Embassy Protests and Middle East Unrest in Context

It seems bizarre that right-wing pundits would be so desperate to use the recent anti-American protests in the Middle East—in most cases numbering only a few hundred people and (except for a peaceful Hezbollah-organized rally in Lebanon) in no cases numbering more than two or three thousand—as somehow indicative of why the United States should oppose greater democracy in the Middle East. Even more strangely, some media pundits are criticizing Arabs as being “ungrateful” for U.S. support of pro-democracy movements when, in reality, the United States initially opposed the popular movements that deposed Western-backed despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and remains a preeminent backer of dictatorships in the region today.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney falsely accused President Obama of “apologizing” for what the Republican presidential nominee referred to as “American values” and of “sympathizing” with those who attacked diplomatic missions rather than promptly condemning them. (What apparently prompted this misleading attack was a tweet from the U.S. embassy in Cairo prior to the worst attacks reiterating U.S. opposition to “efforts to offend believers of all religions” and “the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”)

What incited many of the protests was an outrageously offensive anti-Islamic movie produced by Christian extremists in California, but there is a lot more to the protests than this triggering event.

For years, the Christian right and Islamic right have sought to provoke extremism and hatred as part of an effort to seemingly validate the stereotypes of the other. As Hani Shukrallah remarked about the film in the leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is not difficult to discern: to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West. And, it’s a very safe bet that there will be among us those who will readily oblige.”

The attacks on two U.S. consulate offices in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, are far more significant, though these appear to have been the work of Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist Islamist militia which took advantage of a protest to launch their armed assault avenging the killing of a Libyan-born al-Qaeda leader by a drone strike in Pakistan. Ironically, the United States allied with these extremists in the armed uprising against the Gaddafi regime last year.

Indeed, last week’s tragedy in Libya should raise questions about the wisdom of backing such armed uprisings, even against a brutal dictator. In Egypt and Yemen, where dictatorships were overthrown largely through mass nonviolent action not supported by Washington, the worst damage protesters at the U.S. embassies could do was to seize parts of the grounds and burn the American flag. In Libya, where the dictator was overthrown in an armed revolution that was supported by Washington, two consulate buildings were destroyed and four Americans were killed in a coordinated assault with automatic weapons, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. Historically, autocratic regimes overthrown by armed struggle are far more likely to descend into violence and chaos (and/or a new dictatorship) than authoritarian regimes toppled through largely nonviolent methods.

In a country of barely 6 million people, more than 200,000 Libyans are armed members of militias outside the control of the Libyan government. Even though the recent Libyan elections appear to have been free and fair, and the winners largely consisted of moderates open to a democratic political system, the legacy of the war and the NATO intervention will likely remain a problem for some time to come.

In the rest of the region, where uprisings against dictatorships came largely in the form of unarmed civil insurrections, radical Islamists have been severely weakened, as the popular revolts demonstrated how U.S.-backed regimes could be toppled without embracing terrorism or extremist ideologies. The need to manipulate a hysterical reaction to an obscure, albeit offensive, film is indicative of just how desperate the far-right-wing Islamists have become in asserting their relevance. These extremists were able to stir up crowds in cities in more than a dozen Islamist countries with false claims that the film was a major Hollywood production which, like movies in Egypt and many other countries in the region, must have been subjected to review and approval by government censors before being released to the public.

Ironically, the Prophet Muhammad faced worse defamation in his lifetime but refused to curse his enemies, following the words of the Qur’an to “Repel evil with something that is better, lovelier.”

In short, anti-democratic forces in both the United States and the Arab world want to discredit the pro-democracy struggles in the Middle East: on the one hand, Republicans and others who unconditionally support pro-Western dictatorships, U.S. interventionism, and the Israeli occupation; and, on the other extreme, radical Islamists who want to counter their increasing marginality. Fortunately, the reactions by these chauvinistic forces are more a relic of the past than they are a harbinger of the future.

In thinking about an appropriate U.S. response, it is important not to repeat the mistakes of U.S. policy in recent years. It is extremely unlikely that such vitriolic anti-American protests would have taken place were it not for decades of U.S. support, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, of allied dictatorships and the Israeli occupation, not to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing military strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Indeed, interviews with demonstrators in Yemen and elsewhere not surprisingly found grievances towards the United States that went far beyond the film itself.

It is also noteworthy that the apparent producer of the offending film was a Coptic Christian immigrant who presumably developed his extreme hatred toward Muslims as a reaction to the persecution of his fellow Copts in his native Egypt. Much of that persecution was a direct result of the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime’s attempts to deliberately foment hatred and division between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. Despite the regime’s discrimination and oppression against the Copts—including the infamous 2010 bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria by agents from Mubarak’s Interior Ministry, which killed dozens—both Republican and Democratic administrations provided the Mubarak dictatorship with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military and financial backing.

It is particularly tragic, then, that the victims of last week’s upsurge in violence included Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the United States’ most knowledgeable and respected diplomats. The outpouring of grief and remorse from Libyans and others indicates that most Arabs, despite their understandable resentment of U.S. policy, recognize that there can still be good individuals representing the United States abroad.

The best thing that can be done in the memory of Stevens and other victims, then, is to redouble efforts to end U.S. support for Arab dictatorships and Israeli occupation forces. Indeed, the best defense against extremists are political systems that honor people’s demands for freedom and justice.

Occupy fizzled, but made 99% a force

It’s been a year since the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up. Since then, it has fizzled, but this does not mean that the underlying issues that gave rise to the protests have gone away.

Until last year, mainstream political discourse did not include nearly as much emphasis on such populist concerns as rising income inequality, tax policies that favor the rich, growing influence by large corporate interests in elections and the reckless deregulation of financial institutions that resulted in the 2008 crisis. It is hard to miss them now.

These concerns still impact 99% of Americans. Even if Occupy protests have petered out, the movement has affected the political narrative in our country.

We can see Occupy’s impact in the current presidential campaign. Whereas Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election strategy focused on the idea of “triangulation” — taking centrist positions on key economic issues to isolate his Republican opponent on the right — President Barack Obama has taken on much more of a populist stance, mobilizing his Democratic base and economically stressed independents against an opponent whom his campaign is depicting as the quintessential representative of the 1%.

Occupy activists justifiably express skepticism over how much to trust the president’s left-leaning rhetoric when his actual economic policies have been decidedly centrist. Still, the fact that Obama’s re-election campaign recognizes the advantage of decrying unfair tax laws and similar policies that affect middle class Americans is indicative of how the tone has shifted.

Unfortunately, much of the decline of the Occupy movement can also be attributed to the distraction from this year’s election campaigns. Despite the Democrats’ mixed record, the unions and many other potential allies necessary in building a real movement have felt obliged to focus their energy on re-electing Obama and helping other Democratic candidates.

Some police repression and serious violations of civil liberties by city authorities certainly crippled the Occupy protests as well, as did the media’s tendency to focus too much on its more violent or flaky elements.

But, this does not mean that all is lost.

The Egyptian Revolution and other unarmed civil insurrections that have swept the world recently did not start and end during a few dramatic weeks or months when millions of people were on the streets. They were the culmination of many years of struggle, often initiated by young radicals engaging in small but creative demonstrations.

The Occupy protesters, even at their greatest numbers, were never able to do what successful movements must do in terms of developing a well-thought-out strategy, clearly articulated political demands, a logical sequencing of tactics and well-trained and disciplined activists who don’t vandalize property or fight cops. Indeed, the Occupy protesters never developed enough of the structural elements necessary to truly be considered a “movement.”

Most importantly, those involved never recognized that colorful protests are no substitute for door-to-door organizing among real people.
A look back: Meet the 99%

The United States has a long history of popular social and economic struggles, from the abolitionists to the Populists to the suffragists to the civil rights movement and, throughout much of that history, the trade unions. As Thomas Jefferson once beckoned his fellow Americans: “crush… the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to trial and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
If the pressing concerns of the 99% are not addressed, don’t be surprised if new incarnations of the Occupy movement emerge in the near future.

The Case Against War: Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, I wrote a series of articles for the Foreign Policy in Focus website in which I put forth a series of arguments against the Bush administration’s push for a U.S. invasion of Iraq prior to the fateful congressional vote authorizing the illegal, unnecessary, and ultimately disastrous war. At the request of the editors of The Nation – the oldest continually published weekly magazine in the United States – I wrote a version entitled “The Case Against War,” which appeared on their website September 12, 2002 and as the cover story of the September 30 issue. It became one of the most widely circulated articles in the magazine’s 147-year old history. Every congressional office received multiple copies.

In the articles, I correctly predicted that an invasion would result in sectarian violence, terrorism, Islamist extremism, and a bloody counterinsurgency war that would be the most elaborate and expensive deployment of U.S. forces since the Second World War.

Specifically, I noted that, “Although most Iraqis would presumably be relieved in the event of Saddam Hussein’s ouster, this does not mean that a regime installed by a Western army would be welcomed.” I expressed concern about U.S. occupation forces becoming bogged down in “a bloody counter-insurgency war” with “bitter, house-to-house fighting” and challenged by competing armed Sunni and Shiite factions.

The article also stressed the illegality of the invasion and the problems that would result from the lack of international support. I challenged the administration’s false claims of Iraqi ties to Al-Qaeda and its exaggerated reports of Iraq’s role in international terrorism. I noted how containment had been successful, explaining that Iraq’s economy had collapsed from sanctions and Iraq’s military capabilities were only a fraction of what they had once been. I argued that an invasion would result in a dramatic increase in anti-Americanism and extremism throughout the region and damage the struggle against Al-Qaeda.

(Ironically, editors at both FPIF and The Nation insisted that I omit, tone down, or qualify sections in which I questioned the Bush administration’s insistence that the Iraqi regime had somehow reconstituted its WMD programs, and instead focus on how there was an adequate deterrent against any possible Iraq threat.)

Just three weeks after the article’s publication in The Nation, the resolution authorizing the war passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities (297-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate). The resolution falsely claimed that Iraq “poses a continuing threat to the national security of the United States by…continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations.”

A number of congressional staffers for leading Senate Democrats who supported the war resolution acknowledged that they read the article and passed it on to their bosses, but that the senators found the Bush administration’s arguments to have somehow been more credible. Despite efforts by some of the more liberal members of Congress, I have never been called to testify at any congressional hearings dealing with Iraq or other Middle Eastern issues. Indeed, despite being correct in my assessments in the article and despite having a respectable academic record on Middle Eastern affairs, there is little interest on Capitol Hill in my input; to this day, when I contact congressional offices, I can rarely get beyond the twenty-somethings who answer the phone.

One Democratic politician who apparently did take the article seriously was a then little-known Illinois state senator named Barack Obama, who appears to have borrowed a number of the key talking points for a speech he gave at an anti-war rally in Chicago a couple weeks after it was published. Obama noted that “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained,” adding that an invasion of Iraq “will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” He went on to note that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East” and strengthen al-Qaeda.

During his 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama’s campaign highlighted that speech in an effort to set him apart from Hillary Clinton’s whole-hearted embrace of the Bush administration’s rationales for the war during that period. Given the overwhelming opposition to the Iraq War by Democratic voters, this dramatic contrast between the two rivals in the close and hard-fought campaign was likely decisive in making possible Obama’s victory.

This is certainly not the first time a major story in Foreign Policy in Focus or The Nation was on target yet still ignored by policy makers, but few decisions by Congress have had such disastrous results. Also troubling is the refusal by members of Congress who voted to authorize the war to acknowledge that they had ample opportunity to recognize the lies used to justify the war and the likely consequences of the invasion.

And, despite Obama’s apparent acceptance of the article’s main points and his 2008 campaign promise to “end the mindset that led to the war in Iraq,” he ended up appointing supporters of the Iraq War to the key national security positions in his administration, including his vice president and chief of staff, as well as his secretaries of defense, state, and homeland security.

With such lack of accountability, the threat of future foreign policy disasters remains.

Democratic Leaders Undermine Israeli-Palestinian Peace and Their Own Procedures

In a stunning violation of its own rules, the wishes of the majority of delegates at its national convention, and positions taken by the United Nations and virtually every country in the world, the Democratic Party leadership pushed through an amendment to its platform early during its proceedings on Wednesday, with barely half the delegates present and without allowing for any discussion or debate, stating that Jerusalem “is and will remain the capital of Israel” and should be “undivided.”

The language, as foreign policy analysts noted, is in “in direct opposition to longstanding U.S. policy on Jerusalem” that the status of the city should be determined by talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, both of whom desire Jerusalem as their capital, and that the city should not be unilaterally recognized as the capital of either Israel or Palestine until then. Most observers have recognized that a workable two-state solution would include having Jewish-populated western Jerusalem recognized as the capital of Israel and the predominantly Arab part of eastern Jerusalem—currently under Israeli military occupation—as the capital of a Palestinian state.

The amendment to the platform, however, ignores Palestinian claims to the city completely, which—combined with the insistence that the city be “undivided”—could be interpreted as a call for exclusive Israeli control. By contrast, a recent poll showed that Democrats by a nearly 2:1 margin believe that Jerusalem should be divided between Israelis and Palestinians rather than controlled exclusively by Israel.

Virtually no country currently recognizes Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Neither the United States nor any other country currently has its embassy in Jerusalem—nearly all foreign embassies are located instead in Tel Aviv.

Convention chairman and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put the amendment to the floor, along with another amendment to include mention of God in the platform, for a voice vote, noting that a two-thirds majority was necessary for adoption of the amendment. He looked surprised when the “nay” votes appeared to outnumber the “aye” votes. He called the motion a second time with the same results. He then called the motion a third time, still way short of the required two-thirds majority and probably still short of even a simple majority, but he claimed that the motion had somehow received at least two-thirds vote anyway and declared the motion carried.

Outraged delegates in the majority started booing at the chair for his extraordinary abuse of power. The media jumped on the unprecedented discord in what had until then been a very unified and orderly convention, while leading Republicans and conservative commentators began claiming that Democrats were “booing God and Jerusalem.”

As an illustration of the depth of the dishonesty in the Democratic Party leadership, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz claimed that the vote was “absolutely two-thirds” and that “there wasn’t any discord.” Afterwards, CNN’s Anderson Cooper observed that the DNC chair must live in an “alternate universe.”

Pushing through the amendment was in part a reaction to Republican criticisms that the Obama administration—despite providing record amounts of taxpayer-funded military aid to Israel’s rightist government and blocking the United Nations from challenging Israeli violations of international humanitarian law—was somehow not supportive enough of Israel. It appears, then, that President Obama and other Democratic leaders were more concerned about assuaging right-wing Republicans than honoring the beliefs of members of their own party or following their own convention rules.

Indeed, the Democratic leadership was so desperate to push through this right-wing amendment that the chair was willing to lie in front of a nationally televised audience that an amendment had passed by a two-thirds majority voice vote when it was obvious to any viewer or listener that, despite three separate attempts, it had not. And they did so despite the likelihood that it would create a chaotic and angry scene on the convention floor that the media and the Republicans would exploit to the fullest.

It was also a demonstration of just how determined the Democratic Party leadership is to undermine the Middle East peace process and weaken international law, even if it means running roughshod over their members and thereby hurting their chances in November.

The craven way in which the Jerusalem amendment was pushed through demonstrates that the Democratic Party is not a democratic party. It has shown to the world an essentially authoritarian mindset, both in terms of its willingness to undermine international law in its support of the expansionist goals of allied right-wing governments as well as its willingness to ignore its own rules and overrule the majority of the elected delegates at its national convention.

This raises some critical questions for Democrats as we move into the final three months of the 2012 campaign: If the leadership refuses to respect party members, why should party members respect the leadership? And why should ordinary Democrats work to re-elect leaders who put their own right-wing agenda ahead of the beliefs of the party’s more progressive majority?