persistent human rights abuses. In addition, Israel – while having the only democratically elected government among the recipients – remains in belligerent occupation of much of Palestine’s West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights and has a longstanding history of using American weapons against civilians and related violations of international humanitarian law.

Though supporters of the recently announced arms sales to the Gulf argue that if the United States did not sell weapons to these oil-rich nations someone else would, neither the Bush administration nor its predecessors have ever expressed interest in pursuing any kind of arms control agreement with other arms exporting countries. A number of other arms exporters, such as Germany, are now expressing their opposition to further arms transfers to the region due to the risks of exacerbating tensions and promoting a regional arms race.

The United States is by far the largest arms exporter in the world, surpassing Russia – the second largest arms exporter – by nearly two to one.

The Iranian rationalization

The ostensible reason for the proposed arms packages is to counter Iran’s growing military procurement in recent years, though Iranian military spending is actually substantially less than it was 20 years ago. Furthermore, Iran’s current military buildup is based primarily on the perceived need to respond to the threatened U.S. attack against that country, a concern made all the more real by the U.S. invasion and occupation of two countries bordering Iran on both its east and west in recent years.

This U.S. insistence on countering Iran through further militarizing this already overly militarized region is particularly provocative. Not only has the United States refused to engage in serious negotiations with Iran regarding mutual security concerns but it has discouraged its regional allies from pursuing arms control talks or other negotiations that could ease tensions between the Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic. If the Bush administration were really interested in addressing its purported concerns regarding Iranian militarization, it would be willing to at least give diplomacy a chance first.

In addition to alleged worries about Iran as a military threat to the region, U.S. officials have also tried to justify the arms package as a means to respond to Iran’s growing political influence. However, most of Iran’s enhanced role in the region in recent years is a direct consequence of the U.S. decision to overthrow the anti-Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and its replacement by a new government dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite parties. Another key element of Iran’s growing influence is the earlier U.S. decision to oust the anti-Iranian Taliban of Afghanistan and replace it with a regime dominated by tribal war lords, a number of whom have close Iranian ties. Similarly, Iranian influence has also increased in the Levant as a direct consequence of U.S.-backed Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, which have strengthened popular political support for Hamas and Hezbollah and their ties to Iran.

Iran’s emergence as a major regional military power also took place as a result of American arms transfers. Over a 25-year period, the United States pushed the autocratic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi to purchase today’s equivalent of over $100 billion worth of American armaments, weapons systems, and support, creating a formidable military apparatus that ended up in the hands of radically anti-American Shiite clerics following that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Rather than respond to these setbacks by further militarization, the United States should instead seriously re-evaluate its counter-productive propensity to try to resolve Middle Eastern security concerns primarily through military means. Instead of meeting the legitimate defensive needs of America’s allies, the proposed deal is yet another arrogant assertion of American military hegemony. As U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put it, the arms package “says to the Iranians and Syrians that the United States is the major power in the Middle East and will continue to be and is not going away.”

Little Strategic Merit

The administration’s other rationales for the new arms transfers also have little merit. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for instance, claims that they are necessary to counter the influences of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. In reality, these sophisticated conventional weapons systems would be of little use against Osama bin Laden’s decentralized network of underground terrorist cells or the Lebanese Shiite party’s popular militia.

As exiled Saudi activist Ali Alyami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia put it, “Appeasing and protecting the autocratic Saudi dynasty and other tyrannical regimes in the Arab world will not bring peace, stability, or an end to extremism and terrorism.”

There is also the possibility that, as with Iran following the 1979 revolution, U.S. arms provided to one or more of these autocratic Arab regimes could end up in the hands of radical anti-American forces should the government be overthrown. Indeed, seeing their countries’ wealth squandered on unnecessary weapons systems pushed on them by the U.S. government and suffering under their despotic rulers kept in power in large part through such military support are major causes of the growing appeal of anti-American extremism among the peoples of Middle East.

The Democratic Response

Despite holding a majority of seats in Congress, the Democratic majority will likely allow the administration to go ahead with these massive arms transfers. Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, apparently has no plans to take up a resolution blocking the proposed sale. Without action by that committee, Congress will not be able to vote on the matter.

For years, calls for the Democratic congressional leadership to eliminate or even scale back this kind of taxpayer subsidy for wealthy and powerful U.S. military contractors – referred to by critics as “merchants of death” – have been summarily rejected. Indeed, since first being elected to Congress in the late 1980s, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has voted in favor of over $50 billion of taxpayer-funded arms transfers to Middle Eastern countries that have engaged in gross and systematic violations of international humanitarian law. In her time in the leadership, she has never seriously challenged any arms transfers to the region.

When the proposal was originally outlined last summer, a group of congressional Democrats did sign a letter expressing opposition. The leading Democratic presidential contenders announced their reservations as well. However, these objections were only in regard to the proposed arms sales for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies. There were no objections to the much larger tax-payer funded arms package to Israel.

In defending the Israeli part of the proposed package, all three major Democratic presidential candidates have placed themselves in opposition to repeated calls by human rights activists to restrict military assistance to any government that uses American weaponry against civilian targets in violation of international humanitarian law.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards argue that additional military aid is necessary to protect Israel from potentially hostile Arab states. However, given that the arsenals of most of these Arab countries are of U.S. origin, it would make more sense to simply call for an end to the large-scale arms transfers to these regimes. Furthermore, every Arab state is now on record agreeing to security guarantees and normal relations with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands seized in the June 1967 war. If these presidential hopefuls were really interested in Israel’s security, they would encourage the Bush administration to pressure Israel to enter into serious negotiations based on the longstanding principle of land for peace.

Last summer’s letter by House members opposing the proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia totaled 141 members, less than half of what is needed to block the sales. Ironically, a reading of the letter and accompanying press release appears to indicate that the main objections these Democrats had to sending additional arms to Saudi Arabia was the government’s opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, its efforts to reconcile warring Palestinian parties, and its insistence on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands conquered in the 1967 war in return for peace.

More Arms, Less Security

U.S. officials insist that the Saudis alone are responsible for their procurement of these sophisticated weapons. Yet underneath this convenient claim of Saudi sovereignty that supposedly absolves the United States of any responsibility in the arms purchases and their deleterious effects lies a practice that can be traced as far back as the 1940s: The U.S Defense Department routinely defines the kingdom’s security needs, often providing a far more pessimistic analysis of the country’s security situation than do more objective strategic analyses. Conveniently, these alleged needs lead directly to purchases of specific U.S. weapons.

As Robert Vitalis, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, observed,

If the billions have not been useful to the Saudis, they were a gold mine for Congresspersons compelled to cast pro-Saudi votes, along with cabinet officials and party leaders worried about the economy of key states and electoral districts. To the extent that the regime faces politically destabilizing cutbacks in social spending, a proximate cause is the strong bipartisan push for arms exports to the Gulf as a means to bolster the sagging fortunes of key constituents and regions – the “gun belt” – that represents the domestic face of internationalism.

These military expenditures place a major toll on the fiscal well-being of Middle Eastern countries. Military expenditures often total half of central government outlays. Many senior observers believe that debt financing in Saudi Arabia that has been used in the past to finance arms purchases has threatened the kingdom’s fragile social pact of distributing oil rents to favored constituents and regions.

A very important factor, often overlooked, is that a number of Middle Eastern states – such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco – are highly dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial assistance. As Saudi Arabia spends more and more on arms acquisitions, it becomes less generous, leading to serious budget shortfalls throughout the Arab world. The result is that these arms sales may be causing more instability and thereby threatening these countries’ security interests more than they are protecting them.

Even Middle Eastern countries that do not have to buy their American weapons suffer the economic consequences. For example, U.S. arms transfers cost the Israelis two to three times their value in maintenance, spare parts, training of personnel, and related expenses. It drains their economy and increases their dependency on the United States.

The implications of these ongoing arms purchases are ominous on several levels. For example, one of the most striking but least talked about for the Middle East is the “food deficit,” the amount of food produced relative to demand. With continued high military spending – combined with rapid population growth and increased urbanization – the resulting low investments in agriculture have made this deficit the fastest growing in the world.

For these and other reasons, ultimately the largest number of civilian casualties, the greatest amount of social disorder, and the strongest anti-American sentiment that results may come as a consequence of U.S.-supplied weapons systems and ordinance that are never actually used in combat.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/arming_the_middle_east

Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles

The United States has done for the cause of democracy what the Soviet Union did for the cause of socialism. Not only has the Bush administration given democracy a bad name in much of the world, but its high-profile and highly suspect “democracy promotion” agenda has provided repressive regimes and their apologists an excuse to label any popular pro-democracy movement that challenges them as foreign agents, even when led by independent grassroots nonviolent activists.

In recent months, the governments of Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus, and Burma, among others, have disingenuously claimed that popular nonviolent civil insurrections of the kind that toppled the corrupt and autocratic regimes in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine in recent years – and that could eventually threaten them as well – are somehow part of an effort by the Bush administration and its allies to instigate “soft coups” against governments deemed hostile to American interests and replace them by more compliant regimes.

This confuses two very different phenomena.

The U.S. government has undeniably provided small amounts of money to various opposition groups and political parties through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and other organs. Such funding has at times helped a number of opposition groups cover some of the costs of their operations, better enabling them to afford computers, Internet access, fax machines, printing costs, office space and other materials. Assistance from foreign governments has also helped provide for poll watchers and other logistical support to help insure free and fair elections. In addition, the United States, through the NED, the IRI and other U.S.-funded projects, has also provided seminars and other training for opposition leaders in campaign strategies.

What is controversial about these endeavors is that they have been directed primarily at helping conservative, pro-Western parties with a free-market orientation and generally not parties of the democratic left. Nor are they aimed solely at pro-democracy struggles challenging autocratic regimes. Indeed, U.S. agencies have also backed opposition parties in countries such as Venezuela, despite it already being a democracy.

Some opposition groups in some countries have welcomed U.S. assistance while others have rejected such aid on principle. There is no evidence, however, to suggest – even in cases where this kind of limited U.S. support for opposition organizations has taken place – that the U.S. government or any U.S.-funded entity has ever provided training, advice, or strategic assistance for the kind of mass popular nonviolent action campaigns that have toppled governments or threatened the survival of incumbent regimes.

How Democratic Change Occurs

The United States remains the world’s number one supplier of armaments and security assistance to the world’s dictatorships. There is little reason to take seriously the idea that U.S. foreign policy, under either Republican or Democratic administrations, has been based upon a sincere belief in advancing freedom and democracy as a matter of principle. History has shown repeatedly that the U.S. government, like most Western powers, supports democratic rule only if it is seen to promote perceived economic and strategic interests. Conversely, the U.S. government has frequently opposed democratic rule if it is seen to be contrary to perceived economic and strategic interests. Since the vast majority of Americans, according to public opinion polls, do support democracy as a matter of principle, however, support for “democracy” has long been used as a rationalization for various U.S. foreign policy initiatives, even when these policies end up supporting authoritarianism and repression. As a result, though support for democratic change in countries ruled by autocratic regimes is certainly a worthwhile goal, skepticism over the Bush administration’s pro-democracy rhetoric is indeed warranted.

In any case, true democratic change comes from within. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a series of broadly based nonviolent social movements that have succeeded in toppling dictatorships and forcing democratic reforms in such diverse countries as the Philippines, Chile, Bolivia, Madagascar, Nepal, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia, Serbia, Mali, and Ukraine. Even the relatively conservative Washington-based Freedom House, after examining the 67 countries that have moved from authoritarianism to varying degrees of democratic governance over the past few decades, published a study concluding that these transitions did not come as a result of foreign intervention and only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary elite-driven reforms. In the overwhelming majority of cases, according to this report, change came through democratic civil society organizations engaging in massive nonviolent demonstrations and other forms of civil resistance, such as strikes, boycotts, tax refusal, occupations of public space, and other forms of non-cooperation.

Whenever governments are challenged by their own people, they tend to claim that those struggling for freedom and justice are traitors to the nation and agents of foreign enemies. In previous decades, opposition activists challenging U.S.-backed dictatorships in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere were routinely labeled as “communist agents” and “Soviet sympathizers.” Today, pro-democracy movements within U.S. client states in the Middle East are depicted as “Islamic fundamentalists” and “Iranian agents.” Similarly, opposition activists in Iran, Belarus, Burma, and Zimbabwe have been labeled as “supporters of Western imperialism” and “American agents.”

In reality, the limited amount of financial support provided to opposition groups by the United States and other Western governments in recent years cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place any more than the limited Soviet financial and material support for leftist movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution to take place. As Marxists and others familiar with popular movements have long recognized, revolutions are the result of certain objective conditions. Indeed, no amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and put their bodies on the line unless they had a sincere motivation to do so.

Conspiracy Theories

A number of regimes facing popular opposition have gone so far as to claim that certain small independent non-profit organizations and supporters of nonviolent action from Europe and the United States who have provided seminars and workshops for opposition activists on the history and dynamics of nonviolent resistance are somehow working as agents of the Bush administration. Some Western bloggers and other writers critical of the Bush administration and understandably concerned about U.S. intervention in the name of “democracy,” have actually bought into some of the claims by these governments. These conspiracy theories have in turn been picked up by some progressive websites and periodicals and even by some in the mainstream press, which then repeat them as fact.

Virtually all of these seminars and workshops, however, come at the direct request of opposition organizers themselves. And at least as many of them have been on behalf of pro-democracy activists struggling against right-wing dictatorships as there have been on behalf of pro-democracy activists struggling against left-wing dictatorships. Over just this past year, for example, my colleagues and I have worked with Egyptians, Maldivians, Palestinians, West Papuans, Sahrawis, Azerbaijanis, and Guatemalan Indians struggling against repressive U.S.-backed governments. In addition, virtually all of these groups have a strict policy of refusing support from the NED or any other government-funded entities. As a result of my own involvement in a number of these groups and personally knowing most of their principal workshop leaders, I recognize that charges that Gene Sharp, Jack DuVall, Bob Helvey, Ivan Marovic, the Albert Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), and the Center on Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) are somehow in cahoots with the CIA or are serving as agents of U.S. imperialism are totally unfounded.

Unfortunately, even Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – echoed by some of his North American supporters – has apparently fallen for these false charges and has accused some of these individuals and groups of plotting with his opponents to overthrow him. Chavez has every right to be a bit paranoid, given the very real U.S. government efforts to subvert his regime, including support for a short-lived coup in 2002. In reality, however, the only visit to Venezuela that has taken place on behalf of any of these non-profit groups engaged in educational efforts on strategic nonviolence was in early 2006 when I – along with David Hartsough, the radical pacifist director of Peaceworkers – led a series of workshops at the World Social Forum in Caracas. There we lectured and led discussions on the power of nonviolent resistance as well as offered a series of screenings of a film ICNC helped develop on the pro-democracy movement in Chile against the former U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet. The only reference to Venezuela during those workshops was how massive nonviolent action could be used to resist a possible coup against Chavez, not foment one. In fact, Hartsough and I met with some Venezuelan officials regarding proposals that the government train the population in various methods of nonviolent civil defense to resist any possible future attempts to overthrow Chavez.

Workshops on Strategic Nonviolence

The American and European groups that share generic information on the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolence with civil society organizations in foreign countries are not unlike the Western private voluntary organizations that share environmentally sustainable technologies and agricultural techniques to farmers in developing nations. Both offer useful tools that, if applied consistently and effectively, could improve the quality of life for millions of people. There is nothing “imperialistic” about it.

Just as sustainable agricultural technologies and methods are more effective in meeting human needs and preserving the planet than the conventional development strategies promoted by Western governments, nonviolent action has been shown to be more effective in advancing democratic change than threats of foreign military intervention, backing coup plotters, imposing punitive sanctions, supporting armed rebel groups, and other methods traditionally instigated by the United States and its allies. And just as the application of appropriate technologies can also be a means of countering the damage caused by unsustainable neo-liberal economic models pushed by Western governments and international financial institutions, the use of massive nonviolent action can counter some of the damage resulting from the arms trade, military intervention, and other harmful manifestations of Western militarism.

Development based on Western models usually means that multinational corporations and the governments of wealthy capitalist countries end up exerting a large degree of control over these societies, whereas appropriate technologies allow for genuine independence and self-sufficiency. Similarly, unlike fomenting a military coup or establishing a military occupation – which relies on asserting control over the population and potential political opponents – successful nonviolent civil insurrections are necessarily based on a broad coalition of popular movements and are therefore impossible for an outside power to control.

It is ironic, then, that some elements of the left are attacking those very individuals and groups who are trying to disseminate these tools of popular empowerment against the forces of oppression and imperialism.

People Power

Another difference between these people-to-people educational efforts and U.S. intervention is that, unlike the NED and other government-backed “pro-democracy” efforts, which often focus on developing conventional political initiatives led by pro-Western elites, these workshops on strategic nonviolence are primarily designed for grassroots activists unaffiliated with established political parties who seek to make change from below.

Historically, individuals and groups with experience in effective nonviolent action campaigns tend to come from leftist and pacifist traditions which carry a skeptical view of government power, particularly governments with a history of militarism and conquest. For example, my own background in strategic nonviolent action is rooted in my involvement in the late 1970s as a nonviolence trainer for the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance and the nonviolent revolutionary group Movement for a New Society, both of which were radically decentralist in structure and decidedly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist in orientation. More recently, my fellow workshop leaders have included a South African veteran of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, a leading Palestinian activist from the first intifada, and former student leaders from the left-wing Serbian opposition to Milosevic.

Conversely, large bureaucratic governments accustomed to projecting political power through military force or elite diplomatic channels have little understanding or appreciation of nonviolent action or any other kind of mass popular struggle. Indeed, what would CIA operatives know about nonviolence, much less grassroots organizing?

In short, not only is it naïve to assume than an external power could provoke a revolution of any kind, it should be apparent that the U.S. government does not know the first thing about fomenting a nonviolent civil insurrection. As a result, the dilemma for U.S. policy-makers – and the hope for all of us who support democracy as a matter of principle and not political expediency – is that the most realistic way to overthrow the world’s remaining autocratic regimes is through a process the U.S. government cannot control.

The U.S. government has historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’etats, and other kinds of violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent “people power” movements, by contrast, make regime change possible through empowering pro-democratic majorities. As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world’s remaining autocratic states comes from civil society, not the U.S. government, which deserves neither the credit nor the blame for the growing phenomenon of nonviolent democratic revolutions.

Strengthening the Bush Agenda

The emergence of civil society organizations and the growing awareness of the power of nonviolent action in recent years have been among the most positive political developments in what has otherwise been largely depressing political times. It is most unfortunate, then, that supposedly “progressive” voices have chosen to attack this populist grass roots phenomenon as some kind of Bush administration conspiracy.

It is also ironic that so many on the American left – after years of romanticizing armed struggle as the only way to defeat dictatorships, disparaging the potential of nonviolent action to overthrow repressive governments, and dismissing the notion of a nonviolent revolution — are now expressing their alarm at how successful popular nonviolent insurrections can be, even to the point of naively thinking that it is so easy to pull off that it could somehow be organized from foreign capitals. In reality, every successful popular nonviolent insurrection has been a home grown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their rulers were illegitimate and the current political system was incapable of redressing injustice. By contrast, no nonviolent insurrection has succeeded when the movement’s leadership and agenda did not have the backing of the majority of the population. This is why the 2002-2003 “strike” in Venezuela’s oil industry failed to bring down Chavez while comparable disruptions to economies elsewhere have often forced out less popular leaders.

“Leftist” critics of nonviolent pro-democracy movements parallel right-wing supporters of U.S. intervention in that both denigrate the power of individuals to take their destiny into their own hands and overthrow oppressive leaders and institutions. Instead, both appear to believe that people are passive victims and that social and political change can only come through the manipulation of foreign powers.

Reagan Redux

For example, despite President Ronald Reagan’s insistence during the 1980s that the popular armed insurgencies that challenged repressive U.S.-backed regimes in Central America were the result of a Soviet “hit list,” the reality was that the revolutions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala were homegrown popular movements. The Soviets provided a limited amount of assistance and obviously wanted to take political advantage of the possible overthrow of pro-American oligarchs by having them replaced with leftist revolutionaries who would be friendlier to their interests. But the oppressed peasants and workers of those Central American countries were not following the dictates of Moscow. They were struggling for basic rights and an end to repression.

Similar claims heard today that the United States is somehow a major force behind contemporary popular movements against dictatorships in Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Belarus or that the United States was somehow responsible for the successes of previous movements in Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine are equally ludicrous. This attitude parallels claims by those on the right who disingenuously credited Reagan’s dangerous and militaristic Cold War policies for the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and tried to depict the union activists, peasants, students, priests, and others martyred in the course of popular struggles in Central America as Soviet agents.

In addition, it is important to remember that the vast majority of successful nonviolent civil insurrections have not been against dictatorships opposed by the U.S. government, but dictatorships supported by the U.S. government. Right-wing autocrats toppled by such “people power” movements have included Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, the Shah of Iran, Duvalier in Haiti, Pinochet in Chile, Chun in South Korea, and Numeiry in Sudan, to name only a few.

Another problem with this kind of simplistic reductionism is that when nonviolent civil insurrections do succeed in bringing democrats to power in countries previously under anti-American dictatorships, the new often-inexperienced leaders are faced with plaudits from the American right and suspicion from the European and North American left. This could lead them to wonder who their friends really are and reinforce the myth that those of the right, rather than the left, are the real champions of freedom.

The conspiratorial thinking and denigration of genuine popular movements appearing increasingly in some leftist circles serves to strengthen the hand of repressive regimes, weaken democratic forces, and bolster the argument of American neo-conservatives that only U.S. militarism and intervention – and not nonviolent struggle by oppressed peoples themselves – is capable of freeing those suffering under repressive rule.

How Change Occurs

Successful nonviolent revolutions, like successful armed revolutions, often take years or decades to develop as part of an organic process within the body politic of a given country. There is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government or a foreign non-governmental organization could put together, since the history, culture and political alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government or NGO can recruit or mobilize the large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging the established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.

Trainers and workshop leaders like me and my colleagues emphasize certain strategies and tactics that have been successful elsewhere in applying pressure on governments to change their policies and undermining the support and loyalty required for governments to successfully suppress the opposition. In some cases, local activists may try to emulate some of them. However, a regime will lose power only if it tries to forcibly maintain a system that the people oppose, not because a foreign workshop leader described to a small group of opposition activists certain tactics that had been used successfully in another country at another time.

In maintaining our steadfast opposition to U.S. interventionism and exposing the hypocrisy and double-standards of the Bush administration’s rhetoric in support of democracy, we must also challenge those who denigrate popular indigenous movements as creations of Washington or slander reputable non-profit groups that share their generic knowledge of nonviolent strategies and tactics with like-minded organizations overseas.

Finally, both to maintain our credibility and because it is the right thing to do, progressives should recognize the moral imperative of opposing repressive regimes regardless of their ideology or their relationship with the United States. Progressives should also embrace strategic nonviolent action in the cause of freedom as an ethical and realistic alternative to U.S. interventionism.

http://www.fpif.org/reports/nonviolent_action_and_pro-democracy_struggles

Barack Obama on Diplomacy

The rise in popular support for Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy reflects the growing skepticism among Democratic and independent voters regarding both the Bush administration’s and the Democratic Party establishment’s foreign policies. Indeed, on issues ranging from Iraq to nuclear weapons to global warming to foreign aid, as well as his general preference for diplomacy over militarism, Obama has also staked out positions considerably more progressive than the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

In my previous FPIF commentary, Barack Obama on the Middle East, I analyzed both the enlightened and disturbing aspects of Obama’s positions regarding Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine and related Middle East issues. This article examines Obama’s overall foreign policy positions which, while containing many positive attributes that are bolstering the presidential candidate’s popularity, also reveal that he’s far less progressive than many of his enthusiastic supporters tend to believe. It therefore remains an open question as to whether these positions really represent the kind of sweeping changes his campaign has promised an Obama presidency would bring.

Obama’s Advisers

Obama’s foreign policy advisers run the gamut from mainstream strategic analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations to outspokenly liberal academics and activists. On the one hand, those from the Democratic foreign policy establishment tend to be associated with its more enlightened wing. On the other hand, even those among the liberal activists seem to be more inclined to criticize the U.S. government for failing to take a firmer stand against the crimes of others than acknowledge the crimes, past and present, for which the United States bears responsibility. While maintaining a strong stated commitment to international humanitarian law and a belief in the responsibility of the international community to respond to crises such as Darfur, there’s little open recognition of U.S. culpability in humanitarian crises elsewhere or any real critique of empire.

Still, there’s a marked contrast between the team for foreign policy experts assembled around Obama and those of his principal rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. In contrast with Clinton’s foreign policy advisers – most of whom strongly supported the invasion of Iraq – virtually all of Obama’s advisers opposed the war from the beginning. The Nation magazine noted that members of Obama’s foreign policy team, who also tend to be younger than those of the former first lady, are “more likely to stress ‘soft power’ issues like human rights, global development and the dangers of failed states.” As a result, “Obama may be more open to challenging old Washington assumptions and crafting new approaches.”

Human Rights

Unlike his other rivals for the Democratic Party’s nomination, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Obama has refused to unconditionally endorse U.S. ratification of the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. He has stated his openness, however, to ratification after addressing what he claims are inadequate safeguards protecting members of the U.S. armed forces.

Unlike the Bush administration, which has focused its rhetoric on human rights and democracy solely at countries opposed by the U.S. government, Obama has taken a broader perspective, demonstrating a willingness to criticize the policies of autocratic allied regimes as well. For example, Obama has argued that the United States should “make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

Recognizing that, despite the rhetoric, the Bush administration has “done little to advance democracy around the world,” Obama has promised to “focus on achieving concrete outcomes that will advance democracy.” While calling for increased U.S. government financial support for independent institutions supporting pro-democracy movements abroad, he recognizes that “direct financial assistance from the U.S. government will not always be welcome or beneficial.” He has also called for increased support – through foreign aid, debt relief, technical assistance and investment – for countries undergoing post-conflict and post-authoritarian transitions.

Despite all this, he has fallen short of promising to end security assistance to repressive regimes.

Though unwilling to impose sanctions against most right-wing dictatorships, Obama apparently has fewer problems with supporting strict economic sanctions against left-wing dictatorships, joining the other major presidential contenders in refusing to call for an end to most U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. Unlike Senator Clinton, however, Obama has called for lifting the ban on family travel and on remittances.

Nuclear Weapons

In a break with the other leading presidential contenders, Obama supports the United States’ commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work to ultimately eliminate nuclear stockpiles. However, although the United States possesses by far the largest number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems on earth, Obama hasn’t indicated support for any unilateral American initiatives to move the process forward, such as cuts in weapons or delivery systems where the United States has a qualitative advantage.

Though he has called for a “worldwide ban on weapons to interfere with satellites and a ban on testing anti-satellite weapons,” he has not endorsed a ban on nuclear weapons in space as called for by virtually the entire international community. And, though critical of the enormous wastes incurred from Bush’s missile defense program, he has announced his support for the continued development of missile defense capabilities.

On a positive note, Obama has pledged to work vigorously to better secure the world’s nuclear weapons materials, work with Russia to take both countries’ nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and to negotiate with Russia and other nuclear powers for a dramatic reduction in nuclear stockpiles. He is also on record strongly opposing the Bush administration’s efforts to build a new generation of nuclear weapons and supporting ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT.)

Use of Force

Obama has harshly criticized the Bush administration’s unilateralism and militarism and promises to be far more cautious regarding sending Americans off to war. Yet he leaves loopholes big enough to drive a tank through. Rather than categorically declaring he would use military force only as a last resort, he insists that “no president should ever hesitate to use force – unilaterally if necessary,” not only “to protect ourselves . . . when we are attacked,” but also to protect what he refers to as “our vital interests” when the president believes they are “imminently threatened.” And, rather than calling on the United States to strictly abide by the United Nations Charter and other international treaty obligations regarding the use of military force, he simply says “we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others.”

At the same time, Obama has demonstrated enough of an awareness of history to indicate that he would be less likely to repeat some of the mistakes of the past, telling The New York Times, “For most of our history our crises have come from using force when we shouldn’t, not by failing to use force.”

Obama strongly supports the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Despite recent pleas by the democratically elected Afghan president Harmid Karzai that the ongoing U.S. bombing and the over-emphasis on aggressive counterinsurgency operations was harming efforts to deal with the resurgence of violence by the Taliban and other radical groups, Obama has promised to send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. He has also threatened bombings and incursions into Pakistan to root out al-Qaeda cells.

Though critical of the billions of dollars wasted annually on anachronistic Cold War-era military procurement projects, Obama calls for increasing America’s already-bloated military budget. Even though U.S military spending already totals more than all the military budgets of all the other countries in the world combined, Obama insists that Bush’s military spending spree of recent years has somehow not been enough.

Indeed, Obama has promised to enlarge the size of the uniformed armed forces by more than 92,000 troops. Given that the United States – surrounded by two oceans and two weak friendly neighbors – is essentially safe from any potential conventional attack, this position inevitably raises the question of what he intends to do with that expanded military capability.

Broadened Concepts of Security

Despite these disturbing indications of his readiness to use military force, Obama appears to recognize U.S. national security interests in much broader terms than virtually any major presidential contender past or present. He has called for a much greater emphasis on preventative diplomacy as well as the creation of a civilian corps that can “participate in post-conflict, humanitarian and stabilization efforts around the globe.”

He appears to more fully recognize the complexities of challenges faced in today’s world and carries a refreshingly less state-centric approach than most leaders of either party, both in terms of emerging threats as well as in terms of potential good. He argues that “while America and our friends and allies can help developing countries build more secure and prosperous societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them.”

Obama has recognized the pernicious influence of corporate interests in promoting dangerous foreign policies, illustrated in his criticism of “the arms merchants in our own country” for “feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe” and his call on the United States to “wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.”

In addition to calling on the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, Obama has called for a series of policy initiatives “to bring developing countries into the global effort to develop alternative sources of energy and prepare for the ravages of a changing climate,” including “funding to leverage the investment and venture capital needed to expand the developing world’s renewable energy portfolio.” Despite his emphasis on climate change as a national security issue, however, many environmentalists find that his proposals do not go nearly far enough.

Though Obama has indicated a willingness to take international law and the United Nations more seriously than the current administration, he still appears to accept the same double standards regarding to whom such international legal standards apply. For example, while he has called for the strict enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions targeted at Iran and Syria, he has not called for the strict enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions targeted at U.S. allies like Israel and Morocco.

On a positive note, despite strong criticism from Republicans and from Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama has promised to talk with foreign leaders of governments labeled by the United States as “rogue states,” rejecting the current thinking dominant in Washington that isolating and threatening foreign governments is somehow more effective than talking with them over issues of mutual concern.

Development

Obama has called for making “the critical investments needed to fight global poverty” by doubling foreign non-military assistance and has pledged that his administration would work to “build the capacity of weak states to confront the common, transnational challenges we face including terrorism, conflict, climate change, proliferation and epidemic disease.” In the Senate, Obama co-sponsored legislation in support of the United Nations millennium development goals over the Bush administration’s objections. He has called for the establishment of a $2 billion Global Education Fund to develop primary education in impoverished regions and for increased funding to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Significantly, Obama has called for 100% debt cancellation for the world’s most heavily indebted poor countries. He has promised to press the World Bank to provide poor countries with grants rather than loans and to enact reforms that ensure that “countries have the resources they need to respond to the external shocks that threaten to derail economic progress.” He has also pledged to lead a multilateral effort to address the issue of “odious debts” created by previous corrupt non-elected governments and to seek out ways in which “loan sanctions” could be enacted to create disincentives to discourage private creditors from lending money to repressive, authoritarian regimes.

At the same time, while making vague calls “modernization and reform,” he has failed to critique the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Forum.

Global Leadership

Obama has rejected calls from both the left and the right, smitten by the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, for the United States to disengage from playing a leading role in international affairs. He has warned against isolationism and the country turning inward and has called for the United States to reassert its global leadership, albeit tempered by a skeptical view towards unilateralism and an emphasis on partnership with other nations.

With a Kenyan father and having spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, Obama understands the non-Western world unlike any president to date. Combined with his mixed racial heritage, spending his formative adolescence in Hawaii (a state where people of color are a clear majority) and having worked as a community organizer in impoverished African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, he would be able to show the world a new face of America and thereby do much to heal the U.S. image. At the same time, his emphasis on America’s global leadership – including the assumption that the world would be willing to follow if only the United States had a decent and responsible administration – may prove naïve. Even during the the1990s, resentment at the United States – particularly towards American unilateralism and the ways the Clinton administration was taking unfair advantage of the country’s new status as the world’s sole superpower – was at an all-time high.

Whether for good or ill, Obama would likely be very much an activist president on foreign policy. His outlook is reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy’s grandiose view of U.S. global leadership, emphasizing threats abroad and the power of American ideals as imperatives for the United States to exercise a predominant role. For example, he has promised to that to “renew American leadership in the world, I will strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity. Our global engagement cannot be defined by what we are against; it must be guided by a clear sense of what we stand for. We have a significant stake in ensuring that those who live in fear and want today can live with dignity and opportunity tomorrow.”

A Mixed Prognosis

Despite his rather limited experience in national office, Obama appears to be one of the smartest, most visionary and most knowledgeable members of the U.S. Senate on foreign policy. As a result, he would be more likely to take creative and independent initiatives and less reliant on the traditional foreign policy establishment than any modern president of ether party.

As many of the examples above illustrate, however, that doesn’t mean he’ll always be right. A combination of his limited vision and the constraints imposed upon any president by the imperatives of powerful economic and strategic interests make it doubtful that Obama will be able to move the country significantly forward in ways that will address the most important challenges facing the country and the world today on his own. However, there are indications that he could be more open to a more progressive foreign policy if the growing social movements in this country for peace and justice are able to mobilize effectively and provide the necessary counter-pressures. Obama’s strong showing thus far in the race for the Democratic nomination is a direct result of such movements. If he wins the presidency, he would be obliged to listen to those who would play such an important role in bringing him to the White House.

In summary, we must neither be naïve about Barack Obama’s limitations nor cynical about his potential.

There are genuine reasons for hope regarding certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the event of an Obama administration. If he secures the Democratic Party’s nomination, therefore, these more enlightened positions will subject him to organized attacks from the right-wing that will likely be even worse than those unleashed against the less progressive John Kerry four years earlier. As a result, Obama will need to be vigorously defended.

At the same time, he must also continue to be challenged by those who support a more progressive foreign policy. Ultimately, the directions that we as an informed electorate give the new president matter far more than who wins the election.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/barack_obama_on_diplomacy

Still No Peace

President George W. Bush has been using somewhat stronger language than he has uttered previously about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and has made some optimistic predictions of a peace agreement within a year. Nevertheless, there is little reason to hope that the president is any more serious about or is any more likely to be successful in bringing about a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

The United States still rejects the application of international law in settling the conflict, opting instead to use as its starting point the status quo based on Israel’s 40-year occupation. This underscores the longstanding and inherent contradiction between the United States simultaneously playing the role of chief mediator in the conflict and being the chief military, financial and diplomatic supporter of the more powerful of the two parties. As a result, Israel, the occupying power, has little incentive to compromise and the relatively powerless Palestinians under occupation have little leverage to advance their struggle for an independent viable state.

Harry Siegman, who headed the American Jewish Congress from 1978 to 1994 and subsequently served as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has faulted the Bush administration for failing to acknowledge “the consensus reached long ago by Israel’s decision-making élites that Israel will never allow the emergence of a Palestinian state which denies it effective military and economic control of the West Bank.” Observing what most independent observers of the peace process have noted since the election of a right-wing coalition government in Israel in early 2001, Siegman writes that “Israel’s interest in a peace process – other than for the purpose of obtaining Palestinian and international acceptance of the status quo – has been a fiction that has served primarily to provide cover for its systematic confiscation of Palestinian land….”

As far back as 2004, Dov Weissglas, senior advisor to the Israeli prime minister, admitted that the U.S.-backed Israeli government’s decision was to effectively suspend diplomatic efforts to create a Palestinian state. As Weissglas told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.” Citing the support for this policy by both the Bush administration and Congress, he went on to observe that the Israeli government could do this “with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

Indeed, the Bush administration, the leadership of both parties in Congress, and the leading Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have all made clear that they will not pressure Israel to move the peace process forward or even to comply with a series of relevant UN Security Council resolutions. For example, as reported by the BBC, when asked why the United States refused to insist that Israel abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions addressing the outstanding issues in the peace process, President Bush responding by proclaiming that “the choice was whether to remain stuck in the past, or to move on.” This was necessary, according to the president, because “the UN deal didn’t work in the past,” ignoring the fact that these earlier UN efforts failed as a direct result of the United States blocking the Security Council from enforcing its resolutions regarding Israel’s international legal obligations.

The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse comes down to four major unresolved issues: Israeli settlements, Israeli withdrawal, the status of Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees. Each of these issues is summarized below. In each category, the Palestinian position is far closer to the international legal consensus while the U.S. position is much closer to that of the Israel’s rightist government, underscoring the reasons for the failure of the much-vaunted Roadmap for Peace and the peace process in general.

Israeli settlements

The issue: Since its forces invaded and captured the territory in 1967, the Israeli government has colonized large segments of the occupied West Bank (including greater East Jerusalem), seizing Palestinian land to construct scores of settlements reserved for Jews only. A series of walls and fortified fences snake deep into the West Bank to separate these settlements and surrounding areas from much of the Palestinian population. Since the occupied Palestinian territory in which these settlements, the highways connecting them, and the surrounding farmland inside the separation barriers are integral to creating a contiguous Palestinian state, maintaining the settlements makes the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible.

International Law: The Fourth Geneva Conventions prohibit an occupying power from transferring any part of its civilian population onto lands seized by military force. UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471 explicitly call on Israel to remove its colonists from the occupied territories. A 2004 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice also ruled that the settlements were illegal.

Palestinian position: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded a freeze on the expansion of settlements as called for in the Road Map and supports the international legal consensus that the settlements are illegal and Israeli colonists should be required to return to Israel. Many Palestinians argue that these abandoned settlements would be ideal for the resettling of Palestinian refugees. It appears that Abbas would be willing to accept Israel maintaining most of the largest settlements in greater East Jerusalem and along the border with Israel, however, in return for an equivalent amount of sparsely-populated territory in what is now Israel.

Israeli position: With the exception of a few isolated outposts – consisting primarily of a small number of mobile homes in parts of the northern West Bank maintained without government sanction by religious zealots – the Israeli government wants to maintain these settlements and the surrounding areas and annex them to Israel. Despite hopes at the Annapolis meeting in November that the Israelis would agree to a settlement freeze, the Israeli government has recently announced the expansion of a controversial settlement on seized Palestinian land just north of Bethlehem and other settlements elsewhere in greater Jerusalem.

U.S. position: Though as recently as the early 1980s, the United States recognized that these settlements were illegal, the current U.S. position is that it is up to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to determine the fate of the settlements. The Bush administration and a large bipartisan majority of Congress have gone on record condemning the 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice and supporting the Israeli position that it be able to maintain the majority of its settlements, which are increasingly referred to by U.S. officials simply as “Jewish neighborhoods.”

Israeli withdrawal

The Issue: The longstanding international consensus has been for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – the Palestinian areas seized by Israeli forces in 1967 – presumably with a 40-mile highway connecting the two (without exits, like the roads connecting West Berlin with West Germany during the Cold War). These two areas constitute only 22% of historical Palestine. Currently, President Abbas’ Palestine Authority – under a coalition government dominated by the Fatah movement – controls most of the populated areas of the West Bank, while Israeli occupation forces, civilian settlers, and the infrastructure to support them has made 40% of the West Bank off limits to Palestinians. Israeli occupation forces control movement between areas controlled by the Palestine Authority through 450 roadblocks and 70 additional checkpoints. The Islamist Hamas movement controls the Gaza Strip, but Israel has effectively placed this crowded enclave under siege, shutting down with the airport and seaport and sealing the borders.

International Law: A cornerstone of international law and the UN system, as reiterated in UN Security Council resolution 242 – long seen as the basis for peace between Israel and its neighbors – regards the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Resolution 242 and subsequent Security Council resolutions call for Israel to withdraw from the territories seized in the 1967 war, though the wording implies a possible exception for very minor and reciprocal border adjustments. There is also a widespread legal consensus that Israel’s system of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank and its siege of the Gaza Strip are excessive, going well beyond what is necessary for Israeli security and are therefore in violation of international humanitarian law.

Palestinian position: The Palestinians recognized Israeli sovereignty over 78% of Palestine in the Oslo Agreement in 1993 and are currently calling for sovereignty over only the remaining 22% conquered by Israel in the 1967 war. President Abbas has indicated a willingness to allow Israel to annex small segments of the occupied West Bank along the border in return for an equivalent amount of Israeli land. He has called for an immediately lifting of the roadblocks and checkpoints and – despite his intense rivalry with Hamas – an easing of the siege of Gaza Strip on humanitarian grounds.

Israeli position: Israel has already annexed occupied East Jerusalem and surrounding areas and plans to annex large swathes of West Bank as well, which would divide the West Bank into a series of non-contiguous cantons that would resemble the notorious Bantustans of South Africa during Apartheid rule. It has defended its siege of the Gaza Strip and its strict limitations on freedom of movement in the West Bank on security grounds.

U.S. position: While formally calling for “an end to the occupation that began in 1967,” President Bush refuses to call for a complete Israeli withdrawal, arguing instead that “territory is an issue for both parties to decide.” While calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that is “viable and contiguous,” he has failed to pressure Israel to withdraw from enough occupied land to make that possible. Indeed, during his recent visit to Jerusalem, President Bush explicitly stated that Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 borders must be expanded “to reflect current realities” – that is, Israel’s illegally-constructed settlements in the occupied West Bank – a position also backed by the Democratic Party in their 2004 platform. Bush has even defended the ubiquitous Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints as necessary for Israel’s security, though the vast majority are on roads connecting West Bank cities and do not run close to the Israeli border, and has backed Israel in its ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip.

Jerusalem

The issue: Originally designated by the UN in 1947 as an international city under neither exclusive Israeli nor Arab sovereignty, Jerusalem was divided between Israeli and Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967 and has been under exclusive Israeli control subsequently. Israeli Jews were forbidden from entering the Jordanian-controlled half of the city prior to 1967, and Israel has in recent years severely restricted Palestinian Christians and Muslims from entering the city. Israel has substantially expanded the city’s eastern and northern boundaries, which it has populated with Jewish settlers, and has annexed all of greater East Jerusalem, including its large Palestinian population. Given the city’s significance to both populations, any sustainable peace agreement would need to recognize Jerusalem as the capital city for both Israel and Palestine.

International Law: Consistent with the prohibition regarding the illegitimacy of any country expanding its territory by force, the UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions (252, 267, 271, 298, 476 and 478) calling on Israel to rescind its annexation of greater East Jerusalem and to refrain from any unilateral action regarding its status. The UN has also called for a negotiated settlement that recognizes the legitimate rights of all peoples.

Palestinian position: In addition to its religious significance for both Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims, Jerusalem has long been the most important cultural, commercial, political, and educational center for Palestinians and has the largest Palestinian population of any city in the world. President Abbas has called for Palestinian sovereignty over Palestinian-populated areas and has expressed a willingness to accept Israeli sovereignty over Jewish-populated areas, even those areas seized from Arab landowners in the aftermath of the 1967 war.

Israeli position: Israel has unilaterally annexed Jerusalem and its environs and has categorically rejected these UN resolutions, insisting that – with the possible exception of administrative responsibility regarding Islamic holy places – there would be no Palestinian rule within the city, even over Palestinian-populated neighborhoods. The Israeli Knesset recently passed a law requiring a two-thirds majority to alter the status of the city, which makes it unlikely for a more moderate Israeli government in the future to compromise on this issue.

U.S. Position: President Bush has refused to call for Palestinian sovereignty over even the Palestinian-populated segments of the city, only going as far as declaring it to be “a tough issue” that is up to the two parties to resolve among themselves. An overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress has effectively recognized Israel’s annexation of greater Jerusalem. Over the past 15 years, the United States has blocked a series of UN Security Council resolutions confirming previous calls on Israel to rescind its annexation and has even blocked resolutions which simply refer to Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.”

Refugees

The Issue: As a result of both escaping from the fighting and, in some areas, a calculated policy of ethnic cleansing by Israeli forces, over 700,000 Palestinians fled into neighboring Arab countries in the late 1940s during Israel’s war of independence. Israel confiscated their land and refused to allow them to return. The surviving refugees and their descendents now total four million, most of whom still live in refugee camps and, with the partial exception of Jordan, are denied full citizenship rights. These refugee camps were the base from which the Palestinians armed struggle – including terrorist groups – emerged from the 1950s through the 1980s.

International Law: UN General Assembly resolution 194, reiterated annually, calls on Israel to allow refugees to return in accordance with international humanitarian law, which guarantees the right of anyone to leave or return to their country of origin. This right of return was codified with the assumption that such refugees would be able to return within weeks or months, however, not after several generations. The applicability of this international legal principle to the current situation is therefore open to debate. UN Security Council resolution 242 simply calls for “a just resolution to the refugee problem.”

Palestinian Position: The Palestinians continue to officially demand the right of return, though there are indications that this demand is largely a bargaining chip to force Israeli concessions on the other outstanding issues. It appears that the Palestinians would be willing to accept the resettlement of refugees within the boundaries of the new Palestinian state and in other Arab countries in return for financial compensation, Israeli acknowledgement of its culpability in the tragedy, and for the ability of a small number of first-generation refugees to return.

Israeli Position: Israel categorically rejects any right of return for Palestinian refugees or any responsibility in the origins of the refugee crisis, noting that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendents would result in a non-Jewish majority in Israel.

U.S. Position: Both the Bush administration and a broad bipartisan majority of Congress have gone on record demanding that the Palestinians unilaterally renounce their right of return. During his recent visit, Bush only called for compensating the refugees and reiterated his support for Israel as a “Jewish state.”

http://www.fpif.org/articles/still_no_peace

Obama and the Middle East: Will He Bring About “Change?”

The strong showings by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois in the early contests for the Democratic presidential nomination don’t just mark a repudiation of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and “war on terrorism.” They also indicate a rejection of the Democratic Party establishment, much of which supported the invasion of Iraq and other tragic elements of the administration’s foreign policy.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that voters found Senator Obama’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in contrast to the strong support for the invasion by his principal rivals for the Democratic Party nomination, a major factor contributing to his surprisingly strong challenge to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the race for the White House. Indeed, while his current position on Iraq is not significantly different than that of Clinton or the other major challenger, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Obama’s good judgment not to support the war five years ago has led millions of Democratic and independent voters to find him more trustworthy as a potential commander-in-chief.

At the same time, while he certainly takes more progressive positions on Middle East issues than Senator Clinton or the serious Republican presidential contenders, he backs other aspects of U.S. policies toward Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have raised some troubling questions. This is one factor that has tempered support for the trailblazing African-American candidate among liberal and progressive voters.

Iraq in the Illinois State Senate

In October 2002, while Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were in Washington leading Congressional efforts to authorize President George W. Bush to invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his choosing, Obama–then an Illinois state senator who had no obligation to take a stand either way–took the initiative to speak at a major anti-war rally in Chicago. While Clinton and Edwards were making false and alarmist statements that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still a danger to the Middle East and U.S. national security, Obama had a far more realistic understanding of the situation, stating: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.”

Recognizing that there were alternatives to using military force, Obama called on the United States to “allow UN inspectors to do their work.” He noted “that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”

Furthermore, unlike the the Iraq War’s initial supporters, Obama recognized that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Understanding the dangerous consequences to regional stability resulting from war, Obama accurately warned that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Iraq in the U.S. Senate

Once elected to the U.S. Senate, however, his anti-war voice became muted. Obama supported unconditional funding for the Iraq War in both 2005 and 2006. And–despite her false testimonies before Congress and her mismanagement of Iraq policy before, during, and after the U.S. invasion in her role as National Security Advisor–Obama broke with most of his liberal colleagues in the Senate by voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state during his first weeks in office.

Obama didn’t even make a floor speech on the war until a full year after his election. In it, he called for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops but no timetable for their withdrawal. In June 2006, he voted against an amendment by Senators Russ Feingold and John Kerry for such a timetable.

In addition, during the 2006 Democratic congressional primaries, he campaigned for pro-war incumbents–including Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman against his eventually victorious primary challenger Ned Lamont–and other conservative Democrats fighting back more progressive anti-war challengers.

Iraq as a Presidential Candidate

It was only after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, called for setting a date to withdraw U.S. combat troops, and only after Obama formed his presidential exploratory committee, that he introduced legislation setting a date for troop withdrawal. And it was only this past spring that he began voting against unconditional funding for the war.

In a speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November 2006, Obama appeared to buy into the Bush administration’s claims that its goal in Iraq was not about oil or empire, but to advance freedom, by criticizing the Bush administration for invading Iraq for unrealistic “dreams of democracy and hopes for a perfect government.” Instead of calling for an end to the increasingly bloody U.S.-led military effort, he instead called for “a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in Iraq,” with repeated references to the need to defeat the insurgency.

Despite polls showing a majority of Americans desiring a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, he acknowledged that U.S. troops may need to stay in that occupied country for an “extended period of time,” and that “the U.S. may have no choice but to slog it out in Iraq.” Specifically, he called for U.S. forces to maintain a “reduced but active presence,” to “protect logistical supply points” and “American enclaves like the Green Zone” as well as “act as rapid reaction forces to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists.”

Obama has committed to withdraw regular combat troops within 16 months and launch diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives to address some of the underlying issues driving the ongoing conflicts. He has also pledged to launch “a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker and end of the civil war in Iraq, prevent its spread, and limit the suffering of the Iraqi people.”

If elected, as president Obama would almost certainly withdraw the vast majority of U.S. forces from Iraq. Yet thousands of American troops would likely remain to perform such duties as he has described as necessary. Indeed, he has explicitly ruled out any guarantee for a total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by the end of his first term in 2013. At the same time, he has recognized the need to “make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq” and has increasingly emphasized that most U.S. troops that remain in the area should be “over the horizon,” such as in Kuwait, rather than in Iraq itself.

Iran: Mixed Messages

Obama has criticized the Bush administration for its belligerent policy toward Iran and has warned against precipitous military action. In addition, though being out on the campaign trail when the vote was taken made it impossible to formally go on record, Obama has harshly criticized Senator Clinton for supporting the bellicose Kyl-Lieberman amendment targeting Iran, which many saw as paving the way for the Bush administration to launch military action against that country.

Despite this, Senator Obama has appeared to buy into some of the more alarmist and exaggerated views of Iran’s potential threat. For example, he has referred to Iran–a mid-level power on the far side of the globe that currently does not have a nuclear weapons program and is nearly a decade away from having the capability to produce nuclear weapons–as a “genuine threat.”

In remarks Obama prepared for a speech to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Forum in March of last year, he said: Iranian nuclear weapons would destabilize the region and could set off a new arms race. Some nations in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, could fall away from restraint and rush into a nuclear contest.” He has not been able to explain why–given that Israel itself has had nuclear weapons for at least 35 years and no other Middle Eastern country has yet gone nuclear–Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would suddenly lead other countries in the region to immediately follow suit.

Because of this alleged threat, Obama insisted that “we should take no option, including military action, off the table.” One option he has not endorsed, however, is the proposed establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone for the Middle East, similar to initiatives already undertaken in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Rather than embrace such a comprehensive approach to non-proliferation in the Middle East, he apparently accepts the Bush administration’s contention that the United States gets to decide which Middle Eastern countries can have nuclear weapons and which ones cannot.

To his credit, Obama has distinguished himself from both the Bush administration and Senator Clinton in supporting direct negotiations with Iran, arguing in his speech at the AIPAC policy forum that “sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.” At the same time, this raises the question as to why he has he not also called for aggressive diplomacy and tough sanctions against Israel, India, and Pakistan for their already-existing nuclear arsenals, especially since these three countries–no less than Iran–are also in violation of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their nuclear programs.

Israel: Shifting Positions

Earlier in his career, Obama took a relatively balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aligning himself with positions embraced by the Israeli peace camp and its American supporters. For example, during his unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000, Obama criticized the Clinton administration for its unconditional support for the occupation and other Israeli policies and called for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He referred to the “cycle of violence” between Israelis and Palestinians, while most Democrats were referring to “Palestinian violence and the Israeli response.” He also made statements supporting a peace settlement along the lines of the Geneva Initiative and similar efforts by Israeli and Palestinian moderates.

During the past two years, however, Obama has largely taken positions in support of the hard-line Israeli government, making statements virtually indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration. Indeed, his primary criticism of Bush’s policy toward the conflict has been that the administration has not been engaged enough in the peace process, not that it has backed the right-wing Israeligovernment on virtually every outstanding issue.

Rejecting calls by Israeli moderates for the United States to use its considerable leverage to push the Israeli government to end its illegal and destabilizing colonization of the West Bank and agree to withdraw from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, Obama has insisted “we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests” and that no Israeli prime minister should ever feel “dragged” to the negotiating table.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s refusal to freeze the construction of additional illegal settlements, end the seizure of Palestinian population centers, release Palestinian political prisoners, or enact other confidence-building measures–much less agree to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state–Obama claimed in his AIPAC policy forum speech that Olmert is “more than willing to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side by side in peace and security.” And though, as recently as last March, Obama acknowledged the reality that that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” as a result of the stalled peace process he has since placed the blame for the impasse not on the Israeli occupation but on the Palestinians themselves.

In addition, rejecting calls by peace and human rights activists that U.S. military aid to Israel, like all countries, should be contingent on the government’s adherence to international humanitarian law, Obama has called for “fully funding military assistance.”

Backing Israeli Militarism

In the face of widespread international condemnation over Israel’s massive attacks against Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure during the summer of 2006, Obama rushed to Israel’s defense, co-sponsoring a Senate resolution defending the operation. Rather than assign any responsibility to Israel for the deaths of over 800 Lebanese civilians, Obama claimed that Hezbollah was actually responsible for having used “innocent people as shields.” This assertion came despite the fact that Amnesty International found no conclusive evidence of such practices and Human Rights Watch, in a well-documented study, had found “no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack,” an analysis confirmed by subsequent scholarly research.

(When I contacted Obama’s press spokesperson in his Senate office to provide me with evidence supporting Obama’s claim that, despite the findings of these reputable human rights groups, that Hezbollah had indeed used “human shields,” he sent me the link to a poorly-documented report from a hawkish Israeli research institute headed by the former chief of the Mossad–the Israeli intelligence service that itself has engaged in numerous violations of international humanitarian law. The senator’s press spokesman did not respond to my subsequent requests for more credible sources. This raises concerns that an Obama administration, like the current administration, may be prone to taking the word of ideologically driven right-wing think tanks above those of empirical research or principled human rights groups and other nonpartisan NGOs.)

Indeed, Obama’s rhetoric as a senator has betrayed what some might view as a degree of anti-Arab racism. He has routinely condemned attacks against Israeli civilians by Arabs but has never condemned attacks against Arab civilians by Israelis.

Closet Moderate?

Unlike any other major contenders for president this year or the past four election cycles, Obama at least has demonstrated in the recent past an appreciation of a more moderate and balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As president, he may well be better than his more recent Senate votes and public statements would indicate. Though the power of the “Israel Lobby” is often greatly exaggerated (see my articles The Israel Lobby Revisited and The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is It Really?), it’s quite reasonable to suspect that pressure from well-funded right-wing American Zionist constituencies has influenced what Obama believes he can and cannot say. As an African-American whose father came from a Muslim family, he is under even more pressure than most candidates to avoid being labeled as “anti-Israel.” Ironically, a strong case can be made that the right-wing militaristic policies he may feel forced to defend actually harm Israel’s legitimate long-term security interests.

Still, Obama has indicated greater interest in promoting a comprehensive peace settlement, acknowledging that the “Israeli government must make difficult concessions for the peace process to restart.” And, unlike the Bush administration, which successfully pressured Israel not to resume peace negotiations with Syria, Obama has pledged never to block an Israeli prime minister from the negotiation table. (See my article: Divide and Rule: U.S. Blocks Israel-Syria Talks.)

As a result, several prominent Americans allied with the current Israeli government have expressed deep concern about the prospects of Obama’s election while Democrats aligned with more progressive Israeli perspectives have expressed some cautious optimism regarding Obama becoming president.

How Much Change?

Despite building his campaign around the theme of “change you can believe in,” there are serious questions regarding how much real change there would be under an Obama presidency regarding the U.S. role in the Middle East. While an Obama administration would certainly be an improvement over the current one, he may well turn out to be quite sincere in taking some of the more hard-line positions he has advocated regarding Iran, Israel, and Iraq.

However, many are holding out hope that, as president, Obama would be more progressive than he is letting on and that he would take bolder initiatives to shift U.S. policy in the region further away from its current militaristic orientation than he may feel comfortable advocating as a candidate. Indeed, given how even the hawkish John Kerry was savaged by the right-wing over his positions on Middle East security issues during his bid for the presidency, the threat of such attacks could be enough to have given Senator Obama pause in making more direct challenges to the status quo during the campaign. In other words, he could be open to more rational and creative approaches to the Middle East once in office.

However, many are holding out hope that as president, Obama would be more progressive than he is letting on and that he would take bolder initiatives to shift U.S. policy in the region further away from its current militaristic orientation than he may feel comfortable advocating as a candidate. Indeed, given how even the hawkish John Kerry was savaged by the right-wing over his positions on Middle East security issues during his campaign for the presidency, the threat of such attacks could be enough to have given Senator Obama pause in making more direct challenges to the status quo as a candidate. But he could be open to more rational and creative approaches to the Middle East once in office.

The Illinois Senator’s intelligence and independent-mindedness, combined with what’s at stake, offers some hope that at least for pragmatic reasons–if not moral and legal ones–a future President Obama would have the sense to recognize that the more the United States has militarized the Middle East, the less secure we have become. He would perhaps also recognize that arms control and nonproliferation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are based on universal, law-based principles rather than unilateral demands and threats based upon specific countries’ relationship with the United States. And that exercising American “leadership” requires a greater awareness of the needs and perceptions of affected populations.

Most importantly, given that the strength of the anti-war movement brought Obama to his position as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, just such a popular outpouring can also prevent him from further backsliding in the face of powerful interests that wish to see U.S. policy continue its dangerous course. Those who support peace and human rights in the Middle East and beyond must be willing to challenge him–as both a candidate and as a possible future president–for advocating immoral or illegal policies that compromise the security and human rights of people in the region and here in the United States.

http://www.alternet.org/story/73715/obama_and_the_middle_east%3A_will_he_bring_about_%22change%22/?page=entire

Barack Obama on the Middle East

The strong showings by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois in the early contests for the Democratic presidential nomination don’t just mark a repudiation of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and “war on terrorism.” They also indicate a rejection of the Democratic Party establishment, much of which supported the invasion of Iraq and other tragic elements of the administration’s foreign policy.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that voters found Senator Obama’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in contrast to the strong support for the invasion by his principal rivals for the Democratic Party nomination, a major factor contributing to his surprisingly strong challenge to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the race for the White House. Indeed, while his current position on Iraq is not significantly different than that of Clinton or the other major challenger, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Obama’s good judgment not to support the war five years ago has led millions of Democratic and independent voters to find him more trustworthy as a potential commander-in-chief.

At the same time, while he certainly takes more progressive positions on Middle East issues than Senator Clinton or the serious Republican presidential contenders, he backs other aspects of U.S. policies toward Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have raised some troubling questions. This is one factor that has tempered support for the trailblazing African-American candidate among liberal and progressive voters.

Iraq in the Illinois State Senate

In October 2002, while Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were in Washington leading Congressional efforts to authorize President George W. Bush to invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his choosing, Obama–then an Illinois state senator who had no obligation to take a stand either way–took the initiative to speak at a major anti-war rally in Chicago. While Clinton and Edwards were making false and alarmist statements that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still a danger to the Middle East and U.S. national security, Obama had a far more realistic understanding of the situation, stating: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.”

Recognizing that there were alternatives to using military force, Obama called on the United States to “allow UN inspectors to do their work.” He noted “that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”

Furthermore, unlike the the Iraq War’s initial supporters, Obama recognized that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Understanding the dangerous consequences to regional stability resulting from war, Obama accurately warned that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Iraq in the U.S. Senate

Once elected to the U.S. Senate, however, his anti-war voice became muted. Obama supported unconditional funding for the Iraq War in both 2005 and 2006. And–despite her false testimonies before Congress and her mismanagement of Iraq policy before, during, and after the U.S. invasion in her role as National Security Advisor–Obama broke with most of his liberal colleagues in the Senate by voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state during his first weeks in office.

Obama didn’t even make a floor speech on the war until a full year after his election. In it, he called for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops but no timetable for their withdrawal. In June 2006, he voted against an amendment by Senators Russ Feingold and John Kerry for such a timetable.

In addition, during the 2006 Democratic congressional primaries, he campaigned for pro-war incumbents–including Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman against his eventually victorious primary challenger Ned Lamont–and other conservative Democrats fighting back more progressive anti-war challengers.

Iraq as a Presidential Candidate

It was only after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, called for setting a date to withdraw U.S. combat troops, and only after Obama formed his presidential exploratory committee, that he introduced legislation setting a date for troop withdrawal. And it was only this past spring that he began voting against unconditional funding for the war.

In a speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November 2006, Obama appeared to buy into the Bush administration’s claims that its goal in Iraq was not about oil or empire, but to advance freedom, by criticizing the Bush administration for invading Iraq for unrealistic “dreams of democracy and hopes for a perfect government.” Instead of calling for an end to the increasingly bloody U.S.-led military effort, he instead called for “a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in Iraq,” with repeated references to the need to defeat the insurgency.

Despite polls showing a majority of Americans desiring a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, he acknowledged that U.S. troops may need to stay in that occupied country for an “extended period of time,” and that “the U.S. may have no choice but to slog it out in Iraq.” Specifically, he called for U.S. forces to maintain a “reduced but active presence,” to “protect logistical supply points” and “American enclaves like the Green Zone” as well as “act as rapid reaction forces to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists.”

Obama has committed to withdraw regular combat troops within 16 months and launch diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives to address some of the underlying issues driving the ongoing conflicts. He has also pledged to launch “a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker and end of the civil war in Iraq, prevent its spread, and limit the suffering of the Iraqi people.”

If elected, as president Obama would almost certainly withdraw the vast majority of U.S. forces from Iraq. Yet thousands of American troops would likely remain to perform such duties as he has described as necessary. Indeed, he has explicitly ruled out any guarantee for a total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by the end of his first term in 2013. At the same time, he has recognized the need to “make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq” and has increasingly emphasized that most U.S. troops that remain in the area should be “over the horizon,” such as in Kuwait, rather than in Iraq itself.

Iran: Mixed Messages

Obama has criticized the Bush administration for its belligerent policy toward Iran and has warned against precipitous military action. In addition, though being out on the campaign trail when the vote was taken made it impossible to formally go on record, Obama has harshly criticized Senator Clinton for supporting the bellicose Kyl-Lieberman amendment targeting Iran, which many saw as paving the way for the Bush administration to launch military action against that country.

Despite this, Senator Obama has appeared to buy into some of the more alarmist and exaggerated views of Iran’s potential threat. For example, he has referred to Iran–a mid-level power on the far side of the globe that currently does not have a nuclear weapons program and is nearly a decade away from having the capability to produce nuclear weapons–as a “genuine threat.”

In remarks Obama prepared for a speech to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Forum in March of last year, he said: Iranian nuclear weapons would destabilize the region and could set off a new arms race. Some nations in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, could fall away from restraint and rush into a nuclear contest.” He has not been able to explain why–given that Israel itself has had nuclear weapons for at least 35 years and no other Middle Eastern country has yet gone nuclear–Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would suddenly lead other countries in the region to immediately follow suit.

Because of this alleged threat, Obama insisted that “we should take no option, including military action, off the table.” One option he has not endorsed, however, is the proposed establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone for the Middle East, similar to initiatives already undertaken in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Rather than embrace such a comprehensive approach to non-proliferation in the Middle East, he apparently accepts the Bush administration’s contention that the United States gets to decide which Middle Eastern countries can have nuclear weapons and which ones cannot.

To his credit, Obama has distinguished himself from both the Bush administration and Senator Clinton in supporting direct negotiations with Iran, arguing in his speech at the AIPAC policy forum that “sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.” At the same time, this raises the question as to why he has he not also called for aggressive diplomacy and tough sanctions against Israel, India, and Pakistan for their already-existing nuclear arsenals, especially since these three countries–no less than Iran–are also in violation of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their nuclear programs.

Israel: Shifting Positions

Earlier in his career, Obama took a relatively balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aligning himself with positions embraced by the Israeli peace camp and its American supporters. For example, during his unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000, Obama criticized the Clinton administration for its unconditional support for the occupation and other Israeli policies and called for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He referred to the “cycle of violence” between Israelis and Palestinians, while most Democrats were referring to “Palestinian violence and the Israeli response.” He also made statements supporting a peace settlement along the lines of the Geneva Initiative and similar efforts by Israeli and Palestinian moderates.

During the past two years, however, Obama has largely taken positions in support of the hard-line Israeli government, making statements virtually indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration. Indeed, his primary criticism of Bush’s policy toward the conflict has been that the administration has not been engaged enough in the peace process, not that it has backed the right-wing Israeligovernment on virtually every outstanding issue.

Rejecting calls by Israeli moderates for the United States to use its considerable leverage to push the Israeli government to end its illegal and destabilizing colonization of the West Bank and agree to withdraw from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, Obama has insisted “we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests” and that no Israeli prime minister should ever feel “dragged” to the negotiating table.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s refusal to freeze the construction of additional illegal settlements, end the seizure of Palestinian population centers, release Palestinian political prisoners, or enact other confidence-building measures–much less agree to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state–Obama claimed in his AIPAC policy forum speech that Olmert is “more than willing to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side by side in peace and security.” And though, as recently as last March, Obama acknowledged the reality that that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” as a result of the stalled peace process he has since placed the blame for the impasse not on the Israeli occupation but on the Palestinians themselves.

In addition, rejecting calls by peace and human rights activists that U.S. military aid to Israel, like all countries, should be contingent on the government’s adherence to international humanitarian law, Obama has called for “fully funding military assistance.”

Backing Israeli Militarism

In the face of widespread international condemnation over Israel’s massive attacks against Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure during the summer of 2006, Obama rushed to Israel’s defense, co-sponsoring a Senate resolution defending the operation. Rather than assign any responsibility to Israel for the deaths of over 800 Lebanese civilians, Obama claimed that Hezbollah was actually responsible for having used “innocent people as shields.” This assertion came despite the fact that Amnesty International found no conclusive evidence of such practices and Human Rights Watch, in a well-documented study, had found “no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack,” an analysis confirmed by subsequent scholarly research.

(When I contacted Obama’s press spokesperson in his Senate office to provide me with evidence supporting Obama’s claim that, despite the findings of these reputable human rights groups, that Hezbollah had indeed used “human shields,” he sent me the link to a poorly-documented report from a hawkish Israeli research institute headed by the former chief of the Mossad–the Israeli intelligence service that itself has engaged in numerous violations of international humanitarian law. The senator’s press spokesman did not respond to my subsequent requests for more credible sources. This raises concerns that an Obama administration, like the current administration, may be prone to taking the word of ideologically driven right-wing think tanks above those of empirical research or principled human rights groups and other nonpartisan NGOs.)

Indeed, Obama’s rhetoric as a senator has betrayed what some might view as a degree of anti-Arab racism. He has routinely condemned attacks against Israeli civilians by Arabs but has never condemned attacks against Arab civilians by Israelis.

Closet Moderate?

Unlike any other major contenders for president this year or the past four election cycles, Obama at least has demonstrated in the recent past an appreciation of a more moderate and balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As president, he may well be better than his more recent Senate votes and public statements would indicate. Though the power of the “Israel Lobby” is often greatly exaggerated (see my articles The Israel Lobby Revisited and The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is It Really?), it’s quite reasonable to suspect that pressure from well-funded right-wing American Zionist constituencies has influenced what Obama believes he can and cannot say. As an African-American whose father came from a Muslim family, he is under even more pressure than most candidates to avoid being labeled as “anti-Israel.” Ironically, a strong case can be made that the right-wing militaristic policies he may feel forced to defend actually harm Israel’s legitimate long-term security interests.

Still, Obama has indicated greater interest in promoting a comprehensive peace settlement, acknowledging that the “Israeli government must make difficult concessions for the peace process to restart.” And, unlike the Bush administration, which successfully pressured Israel not to resume peace negotiations with Syria, Obama has pledged never to block an Israeli prime minister from the negotiation table. (See my article: Divide and Rule: U.S. Blocks Israel-Syria Talks.)

As a result, several prominent Americans allied with the current Israeli government have expressed deep concern about the prospects of Obama’s election while Democrats aligned with more progressive Israeli perspectives have expressed some cautious optimism regarding Obama becoming president.

How Much Change?

Despite building his campaign around the theme of “change you can believe in,” there are serious questions regarding how much real change there would be under an Obama presidency regarding the U.S. role in the Middle East. Whilean Obama administration would certainly be an improvement over the current one, he may well turn out to be quite sincere in taking some of the more hard-line positions he has advocated regarding Iran, Israel, and Iraq.

However, many are holding out hope that, as president, Obama would be more progressive than he is letting on and that he would take bolder initiatives to shift U.S. policy in the region further away from its current militaristic orientation than he may feel comfortable advocating as a candidate. Indeed, given how even the hawkish John Kerry was savaged by the right-wing over his positions on Middle East security issues during his bid for the presidency, the threat of such attacks could be enough to have given Senator Obama pause in making more direct challenges to the status quo during the campaign. In other words, he could be open to more rational and creative approaches to the Middle East once in office.

However, many are holding out hope that as president, Obama would be more progressive than he is letting on and that he would take bolder initiatives to shift U.S. policy in the region further away from its current militaristic orientation than he may feel comfortable advocating as a candidate. Indeed, given how even the hawkish John Kerry was savaged by the right-wing over his positions on Middle East security issues during his campaign for the presidency, the threat of such attacks could be enough to have given Senator Obama pause in making more direct challenges to the status quo as a candidate. But he could be open to more rational and creative approaches to the Middle East once in office.

The Illinois Senator’s intelligence and independent-mindedness, combined with what’s at stake, offers some hope that at least for pragmatic reasons–if not moral and legal ones–a future President Obama would have the sense to recognize that the more the United States has militarized the Middle East, the less secure we have become. He would perhaps also recognize that arms control and nonproliferation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are based on universal, law-based principles rather than unilateral demands and threats based upon specific countries’ relationship with the United States. And that exercising American “leadership” requires a greater awareness of the needs and perceptions of affected populations.

Most importantly, given that the strength of the anti-war movement brought Obama to his position as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, just such a popular outpouring can also prevent him from further backsliding in the face of powerful interests that wish to see U.S. policy continue its dangerous course. Those who support peace and human rights in the Middle East and beyond must be willing to challenge him–as both a candidate and as a possible future president–for advocating immoral or illegal policies that compromise the security and human rights of people in the region and here in the United States.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/barack_obama_on_the_middle_east

Lantos’ Tarnished Legacy

Pundits responded to news of the retirement of Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) at the end of his current term with platitudes and praise. They have focused primarily on his heroic role as a Holocaust survivor and member of the anti-Nazi resistance in his native Hungary as well as his leadership on human rights issues in Congress, serving as the founder and longtime co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

There’s no question that his personal history is both courageous and noble. Nor is there any debate that he stood up in support for the International Criminal Court, the people of the occupied nations of Tibet and East Timor, and the victims of oppression in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and other countries.

At the same time, most peace and justice activists have found Lantos – who has chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs since the Democrats regained their Congressional majority – as a very inconsistent advocate for human rights.

Indeed, the Congressman has openly challenged the United Nations as well as reputable independent human rights organizations when they have raised concerns about human rights abuses by certain key U.S. allies, even to the point of directly contradicting their findings. In addition, his leadership in support of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and his resulting culpability in the human rights tragedies that followed, will no doubt be the most significant negative mark on his legacy.

Iraq Deceptions

Lantos’ desire to have the United States take over Iraq was so strong that he was apparently willing to grossly exaggerate that oil-rich country’s military capabilities to frighten the American public into giving up on diplomatic efforts and launch a war. In 2001, Lantos claimed 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.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee, his willingness to co-sponsor the resolution granting President George W. Bush unprecedented power to invade a foreign country at the time and circumstances of his own choosing was critical in making the disastrous Iraq War possible.

The resolution co-sponsored by Lantos contained accusations that were known or widely assumed to be false, such as claims of Iraqi support for al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States despite the fact that a definitive report by the Department of Defense noted that not only did no such link exist, but that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based upon the evidence available at that time.

The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq was “actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability.” In reality, Iraq had eliminated its nuclear program long before, a fact that was confirmed in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1998, four years prior to the resolution. It also falsely claimed that Iraq at that time continued “to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability” when, in reality, as the U.S. government now admits, Iraq had rid itself of its chemical and biological weapons nearly a decade earlier and no longer had any active chemical and biological weapons programs.

Though Saddam Hussein’s regime was notorious for its human rights abuses, this was not apparently what motivated Lantos to support the invasion. The September 30, 2002 issue of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz quoted Lantos telling an Israeli Knesset member, in reference to Saddam Hussein, “We’ll be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we’ll install a pro-Western dictator.”

Indeed, his support for a number of U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Middle East has raised serious questions regarding his actual commitment for human rights.

Denying Israeli Atrocities

Lantos has also been an outspoken defender of the U.S.-backed Israeli government in its frequent application of military force, even when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have engaged in serious violations of international humanitarian law.

For example, during the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented that both Hezbollah and Israelis forces were engaged in war crimes by attacking civilian areas, which resulted in the deaths of 43 Israeli civilians and more then 800 Lebanese civilians. In response, Lantos joined leading House Republicans in co-sponsoring a resolution praising Israel for its “longstanding commitment to minimize civilian loss” and even welcomed “Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties.” The resolution also claimed, in the face of a broad consensus of those familiar with international humanitarian law to the contrary, that Israel’s actions were “in accordance with international law.”

Similarly, in April of 2002, Amnesty International published a detailed and well-documented report regarding the Israeli military offensive in the occupied West Bank, noting how “the IDF acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity.” The report went on to document unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property, arbitrary detention, torture, assaults on medical personnel and journalists, as well as random shooting at people in the streets and houses.

In response, Lantos introduced a resolution challenging Amnesty’s findings, claiming that “Israel’s military operations . . . are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” In an apparent retort to growing demands by peace and human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel in response to these violations of international humanitarian law, the Lantos resolution called for an increase in military aid, which many of these activists felt was, in effect, rewarding Israel for its repression and attacking the credibility of Amnesty International, winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. (See my article Congress Ignores Human Rights Groups In Pro-Israel Resolution.)

Contempt for International Law

Lantos has also been an outspoken critic of the International Court of Justice in its ruling on the applicability of international humanitarian law, such as the 2004 decision against Israel’s construction of a separation barrier deep inside occupied Palestinian territory. Lantos condemned the near-unanimous decision as a “perversion of justice” and praised Bush for “his leadership in marshalling opposition” to the UN’s judicial arm.

Lantos also sponsored a resolution last year defending Israel’s annexation of greater East Jerusalem, despite a series of UN Security Council resolutions citing the inadmissibility of any country expanding its territory by force and declaring the annexation illegal. His resolution also claimed that Israel had “respected the rights of all religious groups” during its 40-year occupation of that city and environs. However, a number of UN bodies – along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights organizations – have frequently cited Israel for its ongoing violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas, including the confiscation and destruction of homes and other property belonging to longstanding Muslim and Christian residents. (See my article Jerusalem: Endorsing the Right of Conquest.)

On a number of occasions, Lantos placed himself to the right of the Bush administration regarding Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. For example, when Bush expressed concerns that the Israeli government’s policy of assassinating Palestinian opponents was leading to the deaths of innocent bystanders, hurting moderate Palestinian forces and proving counter-productive in enhancing Israeli security, Lantos expressed that he was “deeply dismayed” by the president’s comments and insisted that such Israeli actions constituted legitimate self-defense and deserved “the full support of the United States.”

Morocco’s Occupation

Israel is not the only occupier power whose human rights abuses have been denied and defended by the Congressman. Lantos has been a strong supporter of Morocco’s efforts to annex the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony invaded by Morocco in 1975, in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision by the International Court of Justice. He has declared Morocco’s proposal for limited autonomy of that illegally occupied country as “a breakthrough opportunity” and a “realistic framework for a political solution.” Given the widespread opposition in the international community to legitimizing Morocco’s act of aggression, the letter concludes by urging Bush to “embrace this promising Moroccan initiative so that it receives the consideration necessary to achieve international acceptance.” (See my article The Future of Western Sahara.)

Despite well-documented reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights groups monitoring the situation in the occupied territory that public expressions in support for self-determination are routinely suppressed, Lantos has also expressed his confidence that “Morocco will do nothing to stifle debate among the people of Western Sahara.”

Blaming Victims

Lantos also has a history of exaggerating human rights abuses by governments and movements he opposes.

For example, despite consistent reports by United Nations monitors that the Western Sahara nationalist Polisario Front has scrupulously honored its 1991 ceasefire agreement with Morocco – despite the Moroccans’ refusal to honor their reciprocal commitment to allow for a UN-sponsored referendum on independence – Lantos has insisted that “peace has been summarily rejected by the rebel Polisario Front in favor of guerilla ambushes.” He has also falsely accused the Polisario Front – the Western Sahara nationalist movement – of forcing most of the Western Saharan population to live in arid refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, ignoring that fact that the refugees were forced to flee to these camps as a direct result of Moroccan repression in their occupied homeland.

In addition, Lantos cosponsored a resolution accusing Hezbollah of “cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields” during the fighting with Israel in 2006 despite the fact that Amnesty International found no conclusive evidence of such practices and Human Rights Watch, in a well-documented study, had found “no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack.”

Tarnished Legacy

As these and other examples illustrate, Lantos’ advocacy for human rights has been far from consistent.

For human rights advocacy to be credible, it must be based on empirical evidence rather than ideological biases. It must hinge on universal principles of international humanitarian law rather than a given country’s relations with the United States.

The failure of Representative Lantos to recognize this fundamental reality will scar an otherwise noble legacy.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/lantos_tarnished_legacy