Upsurge in repression challenges nonviolent resistance in Western Sahara

On November 8, Moroccan occupation forces attacked a tent city of as many as 12,000 Western Saharans just outside of Al Aioun, in the culminating act of a months-long protest of discrimination against the indigenous Sahrawi population and worsening economic conditions. Not only was the scale of the crackdown unprecedented, so was the popular reaction: In a dramatic departure from the almost exclusively nonviolent protests of recent years, the local population turned on their occupiers, engaging in widespread rioting and arson. As of this writing, the details of these events are unclear, but they underscore the urgent need for global civil society to support those who have been struggling nonviolently for their right of self-determination and to challenge western governments which back the regime responsible for the repression.

Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated nation located on the Atlantic coast of northwestern Africa. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the land was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975. Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence under the leadership of the Polisario, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania. Under pressure from the United States, which did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power, Spain reneged on its promise for a referendum and instead agreed to partition the territory between the pro-Western countries of Morocco and Mauritania.

As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, most of the population fled to refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination. The United States and France, meanwhile, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the UN from enforcing them. Meanwhile, the Polisario – which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country – declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Thanks in part to the Algerians providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies. Mauritania was defeated by 1979, agreeing to turn their third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed that remaining southern part of the country as well.

The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and, by 1982, had liberated nearly 85% of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war was reversed in Morocco’s favor thanks to dramatic increases in American and French support for the Moroccan war effort, with U.S. forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counter-insurgency tactics and helping with the construction of a wall which kept the Polisario out of most of their country. Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining Sahrawis indigenous to the territory by a ratio of more than 2:1.

A cease fire in 1991 was part of an agreement that would have allowed for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, due to Moroccan insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens that it claimed had tribal links to Western Sahara. To break the stalemate, the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2004 which would allow Moroccan settlers to also vote in the referendum following five years of autonomy. Morocco, however, rejected this proposal too, with the apparent reassurance that the French and Americans would yet again threaten to veto any resolution imposing sanctions or other pressures on them to compromise.

Unarmed popular resistance

As happened during the 1980s in both South Africa and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, the locus of the Western Sahara freedom struggle shifted from the military and diplomatic initiatives of an exiled armed movement to a largely unarmed popular resistance from within, as young activists in the occupied territory and even in Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco confronted Moroccan troops in street demonstrations and other forms of nonviolent action, despite the risk of shootings, mass arrests, and torture. Sahrawis from different sectors of society have engaged in protests, strikes, cultural celebrations, and other forms of civil resistance focused on such issues as educational policy, human rights, the release of political prisoners, and the right to self-determination. They also raised the cost of occupation for the Moroccan government and increased the visibility of the Sahrawi cause. Indeed, perhaps most significantly, civil resistance helped to build support for the Sahrawi movement among international NGO’s, solidarity groups and even sympathetic Moroccans.

Internet communication became a key element in the Saharawi movement, with public chat rooms evolving as vital centres for sending messages, as breaking news regarding the burgeoning resistance campaign reached those in the Saharawi diaspora and among international activists. Despite attempts by the Moroccans to disrupt these contacts, the diaspora has continued to provide financial and other support to the resistance. Though there have been complaints from inside the territory that support for their movement by the older generation of Polisario leaders was inadequate, the Polisario appears to have recognized that by having signed a cease-fire and then having had Morocco reject the diplomatic solution expected in return, it has essentially played all its cards. So there was a growing recognition that the only real hope for independence has to come from within the occupied territory in combination with solidarity efforts from global civil society. There have been some small victories, such as the successful campaign which led to Sahrawi nonviolent resistance leader Aminatou Haidar securing the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, as well as forcing Moroccan authorities to reverse their expulsion order in December 2009, which resulted in her near-fatal 30-day hunger strike.

After Moroccan authorities’ use of force to break up the large and prolonged demonstrations in 2005 -2006, the resistance subsequently opted mainly for smaller protests, some of which were planned and some of which were spontaneous. A typical protest would begin on a street corner or a plaza where a Sahrawi flag would be unfurled, women would start ululating, and people would begin chanting pro-independence slogans. Within a few minutes, soldiers and police would arrive, and the crowd would quickly scatter. Other tactics have included leafleting, graffiti (including tagging the homes of collaborators), and cultural celebrations with political overtones. Such nonviolent actions, while broadly supported by the people, appear to have been less a part of coordinated resistance than a result of action by individuals. Still, the Moroccan government’s regular use of violent repression to subdue the Sahrawi-led nonviolent protests suggests that civil resistance is seen as a threat to Moroccan control.

One of the obstacles to the internal resistance is that Moroccan settlers outnumber the indigenous population by a ratio of more than 2:1 and by more in the major cities, making certain tactics used effectively in similar struggles more problematic. For example, although a general strike could be effective, the large number of Moroccan settlers, combined with the minority of indigenous Sahrawis who oppose independence, could likely fill the void resulting from the absence of much of the Sahrawi workforce. Although that might be alleviated by growing pro-independence sentiments among ethnic Sahrawi settlers from the southern part of Morocco, it still presents challenges that have not been faced by largely nonviolent struggles in other occupied lands – among them East Timor, Kosovo, and the Palestinian territories.

A shift in Morocco’s strategy

Despite this, civil resistance also appears to have forced a shift in Morocco’s strategy to maintain control of the mineral-rich territory. Although the Moroccan autonomy plan for the territory put forward in 2006 does not meaningfully address Morocco’s legal responsibility to recognize the Sahrawi’s right of self-determination (see my Open Democracy article More Harm Than Good), it nevertheless constitutes a reversal of Morocco’s historical insistence that Western Sahara is as much a part of Morocco as other provinces by acknowledging that it is indeed a distinct entity. Protests in Western Sahara in recent years have begun to raise some awareness within Morocco, especially among intellectuals, human rights activists, pro-democracy groups, and some moderate Islamists – long suspicious of the government line in a number of areas – that not all Sahrawis see themselves as Moroccans and that there exists a genuine indigenous opposition to Moroccan rule.

In the occupied territory, Moroccan colonists and collaborators are given preference for housing and employment and the indigenous people receive virtually no benefits from their country’s rich fisheries and phosphate deposits. In response, a new tactic emerged late this summer, as Sahrawi activists erected the tent city about 15 kilometers outside of El Aioun, the former colonial capital and largest city in the occupied territory. Since any protests calling for self-determination, independence, or enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions are brutally suppressed, the demonstrators pointedly avoided such provocative calls, instead simply demanding economic justice. Even this was too much for the Moroccan monarchy, however, which was determined to crush this nonviolent act of mass defiance. The Moroccans tightened the siege in early October, attacking vehicles bringing food, water and medical supplies to the camp, resulting in scores of injuries and the death of a 14-year old boy. Finally, on November 8, the Moroccans attacked the camp, driving protesters out with tear gas and hoses, beating those who did not flee fast enough, setting off rioting and triggering the burning and pillaging of Sahrawis homes and shops, with occupation forces shooting or arresting suspected activists, hundreds of whom disappeared after the outbreak of violence.

Morocco has been able to persist in flouting its international legal obligations toward Western Sahara largely because France and the United States have continued to arm Moroccan occupation forces and blocked the enforcement of resolutions in the UN Security Council demanding that Morocco allow for self-determination or even simply the stationing of unarmed human rights monitors in the occupied country. So now, at least as important as nonviolent resistance by Sahrawis is the potential of nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States, and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing Australia, Great Britain, and the United States to end their support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

Despite 35 years of exile, war, repression and international neglect, Sahrawi nationalism is at least as strong within the younger generation as their elders, as is their will to resist. How soon they will succeed in their struggle for self-determination, however, may well rest on such acts of international solidarity by global civil society.

Interview: Zunes on Western Sahara

From the Democracy Now! site:

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, I want to thank you for being with us, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, speaking to us from Laâyoune in Western Sahara.

We’re also joined by Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, co-author of a new book called Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

Professor Zunes, thank you for being with us. Start off by putting this all in a context. Again, as I asked Peter Bouckaert, most people don’t even know this is taking place, that there is this conflict and occupation.

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, we’re looking at a situation that bears striking parallels to East Timor: on the verge of decolonization from a minor colonial power, the large neighbor came and gobbled up the country, with the United Nations Security Council, along with the International Court of Justice, ruled that this takeover was illegal, called for Morocco’s withdrawal, but Morocco, like Indonesia, had some powerful friends on the UN Security Council, including the United States, which has blocked the world bodies from enforcing their mandates. And so, in fact, the invasion took place just six weeks prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, in November of 1975. So, for more than 35 years, the people of Western Sahara have been suffering under a foreign military occupation.

For the first 15 years, there was an armed struggle led by the Polisario Front, and a ceasefire came to pass in 1991 in return for a United Nations-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. But the Moroccans, recognizing they would lose such a referendum, have prevented it from taking place. And again, with the backing of the United States and France and the Security Council, the UN has been powerless to enforce its mandate.

Just a few years ago, the people of Western Sahara started what they refer to as “Intifada Istiqlal,” Intifada for Independence, an overwhelmingly nonviolent struggle using the classic techniques of strategic nonviolent actions—strikes, boycotts, protests and the like—only to be met by increased Moroccan repression. And so, you have an irony of here you have a movement, which incidentally is—the most prominent leader of which is a woman, Aminatou Haidar. Here we have an Arab Muslim country engaged in nonviolent struggle to build a democracy and women’s rights, a very kind of a nation that Western countries say they want to see in the Arab and Islamic world, and yet we’re supporting this autocratic monarchy and crushing this nonviolent resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe what’s happening at the United Nations right now, the talks that are taking place and who the Polisario are.

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, the Polisario is recognized as the government of Western Sahara. In fact, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was declared upon—not long after the withdrawal of Spanish colonialist forces, has been recognized by more than 70 nations. They’re a full-member state of the African Union. They have been engaged in these peace talks with Morocco. The Polisario is pushing for the Moroccans to allow for a free and fair referendum, choosing between independence or to become integrated in Morocco, as the United Nations and the World Court have mandated. However, the Moroccans, backed by the French and formerly by the Bush administration—the Obama administration has been a little more ambivalent on this—have instead pushed for a so-called autonomy agreement, where a certain—a very limited degree of autonomy would be granted to the people of Western Sahara, but Morocco would essentially stay in power. It would not grant them the option independence, which is legally necessary for a true act of self-determination.

AMY GOODMAN: And how this occupation has been able to go on for as long as it has?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, again, to use the East Timor analogy, it’s legally and morally, and almost in any other way you want to look at it, the people of Western Sahara do have the right to self-determination. But Morocco has the guns, has the occupation forces. Indeed, you know, I’ve been to 60 countries around the world, including Indonesia under Suharto and Iraq under Saddam, and I’ve never seen a worse police state than I have seen in the occupied Western Sahara. But the main reason is the continued support by France and the United States of Morocco. And I think, frankly, the only real hope for Western Sahara is what we saw in East Timor, that an international solidarity movement, that global civil society will come together and essentially shame the Western governments that are continuing to back Morocco into ending this kind of unconditional support and allow for a true act of self-determination to take place.

AMY GOODMAN: The military relationship the U.S. has with Morocco and what exactly it could do?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Well, there have been very close ties between the United States and Morocco for quite a few years. During the Cold War, the monarchy was seen as a bulwark against communism and against left-leaning Arab nationalism. In more recent years, they’re seen as an ally in the so-called war on terrorism. It was massive U.S. military aid during the Reagan administration, including the use of U.S. Special Forces on the ground, that reversed the war that had been almost won by the Polisario. They liberated 85 percent of the country by 1981, but the Moroccans, with U.S. and French support, were able to beat back the Polisario, so now the Moroccans occupy 80 percent of the country.

And subsequently, the financial and diplomatic and military assistance of Morocco has enabled the occupying forces to keep a tight lid on the territory and suppress even nonviolent protest. I mean, there was hope that the protest camps, knowing if they’d said anything about independence, would be subjected to severe repression, limited their demands to pressing social and economic issues. But apparently even that was too much for the Moroccans, and we have seen the savage repression over the past week that has unfolded.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Zunes, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of politics and international studies and chair of the Middle Eastern Studies at University of San Francisco. He’s co-author of a new book called Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.

New Arms Deal to Israel Stokes Militarism

The recently announced deal for the United States to provide Israel with 20 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets marks yet another blow for arms control advocates and those who had hoped the Obama administration would resist continuing with the Bush administration’s policy of further militarizing the Middle East. Once again rejecting calls from the peace and human rights community to link arms transfers to adherence to human rights and international law, the $2.75 billion deal is one of the largest arms procurements by the state of Israel. This is the first part of a series of US taxpayer-funded arms transfers to Israel that is expected to total more than $30 billion over the next decade.

In the wake of Israel’s massive assault on heavily populated civilian areas of the Gaza Strip last year, Amnesty International called for the United States to suspend military aid to Israel on human rights grounds. Amnesty has also called for the United Nations to impose a mandatory arms embargo on both Hamas and the Israeli government. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama refused to heed Amnesty’s call.

During the fighting just prior to Obama assuming office, Amnesty documented Israeli forces engaging in “direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Gaza, and attacks which were disproportionate or indiscriminate.” The leader of Amnesty International’s fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip and southern Israel noted how “Israeli forces used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by the USA to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes.” Amnesty also reported finding fragments of US-made munitions “littering school playgrounds, in hospitals and in people’s homes.”

Malcolm Smart, who serves as Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East, observed in a press release, “to a large extent, Israel’s military offensive in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA and paid for with US taxpayers’ money.” The release also noted how before the conflict, which raged for three weeks from late December into January, the United States had “been aware of the pattern of repeated misuse of [its] weapons.”

Amnesty has similarly condemned Hamas rocket attacks into civilian-populated areas of southern Israel as war crimes. And while acknowledging that aid to Hamas was substantially smaller, far less sophisticated and far less lethal – and appeared to have been procured through clandestine sources – Amnesty called on Iran and other countries to take concrete steps to insure that weapons and weapon components not get into the hands of Palestinian militias.

During the fighting, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization initially called for a suspension of US military aid until there was no longer a substantial risk of additional human rights violations. The Bush administration summarily rejected this proposal. Amnesty subsequently appealed to the Obama administration. “As the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights,” said Smart. “The Obama administration should immediately suspend US military aid to Israel.”

Obama’s refusal to accept Amnesty’s call for the suspension of military assistance was a blow to human rights activists. There was initially some hope that Obama might express his displeasure toward controversial Israeli policies like the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories by rejecting the planned increase in military aid for this fiscal year, but not only did he refuse to do so, this announcement amid Netanyahu’s brazen defiance of calls to suspend further Israeli colonization in the occupied West Bank makes it apparent that Obama has no intention of linking military aid to rightist governments to adherence to their international legal obligations.

Obama Tilts Right

Obama has thus far failed to realize that the problem in the Middle East is that there are too many deadly weapons in the region, not too few. Indeed, the Obama administration announced a $60 billion arms sale to the repressive regime in Saudi Arabia, the largest in history. Such arms sales to Arab governments can then be used for increased taxpayer-funded arms transfers to Israel, such as this recently announced one, which will be highly profitable to the politically influential maker of the F-35s, Lockheed Martin.

Instead of simply wanting Israel to have an adequate deterrent against potential military threats, Obama insists the United States should guarantee that Israel maintain a qualitative military advantage. Thanks to this overwhelming advantage over its neighbors, Israeli forces were able to launch devastating wars against Israel’s Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors in recent years.

If Israel were in a strategically vulnerable situation, Obama’s hard-line position might be understandable. But Israel already has vastly superior conventional military capabilities relative to any combination of armed forces in the region, not to mention a nuclear deterrent.

However, Obama has failed to even acknowledge Israel’s nuclear arsenal of at least 200-300 weapons, which has been documented for decades. When a reporter asked at his first press conference last year if he could name any Middle Eastern countries that possess nuclear weapons, he didn’t even try to answer the question. Presumably, Obama knows Israel has these weapons and that the country is located in the Middle East. However, acknowledging Israel’s arsenal could complicate his planned arms transfers since it would place Israel in violation of the 1976 Symington Amendment, which restricts US military support for governments which develop nuclear weapons.

Another major obstacle to Amnesty’s calls for suspending military assistance is Congress. Republican leaders like Reps. John Boehner (Ohio) and Eric Cantor (Virginia) have long rejected calls by human rights groups to link US military aid to adherence to internationally recognized human rights standards. But so have such Democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who are outspoken supporters of unconditional military aid to Israel. Even progressive Democratic Rep. Barney Frank (Massachusetts), at a press conference last year in which he put forward a proposal to reduce military spending by 25 percent, dismissed a question regarding conditioning Israel’s military aid package to human rights concerns.

Indeed, in an apparent effort to support their militaristic agenda and to discredit reputable human rights groups that documented systematic Israeli attacks against nonmilitary targets, these Congressional leaders and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of their colleagues have gone on record praising “Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and … efforts to prevent civilian casualties.” Although Obama remained silent while Israel was engaged in war crimes against the civilian population of Gaza, Pelosi and other Congressional leaders rushed to Israel’s defense in the face of international condemnation.

Obama’s Defense of Israeli Attacks on Civilians

Following the 2006 conflict between Israeli armed forces and the Hezbollah militia, in which both sides committed war crimes by engaging in attacks against populated civilian areas, then-Senator Obama defended Israel’s actions and criticized Hezbollah, even though Israel – primarily through the use of US-supplied weapons – was actually responsible for far more civilian deaths. In an apparent attempt to justify Israeli bombing of civilian population centers, Obama claimed Hezbollah had used “innocent people as shields.”

This charge directly challenged a series of reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These reports found that, while Hezbollah did have some military equipment close to some civilian areas, the Lebanese Islamist militia had not forced civilians to remain in or around military targets in order to deter Israel from attacking those targets. I sent Obama spokesperson Ben LaBolt a copy of an exhaustive 249-page Human Rights Watch report that didn’t find a single case – out of 600 civilian deaths investigated – of Hezbollah using human shields. I asked him if Obama had any empirical evidence that countered these findings.

In response, LaBolt provided me with a copy of a short report from a right-wing Israeli think tank with close ties to the Israeli government headed by the former head of the Israeli intelligence service. The report appeared to use exclusively Israeli government sources, in contrast to the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, which were based upon forensic evidence as well as multiple verified eyewitness accounts by both Lebanese living in the areas under attack as well as experienced monitors (unaffiliated with any government or political organization) on the ground. Despite several follow-up emails asking for more credible sources, LaBolt never got back to me.

Not Good for Israel

The militaristic stance by Congress and the Obama administration is hardly doing Israel a favor. Indeed, US military assistance to Israel has nothing to do with Israel’s legitimate security needs. Rather than commencing during the country’s first 20 years of existence, when Israel was most vulnerable strategically, major US military and economic aid didn’t even begin until after the 1967 War, when Israel proved itself to be far stronger than any combination of Arab armies and after Israeli occupation forces became the rulers of a large Palestinian population.

If all US aid to Israel were immediately halted, Israel wouldn’t be under a significantly greater military threat than it is today for many years. Israel has both a major domestic arms industry and an existing military force far more capable and powerful than any conceivable combination of opposing forces.

Under Obama, US military aid to Israel will likely continue be higher than it was back in the 1970s, when Egypt’s massive and well-equipped armed forces threatened war, Syria’s military rapidly expanded with advanced Soviet weaponry, armed factions of the PLO launched terrorist attacks into Israel, Jordan still claimed the West Bank and stationed large numbers of troops along its border and demarcation line with Israel and Iraq embarked on a vast program of militarization. Why does the Obama administration believe that Israel needs more military aid today than it did back then? Since that time, Israel has maintained a longstanding peace treaty with Egypt and a large demilitarized and internationally monitored buffer zone. Syria’s armed forces were weakened by the collapse of their former Soviet patron and its government has been calling for a resumption of peace talks. The PLO is cooperating closely with Israeli security. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel with full normalized relations. And two major wars and a decade of strict international sanctions have devastated Iraq’s armed forces, which is in any case now under close US supervision.

Obama has pledged continued military aid to Israel a full decade into the future not in terms of how that country’s strategic situation may evolve, but in terms of a fixed-dollar amount. If his real interest were to provide adequate support for Israeli defense, he wouldn’t promise $30 billion in additional military aid. He would simply pledge to maintain adequate military assistance to maintain Israel’s security needs, which would presumably decline if the peace process moves forward. However, Israel’s actual defense needs don’t appear to be the issue.

According to late Israeli Maj. Gen. and Knesset member Matti Peled, – who once served as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief procurement officer, such fixed amounts are arrived at “out of thin air.” In addition, every major arms transfer to Israel creates a new demand by Arab states – most of which can pay hard currency through petrodollars – for additional US weapons to challenge Israel. Indeed, Israel announced its acceptance of a proposed Middle Eastern arms freeze in 1991, but the US government, eager to defend the profits of US arms merchants, effectively blocked it. Prior to the breakdown in the peace process in 2001, 78 senators wrote President Bill Clinton insisting that the United States send additional military aid to Israel on the grounds of massive arms procurement by Arab states, neglecting to note that 80 percent of those arms transfers were of US origin. Were they really concerned about Israeli security, they would have voted to block these arms transfers to the Gulf monarchies and other Arab dictatorships.

The resulting arms race has been a bonanza for US arms manufacturers. The right-wing “pro-Israel” political action committees certainly wield substantial clout with their contributions to Congressional candidates supportive of large-scale military and economic aid to Israel. But the Aerospace Industry Association and other influential military interests that promote massive arms transfers to the Middle East and elsewhere are even more influential, contributing several times what the “pro-Israel” PACs contribute.

The huge amount of US aid to the Israeli government hasn’t been as beneficial to Israel as many would suspect. US military aid to Israel is, in fact, simply a credit line to American arms manufacturers, and actually ends up costing Israel two to three times that amount in operator training, staffing, maintenance, and other related costs. The overall impact is to increase Israeli military dependency on the United States – and amass record profits for US arms merchants.

The US Arms Export Control Act requires a cutoff of military aid to recipient countries if they’re found to be using American weapons for purposes other than internal security or legitimate self-defense and/or their use could “increase the possibility of an outbreak or escalation of conflict.” This might explain Obama’s refusal to acknowledge Israel’s disproportionate use of force and high number of civilian casualties.

Betraying His Constituency

Neither the recently-announced $2.75 arms deal nor even the $30 billion total over the next decade to support Israeli militarism is a huge amount of money compared with what has already been wasted in the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, and various Pentagon boondoggles. Still, this money could more profitably go toward needs at home, such as health care, education, housing, the environment and public transportation.

It’s, therefore, profoundly disappointing that there has been so little public opposition to Obama’s dismissal of Amnesty International’s calls to suspend aid to Israel. Some activists I contacted appear to have fallen into a fatalistic view that the “Zionist lobby” is too powerful to challenge and that Obama is nothing but a helpless pawn of powerful Jewish interests. Not only does this simplistic perspective border on anti-Semitism, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any right-wing militaristic lobby will appear all-powerful if there isn’t a concerted effort from the left to challenge it.

Obama’s supporters must demand that he live up to his promise to change the mindset in Washington that has contributed to such death and destruction in the Middle East. The administration must heed calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to condition military aid to Israel and all other countries that don’t adhere to basic principles of international humanitarian law.

My Support for Ralph Nader, Ten Years Later: Lessons Learned

Like many people who campaigned and voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, the upcoming tenth anniversary of that disastrous election and awareness of the tragic results continues to haunt me. While it was perhaps the most serious political misjudgment I have ever made, it is important to recognize why at the time it seemed to be a quite rational course of action. It is also important to recognize what both the Democratic Party as well as progressives who are tempted to support left alternatives to the Democrats can learn from it.

It should be emphasized at the outset that Nader did not cause George W. Bush to be elected president. Bush was not elected president. The election was stolen. In addition to the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority that blocked the recount that would have provided Gore with a victory in Florida thereby giving him a majority of the electoral college, many hundreds of predominantly African-American voters – the vast majority of whom would have voted for Gore – were denied the right to vote because their names were similar to convicted felons who had been disenfranchised because of their crimes. It is also noteworthy that a 1996 crime bill pushed by then-Vice-President Gore dramatically increased the number of crimes considered felonies and thereby the number of convicted felons, the majority of whom in Florida are poor minorities who would have much more likely supported Gore over Bush had they (and the non-felons with similar names) been allowed to vote, thereby providing the Democratic nominee with a comfortable margin.

It is also important to emphasize that, even if Bush had fairly won Florida’s electoral votes, Gore received a solid majority of the popular vote nationally, outpolling Bush by more than a half million votes. Nader and the Green Party oppose the Electoral College and support presidential elections based upon a popular nationwide vote. Gore and the Democrats, by contrast, supported the archaic and undemocratic Electoral College system. It is ironic, then, that the Democrats continue to blame Nader and the Greens for Bush’s election that came as a result of an unfair electoral system that they supported and Greens opposed.

At the same time, there is little question that had Nader’s name not been on the ballot in Florida, enough Green voters would have probably cast their ballots Democratic instead, raising Gore’s margin over Bush high enough so that the Republicans could have not gotten away with the fraud that tilted the balance.

How Gore’s Politics Alienated the Democratic Base

This then raises the question as to why so many people like me, who previously and subsequently voted Democratic in presidential elections, chose to vote for the Green Party in 2000.

Many people have forgotten that before Al Gore became a progressive hero as the most visible leader of the movement to curb climate change – perhaps the biggest single issue of our day and for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize-he was widely-recognized as being on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. As one of the three finalists in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, Gore positioned himself clearly on the right, with Jesse Jackson on the left and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis – the eventual nominee – in the center.

Gore was one of the most ardent Democratic supporters of Reagan’s right-wing foreign policy agenda, supporting such dangerous and destabilizing Pentagon boondoggles as the B-1 and B-2 bombers and the Trident II, cruise and Pershing missiles, all of which significantly raised the threat of nuclear war. He also supported U.S. funding and training of the Contra terrorists attacking Nicaragua and the murderous junta in El Salvador. In 1991, he was among the minority of Senate Democrats who supported the Gulf War. He was an outspoken supporter of a series of right-wing Israeli governments, opposing the Palestinians’ right to statehood alongside Israel or even allowing Palestinians into the peace process.

As the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000, his hawkish world view did not seem to wane. Even with the end of the Cold War, he supported increasing the already-bloated U.S. military budget. He was apparently ready to tear up the SALT I treaty – negotiated by Nixon and Kissinger and long the foundation of nuclear arms control – in order to pursue a dubious missile defense strategy. He opposed human rights provisions for trade agreements and even for arms transfers. He opposed the treaty banning land mines. He supported laws that threatened jail and fines for Americans simply for travelling to Cuba. He defended the ongoing bombing of Iraq and the starving of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children through draconian sanctions. He strongly supported efforts by the Word Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund to weaken environmental laws, consumer protection and labor rights in the name of “free trade,” and was the administration’s most visible advocate of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.)

His positions weren’t much better on domestic issues. He opposed raising the minimum wage to match the cost of living. He not only supported the death penalty, but made it far more difficult falsely convicted death row inmates to appeal their cases in federal courts. He supported the repeal of federal guarantees of assistance to poor children. He supported Federal Reserve policies of keeping wages low to prop up stock prices and taxing earnings from the stock market at lower rates then income from actual work. He supported the repeal of Depression-era banking regulations designed to protect small depositors and restrictions on derivatives that helped lead to the current financial crisis for which scores of Democrats are now being punished at the polls. He supported the Defense of Marriage Act in an effort to prevent gay and lesbian couples from having equal rights. (Earlier in his career, he referred to homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior” and voted against a bill that would protect patients with HIV from discrimination.) Even on environmental issues, his record was mixed, supporting efforts to undermine the endangered species act, pushing for nuclear power, and supporting an increase in clear-cut logging of old growth forests.

While most of us who supported Nader did not expect to agree with the Democratic nominee for president on every issue in order to vote for him, the fact that Gore took positions which only a few years earlier would have been considered to be in the mainstream of the Republican Party was simply too much to bear.

When he received the Democratic presidential nomination in July of 2000, there was hope that he would try to reassure the party’s disillusioned base by choosing a more liberal vice-presidential running mate. Instead, he chose Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, who had the most conservative voting record of any Democrat in the Senate. Indeed, Lieberman was to the right of the Republican incumbent he defeated when first elected in 1988, quit the Democratic Party in 2006, and endorsed Republican senator John McCain for president in 2008. There was no reason to think that Gore’s appointments for cabinet posts and other key positions in his administration would be any better.

It cannot be stressed enough that had Gore instead embraced an even slightly more progressive agenda, he would not have lost so many Democratic voters to Nader. Rather than modify his positions more in line with the party’s more liberal base, however, Gore initially worked to keep Nader off the ballot in a number of states to prevent voters from even having the choice. And, while Gore was willing to debate Bush, the opponent on his right, he refused to debate his opponent on his left, apparently fearing how voters might react if they were able to compare his positions with those of the well-respected consumer advocate. In the final week of the campaign, recognizing that he was losing liberal voters to his Green Party challenger, Gore did shift the tone of his campaign somewhat to the left, spouting more populist themes. In those final days, polls showed he gained three percentage points, finally pulling slightly ahead of Bush, while Nader dropped from 6% to 3%.

But it was too little too late. So many of us were so disgusted with eight years of center-right governance of the Clinton Administration and the prospects of more under Al Gore, we just could not stomach voting Democratic, even though it was apparent that the election was very close. After eight years of bitter disappointment with Clinton and Gore in power in Washington, it felt cynical and self-defeating to once again vote for a lesser evil, which seemingly would only contribute to the downward spiral which was taking the Democratic Party further and further away from its progressive heyday with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. In many ways, then, Nader was a symptom, not a cause, of the large-scale alienation with Gore.

At the same time, few of us realized just how far to the right this country would go under George W. Bush. Many of us expected a more moderately conservative administration similar to that of his father. Indeed, Bush’s anticipated pick for Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was in many ways more moderate that the hawkish Madeleine Albright, who served under Clinton, or any of Gore’s likely picks to lead the State Department. While the relatively weak Texas governorship did not offer many clues, there was little indication that the younger Bush would embrace the very neo-conservative agenda his father had rejected. Indeed, during the first eight months of the administration, the more moderate elements in the new Bush administration appeared to be winning out against the far right. That all changed on September 11.

Strategic Miscalculation

Back in 2000, it appeared to many of us that the only way to stop the ongoing rightward drift of the Democratic Party was to support a credible challenge from the left. History offered a number of examples, such as the way the strong showing of the Socialist Party in the 1932 election prompted the newly-elected President Franklin Roosevelt, who originally ran as a fiscal conservative, to instead adopt the New Deal. There was some evidence at that time that the Green Party could have a similar effect.

During the 1990s, the Greens were a major player in New Mexico politics. By polling 10-15% in the 1996 election against Gore/Clinton-type Democrats, Green candidates sapped enough votes away from Democratic nominees to allow Republicans to win two House seats and the governorship. In response, the New Mexico Democratic Party moved well to the left: Fred Harris, the populist former Oklahoma Senator, became state party chair and focused on wooing the party’s liberal base. (Harris’ wife LaDonna, a prominent American Indian attorney, was the vice-presidential nominee of the progressive Citizens Party in 1980.) In 1998, the Democrats nominated solid progressives in the two house districts they had lost during the previous election cycle, causing the Greens’ share of the vote to shrink to well under 5%, resulting in the Democrats defeating the Republicans with far better candidates than they had nominated two years earlier.

Though developing a credible third party challenge on a national level is a greater challenge, many of us held on to the hope in 2000 that Nader would receive at least 5% of the vote nationally, thereby crossing the threshold that would provide the Green Party federal matching funds for the next election. In becoming a viable third party on a national level, there would be a solid base from which to raise issues being ignored by the two major parties: challenging the domination of our economy and politics by big business and corporate-led globalization, redirecting our bloated military spending to human needs, supporting single-payer health care, enacting meaningful campaign finance reform, making environmental protection a priority, ending capital punishment, stopping arms transfers to repressive regimes, opposing the Israeli occupation, etc. Fear that the Greens might get this 5% may have been what motivated the Democrats’ last-minute anti-Nader campaign even more than the fear that Nader votes might actually throw the election to Bush.

Unfortunately, following the debacle of the national election of 2000, rather than learn their lesson and move to the left, the Democrats moved still further to the right, with the majority of Democratic senators voting with their Republican counterparts in October 2002 to authorize the fraudulently elected president with the unprecedented authority to invade an oil-rich country on the far side of the world that was no threat to the United states. On the House side, most Democrats voted against authorizing the war, but the most important Democratic leaders sided with Bush as well. Though the party not controlling the White House normally picks up seats in mid-term Congressional elections, as a result of this betrayal of the vast majority of Democratic voters who opposed the invasion of Iraq, millions stayed home, resulting in the Republicans regaining control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House.

Then, in 2004, as their candidate for president, the Democratic Party ended up nominating Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who – along with his running mate North Carolina senator John Edwards – were among the minority of Congressional Democrats who supported the invasion of Iraq, an abomination which even Gore strenuously opposed. Not surprisingly, even with a far weaker showing by Nader or the Green Party, the Democrats lost again.

The Bottom Line

The reality is that, if one looks at voting as strategic choice, it almost always makes sense to vote Democratic.

There will always be people who can’t vote for certain Democrats on principle. I could never, for example, cast my ballot for someone who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, because such people clearly have no respect for the most fundamental principles of the post-WWII international legal system or the U.S. Constitution and demonstrated a willingness to lie about non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and sacrifice the lives of over 4500 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for the sake of oil and empire. Despite what happened in 2000, then, I could not vote for John Kerry in 2004. Nor can I ever vote for Dianne Feinstein, my Democratic senator. Some people have higher thresholds, some lower.

One can also make the case that voting is a sacred right that should not be exercised for strategic reasons, but on moral principles alone. The suffragettes and civil rights advocates who risked their lives for the right to vote were not doing so simply to be able to cast their ballot for a lesser evil. There is a related argument that it is morally and psychologically damaging to compromise one’s principles by voting for someone whose policies you don’t agree with against someone whose policies you do believe in; that it is important to vote your hopes rather than your fears.

However, the idea that one can “teach the Democrats a lesson” by voting for a progressive third party or not voting at all and thereby allowing Republicans to win just doesn’t seem to work.

Also important is that fact that, though the differences between Democrats and Republicans may be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, the power of U.S. government is so great that even small differences can make huge differences in the lives of many millions of people. Just ask the people of Iraq and other countries who have suffered so much as a result of those of us who thought we could “teach the Democrats a lesson” ten years ago. Those of us here in the United States who are relatively privileged and secure need to be sensitive about how our decisions effect those less privileged and more vulnerable, both those in this country and the billions of others around the world.

The reality is that, despite Gore’s failings and the fact that it seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, the world would have been a much better place had so many people like myself not supported Nader in his 2000 campaign. As journalist Robert Parry observed, a Gore presidency “would have taken the country in a far different direction. Most significantly, he might have made significant progress in getting the United States to face up to the crisis of global warming, an existential threat to mankind that Bush studiously ignored. It may be a bitter irony that the one major political accomplishment of America’s Green Party will be that it helped condemn the world to environmental disaster.”

So, as reluctant as I am to say it: If you can stomach it, please vote Democratic this Tuesday.

Then, even more importantly, fight like hell to make sure they stop selling out to the militarists and the corporations. With only a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led when it comes to progressive positions; they have generally had to be dragged kicking and screaming by their constituents. We were able to force many Democratic elected officials to move to the left on civil rights, Vietnam, Central America, nuclear power, women’s rights, South Africa, East Timor, globalization, Iraq, gay rights, and other issues.

And here is the difference: Democrats, if pressed sufficiently, can change.

Republicans, by contrast, are hopeless.