Sharp Attack Unwarranted

Gene Sharp, an 80-year-old scholar of strategic nonviolent action and veteran of radical pacifist causes, is under attack by a number of foreign governments that claim that he and his small research institute are key players in a Bush administration plot against them.

Though there is no truth to these charges, several leftist web sites and publications have been repeating such claims as fact. This raises disturbing questions regarding the ability of progressives challenging Bush foreign policy to distinguish between the very real manifestations of U.S. imperialism and conspiratorial fantasies.

Gene Sharp’s personal history demonstrates the bizarre nature of these charges. He spent two years in prison for draft resistance against the Korean War, was arrested in the early civil rights sit-ins, was an editor of the radical pacifist journal Peace News, and was the personal assistant to the leftist labor organizer A.J. Muste. He named his institute after Albert Einstein, who is not only remembered as the greatest scientist of the 20th century but was also a well-known socialist and pacifist.

Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983, dedicated to advancing the study and utilization of nonviolent conflict in defense of freedom, justice, and democracy. Long considered the foremost authority in his field, Sharp has inspired generations of progressive peace, labor, feminist, environmental, and social justice activists in the United States and around the world. In the past few decades, as nonviolent pro-democracy movements have played the decisive role in ending authoritarian rule in such countries as the Philippines, Chile, Madagascar, Poland, Mongolia, Bolivia and Serbia, interest among peace and justice activists has grown in his research and the work of other scholars studying strategic nonviolent action.

Fabricated Allegations

Unfortunately, however, as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s open advocacy for “regime change,” any American group or individual who provides educational resources on strategic nonviolence to civil society organizations or human rights activists in foreign countries has suddenly become suspect of being an agent of U.S. imperialism – even Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.

For example, in February Iranian government television informed viewers that Gene Sharp was “one of the CIA agents in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries.” It included a computer-animated sequence of him and John McCain in a White House conference room plotting the overthrow of the Iranian regime. In reality, Sharp has never worked with the CIA, has never met Senator McCain, and has never even been to the White House. Government spokespeople and supporters of autocratic regimes in Burma, Zimbabwe, and Belarus have also blamed Sharp for being behind dissident movements in their countries as well.

Ironically, some on the left have picked up and expanded on these charges. For example, in an article about the Bush administration promoting “soft coups” against foreign governments it doesn’t like, Jonathan Mowat claims that “The main handler of these coups on the ‘street side’ has been the Albert Einstein Institution,” which he says is funded by Hungarian-American financier George Soros. Venezuelan-American attorney Eva Golinger, meanwhile, claimed that “Peter Ackerman, a multimillionaire banker had sponsored ‘regime changes’ in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia through the Albert Einstein Institute.” Tony Logan insists that AEI “is a U.S. government run operation designed to link Gandhian methods of nonviolent protest to Pentagon and U,S, State Department efforts to overthrow foreign governments.” In a similar vein, Counterpunch readers were recently informed that the Albert Einstein Institution plays “a central role in a new generation of warfare, one which has incorporated the heroic examples of past nonviolent resistance into a strategy of obfuscation and misdirection that does the work of empire.”

Absolutely none of these claims is true. Yet such articles have been widely circulated on progressive websites and list serves. Such false allegations have even ended up as part of entries on the Albert Einstein Institution in SourceWatch, Wikipedia, and other reference web sites.

The international press has occasionally echoed some of these bogus claims as well. For example, a commentary published in the Asia Times last fall accused Sharp of being the “concert-master” for the Saffron Revolution in Burma, claiming that the Albert Einstein Institution is funded by an arm of the U.S. government “to foster U.S.-friendly regime change in key spots around the world” and that its staff includes “known CIA operatives.” Though these charges were utterly false, the article was then widely circulated on a number of progressive list serves, including such academic networks as the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

Implicit in such charges is that Burmese monks and other pro-democracy activists in that country are unable to initiate such actions themselves and their decision to take to the streets last fall in mass protests against their country’s repressive military junta came about because an octogenarian academic in Boston had somehow put them up to it. One Burmese human rights activist, referring to his country’s centuries-old tradition of popular resistance, noted how the very idea of an outsider having to orchestrate the Burmese people to engage in a nonviolent action campaign is like “teaching grandma to peel onions.” (The Asia Times article also tried to connect Sharp to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China and another article from the Straits Times in Singapore even places Sharp and AEI behind the recent uprising in Tibet.)

This racist attitude that the peoples of non-Western societies are incapable of deciding on their own to resist illegitimate authority without some Western scholar telling them to do so has been most dramatically highlighted by French Marxist Thierry Meyssan. In his article “The Albert Einstein Institution: non-violence according to the CIA,” he insists that Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution were personally responsible for the 1991 Lithuanian independence struggle against the Soviet Union; the 2000 student-led pro-democracy movement that ousted Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia; the 2003 Rose Revolution that forced out Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze; and, the 2004 Orange Revolution that forced the revote on the rigged national election in Ukraine. He also credits (or, more accurately, blames) Gene Sharp for personally playing a key role in uniting the Tibetan opposition under the Dalai Lama, as well as forming the Burmese Democratic Alliance, the Taiwanese Progressive Democratic Party, and a dissident wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization that Sharp supposedly trained secretly in the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

The failure of people power movements to succeed in some other cases was not, according to Meyssan, due to weaknesses within the movement or strengths in the state apparatus. Says Meyssan, “Gene Sharp failed in Belarus and Zimbabwe for he could not recruit and train in the proper time the necessary amount of demonstrators.”

Despite the absurdity of these claims and the attribution of seemingly superhuman capabilities to this mild-mannered intellectual, Meyssan’s article has been repeatedly cited on progressive web sites and list serves, feeding the arrogance of Western leftists who deny the capability of Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans to organize mass actions themselves.

The Real Story

The office of the Albert Einstein Institution – which supposedly plays such a “central role” in American imperialism –is actually a tiny, cluttered space in the downstairs of Gene Sharp’s home, located in a small row house in a working class neighborhood in East Boston. The staff consists of just two employees, Sharp and a young administrator.

Rather than receiving lucrative financial support from the U.S. government or wealthy financiers, the Albert Einstein Institution is almost exclusively funded by individual small donors and foundation grants. It operates on a budget of less than $160,000 annually.

Also contrary to the slew of recent charges posted on the Internet, the Albert Einstein Institution has never funded activist groups to subvert foreign governments, nor would it have had the financial means to do so. Furthermore, AEI does not initiate contact with any individual or organizations; those interested in the group’s educational materials come to them first.

Nor have these critics ever presented any evidence that Sharp or the Albert Einstein Institution has ever been requested, encouraged, advised, or received suggestions by any branch of the US government to do or not do any research, analysis, policy studies, or educational activity, much less engage in active subversion of foreign governments. And, given the lack of respect the U.S. government has traditionally had for nonviolence or for the power of popular movements to create change, it is not surprising that these critics haven’t found any.

The longstanding policy of the Albert Einstein Institution, given its limited funding and the reality of living in an imperfect world, is to be open to accepting funds from organizations that have received some funding from government sources “as long as there is no dictation or control of the purpose of our work, individual projects, or of the dissemination of the gained knowledge.” Well prior to the Bush administration coming to office, AEI received a couple of small grants from the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) to translate some of Gene Sharp’s theoretical writings. Nearly forty years ago (and fifteen years prior to AEI’s founding), Sharp received partial research funding for his doctoral dissertation from Harvard Professor Thomas Schelling, who had received support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense to fund doctoral students.

Though these constitute the only financial support Gene Sharp or the Albert Einstein Institution has ever received, even indirectly, from government sources, critics have jumped on these tenuous links to allege that AEI is “funded by the U.S. government.”

Progressive Connections

A look at the five members of the Albert Einstein Institution’s board shows that none of them is a supporter or apologist for U.S. imperialism. In addition to Sharp himself, the board consists of: human rights lawyer Elizabeth Defeis; disability rights and environmental activist Cornelia Sargent; senior deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA Curt Goering; and, veteran civil rights and anti-war activist Mary King, author of a recent highly acclaimed book that gives a sympathetic portrayal of the first – and largely nonviolent – Palestinian Intifada.

During the 1980s, Gene Sharp’s staff included radical sociologist Bob Irwin and Greg Bates, who went on to become the co-founder and publisher of the progressive Common Courage Press.

Some years ago, when the institute had a larger budget, one of their principal activities was to support research projects in strategic nonviolent action. Recipients included such left-leaning scholars and activists as Palestinian feminist Souad Dajani, Rutgers sociologist Kurt Schock, Israeli human rights activist Edy Kaufman, Kent State Peace Studies professor Patrick Coy, Nigerian human rights activist Uche Ewelukwa, and Paul Routledge of the University of Glasgow, all of whom have been outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy.

For decades, the work of Gene Sharp has influenced such radical U.S. groups as Movement for a New Society, the Clamshell Alliance, the Abalone Alliance, Training for Change and other activist organizations that have promoted nonviolent direct action as a key component of their activism.

Sharp and AEI have also worked closely in recent years with pro-democracy activists battling U.S.-backed dictatorships in such countries as Egypt and Equatorial Guinea as well as with Palestinians resisting the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, hardly “the work of empire” designed “to foster US-friendly regime change” as critics claim.

The Case of Venezuela

As part of an effort to challenge the longstanding stereotype of nonviolent action being the exclusive province of radical pacifists, Dr. Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution have taken a “transpartisan” position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and makes their educational resources available to essentially anyone.

Not surprisingly, a small minority of those who have taken advantage of such resources have been those whose commitment to justice and equality is questionable, including some members of Venezuelan opposition groups.

This ideological indifference on the part of Sharp and his institution has been troubling for many of us on the left, but it certainly does not constitute evidence that they are part of a U.S.-funded conspiracy to overthrow foreign governments around the world to advance U.S. imperialism and capitalist hegemony. Indeed, their consulting policy explicitly prohibits them from taking part in any political action, participating in strategic decision-making with any group, or taking sides in any conflict. None of the institute’s critics has been able to provide evidence of a single violation of this policy.

Nevertheless, in her book Bush vs. Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, author Eva Golinger falsely claims that the Albert Einstein Institution has developed a plan to overthrow that country’s democratically elected government through training right-wing paramilitaries to use “widespread civil disobedience and violence throughout the nation” in order to “provoke repressive reactions by the state that would then justify crises of human right violations and lack of constitutional order.” Similarly, in a recent article, Golinger has gone so far as to claim that Gene Sharp has written “a big destabilization plan aiming to overthrow Chavez government and to pave the way for an international intervention” including sabotage and street violence. Neither Golinger nor anyone else has been able to produce a copy of this supposed plan, instead simply citing Sharp’s book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, written over 35 years ago, in which he outlines close to 200 exclusively nonviolent tactics that have been used historically, but includes no destabilization plan aimed at Venezuela or any other country.

In addition, Meyssan, in an article posted in Venezuela Analysis, insisted that “Gene Sharp and his team led the leaders of [the opposition group] Súmate during the demonstrations of August 2004.” In reality, neither Sharp nor anybody else affiliated with the Albert Einstein Institution even took part in – much less led – those demonstrations. Nor were any of them anywhere near Venezuela during that period. Nor were any of them in contact with the leaders of that demonstration.

In another article, recently posted on the Counterpunch web site, George Cicariello-Miller falsely accuses Sharp of having links with right-wing assassins and terrorists and offering training “toward the formulation of what was called ‘Operation Guarimba,’ a series of often-violent street blockades that resulted in several deaths.” Cicariello-Miller’s only evidence of Sharp’s alleged role in masterminding this operation was that a right-wing Venezuelan opposition leader had once met with Sharp in Boston and that a photo of a stylized clinched fist found in some AEI literature (taken from a student-led protest movement in Serbia eight years ago) matched those on some signs carried by anti-Chavez protesters in Venezuela.

It appears that no one who has written any of these articles or who has made such claims has ever actually attended any of the lectures, workshops, or informal meetings by Gene Sharp or others affiliated with the Albert Einstein Institution or has even bothered to interview anyone who has. If they had done so, they would quickly find that these presentations tend to be rather dry lectures which focus on the nature of power, the dynamics of nonviolent struggle, and examples of tactics used in nonviolent resistance campaigns historically. They do not instruct anybody or give specific advice about what to do in their particular situation other than to encourage activists to avoid all forms of violence.

Finally, even if one were to assume that the Albert Einstein Institution’s underfunded two-person outfit was indeed closely involved in training the Venezuelan opposition in tactics of nonviolent resistance, Chavez would have little to worry about. No government that had the support of the majority of its people has ever been overthrown through a nonviolent civil resistance movement. Every government deposed through a primarily nonviolent struggle – such as in the Philippines, Chile, Bolivia, Madagascar, Nepal, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia, Serbia, Mali, Ukraine, and elsewhere – had already lost popular support. This is not the case with Venezuela. While Chavez’ progressive economic policies have angered the old elites, he still maintains the support of the majority of the population, particularly when compared to the alternative of returning to the old elite-dominated political system.

Unfortunately, Chavez himself was apparently convinced by these conspiracy theorists that Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution really were part of a CIA-backed conspiracy against him, claiming last June that “they are the ideologues of the soft coup and it seems like they’re here [in Venezuela.] They are laying out the slow fuse … they’ll continue laying it out [with] marches, events, trying to create an explosion.” In reality, no one affiliated with AEI was in Venezuela nor were they organizing marches, events, or any other activity, much less trying to create an “explosion.”

In response, Sharp wrote a letter to President Chavez explaining the inaccuracy of the Venezuelan leader’s charges against him and expressing his concern that “for those persons who are familiar with my life and work and that of the Albert Einstein Institution, these inaccuracies, unless corrected, will cast doubts on your credibility.” He also offered Chavez a copy of his book The Anti-Coup, which includes concrete steps on how a threatened government can mobilize the population to prevent a successful coup d’etat, hardly the kind of offer made by someone conspiring with the CIA to overthrow him.

With the U.S. corporate media and members of Congress refusing to challenge the very real efforts by the Bush administration to subvert and undermine Chavez’s government, the credibility of those of us attempting to expose such genuine imperialistic intrigues are being compromised by these bizarre conspiracy theories involving Gene Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institution, and related individuals and NGOs. Golinger’s books and articles, for example, bring to light some very real and very dangerous efforts by the U.S. government and U.S.-funded agencies. It is hard for many people to take her real accusations seriously, however, in the face of her simultaneously putting forward such blatant falsehoods about Gene Sharp and his institute.

Why Such Bizarre Attacks?

There is a long, sordid history of covert U.S. support for foreign political parties, military cliques, and individual leaders, as well as related activities that have resulted in the overthrow of elected governments. And there are the very real ongoing efforts by such U.S. government-funded entities as the NED and IRI which, in the name of “democracy promotion,” provide financial and logistical support for groups working against governments the United States opposes. Given these very real manifestations of U.S. imperialism, why have some people insisted on going after an aging scholar whose worst crime may be that he is not being discriminating enough regarding with whom he shares his research?

One reason is that some critics of Sharp subscribe to the same realpolitik myth that sees local struggles and mass movements as simply manifestations of great power politics, just as the right once tried to portray the popular leftist uprisings in Central America and elsewhere simply as creations of the Soviet Union. Another factor is that many of the originators of the conspiracy theories regarding Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution are Marxist-Leninists who have traditionally downplayed the power of nonviolence and insisted that meaningful political change can only come about through manipulation by powerful external actors or privileged elites.

This is reinforced by the fact that many supporters of U.S. imperialism – particularly the neo-conservatives – share this vanguard mentality with Marxist-Leninists. As a result, the right has given the United States unjustifiable credit for many of the dramatic transitions from dictatorships to democracies which have taken place around the world in recent decades. This, in turn, has led some on the left to see such ahistorical polemics as “proof” of the central U.S. role because the imperialists are “admitting it.”

The attempts to discredit Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution – as well as similar charges against the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) – appear to be part of an effort by both the right and the far left to delegitimize the power of individuals to make change and to portray the United States – for good or for ill – as the only power that can make a difference in the world. (For a detailed analysis of the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and popular democratic movements, see my article on the United States, nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles.)

It is therefore troubling that so many progressive sources of information have transmitted such falsehoods so widely and that so many people have come to believe them, particularly given the transparent lack of any solid evidence to back their accusations. The minority of these articles that actually have citations, for example, simply quote long-discredited sources such as Meyssan and Golinger. In a mirror-image of the right-wing’s blind acceptance of false stories about Barack Obama’s embrace of militant Islam, Michelle Obama’s anti-white rhetoric, and Nancy Pelosi’s punitive tax plan against retirees, some on the left all too easily believe what they read on the Internet. The widespread acceptance of these false charges against Gene Sharp and others raises concerns as to how many other fabricated pseudo-conspiracies are out there that distract progressive activists from challenging all-too-real abuses by the U.S. government and giant corporations.

One consequence of these attacks has been that a number of progressive grass roots organizations in foreign countries have now become hesitant to take advantage of the educational resources on strategic nonviolent action provided by the Albert Einstein Institution and related groups. As a result of fears that they may be linked to the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, important campaigns for human rights, the environment, and economic justice have been denied access to tools that could have strengthened their impact. Furthermore, these disinformation campaigns have damaged the reputation of a number of prominent anti-imperialist activists and scholars who have worked with such groups by wrongly linking them to U.S. interventionism.

Fortunately, there is now an effort underway to fight back. Activists from groups ranging from the Fellowship of Reconciliation to Code Pink to the Brown Berets – as well as such radical scholars as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Paul Ortiz – are signing onto an open letter in support of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.

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

Why Obama Won

Barack Obama has won the race for the Democratic nomination for president against Hillary Clinton on the issues. Sort of.

This is not what the pundits will tell you: they would rather focus upon the most superficial and trivial aspects of the two final candidates’ style, personality, associates, personal history, and campaign organization and strategy, not to mention race and gender.

This is not what many on the left will say either, in recognition of how little differences there were between the two candidates’ stated positions on most policies.

Still, Obama was able to defeat the once-formidable Hillary Clinton because he was perceived to be the better candidate among the increasingly progressive base of the Democratic Party.

Many progressive supporters of Clinton pointed out how many on the left tended to criticize their candidate incessantly for her militaristic and pro-corporate policies while making excuses for similar positions taken by Obama. Obama’s public positions on issues which ran counter to most progressive voters were often rationalized as being necessary in order for him to be elected or as part of the unfortunate reality of corporate power in the American political system, while Clinton’s similar positions were attacked as a reflection of her real agenda.

To the extent that this was true, a major reason that the left may have cut Obama more slack than it did Clinton is that many progressives gave the Clintons just that kind of benefit of the doubt back in 1992. The line at that time was that “Bill Clinton has to say those things in order to get elected, but once in office, his policies will be far more progressive than his campaign rhetoric, which is aimed at winning votes from the center.” The reality, however, was that the policies emanating from the Clinton White House over the next eight years were not to the left but actually to the right of positions he touted during the campaign. Though seven and a half years of President George W. Bush makes the Clinton Era look pretty good by comparison, the reality was that the Clintons presided over the most conservative Democratic administration of the twentieth century. As a result, there was an assumption among many party progressives that a second Clinton White House would be more of the same.

Obama, by contrast, has not yet had the opportunity to disappoint. It certainly doesn’t mean that he won’t. In fact, he probably will. Yet it appears that most Democrats in the progressive wing of the party took the attitude that the Clintons had their chance and blew it, so let’s give the nomination to the new guy who worked as a community organizer, who has a more grass roots focus, whose progressive policy positions have been more longstanding and consistent, and who has relied more on small donations and less on corporate contributors.

The most significant reason Clinton lost, however, was Iraq. Obama’s outspoken and principled opposition to the war back in 2002 and his public recognition that Saddam Hussein was not a threat to the United States or any of Iraq’s neighbors contrasted sharply with Clinton’s support for the war and her false and alarmist statements about alleged Iraqi WMDs and links to Al-Qaeda. (See my article Obama vs. Clinton – October 2002 ) Indeed, Clinton’s vote to allow President Bush to invade a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us went well beyond “bad judgment” and moral culpability for the predictable tragedy that resulted: it was demonstrative of her dismissive attitudes toward international law, the United Nations system, the U.S. Constitution, and common sense. (See my article Why Hillary Clinton’s Iraq Vote Does Matter. )

If Clinton had apologized for her vote or come out against the war earlier, as did former Senator John Edwards, she would have probably won the nomination. She failed to do so, however. And, combined with her hawkish policies in regard to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran, there was little reason to suspect that, as president, she wouldn’t pursue similarly disastrous policies toward other Middle Eastern conflicts. (See my articles Hillary Clinton on International Law and Human Rights and Hillary Clinton on Military Policy . )

It is certainly true that, during his first two years in the U.S. Senate, Obama — like Clinton and virtually every other Senate Democrat — supported unconditional funding for the war, a position that angered his anti-war supporters. Similarly, Obama’s own policy statements in regard to Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran — as well as nuclear proliferation, globalization and other foreign policy issues — are, while better than Clinton’s, still quite disappointing for those of us looking for a new direction in U.S. foreign policy. Still, there is little question that Obama defeated Clinton as a result of the power of the anti-war movement and the fact that, unlike 2004, it is no longer possible for a senator to have unapologetically voted to grant President Bush unconditional authority to launch a war of aggression at the time and circumstances of his own choosing and still receive the Democratic nomination for president.

Unfortunately, Obama’s recent announcement of his new Senior Working Group on National Security is dominated by backers of failed foreign policies who demonstrated contempt for international legal norms and support for military solutions to complex political problems, such as Madeleine Albright, Jim Steinberg, David Boren, and William Perry. Notably absent are prominent members of his original foreign policy team who advised him during the primary campaigns, which included some of the more innovative and cutting-edge thinkers from the foreign policy establishment, such as Larry Korb, Joseph Cirincione, Samantha Power, Robert Malley and Richard Clarke, all of whom opposed the invasion of Iraq and took a more holistic view of national security. Along with his hawkish speech earlier this month at the AIPAC convention, concerns are being raised that Obama is already abandoning the progressive base and shifting to the right.

The best hope for a progressive administration under a President Obama, then, may be in the fact that the Illinois senator’s base is so much more progressive than he is. Just as any number of Republican politicians — who personally may not have much affinity with the Christian right’s obsession with abortion and homosexuality — have felt obliged nevertheless to play to their base with policies and appointments which cater to their interests, Obama may feel similarly obliged in regard to the Democratic left. By contrast, Clinton was more the candidate of the party establishment, which gave rise to the assumption that her appointments and policies would have more reflected those interests. Though this distinction was not absolute — there are plenty of establishment figures supporting Obama and plenty of grass roots feminists and other progressives who supported Clinton — there is little question to whom Obama would owe his election.

Perhaps what has been most hopeful about the 2008 Democratic presidential race is the fact that both Obama and Clinton — as well as all the Democratic candidates who had dropped out earlier — took positions on Iraq, global warming, civil liberties, globalization, and other key issues considerably more progressive than did eventual nominee John Kerry or any of the other major Democratic contenders in 2004.

It is a reminder that it may be less important whom we elect as the choices we give them. As the adage goes, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-zunes/why-obama-won_b_107855.html

Congress and Lebanon

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, and 25 years after a second U.S. military intervention which left hundreds of Americans and thousands of Lebanese dead, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a resolution by a huge bipartisan majority which may lay the groundwork for a third one. At a minimum, this move has crudely and unnecessarily inserted the United States into Lebanon’s complex political infighting.

In response to a brief spasm of violence between armed Lebanese factions early last month, the House passed a strongly worded resolution claiming that “the terrorist group Hezbollah, in response to the justifiable exercise of authority by the sovereign, democratically elected Government of Lebanon, initiated an unjustifiable insurrection.” House Resolution 1194 – which was sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Democrats’ chief foreign policy spokesman in the House of Representatives – also called on the Bush administration “to immediately take all appropriate actions to support and strengthen the legitimate Government of Lebanon under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora,” wording which many interpreted as a license for future U.S. military action.

What actually happened during the second week of May was not that simple. The fighting was not between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state, but between various militias allied with some of the parties of the country’s two major rival coalitions. The Lebanese army remained neutral throughout the two days of fighting and Hezbollah and its allied forces quickly and voluntarily handed over areas of Beirut they had briefly seized to the Lebanese army.

The uprising took place during a general strike to protest the Siniora cabinet’s refusal to raise the minimum wage and increase fuel subsidies in the face of rising prices in food and other basic commodities. The tense atmosphere was exacerbated by the politicized firing of a popular brigadier general in charge of security at the Beirut Airport and efforts to close down Hezbollah’s telecommunication network, which had played an important role in mobilizing defenses and relief operations during the massive Israeli bombing campaign against Lebanon in 2006. The Bush administration had been strongly encouraging the prime minister to enact such policies.

Demonizing Hezbollah

According to resolution co-sponsor Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), however, the conflict was simply a matter of the people of Lebanon being “in the throes of having their duly elected government taken away from them by terrorist organizations and rogue regimes.”

Lebanon’s “duly elected government,” a legacy of a complex system of confessional representation imposed by French colonialists as a means of divide-and-rule, consists of a slim majority made up by the May 14th Alliance, a broad coalition consisting of 17 parties dominated by center-right parties led by Sunni Muslims, a center-left party led by Druze, and far-right parties led by Christian Maronites. The opposition March 8th Alliance consists of 41 parties, led by the radical Shia Hezbollah, the more moderate Shia Amal, the centrist Maronite-led Free Patriotic Movement, as well as a various leftist and Arab nationalist parties.

Despite this complex amalgam of movements, the House resolution insists that Hezbollah had provoked “sectarian warfare” in the recent conflict, ignoring the fact that there were Muslims and Christians on both sides. One of the major combatants among the anti-Siniora forces, for example, was the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), a Lebanese movement led by Greek Orthodox Christians.

The resolution also over-simplifies the complicated dimensions of the conflict by putting the onus for the violence exclusively on Hezbollah. For example, the resolution accuses Hezbollah of sacking and burning the buildings housing the television studios and newspaper of a pro-government party, when it fact it was SSNP partisans that did so. Similarly, the resolution also blames Hezbollah for “fomenting riots” and “blocking roads,” when in fact these were actions by trade unionists and others as part of a general strike pressing demands for greater economic justice, an agenda supported by those from across the political and sectarian divide. Such rioting and erection of barricades on major thoroughfares have occurred in dozens of other countries where governments, under pressure from the United States and international financial institutions, have attempted to impose structural adjustment programs and similar unpopular neoliberal economic policies.

Though the military actions by the militias of Hezbollah and its allies were clearly illegitimate, the hyperbolic language of the resolution went to rather absurd extremes. For example, the resolution referred to Hezbollah’s armed mobilization, in which its forces briefly controlled key neighborhoods in West Beirut, as an “illegal occupation of territory under the sovereignty of the Government of Lebanon.” By contrast, not once in Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000, which took place in defiance of no less than 10 UN Security Council resolutions, did Congress ever go on record condemning Israel’s actions or even referring to it as an illegal occupation that it was.

The resolution also claimed that “more than 80 Lebanese citizens have been murdered” as result of Hezbollah’s actions. However, independent reports indicate that the majority of those killed were armed combatants and that the vast majority of the killings took place outside the capital in fighting between other factions after Hezbollah ended its offensive in West Beirut. Furthermore, these same reports demonstrate that Hezbollah was far more disciplined than other militias in avoiding civilian targets.

The resolution also called on the European Union – which has already placed Hezbollah’s external security organization on its list of terrorist organizations for its involvement in assassinations overseas – to also designate Hezbollah itself as a terrorist organization. By contrast, there have been no such calls in Congress for other Lebanese parties – such as the Phalangists and the Lebanese Forces, whose militias have been responsible for at least as many civilian deaths as has Hezbollah but which are part of Siniora’s pro-Western coalition – to also be labeled as terrorist organizations.

Blaming Syria and Iran

In an apparent effort to lend support for the Bush administration’s bellicose policies toward Iran and Syria, the resolution – like a number of previous resolutions dealing with Lebanon – grossly exaggerated the influence of those two countries on Hezbollah. In reality, there is little evidence to suggest that Syrian and Iranian influence on this populist Shia party and its allies is any greater than U.S. influence on some of Lebanon’s other political factions. Indeed, many Lebanese blame the United States for much of the political crisis which has paralyzed the government during the past year and which culminated in last month’s violence as a result of the Bush administration’s pressure on Siniora and his allies to resist any compromise with the opposition on economic, political or security issues.

The parties of Siniora’s May 14 Alliance, while certainly benefiting from U.S. support and often amenable to policies pushed by the United States, ultimately make their decisions based upon their own perceived self-interests. Similarly, while Hezbollah certainly benefits from Iranian – and, to a lesser extent, Syrian – support and has often been amenable to those governments’ guidance, the Shia party is a genuinely populist, if somewhat reactionary, political movement whose leadership also makes their decisions based upon what they believe will advance their standing and their cause. Hezbollah in many ways serves as a successor to the left-leaning Arab nationalist parties of an earlier era in their resistance to Western domination and rule by traditional ruling elites.

Despite this, the resolution claims that Hezbollah’s goal in the uprising was not about the plight of the country’s poor and disproportionately Shia majority or a reaction to perceived discriminatory policies by the U.S.-back prime minister, but that it was actually an effort “to render Lebanon subservient to Iranian foreign policy.” The resolution also insists that the diverse group of opposition parties “continue to pursue an agenda favoring foreign interests over the will of the majority of Lebanese.”

The resolution went as far as calling upon the United Nations Security Council to “prohibit all air traffic between Iran and Lebanon and between Iran and Syria” on the grounds that it might be used to bring in arms to the Hezbollah militia, thereby placing a large bipartisan majority in Congress on record calling for the disruption of legitimate commercial activities between foreign countries due to the possibility that a few of the thousands of annual flights may include contraband armaments. This demand is particularly ironic given that the U.S. government transports tens of billions of dollars worth of armaments to repressive governments in the greater Middle East region every year, as well as arming private militias in Iraq and separatist guerrillas in Iran.

Sabotaging Reconciliation

The timing of the resolution, which was passed on May 22, a full two weeks after the fighting ended, appeared to some observers to have been part of a U.S. effort to undermine the sensitive talks between Lebanon’s various political factions then being hosted by the Arab League in Qatar. In passing a resolution endorsing one side and condemning the other, combined with threatening the use of “all appropriate actions” in support of one of the two sides, the House was apparently hoping to harden the negotiation positions of the pro-U.S. May 14 Alliance in order to cause the talks to fail.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) recognized the absurdity of the resolution by pointing out “This legislation strongly condemns Iranian and Syrian support to one faction in Lebanon while pledging to involve the United States on the other side. Wouldn’t it be better to be involved on neither side and instead encourage the negotiations that have already begun to resolve the conflict?”

Similarly, Rep Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), while noting the legitimate concerns regarding Hezbollah’s actions, observed, “We have to be very careful about how we dictate a certain policy in Lebanon for its effect on Lebanon and for its effect on the region,” expressing concern “that it will be seen by some as the United States trying to instigate more civil unrest in Lebanon at the same time that we say that we’re supporting the central government.” Noting correctly that the 2006 U.S.-backed Israeli war on Lebanon resulted in strengthening Hezbollah at the expense of moderate pro-Western elements, the Ohio Congressman went on to observe that “We should be doing everything we can to strengthen a process of dialogue in Lebanon. I don’t believe that this resolution accomplishes that. I think it accomplishes the opposite.”

Kucinich went on to note how U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch went to Lebanon “to basically make sure that the government took a hard-line position and that it would forestall the possibility of any dialogue.” The former presidential candidate also observed, in reference to his visits to Lebanon, that “One of the things that I thought was most telling was that there was a concern about working out an agreement without the interference of outside parties, without the interference of Iran or the interference of the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

Fortunately, despite this apparent effort to undermine a settlement, Arab League negotiators were eventually able to get Lebanon’s two major political alliances to agree to a power-sharing agreement.

Other observers, including Paul, warned of the consequences of further U.S. meddling in Lebanon’s internal conflicts. “This resolution leads us closer to a wider war in the Middle East,” Paul said. “It involves the United States unnecessarily in an internal conflict between competing Lebanese political factions and will increase rather than decrease the chance for an increase in violence. The Lebanese should work out political disputes on their own or with the assistance of regional organizations like the Arab League.”

Paul concluded by cautioning his fellow House members to “reject this march to war and to reject H. Res. 1194.” His colleagues were unwilling to heed his warnings, however, and the resolution passed with only 10 dissenting votes in the 435-member body.

Taking Sides

Though there is more than enough blame to go around on all sides for the longstanding political impasse and the more recent outbreak of violence, the Congressional resolution put the blame entirely on one side.

The resolution correctly observes how “United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701 call for the disbanding and disarming of all militias in Lebanon” but that “Hizballah has contemptuously dismissed the requirements of the United Nations Security Council by refusing to disarm.” However, there is nothing in the resolution regarding militias allied with the U.S.-backed prime minister, which are also required to disarm. Siniora’s Future Movement militia, which Hezbollah fighters battled on the streets of West Beirut, has emerged since these UN resolutions passed without any apparent disapproval from Washington.

The resolution also condemned Hezbollah for attacking buildings of rival parties, but there were no criticisms for similar actions by the other side, such as when pro-government gunmen attacked and seized the SSNP and Baath Party offices in Tripoli and stormed SSNP offices in Halba, killing seven party activists.

Yet, for the Democratic-controlled Congress, as with the Bush administration, the complex cleavages of the contemporary Middle East can be simply understood as a matter of good versus evil. “We have a situation here where a democratic, freedom-loving, sovereign people are insisting on the results of their own self-determined election that they came to through democratic processes and are doing that in the face of outside interference in the form of armed opposition, murders, assassinations that are being sponsored by Hezbollah, financed by the Iranian and Syrian regimes,” Ackerman said.

And Switching Sides

As in Iraq, the United States has a history of switching sides in terms of who is seen as the bad guy and who is seen as the good guy. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, the United States backed right-wing predominantly Maronite militias against the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party. During the 1982-84 U.S. intervention in Lebanon, U.S. forces fought the Socialists directly, including launching heavy air and sea bombardments against Druze villages in the Shouf Mountains. Now, however, the U.S. supports the Socialists, with the recent House resolution specifically defending the group.

Similarly, the United States supported the Shia Amal militia in 1985-86 when it was fighting armed Palestinian groups as well as in 1988 when Amal was fighting Hezbollah forces. Now, the United States is strongly opposed to Amal, essentially acting as if they are one with Hezbollah.

The United States supported Syria’s initial military intervention in Lebanon back in 1976 and supported the bloody Syrian-instigated coup in late 1990 that consolidated Syria’s political control of the country. Subsequently, however, the United States became a leading critic of Syria’s domineering role of the country’s government, which continued until a popular nonviolent uprising during the spring of 2005 forced a Syrian withdrawal from the country.

In a more recent example, as part of a U.S. policy to support hard-line Sunni fundamentalist groups as a counter-weight to the growth of radical Shia movements in Iraq and Lebanon, Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri provided amnesty and released radical Salafi militants from jail. As such militants began causing problems in the northern city of Tripoli last year from a base in a Palestinian refugee camp, the U.S. then backed a bloody Lebanese army crackdown.

One of the most bizarre switches in U.S. allegiances involves former Lebanese Army General Michel Aoun, a Maronite, and his Free Patriotic Movement, the most popular Christian-led political group in the country. As an ally to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1990, the United States gave a green light to the Syrians to have Aoun overthrown as interim Lebanese prime minister in a violent coup. Not long afterward, however, the United States then switched sides to support Aoun and oppose the Syrians and their supporters. As recently as 2003, Aoun was feted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies – a neo-conservative group with close ties with the Bush administration, which includes among its leaders Newt Gingrich, James Woolsey, Jack Kemp, and Richard Perle, as well as Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Joseph Lieberman – which declared him a champion of freedom and democracy. Aoun won similar praise by some of the very members of Congress who supported this latest resolution when he testified that year before the House International Relations Committee.

Soon after his return from exile, however, Aoun became one of the most outspoken opponents of the U.S.-backed political leaders and parties which dominate the current Lebanese government and he and his movement are now allied with Hezbollah in the March 8th Alliance. Not surprisingly, he has gained the wrath of the Bush administration and Congress.

One would think that, with a history like this, Congress would think twice before going on record in support of specific factions in Lebanon’s confusing, messy, and violent political environment. Unfortunately, over 95% of House members apparently believe otherwise.

Hezbollah’s provocative military action in May, which violated its pledge to use its armed militia only in defense of the country from Israel and not against its fellow Lebanese, has hurt its standing among the country’s non-Shia majority, who now see them more as advancing their own parochial interests than serving the role they had previously embraced as a national resistance movement against foreign occupation forces. Washington’s support for Israel’s military attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon and this latest resolution backing rival armed factions, however, does little to encourage Hezbollah to disarm or promote efforts to advance nonviolent conflict resolution and national reconciliation.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-zunes/congress-and-lebanon_b_107439.html

Obama and AIPAC

In many respects, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has played right into the hands of cynics who have long doubted his promises to create a new and more progressive role for the United States in the world. The very morning after the last primaries, in which he finally received a sufficient number of pledged delegates to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and no longer needed to win over voters from the progressive base of his own party, Obama — in a Clinton-style effort at triangulation — gave a major policy speech before the national convention of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Embracing policies which largely backed those of the more hawkish voices concerned with Middle Eastern affairs, he received a standing ovation for his efforts.

His June 3 speech in Washington in many ways constituted a slap in the face of the grass roots peace and human rights activists who have brought him to the cusp of the Democratic presidential nomination.

In other respects, however, he pandered less to this influential lobbying group than many other serious aspirants for national office have historically. And at least part of his speech focused on convincing the largely right-wing audience members to support his positions rather than simply underscoring his agreement with them.

Much of the media attention placed upon his speech centered on the ongoing debate between him and incipient Republican presidential nominee John McCain on Iran. While embracing many of the same double-standards regarding nuclear nonproliferation issues and UN resolutions as does the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties, Obama did insert some rationality into the debate regarding the need for negotiations with that regional power rather than maintaining the current U.S. policy of diplomatic isolation and threats of war.

When it came to Israel and Palestine, however, Obama appeared to largely embrace a right-wing perspective which appeared to place all the blame for the ongoing violence and the impasse in the peace process on the Palestinians under occupation rather than the Israelis who are still occupying and colonizing the parts of their country seized by the Israeli army more than 40 years ago.

Progressive Israeli Reactions

While there were some faint glimmers of hope in Obama’s speech for those of us who support Israeli-Palestinian peace, progressive voices in Israel were particularly disappointed.

Israeli analyst Uri Avneri, in an essay entitled “No, I Can’t!”, expressed the bitterness of many Israeli peace activists for “a speech that broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning.” Avneri goes on to observe the irony of how Obama’s:

“dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles. And lo and behold, the very first thing he does after securing the nomination of his party is to compromise his principles.”

Avneri addressed the view of many Israelis that “Obama’s declarations at the AIPAC conference are very, very bad for peace. And what is bad for peace is bad for Israel, bad for the world and bad for the Palestinian people.”

Support for Further Militarization

In his speech, Obama rejected the view that the Middle East already has too many armaments and dismissed pleas by human rights activists that U.S. aid to Israel — like all countries — should be made conditional on adherence to international humanitarian law. Indeed, he further pledged an additional $30 billion of taxpayer-funded military aid to the Israeli government and its occupation forces over the next decade with no strings attached. Rather than accept that strategic parity between potential antagonists is the best way, short of a full peace agreement, to prevent war and to maintain regional security, Obama instead insisted that the United States should enable Israel to maintain its “qualitative military edge.”

Over the past three years, the ratio of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip killed by Israeli forces relative to the number of Israeli civilians in Israel killed by Palestinians is approximately 50 to one and has been even higher more recently. However, Obama chose only to mention the Israeli deaths and condemn Hamas, whose armed wing has been responsible for most of the Israeli casualties, and not a word about the moral culpability of the Israeli government, which Amnesty International and other human rights groups have roundly criticized for launching air strikes into Gaza’s densely crowded refugee camps and related tactics.

Since first running for the U.S. Senate, Obama has routinely condemned Arab attacks against Israeli civilians but has never condemned attacks against Arab civilians by Israelis. This apparent insistence that the lives of Palestinian and Lebanese civilian are somehow less worthy of attention than the lives of Israeli civilians have led to charges of racism on the part of Obama.

Despite his openness to talk with those governing Iran and North Korea, Obama emphasized his opposition to talking to those governing the Gaza Strip, even though Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in what was universally acknowledged as a free election. Though a public opinion poll published in the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed that 64% of the Israeli population support direct negotiations between Israel and Hamas (while only 28% expressed opposition), Obama has chosen to side with the right-wing minority in opposing any such talks.

Furthermore, Obama insists that Hamas should have never been even allowed to participate in the Palestinian elections in the first place because of their extremist views, which fail to recognize Israel and acts of terrorism by its armed wing. Yet he has never objected to the Israelis allowing parties such as National Union — which defends attacks on Arab civilians and seeks to destroy any Palestinian national entity, and expel its Arab population — to participate in elections or hold high positions in government.

He insisted that Hamas uphold previous agreements by the Fatah-led Palestine Authority with Israel, but did not insist that Israel uphold its previous agreements with the Palestine Authority, such as withdrawing from lands re-occupied in 2001 in violation of U.S.-guaranteed disengagement agreements.

In reference to Obama’s speech, the anchor to Israel’s Channel 2 News exclaimed that it was “reminiscent of the days of Menachem Begin’s Likud” referring to the far right-wing Israeli party and its founder, a notorious terrorist from the 1940s who later became prime minister. By contrast, back in February, while still seeking liberal Democratic votes in the primaries, Obama had explicitly rejected the view which, in his words, identifies being pro-Israel with “adopting an unwaveringly pro-Likud view of Israel.” Now that he has secured the nomination, however, he has appeared to have changed his tune.

Endorsing Israel’s Annexation of Jerusalem

Most disturbing was Obama’s apparent support for Israel’s illegal annexation of greater East Jerusalem, the Palestinian-populated sector of the city and surrounding villages that Israel seized along with the rest of the West Bank in June 1967.

The UN Security Council 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 final status. Furthermore, due to the city’s unresolved legal status dating from the 1948-49 Israeli war on independence, the international community refuses to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with the United States and other governments maintaining their respective embassies in Tel Aviv.

Despite these longstanding internationally-recognized legal principles, Obama insisted in his speech before AIPAC that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

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. 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. Furthermore, Israel’s annexation of greater East Jerusalem and its planned annexation of surrounding settlement blocs would make a contiguous and economically viable Palestinian state impossible. Such a position, therefore, would necessarily preclude any peace agreement. This raises serious questions as to whether Obama really does support Israeli-Palestinian peace after all.

According to Uri Avneri, Obama’s “declaration about Jerusalem breaks all bounds. It is no exaggeration to call it scandalous.” Furthermore, says this prominent observer of Israeli politics, every Israeli government in recent years has recognized that calls for an undivided Jerusalem

“constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to any peace process. It has disappeared — quietly, almost secretly — from the arsenal of official slogans. Only the Israeli (and American-Jewish) Right sticks to it, and for the same reason: to smother at birth any chance for a peace that would necessitate the dismantling of the settlements.

Obama argued in his speech that the United States should not “force concessions” on Israel, such as rescinding its annexation of Jerusalem, despite the series of UN Security Council resolutions explicitly calling on Israel do to so. While Obama insists that Iran, Syria, and other countries that reject U.S. hegemonic designs in the region should be forced to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, he apparently believes allied governments such as Israel are exempt.

Also disturbing about his statement was a willingness to “force concessions” on the Palestinians by pre-determining the outcome of one of the most sensitive issues in the negotiations. If, as widely interpreted, Obama was recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of greater East Jerusalem, it appears that the incipient Democratic nominee — like the Bush administration — has shown contempt for the most basic premises of international law, which forbids any country from expanding its borders by force.

However, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama campaign, in an attempt to clarify his controversial statement, implied that the presumed Democratic presidential nominee was not actually ruling out Palestinian sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem and that “undivided” simply meant that “it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967.” The campaign also replied to the outcry from his speech by declaring that “Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties’ as part of “an agreement that they both can live with.” This implies that Obama’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel does not necessarily preclude its Arab-populated eastern half becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israel, however, has shown little willingness to withdraw its administration and occupation forces from greater East Jerusalem voluntarily. Obama’s apparent reluctance to pressure Israel to do so makes it hard to imagine that he is really interested in securing a lasting peace agreement.

It Could Have Been Worse

Perhaps, as his campaign claims, Obama was not rejecting the idea of a shared co-capital of Jerusalem. And perhaps his emphasis on Israeli suffering relative to Palestinian suffering was simply a reflection of the sympathies of the audience he was addressing and was not indicative of anti-Arab racism. If so, the speech could have been a lot worse.

Indeed, Obama’s emphasis on peace, dialogue, and diplomacy is not what the decidedly militaristic audience at AIPAC normally hears from politicians who address them.

Obama did mention, albeit rather hurriedly, a single line about Israeli obligations, stating that Israel could “advance the cause of peace” by taking steps to “ease the freedom of Palestinians, improve economic conditions” and “refrain from building settlements.” This is more than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain was willing to say in their talks before the AIPAC convention. And, unlike the Bush administration, which last year successfully pressured Israel not to resume peace negotiations with Syria, Obama declared that his administration would never “block negotiations when Israel’s leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests.”

Furthermore, earlier in his career, Obama took a more 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 the U.S. House of Representatives 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, whereas most Democrats were insisting that it was a case of “Palestinian violence and the Israeli response.” He also made statements supporting a peace settlement along the lines of the 2003 Geneva Initiative and similar efforts by Israeli and Palestinian moderates.

Unlike any other major contenders for president this year or the past four election cycles, Obama at least has demonstrated in the recent past a more moderate and balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As president, he may well be better than his AIPAC speech would indicate. Though the power of the “Israel Lobby” is often greatly exaggerated, it may be 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.

A Political Necessity?

If indeed Obama took these hard-line positions during his AIPAC speech in order to seem more electable, it may be a serious mistake. Most liberal Democrats who gave blind support to the Israeli government in the 1960s and 1970s now have a far more even-handed view of the conflict, recognizing both Israeli and Palestinian rights and responsibilities. In addition, voters under 40 tend to take a far more critical view of unconditional U.S. support for Israeli policies than those of older generations. There is a clear generational shift among American Jews as well, with younger Jewish voters — although firmly supporting Israel’s right to exist in peace and security — largely opposing unconditional U.S. support for the occupation and colonization of Arab lands. The only major voting group that supports positions espoused by AIPAC are right-wing Christian fundamentalists, who tend to vote Republican anyway.

Furthermore, Obama has been far more dependent on large numbers of small donors from his grassroots base and less on the handful of wealthy donors affiliated with such special interest groups as AIPAC. This speech may have cost him large numbers of these smaller, progressive donors without gaining him much from the small numbers of larger, more conservative donors.

Indeed, there may not be a single policy issue where Obama’s liberal base differs from the candidate more than on Israel/Palestine. Not surprisingly, the Green Party and its likely nominee, former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, along with independent candidate Ralph Nader, are both using this issue to gain support at the expense of Obama.

Only hours after his AIPAC speech, the Nader campaign sent out a strongly worded letter noting how, unlike Obama and McCain, Nader supports the Israeli and Palestinian peace movements and would change U.S. Middle East policy. The widely-circulated response to the speech makes the case that, in contrast to Obama, “Nader/Gonzalez stands on these issues with the majority of Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish-Americans and Arab Americans.”

Betraying the Jewish Community

Through a combination of deep-seated fear from centuries of anti-Semitic repression, manipulation by the United States and other Western powers, and self-serving actions by some of their own leaders, a right-wing minority of American Jews support influential organizations such as AIPAC to advocate militaristic policies that, while particularly tragic for the Palestinians and Lebanese, are ultimately bad for the United States and Israel as well. Obama’s June 3 speech would have been the perfect time for Obama, while upholding his commitment to Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, to challenge AIPAC’s militarism and national chauvinism more directly. Unfortunately, while showing some independence of thought on Iran, he apparently felt the Palestinians were not as important

Taking a pro-Israel but anti-occupation position would have demonstrated that Obama was not just another pandering politician and that he recognized that a country’s legitimate security needs were not enhanced by invasion, occupation, colonization and repression

“That truly would have been “change you can believe in.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-zunes/obama-and-aipac_b_106611.html

Obama’s Right Turn?

In many respects, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has played right into the hands of cynics who have long doubted his promises to create a new and more progressive role for the United States in the world. The very morning after the last primaries, in which he finally received a sufficient number of pledged delegates to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and no longer needed to win over voters from the progressive base of his own party, Obama – in a Clinton-style effort at triangulation – gave a major policy speech before the national convention of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Embracing policies which largely backed those of the more hawkish voices concerned with Middle Eastern affairs, he received a standing ovation for his efforts.

His June 3 speech in Washington in many ways constituted a slap in the face of the grass roots peace and human rights activists who have brought him to the cusp of the Democratic presidential nomination.

In other respects, however, he pandered less to this influential lobbying group than many other serious aspirants for national office have historically. And at least part of his speech focused on convincing the largely right-wing audience members to support his positions rather than simply underscoring his agreement with them.

Much of the media attention placed upon his speech centered on the ongoing debate between him and incipient Republican presidential nominee John McCain on Iran. While embracing many of the same double-standards regarding nuclear nonproliferation issues and UN resolutions as does the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties, Obama did insert some rationality into the debate regarding the need for negotiations with that regional power rather than maintaining the current U.S. policy of diplomatic isolation and threats of war.

When it came to Israel and Palestine, however, Obama appeared to largely embrace a right-wing perspective which appeared to place all the blame for the ongoing violence and the impasse in the peace process on the Palestinians under occupation rather than the Israelis who are still occupying and colonizing the parts of their country seized by the Israeli army more than 40 years ago.

Progressive Israeli Reactions

While there were some faint glimmers of hope in Obama’s speech for those of us who support Israeli-Palestinian peace, progressive voices in Israel were particularly disappointed.

Israeli analyst Uri Avneri, in an essay entitled “No, I Can’t!”, expressed the bitterness of many Israeli peace activists for “a speech that broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning.” Avneri goes on to observe the irony of how Obama’s “dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles. And lo and behold, the very first thing he does after securing the nomination of his party is to compromise his principles.”

Avneri addressed the view of many Israelis that “Obama’s declarations at the AIPAC conference are very, very bad for peace. And what is bad for peace is bad for Israel, bad for the world and bad for the Palestinian people.”

Support for Further Militarization

In his speech, Obama rejected the view that the Middle East already has too many armaments and dismissed pleas by human rights activists that U.S. aid to Israel – like all countries – should be made conditional on adherence to international humanitarian law. Indeed, he further pledged an additional $30 billion of taxpayer-funded military aid to the Israeli government and its occupation forces over the next decade with no strings attached. Rather than accept that strategic parity between potential antagonists is the best way, short of a full peace agreement, to prevent war and to maintain regional security, Obama instead insisted that the United States should enable Israel to maintain its “qualitative military edge.”

Over the past three years, the ratio of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip killed by Israeli forces relative to the number of Israeli civilians in Israel killed by Palestinians is approximately 50 to one and has been even higher more recently. However, Obama chose only to mention the Israeli deaths and condemn Hamas, whose armed wing has been responsible for most of the Israeli casualties, and not a word about the moral culpability of the Israeli government, which Amnesty International and other human rights groups have roundly criticized for launching air strikes into Gaza’s densely crowded refugee camps and related tactics.

Since first running for the U.S. Senate, Obama has routinely condemned Arab attacks against Israeli civilians but has never condemned attacks against Arab civilians by Israelis. This apparent insistence that the lives of Palestinian and Lebanese civilian are somehow less worthy of attention than the lives of Israeli civilians have led to charges of racism on the part of Obama.

Despite his openness to talk with those governing Iran and North Korea, Obama emphasized his opposition to talking to those governing the Gaza Strip, even though Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in what was universally acknowledged as a free election. Though a public opinion poll published in the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed that 64% of the Israeli population support direct negotiations between Israel and Hamas (while only 28% expressed opposition), Obama has chosen to side with the right-wing minority in opposing any such talks. Furthermore, Obama insists that Hamas should have never been even allowed to participate in the Palestinian elections in the first place because of their extremist views, which fail to recognize Israel and acts of terrorism by its armed wing. Yet he has never objected to the Israelis allowing parties such as National Union – which defends attacks on Arab civilians and seeks to destroy any Palestinian national entity, and expel its Arab population – to participate in elections or hold high positions in government.

He insisted that Hamas uphold previous agreements by the Fatah-led Palestine Authority with Israel, but did not insist that Israel uphold its previous agreements with the Palestine Authority, such as withdrawing from lands re-occupied in 2001 in violation of U.S.-guaranteed disengagement agreements.

In reference to Obama’s speech, the anchor to Israel’s Channel 2 News exclaimed that it was “reminiscent of the days of Menachem Begin’s Likud,” referring to the far right-wing Israeli party and its founder, a notorious terrorist from the 1940s who later became prime minister. By contrast, back in February, while still seeking liberal Democratic votes in the primaries, Obama had explicitly rejected the view which, in his words, identifies being pro-Israel with “adopting an unwaveringly pro-Likud view of Israel.” Now that he has secured the nomination, however, he has appeared to have changed his tune.

Endorsing Israel’s Annexation of Jerusalem

Most disturbing was Obama’s apparent support for Israel’s illegal annexation of greater East Jerusalem, the Palestinian-populated sector of the city and surrounding villages that Israel seized along with the rest of the West Bank in June 1967.

The UN Security Council 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 final status. Furthermore, due to the city’s unresolved legal status dating from the 1948-49 Israeli war on independence, the international community refuses to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with the United States and other governments maintaining their respective embassies in Tel Aviv.

Despite these longstanding internationally-recognized legal principles, Obama insisted in his speech before AIPAC that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

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. 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. Furthermore, Israel’s annexation of greater East Jerusalem and its planned annexation of surrounding settlement blocs would make a contiguous and economically viable Palestinian state impossible. Such a position, therefore, would necessarily preclude any peace agreement. This raises serious questions as to whether Obama really does support Israeli-Palestinian peace after all.

According to Uri Avneri, Obama’s “declaration about Jerusalem breaks all bounds. It is no exaggeration to call it scandalous.” Furthermore, says this prominent observer of Israeli politics, every Israeli government in recent years has recognized that calls for an undivided Jerusalem “constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to any peace process. It has disappeared – quietly, almost secretly – from the arsenal of official slogans. Only the Israeli (and American-Jewish) Right sticks to it, and for the same reason: to smother at birth any chance for a peace that would necessitate the dismantling of the settlements.”

Obama argued in his speech that the United States should not “force concessions” on Israel, such as rescinding its annexation of Jerusalem, despite the series of UN Security Council resolutions explicitly calling on Israel do to so. While Obama insists that Iran, Syria, and other countries that reject U.S. hegemonic designs in the region should be forced to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, he apparently believes allied governments such as Israel are exempt.

Also disturbing about his statement was a willingness to “force concessions” on the Palestinians by pre-determining the outcome of one of the most sensitive issues in the negotiations. If, as widely interpreted, Obama was recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of greater East Jerusalem, it appears that the incipient Democratic nominee – like the Bush administration – has shown contempt for the most basic premises of international law, which forbids any country from expanding its borders by force.

However, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama campaign, in an attempt to clarify his controversial statement, implied that the presumed Democratic presidential nominee was not actually ruling out Palestinian sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem and that “undivided” simply meant that “it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967.” The campaign also replied to the outcry from his speech by declaring that “Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties” as part of “an agreement that they both can live with.” This implies that Obama’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel does not necessarily preclude its Arab-populated eastern half becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israel, however, has shown little willingness to withdraw its administration and occupation forces from greater East Jerusalem voluntarily. Obama’s apparent reluctance to pressure Israel to do so makes it hard to imagine that he is really interested in securing a lasting peace agreement.

It Could Have Been Worse

Perhaps, as his campaign claims, Obama was not rejecting the idea of a shared co-capital of Jerusalem. And perhaps his emphasis on Israeli suffering relative to Palestinian suffering was simply a reflection of the sympathies of the audience he was addressing and was not indicative of anti-Arab racism. If so, the speech could have been a lot worse.

Indeed, Obama’s emphasis on peace, dialogue, and diplomacy is not what the decidedly militaristic audience at AIPAC normally hears from politicians who address them.

Obama did mention, albeit rather hurriedly, a single line about Israeli obligations, stating that Israel could “advance the cause of peace” by taking steps to “ease the freedom of Palestinians, improve economic conditions” and “refrain from building settlements.” This is more than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain was willing to say in their talks before the AIPAC convention. And, unlike the Bush administration, which last year successfully pressured Israel not to resume peace negotiations with Syria, Obama declared that his administration would never “block negotiations when Israel’s leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests.”

Furthermore, earlier in his career, Obama took a more 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 the U.S. House of Representatives 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, whereas most Democrats were insisting that it was a case of “Palestinian violence and the Israeli response.” He also made statements supporting a peace settlement along the lines of the 2003 Geneva Initiative and similar efforts by Israeli and Palestinian moderates.

Unlike any other major contenders for president this year or the past four election cycles, Obama at least has demonstrated in the recent past a more moderate and balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As president, he may well be better than his AIPAC speech would indicate. Though the power of the “Israel Lobby” is often greatly exaggerated, it may be 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.

A Political Necessity?

If indeed Obama took these hard-line positions during his AIPAC speech in order to seem more electable, it may be a serious mistake. Most liberal Democrats who gave blind support to the Israeli government in the 1960s and 1970s now have a far more even-handed view of the conflict, recognizing both Israeli and Palestinian rights and responsibilities. In addition, voters under 40 tend to take a far more critical view of unconditional U.S. support for Israeli policies than those of older generations. There is a clear generational shift among American Jews as well, with younger Jewish voters – although firmly supporting Israel’s right to exist in peace and security – largely opposing unconditional U.S. support for the occupation and colonization of Arab lands. The only major voting group that supports positions espoused by AIPAC are right-wing Christian fundamentalists, who tend to vote Republican anyway.

Furthermore, Obama has been far more dependent on large numbers of small donors from his grassroots base and less on the handful of wealthy donors affiliated with such special interest groups as AIPAC. This speech may have cost him large numbers of these smaller, progressive donors without gaining him much from the small numbers of larger, more conservative donors.

Indeed, there may not be a single policy issue where Obama’s liberal base differs from the candidate more than on Israel/Palestine. Not surprisingly, the Green Party and its likely nominee, former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, along with independent candidate Ralph Nader, are both using this issue to gain support at the expense of Obama.

Only hours after his AIPAC speech, the Nader campaign sent out a strongly worded letter noting how, unlike Obama and McCain, Nader supports the Israeli and Palestinian peace movements and would change U.S. Middle East policy. The widely-circulated response to the speech makes the case that, in contrast to Obama, “Nader/Gonzalez stands on these issues with the majority of Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish-Americans and Arab Americans.”

Betraying the Jewish Community

Through a combination of deep-seated fear from centuries of anti-Semitic repression, manipulation by the United States and other Western powers, and self-serving actions by some of their own leaders, a right-wing minority of American Jews support influential organizations such as AIPAC to advocate militaristic policies that, while particularly tragic for the Palestinians and Lebanese, are ultimately bad for the United States and Israel as well. Obama’s June 3 speech would have been the perfect time for Obama, while upholding his commitment to Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, to challenge AIPAC’s militarism and national chauvinism more directly. Unfortunately, while showing some independence of thought on Iran, he apparently felt the Palestinians were not as important.

Taking a pro-Israel but anti-occupation position would have demonstrated that Obama was not just another pandering politician and that he recognized that a country’s legitimate security needs were not enhanced by invasion, occupation, colonization and repression.

That truly would have been “change you can believe in.”

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

Lebanon Intrusion

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, and 25 years after a second U.S. military intervention which left hundreds of Americans and thousands of Lebanese dead, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a resolution by a huge bipartisan majority which may lay the groundwork for a third one. At a minimum, this move has crudely and unnecessarily inserted the United States into Lebanon’s complex political infighting.

In response to a brief spasm of violence between armed Lebanese factions early last month, the House passed a strongly worded resolution claiming that “the terrorist group Hezbollah, in response to the justifiable exercise of authority by the sovereign, democratically elected Government of Lebanon, initiated an unjustifiable insurrection.” House Resolution 1194 – which was sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Democrats’ chief foreign policy spokesman in the House of Representatives – also called on the Bush administration “to immediately take all appropriate actions to support and strengthen the legitimate Government of Lebanon under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora,” wording which many interpreted as a license for future U.S. military action.

What actually happened during the second week of May was not that simple. The fighting was not between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state, but between various militias allied with some of the parties of the country’s two major rival coalitions. The Lebanese army remained neutral throughout the two days of fighting and Hezbollah and its allied forces quickly and voluntarily handed over areas of Beirut they had briefly seized to the Lebanese army.

The uprising took place during a general strike to protest the Siniora cabinet’s refusal to raise the minimum wage and increase fuel subsidies in the face of rising prices in food and other basic commodities. The tense atmosphere was exacerbated by the politicized firing of a popular brigadier general in charge of security at the Beirut Airport and efforts to close down Hezbollah’s telecommunication network, which had played an important role in mobilizing defenses and relief operations during the massive Israeli bombing campaign against Lebanon in 2006. The Bush administration had been strongly encouraging the prime minister to enact such policies.

Demonizing Hezbollah

According to resolution co-sponsor Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), however, the conflict was simply a matter of the people of Lebanon being “in the throes of having their duly elected government taken away from them by terrorist organizations and rogue regimes.”

Lebanon’s “duly elected government,” a legacy of a complex system of confessional representation imposed by French colonialists as a means of divide-and-rule, consists of a slim majority made up by the May 14th Alliance, a broad coalition consisting of 17 parties dominated by center-right parties led by Sunni Muslims, a center-left party led by Druze, and far-right parties led by Christian Maronites. The opposition March 8th Alliance consists of 41 parties, led by the radical Shia Hezbollah, the more moderate Shia Amal, the centrist Maronite-led Free Patriotic Movement, as well as a various leftist and Arab nationalist parties.

Despite this complex amalgam of movements, the House resolution insists that Hezbollah had provoked “sectarian warfare” in the recent conflict, ignoring the fact that there were Muslims and Christians on both sides. One of the major combatants among the anti-Siniora forces, for example, was the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), a Lebanese movement led by Greek Orthodox Christians.

The resolution also over-simplifies the complicated dimensions of the conflict by putting the onus for the violence exclusively on Hezbollah. For example, the resolution accuses Hezbollah of sacking and burning the buildings housing the television studios and newspaper of a pro-government party, when it fact it was SSNP partisans that did so. Similarly, the resolution also blames Hezbollah for “fomenting riots” and “blocking roads,” when in fact these were actions by trade unionists and others as part of a general strike pressing demands for greater economic justice, an agenda supported by those from across the political and sectarian divide. Such rioting and erection of barricades on major thoroughfares have occurred in dozens of other countries where governments, under pressure from the United States and international financial institutions, have attempted to impose structural adjustment programs and similar unpopular neoliberal economic policies.

Though the military actions by the militias of Hezbollah and its allies were clearly illegitimate, the hyperbolic language of the resolution went to rather absurd extremes. For example, the resolution referred to Hezbollah’s armed mobilization, in which its forces briefly controlled key neighborhoods in West Beirut, as an “illegal occupation of territory under the sovereignty of the Government of Lebanon.” By contrast, not once in Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000, which took place in defiance of no less than 10 UN Security Council resolutions, did Congress ever go on record condemning Israel’s actions or even referring to it as an illegal occupation that it was.

The resolution also claimed that “more than 80 Lebanese citizens have been murdered” as result of Hezbollah’s actions. However, independent reports indicate that the majority of those killed were armed combatants and that the vast majority of the killings took place outside the capital in fighting between other factions after Hezbollah ended its offensive in West Beirut. Furthermore, these same reports demonstrate that Hezbollah was far more disciplined than other militias in avoiding civilian targets.

The resolution also called on the European Union – which has already placed Hezbollah’s external security organization on its list of terrorist organizations for its involvement in assassinations overseas – to also designate Hezbollah itself as a terrorist organization. By contrast, there have been no such calls in Congress for other Lebanese parties – such as the Phalangists and the Lebanese Forces, whose militias have been responsible for at least as many civilian deaths as has Hezbollah but which are part of Siniora’s pro-Western coalition – to also be labeled as terrorist organizations.

Blaming Syria and Iran

In an apparent effort to lend support for the Bush administration’s bellicose policies toward Iran and Syria, the resolution – like a number of previous resolutions dealing with Lebanon – grossly exaggerated the influence of those two countries on Hezbollah. In reality, there is little evidence to suggest that Syrian and Iranian influence on this populist Shia party and its allies is any greater than U.S. influence on some of Lebanon’s other political factions. Indeed, many Lebanese blame the United States for much of the political crisis which has paralyzed the government during the past year and which culminated in last month’s violence as a result of the Bush administration’s pressure on Siniora and his allies to resist any compromise with the opposition on economic, political or security issues.

The parties of Siniora’s May 14 Alliance, while certainly benefiting from U.S. support and often amenable to policies pushed by the United States, ultimately make their decisions based upon their own perceived self-interests. Similarly, while Hezbollah certainly benefits from Iranian – and, to a lesser extent, Syrian – support and has often been amenable to those governments’ guidance, the Shia party is a genuinely populist, if somewhat reactionary, political movement whose leadership also makes their decisions based upon what they believe will advance their standing and their cause. Hezbollah in many ways serves as a successor to the left-leaning Arab nationalist parties of an earlier era in their resistance to Western domination and rule by traditional ruling elites.

Despite this, the resolution claims that Hezbollah’s goal in the uprising was not about the plight of the country’s poor and disproportionately Shia majority or a reaction to perceived discriminatory policies by the U.S.-back prime minister, but that it was actually an effort “to render Lebanon subservient to Iranian foreign policy.” The resolution also insists that the diverse group of opposition parties “continue to pursue an agenda favoring foreign interests over the will of the majority of Lebanese.”

The resolution went as far as calling upon the United Nations Security Council to “prohibit all air traffic between Iran and Lebanon and between Iran and Syria” on the grounds that it might be used to bring in arms to the Hezbollah militia, thereby placing a large bipartisan majority in Congress on record calling for the disruption of legitimate commercial activities between foreign countries due to the possibility that a few of the thousands of annual flights may include contraband armaments. This demand is particularly ironic given that the U.S. government transports tens of billions of dollars worth of armaments to repressive governments in the greater Middle East region every year, as well as arming private militias in Iraq and separatist guerrillas in Iran.

Sabotaging Reconciliation

The timing of the resolution, which was passed on May 22, a full two weeks after the fighting ended, appeared to some observers to have been part of a U.S. effort to undermine the sensitive talks between Lebanon’s various political factions then being hosted by the Arab League in Qatar. In passing a resolution endorsing one side and condemning the other, combined with threatening the use of “all appropriate actions” in support of one of the two sides, the House was apparently hoping to harden the negotiation positions of the pro-U.S. May 14 Alliance in order to cause the talks to fail.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) recognized the absurdity of the resolution by pointing out “This legislation strongly condemns Iranian and Syrian support to one faction in Lebanon while pledging to involve the United States on the other side. Wouldn’t it be better to be involved on neither side and instead encourage the negotiations that have already begun to resolve the conflict?”

Similarly, Rep Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), while noting the legitimate concerns regarding Hezbollah’s actions, observed, “We have to be very careful about how we dictate a certain policy in Lebanon for its effect on Lebanon and for its effect on the region,” expressing concern “that it will be seen by some as the United States trying to instigate more civil unrest in Lebanon at the same time that we say that we’re supporting the central government.” Noting correctly that the 2006 U.S.-backed Israeli war on Lebanon resulted in strengthening Hezbollah at the expense of moderate pro-Western elements, the Ohio Congressman went on to observe that “We should be doing everything we can to strengthen a process of dialogue in Lebanon. I don’t believe that this resolution accomplishes that. I think it accomplishes the opposite.”

Kucinich went on to note how U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch went to Lebanon “to basically make sure that the government took a hard-line position and that it would forestall the possibility of any dialogue.” The former presidential candidate also observed, in reference to his visits to Lebanon, that “One of the things that I thought was most telling was that there was a concern about working out an agreement without the interference of outside parties, without the interference of Iran or the interference of the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

Fortunately, despite this apparent effort to undermine a settlement, Arab League negotiators were eventually able to get Lebanon’s two major political alliances to agree to a power-sharing agreement.

Other observers, including Paul, warned of the consequences of further U.S. meddling in Lebanon’s internal conflicts. “This resolution leads us closer to a wider war in the Middle East,” Paul said. “It involves the United States unnecessarily in an internal conflict between competing Lebanese political factions and will increase rather than decrease the chance for an increase in violence. The Lebanese should work out political disputes on their own or with the assistance of regional organizations like the Arab League.”

Paul concluded by cautioning his fellow House members to “reject this march to war and to reject H. Res. 1194.” His colleagues were unwilling to heed his warnings, however, and the resolution passed with only 10 dissenting votes in the 435-member body.

Taking Sides

Though there is more than enough blame to go around on all sides for the longstanding political impasse and the more recent outbreak of violence, the Congressional resolution put the blame entirely on one side.

The resolution correctly observes how “United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701 call for the disbanding and disarming of all militias in Lebanon” but that “Hizballah has contemptuously dismissed the requirements of the United Nations Security Council by refusing to disarm.” However, there is nothing in the resolution regarding militias allied with the U.S.-backed prime minister, which are also required to disarm. Siniora’s Future Movement militia, which Hezbollah fighters battled on the streets of West Beirut, has emerged since these UN resolutions passed without any apparent disapproval from Washington.

The resolution also condemned Hezbollah for attacking buildings of rival parties, but there were no criticisms for similar actions by the other side, such as when pro-government gunmen attacked and seized the SSNP and Baath Party offices in Tripoli and stormed SSNP offices in Halba, killing seven party activists.

Yet, for the Democratic-controlled Congress, as with the Bush administration, the complex cleavages of the contemporary Middle East can be simply understood as a matter of good versus evil. “We have a situation here where a democratic, freedom-loving, sovereign people are insisting on the results of their own self-determined election that they came to through democratic processes and are doing that in the face of outside interference in the form of armed opposition, murders, assassinations that are being sponsored by Hezbollah, financed by the Iranian and Syrian regimes,” Ackerman said.

And Switching Sides

As in Iraq, the United States has a history of switching sides in terms of who is seen as the bad guy and who is seen as the good guy. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, the United States backed right-wing predominantly Maronite militias against the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party. During the 1982-84 U.S. intervention in Lebanon, U.S. forces fought the Socialists directly, including launching heavy air and sea bombardments against Druze villages in the Shouf Mountains. Now, however, the U.S. supports the Socialists, with the recent House resolution specifically defending the group.

Similarly, the United States supported the Shia Amal militia in 1985-86 when it was fighting armed Palestinian groups as well as in 1988 when Amal was fighting Hezbollah forces. Now, the United States is strongly opposed to Amal, essentially acting as if they are one with Hezbollah.

The United States supported Syria’s initial military intervention in Lebanon back in 1976 and supported the bloody Syrian-instigated coup in late 1990 that consolidated Syria’s political control of the country. Subsequently, however, the United States became a leading critic of Syria’s domineering role of the country’s government, which continued until a popular nonviolent uprising during the spring of 2005 forced a Syrian withdrawal from the country.

In a more recent example, as part of a U.S. policy to support hard-line Sunni fundamentalist groups as a counter-weight to the growth of radical Shia movements in Iraq and Lebanon, Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri provided amnesty and released radical Salafi militants from jail. As such militants began causing problems in the northern city of Tripoli last year from a base in a Palestinian refugee camp, the U.S. then backed a bloody Lebanese army crackdown.

One of the most bizarre switches in U.S. allegiances involves former Lebanese Army General Michel Aoun, a Maronite, and his Free Patriotic Movement, the most popular Christian-led political group in the country. As an ally to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1990, the United States gave a green light to the Syrians to have Aoun overthrown as interim Lebanese prime minister in a violent coup. Not long afterward, however, the United States then switched sides to support Aoun and oppose the Syrians and their supporters. As recently as 2003, Aoun was feted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies – a neo-conservative group with close ties with the Bush administration, which includes among its leaders Newt Gingrich, James Woolsey, Jack Kemp, and Richard Perle, as well as Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Joseph Lieberman – which declared him a champion of freedom and democracy. Aoun won similar praise by some of the very members of Congress who supported this latest resolution when he testified that year before the House International Relations Committee.

Soon after his return from exile, however, Aoun became one of the most outspoken opponents of the U.S.-backed political leaders and parties which dominate the current Lebanese government and he and his movement are now allied with Hezbollah in the March 8th Alliance. Not surprisingly, he has gained the wrath of the Bush administration and Congress.

One would think that, with a history like this, Congress would think twice before going on record in support of specific factions in Lebanon’s confusing, messy, and violent political environment. Unfortunately, over 95% of House members apparently believe otherwise.

Hezbollah’s provocative military action in May, which violated its pledge to use its armed militia only in defense of the country from Israel and not against its fellow Lebanese, has hurt its standing among the country’s non-Shia majority, who now see them more as advancing their own parochial interests than serving the role they had previously embraced as a national resistance movement against foreign occupation forces. Washington’s support for Israel’s military attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon and this latest resolution backing rival armed factions, however, does little to encourage Hezbollah to disarm or promote efforts to advance nonviolent conflict resolution and national reconciliation.

http://www.fpif.org/reports/lebanon_intrusion

Estonia’s Singing Revolution

There is an infamous line from the Nazi era, which Hermann Goring adapted from a play performed on Hitler’s birthday: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.”

By contrast, the people of Estonia, when faced with many guns, reached for their culture.

In a remarkable new documentary, The Singing Revolution, filmmakers Maureen and Jim Tusty tell the little-known story of the Estonian people’s nonviolent struggle against decades of Soviet occupation, culminating in that country’s independence in 1991. The movement played an important role in the downfall of the entire Soviet Empire.

Over the previous several years, nonviolent uprisings had helped topple Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe as well as right-wing dictatorships from Southeast Asia to Latin America. Earlier in the century, Gandhi’s movement in India demonstrated the power of nonviolent action in leading a country to independence against even the powerful British Empire. The people of Estonia, along with their neighbors in Latvia and Lithuania, similarly showed how sustained nonviolence could be successfully waged against the Soviet occupation of their country. Music was a key part of this struggle.

Music around the World

Music has played a key role in nonviolent struggles around the world. With updated lyrics to traditional African-American Gospel music that stressed emancipation and resistance, song energized the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s. The Nuevo Cancion movement, blending local folk music traditions with language espousing justice and resisting repression, inspired the pro-democracy campaign in Chile during the 1980s. And the rich harmonies of African folk tradition, with lyrics calling for freedom and defiance against the oppressors, empowered the South African struggle against apartheid.

In most such cases, the music was an inspirational and unifying force for the movement. In Estonia, music – primarily the country’s rich choral tradition – played an even more central role for it embodied the essence of the struggle. For centuries, foreign domination had threatened Estonian national and cultural identity. Many other peoples would have assimilated in the face of centuries of foreign control, but the Estonians refused to give up their unique culture. They speak a language totally unrelated to the Slavic and Scandinavian languages of their neighbors; they are mostly Lutheran, whereas most of their immediate neighbors are Catholic or Orthodox. A more immediate threat to their linguistic and cultural heritage was the huge number of Russian settlers who moved into the country since the Soviet re-conquest in 1944 – to the point where these Russian settlers almost outnumbered the Estonians themselves. Despite claims of international proletarian solidarity, the 20th-century Soviet Communists were in many ways as chauvinistic in their nationalism as the czars who had occupied Estonia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Though one of the world’s smallest countries, Estonia has one of the world’s largest repertoires of folk songs, and the Estonians have used their music as a political weapon for centuries. Songs were used as protest against German conquerors as far back as the 13th century and as an act of resistance against the occupying army of Russian czar Peter the Great in the 18th century. Since 1869, Estonians have taken part in an annual song festival known as Laulupidu, where choirs from around the country come together for a multi-day celebration of choral music, with as many as 25,000 people singing on stage at the same time. These gatherings, which have attracted crowds of hundreds of thousands, have always been as much about the popular yearning for national self-determination as they have been about music. Laulupidu became the cornerstone of the resistance against the Soviet occupation, when – in addition to singing the requisite songs praising the state and the Communist Party – the organizers defied Soviet officials by including banned nationalist songs and symbols. Despite divisions within the nationalist movement and despite violent provocations by Soviet occupation forces and pro-Soviet Russian settlers, the movement gained strength, and the public protests, nationalist displays, and other forms of nonviolent resistance escalated.

Given Estonia’s small size, armed resistance would have been completely futile and only led to more suffering. Russia was 300 times the size of Estonia, whose population was barely more than one million. The Soviet Red Army, the largest armed force in the world at that time, was more than prepared to crush any form of armed resistance. Yet it was no match for hundreds of thousands of nonviolent Estonians singing their way to freedom. When this nonviolent resistance movement began in the mid-1980s, taking advantage of the limited space made possible by reforms enacted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviets had no clue what was coming. By all conventional measures, they had things under complete control.

Western Responses

The West didn’t have a clue what was coming either, however. Washington believed that the best way to deter the feared expansion of Soviet Communism was through NATO, the massive procurement of arms, and the threat of triggering a nuclear holocaust. For decades, the assumption was that these Soviet-imposed autocratic regimes could not be rolled back. Estonia was deemed a hopeless cause. The United States did provide nominal recognition to the impotent remnants of a rightist Estonian government-in-exile, largely unaware of the exciting changes taking place inside the country.

Few anti-imperialists in the West were aware of what was happening in the Baltic republics during this period, either. They were wary of the right-wing nationalism of many Estonian exiles and offended by the hypocrisy of the U.S. government giving lip service to freedom in Eastern Europe while backing brutal autocratic regimes elsewhere and arming foreign occupation forces in East Timor, Palestine, and Western Sahara. However, the burgeoning Estonian struggle for independence crossed the ideological spectrum, with even the Estonian Communist Party eventually confronting Moscow with demands for independence from the Soviet Union. The Estonian people’s concern was not in great power rivalries, but in national freedom.

Meanwhile, the Reagan administration, which did think that Communism could be rolled back, thought the best way to end Soviet occupations was through support for armed groups like the Afghan mujahadin. This strategy did eventually result in driving out the Soviets from Afghanistan. But the war also resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the displacement of millions, and fueled an Islamic radicalization that tragically came to our shores on 9/11.

The Estonians, however, had a better way: through massive noncooperation, through building alternative national cultural institutions, and through their music.

The Estonians’ commitment to nonviolence and their embrace of music not only made their independence struggle a success, it was also key in making Estonia a successful democracy. There are still ongoing political struggles in the country, particularly regarding the rights of Estonia’s large Russian minority. But the use of a nonviolent strategy in the independence struggle has led to a climate where such potentially explosive issues are addressed without the warring militias and ethnic cleansing that have characterized other countries with serious ethnic divides.

Indeed, the Estonian revolution was led not by an elite vanguard of unsmiling ideologues. It was a massive, inclusive, and democratic celebration of a nation and its culture. Those values continue to resonate to this day. The Estonians did Emma Goldman proud. They danced, and they had a revolution.

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