A “Progressive Hero?” Time to Think Outside of the Boxer

The failure of progressives to make major inroads in electoral politics in the United States today could not be better illustrated than a recent decision by Democracy for America, a million-member political action committee founded by former Vermont governor Howard Dean which claims leadership in the support for progressive candidates for office, regarding a veteran U.S. senator facing reelection in November.

The senator has strongly defended Israeli attacks on civilian population centers in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Lebanon and has categorically rejected calls for linking the billions of dollars in U.S. aid to human rights considerations. The senator has attacked reputable human rights organizations and leading international jurists for daring to document war crimes committed by Israeli forces (in addition to those committed by militant Islamists.) The senator has openly challenged the International Court of Justice on the universality of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, co-sponsoring a Senate resolution attacking the World Court’s landmark 2004 decision. The senator has led the effort in the Senate to undermine President Obama’s efforts to halt the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, insisting that Obama refrain from openly challenging Israel’s right-wing government to suspend its illegal colonization drive. The senator has attacked supporters of nuclear nonproliferation for calling on Israel to join virtually every other country in the world in signing the NPT. The senator has endorsed Israel’s illegal annexation of greater East Jerusalem and expansion of settlements in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, as well as Israel’s construction of a separation barrier deep inside the occupied West Bank to facilitate their annexation into Israel and virtually eliminate the possibility of the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. The senator defended Israel’s illegal attack in international waters of a humanitarian aid flotilla, even after a United Nations investigation revealed that five people on board, including a 19-year old U.S. citizen, were murdered execution-style. Indeed, this senator has consistently sided with Israel’s right wing government against those in both the United States and Israel working for peace and human rights.

How did Democracy for America respond to the senator’s reelection campaign? Not only did they give her their enthusiastic endorsement, they gave her the coveted honor of “Progressive Hero of 2010.” The senator, Barbara Boxer of California, has for years angered progressives here by her strident position in support of some of the most militaristic tendencies in Israel.

There was a time — such as during the Vietnam War or during U.S. military intervention in Central America in the 1980s and the Vietnam War earlier — that such callous disregard for human rights and international law would have exempted a member of Congress from ever getting an endorsement from a major progressive organization, much less such an exemplary designation, however progressive their domestic agenda may have been. For example, during their long Senate careers, Democratic senators like Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson took leadership on such progressive causes as civil rights, labor, and the environment, but they were widely despised among grassroots Democrats for their outspoken support for the Vietnam War.

Indeed, imagine if, during the 1980s, Barbara Boxer had taken positions on Central America comparable to her current positions in the Middle East: supporting billions of dollars worth of unconditional military aid to the rightist Salvadoran junta and the Nicaraguan Contras; attacking Amnesty International and the United Nations for documenting human rights abuses by these U.S. allies; attacking the World Court for its ruling against the U.S. war on Nicaragua; or, defending the murder of humanitarian aid workers by U.S.-backed force. Democrats who did support the Reagan administration’s policies — who became known as “Death Squad Democrats” — were subjected to widespread protests by their constituents and were challenged by progressives in the primaries and by progressive third party opponents in general elections.

Nowadays, however, so-called “progressive” organizations like Democracy for America seem to care little about the fate of people of color in faraway lands. There simply isn’t much concern if an influential senator on the foreign relations committee defends those who use white phosphorous, cluster munitions and other illegal weapons against civilian neighborhoods and defames conscientious supporters of human rights who speak up for the rights of non-combatants. For groups like Democracy for America, support for the international legal conventions which arose from the ashes of World War II are apparently not that important.

U.S. policy toward Israel and its neighbors has traditionally been a weak spot for many otherwise liberal senators. Indeed, Russ Feingold, Patty Murray, Harry Reid, and a number of other Democrats facing tough reelection fights this year have, like Boxer, alienated many in the peace and human rights community by their support for the militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. According to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli occupation and other groups opposing U.S. support for Israel’s rightist government, however, Boxer is tied with lame duck Senator Evan Bayh as having the most right-wing record of any Democrat in the Senate. Even more significantly, only about a half dozen Republicans are as bad as Boxer; none are worse.

And she does not embrace such a hard-line militarist position due to pressure from her ethnically diverse and relatively liberal California constituency. While an overwhelming majority of Democrats still strongly support Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, there is growing unease at unconditional support for Israeli policies which have violated international legal norms, jeopardized the peace process and resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of innocent civilians. Polls show most Democrats — including Jewish Democrats — oppose the hard-line Netanyahu government’s policies (a trend particularly strong among younger voters), while most Americans who support the current right-wing Israeli leadership are voting Republican anyway.

Indeed, just as the Iraq War made it easier for Democratic voters to recognize that one can be a patriotic American and still oppose the United States invading and occupying an Arab nation, it is also increasingly clear that one can oppose similar Israeli policies and still support the state of Israel. There is also a growing awareness that just as such militaristic U.S. policies have hurt our strategic interests in the region, similar Israeli policies are threatening that country’s legitimate security needs as well.

Unfortunately, California’s senior senator has a hard time recognizing this. And Democracy for America — along with MoveOn and number of other supposedly progressive organizations — doesn’t seem to have a problem with backing those who support the self-destructive policies of Netanyahu, though they would refuse to support those who backed the same kinds of policies under Bush.

Indeed, Democracy for America, MoveOn, and others who are so enthusiastic about Boxer, Feingold, Murray and other Democratic hawks are not unlike Bush supporters: They are so enamored with their candidate that they ignore the reality of their policies. Their candidate supports illegal invasions of Muslim nations at the cost of thousands of lives? No problem. Their candidate attacks the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and other international bodies which try to enforce international humanitarian law? No problem. Their candidate repeatedly makes demonstrably false claims in order to justify illegal military operations? No problem. Their candidate tries to discredit Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, and leading international jurists for publishing empirical studies which counter the lies she spews out in trying to justify the war crimes of foreign right-wing governments? No problem.

This does not mean that, with so much at stake this election year, that progressive organizations should necessarily endorse third party candidates and allow Republicans to win critical races. Indeed, it is important to recognize that the Republican nominee challenging Senator Boxer is no better regarding Middle East peace. For example, at a recent event in Los Angeles, Carly Fiorina declared, “We must stand up unequivocally and declare that Israel is our most important friend and ally in the Middle East and that we will stand with her always no matter what” the right-wing government might do. Like Boxer, she criticized the administration for joining the rest of the international community in calling for a moratorium on the expansion of Israel’s illegal colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank.

The problem is that one of the most right-wing members of the Senate on one of the most critical foreign policy issues of the day is labeled a “progressive hero” rather than the lesser evil that she is.

Yes, “evil” is a strong word. But what else can you call defending the mass murder of Lebanese and Palestinian children? Or allocating unconditionally billions of our tax dollars every year to provide the weapons and ordinance for the murderers? Or opposing restrictions on the export of cluster bombs to countries which use them against heavily populated areas? Or criticizing the UN and other international bodies simply for trying to fulfill their mandates to enforce international law? Or attacking prominent jurists and human rights workers for documenting war crimes she denies ever took place? Or claiming that the murder and beatings of humanitarian aid volunteers in international waters constitutes legitimate self-defense?

Indeed, when it comes to this critical issue in foreign affairs, Boxer is closer to her right-wing Senate colleague Jim DeMint (R-SC) than she is to the liberal Pat Leahy (D-VT), closer to the fundamentalist Christians United for Israel than the liberal Churches for Middle East Peace, closer to the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation than the liberal Institute for Policy Studies, and closer to the rightist American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) than the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now.

This is not about the supposed power of “the Israel Lobby.” Any right-wing lobby will appear all-powerful if there is no progressive counter-lobby. Boxer takes the positions she does not because AIPAC forces here to do so against her will, but because she can get progressives to campaign for her, donate money to her, and vote for her anyway regardless of her contempt for human rights and international law. She and other right-wing Democrats will not change unless and until liberal groups stop labeling them “progressive heroes.” Peace and human rights activists in the 1980s ended US support for the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadoran junta by refusing to support Democrats who, like Boxer, defended war crimes by right-wing allies and trashed human rights activists who exposed them. As a result, a number of them lost their re-election campaign and were replaced in the subsequent election by progressives, while others, fearing the same fate, changed their positions.

Progressives routinely find themselves having to support candidates who are less than perfect. Indeed, no one can support perfection under the current system. However, it is profoundly disappointing that, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, there are still prominent Democrats who do refuse to respect the Fourth Geneva Convention and other basic tenets of international law, such as the UN Charter’s recognition of the inadmissibility of any country expanding its territory through military force. You can’t get more fundamental than that. Indeed, that principle is the foundation of the post-WWII international legal system, which Boxer appears to be doing her damndest to undermine. In short, progressives here in California who refuse to back Boxer are not “single-issue” voters, for this is not about a single issue: these are fundamental principles at the heart of international law and human rights.

And, however one may choose to vote in the California Senate race come November, to label Barbara Boxer as the “progressive hero of 2010” is just plain wrong.

Congress Defends Murder of American Peace Activist and Other War Crimes

Despite revelations from a detailed investigation by a special commission of the United Nations Human Rights Council confirming that Israel committed war crimes, the overwhelming majority of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress remain on record defending the Israeli attack as legitimate self-defense. This is particularly striking given evidence presented in the report that five of the nine people killed, including a 19-year-old US citizen, were murdered – shot execution-style by Israeli commandos.

In a letter to President Barack Obama dated June 17, 329 out of 435 members of the US House of Representatives announced that they “strongly support” Israel’s May 31 attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers and crew and injuries to scores of others. Similarly, a June 21 Senate letter – signed by 87 out of 100 senators – went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense.”

The House letter insisted that “Israeli forces used necessary force as an act of self-defense and of last resort.” Similarly, the Senate letter refers to the murders of passengers and crew resisting the illegal boarding of their vessel in international waters as a situation where the Israeli raiders were “forced to respond to that attack” when they “arrived” on the ship.

If these members of Congress believe that a foreign government has the right to murder an American peace activist on the high seas, it inevitably raises questions as to how they might react to the murder of peace activists by local, state or the federal government here at home.

There were other troubling aspects of these letters as well.

The House letter urged President Obama “to remain steadfast in defense of Israel” in the face of the near universal international condemnation of this blatant violation of international maritime law and other legal statutes, which the signatories referred to as “a rush to unfairly judge and condemn Israel.” The Senate letter condemned the near unanimous vote of the UN Human Rights Council for what it called “singling out” Israel, even though no other country in recent memory has attacked a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters. Both letters called upon the United States to veto any resolution in the UN Security Council criticizing the Israeli attack.

The Senate letter also claimed that the widely supported effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”

Many of the key arguments in the letters were misleading and, in some cases, factually inaccurate.

The Israeli government had acknowledged prior to the writing of the letter that the extensive blockade of humanitarian goods was not necessary for their security, but as a means of pressuring the civilian population to end their support for Hamas, which won a majority of legislative seats in the most recent Palestinian election. In addition, the Israeli government announced a significant relaxation of the embargo two days after the letter was written. Despite this, the House letter claimed that the purpose of the blockade was “to stop terrorists from smuggling weapons to kill innocent civilians,” thereby placing this large bipartisan majority of the House even further to the right than Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s rightist coalition.

There was no mention in the letter than no such weapons were found on board any of the six ships hijacked by the Israelis nor on the previous eight ships the Free Gaza Campaign had sailed or attempted to sail to the Gaza Strip. In addition, even though the ships had been thoroughly inspected by customs officials prior to their disembarkation, the House letter claimed that had the Israelis not hijacked the ships, they would have “sailed unchecked into Gaza.”

Similarly, according to the Senate letter, Israel’s naval blockade was necessary “to keep dangerous goods from entering Gaza by sea” and falsely claimed that the intent of the Israeli blockade was “to protect Israel, while allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.” Particularly striking is the fact that, despite that the International Committee of the Red Cross and a broad consensus of international legal experts recognize that the Israeli blockade of humanitarian goods is illegal, the Senate letter insisted that the blockade “is legal under international law.”

The House letter also claimed that the other ships were “commandeered peacefully and without incident,” even though on the other ships, despite completely nonviolent resistance, passengers were tasered and brutally beaten and were attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets. Similarly, the Senate letter insisted that, in spite of these potentially fatal beatings and other assaults, “Israeli forces were able to safely divert five of the six ships challenging the blockade.”

Even though the Israeli government has never entered Gaza to disperse aid to the people of that territory since the start of the siege years earlier and reputable relief organizations have documented that the Israelis had routinely refused to allow humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, these House members claimed that Israel had offered to “disperse the aid … directly to the people of Gaza.” And, despite the fact that the five aid ships that Israel had allowed to dock in Gaza in previous months had distributed their humanitarian cargo directly to those in need, the senators claimed that it would have otherwise gone “into the hands of corrupt Gaza officials.”

Learning what actually transpired in the tragic incident was apparently of little interest to the 87 senators who signed the letter defending the attack. Despite the whitewash in the internal Israeli investigation, the senate letter supported Israel’s alleged intention to carry out “a thorough investigation of the incident,” insisting that Israel “has the right to determine how its investigation is conducted.” This comes in spite of a public opinion poll that showed a clear majority of Americans – including 65 percent of Democrats – favored an international inquiry over allowing Israel alone to investigate the circumstances of the attack.

Senate Again Undermines Obama’s Middle-East Peace Efforts

Once again, as President Barack Obama began pressuring the right-wing Israeli government to freeze the expansion of its illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, leading Congressional Democrats have joined in with Republicans to try to stop him.

Recognizing that increased Israeli colonization on occupied Palestinian land would seriously threaten the viability of an independent Palestinian state that could emerge from the peace talks and thereby make the process worthless, and recognizing that he would lose any popular mandate to continue negotiations under such conditions, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to withdraw from the negotiating table. As a result, Obama has been trying to get the rightist Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to extend the partial freeze on new construction of the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank.

In an apparent effort to undermine administration’s efforts, Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Robert Casey joined with Republican senators Johnny Isakson and Richard Burr in preparing a letter to President Obama that criticizes Abbas’ threat to withdraw from the talks while completely ignoring the threatened resumption of Netanyahu’s illegal colonization drive that would prompt it. According to the letter, “…it is critical that all sides stay at the table. Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started.”

There is no mention in the letter that Netanyahu should abide by commitments of previous Israeli governments to freeze the settlement drive nor is there any mention of the five UN Security Council resolutions and the 2004 World Court decision calling on Israel to withdraw from the already-existing settlements. Instead, they praise the right wing prime minister for “not abandon(ing) the talks.”

It appears that Boxer and the other initiators of the letter decided that rather than emphasize the importance of both sides refraining from taking actions that would undermine the credibility of the negotiations, they were determined to put the U.S. Senate on record putting all the blame for the possible collapse of the talks on the Palestinians and none on the Israelis.

In response to international calls for pressure on Israel to live up to its international legal obligations to withdraw from Palestinian territories seized in the June 1967 war in return for security guarantees, the letter also insists that the United States “not to attempt to impose an agreement on the two parties,” and – despite the gross asymmetry in power between the Israeli occupiers and the Palestinians under occupation – that a peace settlement must be “embraced by both sides.”

The letter was strongly criticized by the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now and praised by the right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC.)

Back in April, Boxer and Isakson initiated another letter, which was signed by 76 senators (half of whom were Democrats), to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implicitly rebuking President Obama for challenging Israel on its illegal settlements, insisting that “differences are best resolved amicably and in a manner that befits longstanding strategic allies.” The letter, which criticized the Palestinians for conditioning talks on a settlement freeze, insisted that “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel.”

Ironically, despite the efforts of senators like Boxer, Russ Feingold, Patty Murray and others who have signed such letters to undermine President Obama’s peace efforts in the Middle East, liberal groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn have recently been praising Boxer, Feingold, Murray, and other signatories as “progressive heroes” deserving support for their re-election.

It is hard to get excited about defeating Republican challengers, however, when incumbent Democrats embrace the same right-wing foreign policy and try to undermine President Obama when he tries to do something right.

Arming the Saudis

The Pentagon has announced a $60 billion arms package to the repressive family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale of its kind in history. Rejecting the broad consensus of arms control advocates that the Middle East is too militarized already and that the Saudis already possess military capabilities well in excess of their legitimate security needs, the Obama administration is effectively insisting that this volatile region does not yet have enough armaments and that the United States must send even more.

According to reports, Washington is planning to sell 84 new F-15 fighters and three types of helicopters: 72 Black Hawks, 70 Apaches and 36 Little Birds. There are also reports of naval missile-defense upgrades in the works.

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

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

The Iranian Rationalization

The ostensible reason for the proposed arms packages is to counter Iran’s growing military procurement in recent years, though Iranian military spending is actually substantially less than it was 25 years ago. Furthermore, Iran’s current military buildup is based primarily on the perceived need to respond to the threatened US attack against that country, a concern made all the more real by the US invasion and occupation of two countries bordering Iran on both its east and west in recent years.

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

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

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

Rather than respond to these setbacks by further militarization, the Obama administration should, instead, seriously re-evaluate its counterproductive propensity to try to resolve Middle Eastern security concerns primarily through military means. Instead of meeting the legitimate defensive needs of America’s allies, the proposed deal is yet another arrogant assertion of American military hegemony. As US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put it in 2007 in response to a previous arms package to the Saudis, such weapons transfers “say to the Iranians and Syrians that the United States is the major power in the Middle East and will continue to be and is not going away.”

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

There is also the possibility that, as with Iran following the 1979 revolution, US arms provided to the Saudis could end up in the hands of radical anti-American forces should the government be overthrown. The Saudi regime is even more repressive than Iran’s in terms of its treatment of women, gays, religious minorities and political dissidents. Indeed, seeing their countries’ wealth squandered on unnecessary weapons systems pushed on them by the US government and suffering under their despotic rulers kept in power in large part through such military support are major causes of the growing appeal of anti-American extremism among the people of the Middle East.

More Arms, Less Security

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

As Robert Vitalis, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, looking at the history of US arms transfers to the Saudi royal family, observed:

If the billions have not been useful to the Saudis, they were a gold mine for Congresspersons compelled to cast pro-Saudi votes, along with cabinet officials and party leaders worried about the economy of key states and electoral districts. To the extent that the regime faces politically destabilizing cutbacks in social spending, a proximate cause is the strong bipartisan push for arms exports to the Gulf as a means to bolster the sagging fortunes of key constituents and regions — the ‘gun belt’ — that represents the domestic face of internationalism.
These military expenditures place a major toll on the fiscal well-being of Middle Eastern countries. Military expenditures often total half of central government outlays. Many senior observers believe that debt financing in Saudi Arabia that has been used in the past to finance arms purchases has threatened the kingdom’s fragile social pact of distributing oil rents to favored constituents and regions.

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

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

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