Pelosi the Hawk

Reports by international human rights groups and from within Israel in recent weeks have revealed the massive scale of war-crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law, committed by Israeli forces during their three-week offensive against the Gaza Strip earlier this year. Despite this, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has steadfastly stood by her insistence that the U.S.-backed Israeli government has no legal or moral responsibility for the tragic consequence of the war.

This is just one episode in a long history of efforts by Pelosi to undermine international humanitarian law, in regards to actions by a country she has repeatedly referred to as America’s most important ally in the Middle East. It’s also part of her overall right-wing agenda in the Middle East. As the powerful Speaker of the House, Pelosi could very well undermine efforts by President Barack Obama in the coming years to moderate U.S. policy toward that volatile region.

Support for the Gaza War

During the height of Israel’s devastating offensive on the Gaza Strip in January, Pelosi pushed through a resolution putting the House of Representatives on record calling “on all nations…to lay blame both for the breaking of the calm and for subsequent civilian casualties in Gaza precisely where blame belongs, that is, on Hamas.”[emphasis added]

Not only did the resolution ignore Israel’s attacks in Gaza in November and other violations of the ceasefire that served to “break the calm,” it put forward an extreme reinterpretation of international humanitarian law apparently designed to absolve any nation that kills large numbers of civilians, as long as the other side allegedly initiated the conflict.

The resolution favorably quoted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, regarding responsibility for civilian deaths and for the causes of the conflict, but cites no one else. Though the Gaza War should be considered “a final and eloquent testimony to the complete failure of the neoconservative movement in United States foreign policy,” as Juan Cole has written, Pelosi instead aligned herself and the Democratic congressional majority with the failed ideology of the outgoing Bush administration. Indeed, some of the language of Pelosi’s resolution was even to the right of Bush: For example, while the January 8 UN Security Council resolution — which received the endorsement of Rice and other administration officials — condemned “all acts of violence and terror directed against civilians,” Pelosi’s resolution only condemned the violence and terror of Hamas. Similarly, her resolution placed conditions for a ceasefire on the Palestinian side that was even more stringent than those advocated by the Bush administration and endorsed eventually by the Israelis.

And, despite International Red Cross reports of Israeli forces illegally preventing emergency workers from reaching wounded civilians, killing aid and health workers, and attacking hospitals and ambulances, Pelosi’s resolution went on record praising Israel for having “facilitated humanitarian aid to Gaza.”

Pelosi’s resolution also cited the Israeli invasion as part of Israel’s “right to act in self-defense to protect its citizens against Hamas’s unceasing aggression, as enshrined in the United Nations Charter.” In reality, the UN Charter explicitly prohibits nations going to war unless they “first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” Yet Israel — with strong bipartisan U.S. support — has refused to even meet with Hamas. Furthermore, while Article 51 does allow countries the right to resist an armed attack, it doesn’t grant any nation the right to engage in such massive and disproportionate warfare against densely packed cities and refugee camps.

Pelosi also claimed that Hamas bore responsibility for the more than 700 deaths of Palestinian civilians because of the alleged use of “human shields.” Hamas was certainly guilty of less-severe humanitarian violations, such as not taking all necessary steps to prevent civilian casualties while positioning fighters and armaments, but this isn’t the same as using civilians as shields. And, as Human Rights Watch noted, even the presence of armed personnel and weapons near civilian areas “does not release Israel from its obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property during military operations.” Furthermore, the nature of urban warfare, particularly in a territory as densely populated as the Gaza Strip, makes the proximity of retreating fighters and their equipment to civilians unavoidable in many cases. In any case, there have been scores of well-documented cases of civilian casualties in areas where there were no Hamas fighters.

The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential “pro-Israel” lobby, did not draft Pelosi’s resolution, unlike some similar resolutions in recent years. The wording of the resolution came primarily out of the offices of Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Reid, and House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Howard Berman. This was a completely Democratic initiative led by Pelosi herself.

Pelosi’s siding with the Bush administration in its defense of violations of international humanitarian law by U.S. allies was nothing new. When Bush defended Israel’s assaults on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure in 2006 and defied the international community by blocking UN efforts to impose a ceasefire, Pelosi voted in favor of a resolution commending him for “fully supporting Israel.” This Pelosi-backed resolution claimed that Israel’s actions were legitimate self-defense under the UN Charter and, despite evidence to the contrary, praised “Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and welcom[ed] Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties.” Directly contradicting empirical studies by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and even the U.S. Army War College, all of which noted the absence of any credible evidence of even a single civilian fatality resulting from such practices, she went on recording insisting that the nearly 800 civilian deaths were a result of Hezbollah using “human shields.” Pelosi also echoed Bush’s defense of Israel’s 2002 West Bank offensive, which also was directed primarily at civilian targets. Once again contradicting findings by reputable human rights groups, she voted in favor of a resolution sponsored by right-wing Republican leader Tom DeLay claiming the massive assault was “aimed solely at the terrorist infrastructure.”

Pelosi attacked the International Court of Justice for its landmark 2004 ruling calling for the enforcement of the Fourth Geneva Convention in Israeli-occupied territories. She also voted in favor of a resolution condemning the World Court for its near-unanimous advisory opinion that Israel’s separation barrier shouldn’t be built beyond Israel’s internationally recognized border into the occupied West Bank in order to incorporate illegal settlements into Israel, warning that members of the international community would “risk a strongly negative impact on their relationship” with the United States if they dared push for the implementation of the ruling. (See my article “Attacks Against World Court by Congress Reveal Growing Bipartisan Hostility to International Law.”) And Pelosi has even gone as far as defending Israel’s use of death squads in the extra-judicial killings of suspected militants.

Pelosi’s Middle East Record

Pelosi’s right-wing agenda in the Middle East goes beyond efforts to undermine international humanitarian law. During the Bush years, she tried to push congressional Democrats to support the administration’s broader Middle East agenda. “There is no division on policy between us and President Bush, be it on Israel, Palestine or Syria,” she declared.

Nancy Pelosi doesn’t view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of the many rights and wrongs of both parties. For her, it’s all the fault of the Palestinians, and the responsibility for the violence and the failure of the peace process rests on them alone.

Pelosi has long insisted that the Palestinians’ 1993 decision to recognize Israeli control over 78% of Palestine was not enough. She has even portrayed former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s 2000 proposal to create a Palestinian Bantustan on approximately 18% of Palestine — which would have effectively divided the territory into four non-contiguous units with Israel controlling the borders, airspace, and water resources — as “a generous and historic proposal.” She further insisted that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s rejection of that proposal was indicative of the Palestinians’ lack of commitment to peace, ignoring his subsequent acceptance of President Bill Clinton’s peace plan put forward five months later. Echoing the Israeli right’s claim that the Palestinians’ various peace proposals are all just a ruse and that they simply want to destroy Israel, Pelosi insists that the conflict is about “the fundamental right of Israel to exist” and that it is “absolute nonsense” to claim it has anything do to with the Israeli occupation.

Subsequently, Pelosi has sought to undermine the road-map for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In May 2003, she signed a letter to Bush insisting that the peace process must be based not on an end to Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war, but “above all” on the end of Palestinian violence and the establishment of a new Palestinian leadership. Though the road-map called for both Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers to simultaneously work to fulfill their obligations, she insisted that the Palestinians alone were responsible for implementing the first stage of the Road Map and failed to even mention any of Israel’s reciprocal responsibilities, such as ending the sieges and military assaults on Palestinian population centers and halting construction of additional illegal settlements.

Speaking about a visit to one of the illegal Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2004, Pelosi referred to an infiltration by local Palestinians that had taken place that morning as part of “the daily reality of Israel: even moments of peace and beauty are haunted by the specter of violence.” By implying that the Gaza Strip, seized by force by the Israeli army in 1967, was part of Israel, Pelosi apparently hoped to reinforce efforts by the Israeli right to resist compliance with a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and a ruling by the International Court of Justice to withdraw these settlements in accordance with international law.

When Israel finally withdrew its illegal settlements from the occupied Gaza Strip the following year, keeping the territory under a strict siege and blockade, she praised it as a “courageous,” “gut-wrenching” decision for Israel, as if the Gaza Strip wasn’t actually occupied territory but instead a part of Israel itself, generously given up by the Israeli government in the interest of peace..

Double Standards

Pelosi has supported strict economic sanctions and even threats of military force against Middle Eastern governments targeted by the Bush administration — such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran, or Syria — that were slow in complying with UN Security Council resolutions. Yet she has never publicly called on Israel to abide by any of the dozens of Security Council resolutions on international humanitarian law, illegal annexation of militarily-occupied territory, or nuclear proliferation with which that government remains in material breech. In Pelosi’s worldview, a country’s obligations to comply with the UN Charter and UN Security Council resolutions depend not on objective international legal standards but on their relations with the United States.

After supporting false assertions that Saddam Hussein had somehow reconstituted his “weapons of mass destruction” in 2002, Pelosi now claims it’s actually Iran — another oil-rich Middle Eastern nation — that “represents a clear threat to Israel and to America.” She has refused to support calls for a nuclear weapons-free zone for all of Southwest Asia, which would include nuclear states Israel, Pakistan, and India, and would link up with already existing nuclear weapons-free zones in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the South Pacific. Instead, while believing that these U.S. allies need not be pressured to give up their nukes, she argues that Iran “must be confronted by an international coalition against proliferation.” Indeed, she threatened Iran for its nuclear program while defending Israel for its development of a sizable nuclear arsenal.

Pelosi voted in favor of sanctions against Syria based on its refusal to unilaterally give up its missiles — even though Israel (along with such other U.S. allies as Turkey, Israel and Egypt) have even more advanced missile programs — and its refusal to unilaterally give up their chemical weapons stockpiles, even though Israel and Egypt have much larger chemical weapons arsenals.

In short, Pelosi supports the position advocated by the Bush administration rejecting law-based universal standards to challenge the threat of weapons proliferation in the volatile Middle East, insisting the United States can unilaterally decide which countries can and cannot have certain weaponry.

Prior to the division of power between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in 2007, Pelosi supported Bush’s policy of refusing to resume normal relations with the Fatah-led Palestine Authority, unless the cabinet excluded members of Hamas or any party that doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, refuses to renounce violence, or fails to endorse previous agreements in the peace process. By contrast, Pelosi has raised no concerns about the new Israeli government, led by officials who refuse to recognize Palestinians’ right to statehood, refuse to renounce violence, and fail to endorse previous agreements. Indeed, despite Israel’s new foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman calling for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel and much of the West Bank, Pelosi has not uttered a word of concern.

Moreover, Pelosi has also repeatedly pushed to increase U.S. military aid to Israel, rejecting calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to condition the arms transfers on an improvement in Israel’s human rights record in the occupied territories and an end to attacks on civilian population centers.

Undermining International Law

Such double standards are part of Pelosi’s larger effort to undermine international law and UN authority. She has from the beginning sought to exclude the United Nations from any role in monitoring or implementing the roadmap for Middle East peace. According to Pelosi’s aforementioned letter to Bush, allowing the United Nations or the European nations that cosponsored the roadmap to share responsibility in overseeing implementation as originally planned “might only lessen the chances of moving forward” toward peace since “the United States has developed a level of credibility and trust with all parties in the region which no other country shares.”

In short, Pelosi was arguing that the Bush administration — despite its contempt for the UN Charter and basic premises of international law and its support of Israeli occupation forces — was more reliable than the United Nations or the European Union in monitoring the peace process.

Pelosi has also supported legislation that attacks the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). For example, Pelosi faults UNRWA for making “no effort to permanently resettle Palestinian refugees,” even though this would go well beyond its mandate and be against the wishes of the majority of refugees, who insist upon returning to their homeland in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She joined far-right UN critics in raising dubious allegations that “UNRWA facilities have been used for terrorist training and bases for terrorist operations,” and that the UNRWA educational system of using textbooks and educational materials “promote anti-Semitism, denial of the existence and the right to exist of the state of Israel, and exacerbate stereotypes and tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis.”

Right-Wing not Pro-Israel

Nancy Pelosi isn’t, as some of her critics would have it, too “pro-Israel;” rather, she is simply too right-wing. Her positions on U.S. policy toward Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and a number of other nations in that region put her closer to the right-wing Christian Coalition than the moderate National Council of Churches, closer to the neoconservative Project for a New American Century than to the liberal Peace Action, and closer to right-wing Zionist groups like AIPAC than liberal Zionist groups like Americans for Peace Now or Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.

The 2006 Lebanon War, which Israel launched after months of pressure by the Bush administration to attack its northern neighbor, ended up as a disaster for Israel, as outlined by the Israeli government’s 2007 Winograd Report. During the fighting, as thousands of Israeli peace activists took the streets of Tel Aviv chanting “We will not kill or die for Bush,” Pelosi was back in Washington essentially saying, “Oh, yes you should!”

Where Pelosi’s allegiance lies in the Israeli political spectrum is not only illustrated by her opposition to the Israeli peace movement, but in her outspoken support of former prime minister and war criminal Ariel Sharon. She repeatedly praised the right-wing Israeli leader for his “remarkable leadership,” endorsing Sharon’s construction of a separation barrier deep inside the West Bank as well as his “disengagement plan,” which would eventually annex most of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territory into Israel.

And she has been quite intolerant of Democrats who dissent from her hawkish views, heavily pressuring House Democrats to support various resolutions supporting Bush’s Middle East policy and seeking to damage the campaigns of insurgent Democrats who challenge her right-wing views. For example, Pelosi attacked Howard Dean, early in his campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, for suggesting the United States should be more “even-handed” towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has even condemned former President Jimmy Carter for opposing Israeli occupation policies in the West Bank. No Democratic leader has ever criticized either a former president or the front-running presidential candidate of his or her own party on any issue as harshly as Pelosi criticized Dean and Carter on Israel and Palestine.

Pelosi’s views don’t reflect her role as a major Democratic fundraiser. Her antipathy toward Palestinians goes back long before she came into leadership. As a junior congresswoman in 1988, without links to wealthy national contributors, she was an outspoken opponent of Palestine’s right to exist, helping lead an effort to defeat a ballot proposition in San Francisco supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Pelosi’s right-wing Israel policy is less a matter of AIPAC’s power and more about the inability of the progressive community in San Francisco and Democrats elsewhere to force her to do otherwise. She changed her position in support of the U.S. occupation and counterinsurgency war in Iraq only because her constituents and Democrats nationwide demanded it, fearing the political consequences of doing otherwise. She isn’t likely to change her position on these other important Middle East policy issues unless we do the same.

Unfortunately, few Democrats are even aware of how far to the right Pelosi is when it comes to the Middle East. Not only has the mainstream media failed to call attention to her Middle East agenda, but progressive publications have failed do so as well. In These Times praised Pelosi for her “solid record” on human rights issues, while Ms. Magazine lauded her for having a “voting record strong on…human rights,” failing to even mention her defense of Israeli war crimes against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.

Obama was initially able to withstand attacks by right-wing Republicans over the Chas Freeman appointment and tentative plans to participate in the UN Anti-Racism Conference, but he capitulated once prominent Democrats began pressuring him as well. Unless, then, rank-and-file Democrats are willing to challenge Pelosi on the Middle East, there is little hope that Congressional Democrats will allow the Obama administration to take human rights or international law seriously — not just in terms of Israel and its neighbors — but anywhere else.

Missing an Anti-Racism Moment

In boycotting the United Nations conference on racism, the Obama administration demonstrated that just because an African American can be elected president doesn’t mean the United States will be any more committed than the Bush administration in fighting global racism. Rejecting calls by liberal Democratic members of Congress, leading human rights groups, Pope Benedict XVI, and most of the international community to participate, the Obama administration instead gave into pressure by Congressional hawks and other anti-UN forces by joining a handful of other nations refusing to participate in the historic gathering.

The five-day conference, which is taking place this week in Geneva, assessed international progress in fighting racism and xenophobia since the UN’s first conference in Durban, South Africa eight years ago. The Bush administration withdrew from that gathering, but there had been hope the Obama administration wouldn’t continue its predecessor’s ideology-driven opposition to the UN and its human rights agenda.

With pressure from the United States and some other countries, the draft declaration prepared for this year’s conference dropped a call to ban “defamation of religion,” which raised concerns regarding restricting free speech, as well as any references to Israel and Palestine. State Department spokesperson Robert Wood acknowledged that the draft was “significantly improved,” and that the United States was “deeply grateful” that requested changes had been made. Yet he announced the United States would boycott the conference anyway because the document reaffirmed the final declaration of the 2001 meeting in Durban right-wing critics had labeled “anti-Israel.”


Despite ongoing claims to the contrary by various right-wing pundits, however, the final document didn’t contain any anti-Israel statements or language equating Zionism with racism. Efforts by some participating states to include that and similar objectionable language were defeated.

Indeed, the only mention of Israel in the final 61-page document was as follows:

We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion; We call for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all peoples shall co-exist and enjoy equality, justice and internationally recognized human rights, and security.

Why would the Obama administration find such a statement so reprehensible that it would boycott a conference whose focus isn’t on Israel, but on ending racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerances? Since the document explicitly recognizes Israel’s right to security, the Obama administration apparently objects to its formal recognition that Palestinians are under foreign occupation, and that they have a right to self-determination and statehood. Yet virtually the entire international community — including the United Nations, the World Court and a broad consensus of legal scholars — recognizes this reality.

According to the State Department, the Obama administration believes the 2001 declaration “prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.” In other words, it appears the Obama administration believes that assuming the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and statehood, and calling for a Middle East in which all peoples “shall coexist and enjoy equality, justice and international recognized human rights, and security” should not be givens.

During the more than 15 years of these U.S.-facilitated negotiations, the Palestinians have seen illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank more than double, their freedom of movement restricted, their human rights deteriorate, and their social and economic standards plummet. Moreover, the new Israel government with which the Palestinians need to negotiate is led by a coalition of far right-wing parties that have refused to acknowledge Palestinian rights, and have threatened further war against its neighbors. Its foreign minister is an outspoken anti-Arab racist who has proposed the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories.

Yet the Obama administration insists that rather than the international community reiterating the longstanding international legal principle of the right to self-determination, the Palestinians’ future should instead be placed on the bargaining table under an ongoing U.S.-led “peace process,” which has thus far only worsened their suffering.

Addressing Anti-Semitism

Legitimate concerns about Israeli policies regularly appear at international forums sponsored by the United Nations. But they have sometimes been contaminated by sweeping statements condemning the state of Israel itself, and portraying some of the most racist and chauvinistic aspects of Zionism as representative of Jewish nationalism as a whole. However, these kinds of discriminatory resolutions have been declining in recent years, as countries have become more willing to recognize that, while some governments may pursue racist policies, no state should be singled out as inherently racist in and of itself. Efforts by anti-Israel delegations at the 2001 anti-racism conference in Durban were defeated and weren’t considered a realistic threat at the Geneva Conference either. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that Israel was a “racist state” during a speech on the opening day of this year’s conference was not well-received, prompting many delegates to walk out in protest.

Still, even some of the more reasonable resolutions critical of Israel proposed at the 2001 conference distracted attention from the broader issues at stake. Such efforts often result in dividing Jews — themselves a historically oppressed people — from their natural allies among people of color. Furthermore, other governments that have as bad or even more racist policies than Israel have not been subjected to as much attention at such conferences.

The Israeli government has been able to inflict its racist policies on neighboring Arab populations largely as a result of the unconditional diplomatic, economic, and military support of the United States. Any country with a history of war with its neighbors that found itself effectively immune from sanctions, or any other negative repercussions for violating international norms, would likely behave the same way, regardless of whether it were Jewish, “Zionist,” or anything else. Were it not for the United States providing Israel with protection from international pressure to end its illegal occupation and colonization of neighboring lands, the “just, comprehensive and lasting peace” called for in the 2001 declaration the Obama administration apparently finds so objectionable could have by now been a reality.

However legitimate some of the concerns regarding anti-Semitism at international forums, nothing in the final 2001 declaration at Durban — the alleged reason for the U.S. boycott this year — appears to have been even remotely anti-Semitic. Indeed, the final declaration states:

We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten…We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities…We condemn the persistence and resurgence of neo-Nazism, neo-Fascism and violent nationalist ideologies based on racial or national prejudice, and state that these phenomena can never be justified in any instance or in any circumstances.

Even if the 2001 declaration was as problematic as the Obama administration depicted it, participation in this year’s conference would not have implied an endorsement of every single phrase of a lengthy and wide-ranging declaration hammered together by representatives of more than 200 governments.

Reaction to the Decision

The Congressional Black Caucus, which strongly encouraged U.S. participation in the international meeting, stated that it was “deeply dismayed” by Obama’s decision. “Had the United States sent a high-level delegation reflecting the richness and diversity of our country, it would have sent a powerful message to the world that we’re ready to lead by example,” the statement reads. “Instead, the administration opted to boycott the conference, a decision that does not advance the cause of combating racism and intolerance, but rather sets the cause back.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) observed how the U.S. decision to boycott the conference was “inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with.” She added that “the United States is making it more difficult for it to play a leadership role on UN Human Rights Council as it states it plans to do. This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple.”

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch noted how the meeting would lack the diplomatic gravitas it deserved as a result of Washington’s absence. “For us it’s extremely disappointing and it’s a missed opportunity, really, for the United States,” she said. Other human rights groups, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also expressed their disappointment.

By contrast, the right wing applauded Obama’s decision. A bipartisan group of congressional hawks, which pressured Obama to boycott the conference, sent him an open letter applauding Obama’s decision. The letter claims that the meeting “undermines freedom of expression and is tainted by an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic agenda that questions the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.” The effort was led by such influential members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as Ron Klein (D-FL), Mike Pence (R-IN), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), as well as Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, all of whom previously attacked the United Nations, the World Court, and various human rights groups for challenging certain U.S. and Israeli policies.

By accepting the recommendation of these congressional militarists and unilateralists to boycott the conference, while rejecting calls to participate by the Black Caucus, reputable human rights groups, UN officials, and world religious leaders, Obama has given the clearest indication yet as to who he will listen to in determining how his administration approaches the United Nations and other international initiatives in support for human rights.

The Stealing of the Iranian Election

[Huffington Post, July 15, 2009] It is certainly not unprecedented for Western observers to miscalculate the outcome of an election in a country where pre-election polls are not as rigorous as Western countries, particularly when there is a clear bias towards a particular candidate. At the same time, the predictions of knowledgeable Iranian observers from various countries and from across the political spectrum were nearly unanimous in the belief that the leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi would defeat incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decisively in yesterday’s presidential election, certainly in the runoff if not in the first round. This also appeared to be the assumption among independent observers in Iran itself. [FULL LINK]

The War on Yugoslavia, 10 Years Later

It has been 10 years since the U.S.-led war on Yugoslavia. For many leading Democrats, including some in top positions in the Obama administration, it was a “good” war, in contrast to the Bush administration’s “bad” war on Iraq. And though the suffering and instability unleashed by the 1999 NATO military campaign wasn’t as horrific as the U.S. invasion of Iraq four years later, the war was nevertheless unnecessary and illegal, and its political consequences are far from settled.

Unless there’s a willingness to critically re-examine the war, the threat of another war in the name of liberal internationalism looms large.

Crisis Could Have Been Prevented

Throughout most of the 1990s, the oppressed ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo waged their struggle almost exclusively nonviolently, using strikes, boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, and alternative institutions. The Kosovar Albanians even set up a democratically elected parallel government to provide schooling and social services, and to press their cause to the outside world. Indeed, it was one of the most widespread, comprehensive, and sustained nonviolent campaigns since Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence. This was the time for Western powers to have engaged in preventative diplomacy. However, the world chose to ignore the Kosovars’ nonviolent movement and resisted consistent pleas by the moderate Kosovar Albanian leadership to take action. It was only after a shadowy armed group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army emerged in 1998 that the international media, the Clinton administration and other Western governments finally took notice.

By waiting for the emergence of guerrilla warfare before seeking a solution, the West gave Serbia’s autocratic president Slobodan Milosevic the opportunity to crack down with an even greater level of savagery than before. The delay allowed the Kosovar movement to be taken over by armed ultra?nationalists, who have since proven to be far less willing to compromise or guarantee the rights of the Serbian minority. Indeed, the KLA murdered Serb officials and ethnic Albanian moderates, destroyed Serbian villages, and attacked other minority communities, while some among its leadership called for ethnic cleansing in the other direction to create a pure Albanian state. Despite such practices, as well as ties to the international heroin trade, it was KLA’s leadership which came to dominate the subsequent autonomous and now independent Republic of Kosovo.

It’s a tragedy that the West squandered a full eight years when preventative diplomacy could have worked. The United States rejected calls for expanding missions set up by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo, or to bring Kosovo constituencies together for negotiations. Waiting for a full-scale armed insurrection to break out before acting has also given oppressed people around the world a very bad message: Nonviolent methods will fail and, in order to get the West to pay attention to your plight, you need to take up arms.

When Western powers finally began to take decisive action on the long-simmering crisis in the fall of 1998, a ceasefire was arranged where the OSCE sent in unarmed monitors. While the ceasefire didn’t hold, violence did decrease dramatically in areas where they were stationed. Indeed, the OSCE monitors could have done a lot more, but they were given little support. They were largely untrained, they were too few in number and NATO refused to supply them with helicopters, night-vision binoculars or other basic equipment that could have made them more effective.

Ceasefire violations by the Yugoslav army, Serbian militias, and KLA guerrillas increased in the early months of 1999, including a number of atrocities against ethnic Albanians by Serbian units, with apparent acquiescence of government forces. Western diplomatic efforts accelerated, producing the proposal put forward at the Chateau Rambouillet in France, which called for the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the restoration of Kosovo’s autonomous status within a greater Serbia. Such a political settlement was quite reasonable, and the Serbs appeared willing to seriously consider such an agreement. But it was sabotaged by NATO’s insistence that they be allowed to send in a large armed occupation force into Kosovo, along with rights to move freely without permission throughout the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and other measures that infringed on the country’s sovereignty. Another problem was that it was presented essentially as a final document, without much room for negotiations. One of the fundamental principles of international conflict resolution is that all interested parties are part of the peace process. Some outside pressure may be necessary — particularly against the stronger party — to secure an agreement, but it can’t be presented as a fait accompli. This “sign this or we’ll bomb you” attitude also doomed the diplomatic initiative to failure. Few national leaders, particularly a nationalist demagogue like Milosevic, would sign an agreement under such terms, which amount to a treaty of surrender: Allowing foreign forces free reign of your territory and issuing such a proposal as an ultimatum.

Smarter and earlier diplomacy could have prevented the war.

The Bombing Campaign

Many liberals who had opposed U.S. military intervention elsewhere recognized the severity of the ongoing oppression of the Kosovar Albanians and the need to challenge Serbian ethno-fascism, and therefore initially supported the war. Had such military intervention led to an immediate withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and Serbian militias, one could perhaps make a case that, despite the war’s illegality, there was a moral imperative for military action in order to prevent far greater violence. But, as many experts of the region predicted, this wasn’t the case.

The bombing campaign, which began March 24, 1999, clearly made things worse for the Kosovar Albanians. Not only were scores of ethnic Albanians accidentally killed by NATO bombing raids, but the Serbs — unable to respond to NATO air attacks — turned their wrath against the most vulnerable segments of the population: the very Kosovar Albanians NATO claimed it would be defending. While the Serbs may have indeed been planning some sort of large-scale forced removal of the population in areas of KLA infiltration, both the scale and savagery of the Serbian repression that resulted was undoubtedly a direct consequence of NATO actions. Subsequent U.S. claims that the bombing was in response to ethnic cleansing turns the reality on its head.

By forcing the evacuation of the OSCE monitors, which — despite their limitations — were playing something of a deterrent role against the worst Serbian atrocities, NATO gave the Serbs the opportunity to increase their repression. By bombing Yugoslavia, they gave the Serbs nothing to lose. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced from their homes into makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Macedonia.

As the bombing continued, the numbers of Serbian troops in Kosovo increased and the repression of Kosovar Albanians dramatically escalated. Those doing the killing in Kosovo were primarily small paramilitary groups, death squads, and police units that couldn’t have effectively been challenged by high-altitude bombing, and weren’t affected by the destruction of bridges or factories hundreds of miles to the north. If protecting the lives of Kosovar Albanians was really the motivation for the U.S.-led war, President Bill Clinton would have sent in Marine and Special Forces units to battle the Serbian militias directly instead of relying exclusively on air power.

The war against Yugoslavia was illegal. Any such use of force is a violation of the UN Charter unless in self-defense against an armed attack or authorized by the United Nations as an act of collective security. Kosovo was internationally recognized as part of Serbia; it was, legally speaking, an internal conflict. In addition, the democratically elected president of the self-proclaimed, if unrecognized, Kosovar Albanian Republic, Ibrahim Rugova, didn’t request such intervention. Indeed, he opposed it.

The war was also illegal under U.S. law. The Constitution places war-making authority under the responsibility of Congress. While it’s widely recognized that the president, as commander-in-chief, has latitude in short-term emergencies, the 1973 War Powers Act prevents the executive branch from waging war without the express consent of Congress beyond a 60-day period. Only rarely has Congress formally declared war, but it has passed resolutions supporting the use of force, as with the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution concerning Vietnam, the January 1991 approval of the use of force to remove Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait, and the October 2002 authorization for the invasion of Iraq. Clinton, however, received no such congressional approval. That he got away with such a blatant abuse of executive authority marked a dangerous precedent in war-making authority in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The 11-week bombing campaign resulted in the widespread destruction of Yugoslavia’s civilian infrastructure, the killing of many hundreds of civilians, and — as a result of bombing chemical factories, the use of depleted uranium ammunition and more — caused serious environmental damage. Far more Yugoslav civilians died from NATO bombing than did Kosovar Albanian civilians from Serb forces prior to the onset of the bombing. A number of human rights groups that condemned Serbian actions in Kosovo also criticized NATO attacks that, in addition to the more immediate civilian casualties, endangered the health and safety of millions of people by disrupting water supplies, sewage treatment, and medical services.

U.S. Motivations

There are serious questions regarding what actually prompted the United States and NATO to make war on Yugoslavia. While the Serbian nationalism espoused by Milosevic had fascistic elements, and his government and allied militias certainly engaged in serious war crimes throughout the Balkans that decade, comparisons to Hitler were hyperbolic, certainly in terms of the ability to threaten any nation beyond the borders of the old Yugoslavia.

As today, there was civil strife in a number of African countries during this period, resulting in far more deaths and refugees than Serbia’s repression in Kosovo. As a result, some have questioned U.S. double standards towards intervention such as why the United States didn’t intervene in far more serious humanitarian crises, particularly in Rwanda in 1994, where there clearly was an actual genocide in progress.

But a more salient question is why the United States has never been held accountable for when it has intervened — in support of the oppressors. In recent decades, the U.S. government provided military, economic, and diplomatic support of Indonesia’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, and of Guatemala’s slaughter of many tens of thousands of its indigenous people.

While Clinton tried to justify the war by declaring that repression and ethnic cleansing must not be allowed to happen “on NATO’s doorstep,” he was not only quite willing to allow for comparable repression to take place within NATO itself, but actively supported it: During the 1990s, Turkey’s denial of the Kurds’ linguistic and cultural rights, rejection of their demands of autonomy, destruction of thousands of villages, killing of thousands of civilians and forced removal of hundreds of thousands bore striking resemblance to Serbia’s repression in Kosovo. Yet the Clinton administration, with bipartisan congressional support, continued to arm the Turkish military and defended its repression.

Such questions necessarily raise uncharitable speculation about what might have actually motivated the United States to lead such a military action. For some advocates of U.S. military intervention, there was no doubt some genuine humanitarian concern, which — unlike many other cases around the world — support for those being oppressed didn’t conflict with overriding U.S. strategic or economic prerogatives. There may have been other forces at work, however, which saw the use of force as advantageous for other reasons than a sincere, if misplaced, hope of assuaging a humanitarian crisis.

For example, the war created a raison d’être for the continued existence of NATO in a post-Cold War world, as it desperately tried to justify its continued existence and desire for expansion (This resulted in a kind of circular logic however: NATO was still needed to fight in wars like Yugoslavia, yet the war needed to be continued in order to preserve NATO’s credibility.).

The war also benefitted influential weapons manufacturers, leading to an increase in U.S. military spending by more than $13 billion, largely for weapons systems that most strategic analysts and even the Pentagon said weren’t needed. This came on top of an increase in military spending passed before the onset of the war (By contrast, aid from the United States to help with the refugee crisis was very limited, and efforts by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees were severely hampered by lack of funds, in large part a result of the refusal by the United States to pay more than $1 billion in dues it then owed to the UN, equivalent to approximately one week of bombing.).

Whatever its actual motivations, why would the United States lead NATO into a long, drawn-out war with no guarantee of fulfilling its objectives, given the real political risks involved? Much of the problem may have been that of arrogance. There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the Clinton administration falsely assumed the threat of bombing would lead to a last-minute capitulation by Milosevic, but, having made the threat, felt obligated to follow through.

Even after the bombing began and Finnish and Russian mediators began working on a ceasefire agreement, greater U.S. flexibility regarding Serbian concerns could have brought the war to an end much sooner. What a number of NATO members suggested, but the Clinton administration refused to consider, was to agree that the postwar peacekeeping force in Kosovo be placed under the control of the UN or the OSCE. Instead, the United States insisted that peacekeeping should be a NATO operation.

This effectively would have forced the nationalistic Serbs into accepting demands that a part of their country effectively be placed under occupation by the same military alliance that attacked them. As a result, despite suffering ongoing death and destruction, the Serbs continued fighting. The Clinton administration, meanwhile, seemed more intent on dominating the postwar order politically and militarily than agreeing to a ceasefire which could have prevented further bloodshed and allowed refugees to return sooner.

Eventually, a compromise was reached whereby the peacekeeping troops sent into Kosovo following a Serb withdrawal would primarily consist of NATO forces, but under UN command.

Perhaps the greatest myth of the war was that the Serbs surrendered and NATO won. In reality, not only was there a compromise on the makeup of postwar peacekeeping forces, but the final peace agreement also omitted the most objectionable sections of the Rambouillet proposal and more closely resembled the counter-proposal put forward by the Serbian parliament prior to the bombing. In other words, rather than being a NATO victory as it has been repeatedly portrayed by Washington and much of the American media, it was at best a draw.

Ramifications of the War

The war had serious consequences besides death and destruction in Serbia and Kosovo. One of the original justifications was to prevent a broader war, yet it was the bombing campaign that destabilized the region to a greater degree than Milosevic’s campaign of repression. It emboldened ethnic Albanian chauvinists, not just in Kosovo where they have come to dominate, but in the neighboring country of Macedonia and its restive ethnic Albanian minority, which has twice taken up arms in the past 10 years against the Slavic majority.

At the NATO summit in April 1999, the member states approved a structure for “non-Article 5 crisis response,” essentially a euphemism for war (Article 5 of the NATO charter provides for collective self-defense; non-Article 5 refers to an offensive military action like Yugoslavia.). According to the document, such an action could take place anywhere on the broad periphery of NATO’s realm, such as North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, essentially paving the way for NATO’s ongoing war in Afghanistan. This expanded role for NATO wasn’t approved by any of the respective countries’ legislatures, raising serious questions about democratic civilian control over military alliances.

Furthermore, the U.S.-led NATO war on Yugoslavia helped undermine the United Nations Charter and thereby paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, perhaps the most flagrant violation of the international legal order by a major power since World War II.

The occupation by NATO troops of Serbia’s autonomous Kosovo region, and the subsequent recognition of Kosovar independence by the United States and a number of Western European powers, helped provide Russia with an excuse to maintain its large military presence in Georgia’s autonomous South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, and to recognize their unilateral declarations of independence. This, in turn, led to last summer’s war between Russia and Georgia.

Indeed, much of the tense relations between the United States and Russia over the past decade can be traced to the 1999 war on Yugoslavia. Russia was quite critical of Serbian actions in Kosovo and supported the non-military aspects of the Rambouillet proposals, yet was deeply disturbed by this first military action waged by NATO. Indeed, the war resulted in unprecedented Russian anger towards the United States, less out of some vague sense of pan-Slavic solidarity, but more because it was seen as an act of aggression against a sovereign nation. The Russians had assumed NATO would dissolve at the end of the Cold War. Instead, not only has NATO expanded, it went to war over an internal dispute in a Slavic Eastern European country. This stoked the paranoid fear of many Russian nationalists that NATO may find an excuse to intervene in Russia itself. While in reality this is extremely unlikely, the history of invasions from the West no doubt strengthened the hold of Vladimir Putin and other semi-autocratic nationalists, setting back reform efforts, political liberalization, and disarmament.

The war also had political repercussions here in the United States. On Capitol Hill, it created what became known as an “aviary conundrum,” where traditional hawks became doves and doves became hawks. It provided a precedent of Democratic lawmakers supporting an illegal war and allowing for extraordinary executive power to wage war, with which the Bush administration was able to fully take advantage in leading the country into its debacle in Iraq.

The presence of large-scale human rights abuses, as was occurring in Kosovo under Serb rule, shouldn’t force concerned citizens in the United States and other countries into the false choice of supporting war and doing nothing. This tragic conflict should further prove that, moral and legal arguments aside, military force is a very blunt and not very effective instrument to promote human rights, and that bloated military budgets and archaic military alliances aren’t the way to bring peace and security. As long as such “conflict resolution” efforts are placed exclusively in the hands of governments, there will be a propensity towards war. Only when global civil society seizes the initiative and recognizes the power of strategic nonviolent action, and the necessity of preventative diplomacy, can there be hope that such conflicts can be resolved peacefully.