Hillary Clinton’s Legacy as Secretary of State

Hillary Clinton leaves her position as Secretary of State with a legacy of supporting autocratic regimes and occupation armies, opposing enforcement of international humanitarian law, undermining arms control and defending military solutions to complex political problems. She was appointed to her position following eight years in the US Senate, during which she became an outspoken supporter of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, lied about Iraq’s military capabilities to frighten the public into supporting the illegal war, unleashed repeated attacks against the United Nations, opposed restrictions on land mines and cluster bombs, defended war crimes by allied right-wing governments and largely embraced Bush’s unilateralist agenda.

Despite this, Clinton is receiving largely unconditional praise from liberal pundits and others for her leadership, some even claiming that she is some kind of role model for young women!

Part of this unlikely defense of the dishonest and hawkish outgoing Secretary of State may be in reaction to the onslaught of misleading, petty, and sexist attacks from the right, such as her recent grilling on Capitol Hill about last summer’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Such spurious criticisms, particularly those motivated by sexism, certainly deserve to be challenged. However, this should not in any way be used as an excuse to fail to acknowledge the damage Clinton has done, or her embrace of much of the dangerous neo-conservative doctrines of the previous administration.

It is not unusual for a president to want to be his own secretary of state, but rarely has a secretary so badly wanted to be her own president. In assuming her position in 2009, she insisted on being able to effectively appoint most of the key political positions in the State Department, which she stacked with some of the more hawkish veterans of her husband’s administration. Obama, by contrast, appointed members of the White House-based National Security Council who – while still very much part of the foreign policy establishment – tended to be younger, more innovative, and politically liberal. As a result, unlike most administrations – in which the State Department would sometimes challenge the hawks in the National Security Council – it has been the other way around under Obama, as the NSC was forced to play the moderating voice to the hawkish Secretary of State Clinton and her appointees.

During the Arab Spring, Clinton pushed for stronger US support for pro-Western dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, as well as the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. She successfully convinced the initially critical White House to support the right-wing golpistas in Honduras, who ousted that country’s democratically-elected government in 2009. She was a major proponent of NATO’s military intervention in Libya’s civil war and has encouraged a more active US role in the Syrian conflict.

Even when she was right – such as opposing the egregious human rights abuses by the Assad regime in Syria – her defense of human rights abuses by US allies and other brazen double-standards significantly weakened her ability to make a credible case. For example, she insisted that a Russian and Chinese veto of a UN Security Council resolution critical of Syria had “neutered” the Security Council’s ability to defend basic human rights, yet she has defended repeated US vetoes of resolutions critical of Israeli violations of human rights. Similarly, she has criticized the Russians for supplying Syria with attack helicopters which have been used against civilian targets, but has defended the US supplying Israel, Turkey and Colombia with attack helicopters despite their use against civilian targets.

Under her leadership in the State Department, the United States has become even less popular than it was under the Bush administration. Clinton, however, has insisted that it simply because of a failure to explain US polices better rather than the policies themselves.

Support for Women’s and LGBT Rights

To her credit, Hillary Clinton has been more outspoken than any previous Secretary of State regarding the rights of women and sexual minorities. This appears to be more rhetoric than reality, however.

One illustrative case comes in her support for the autocratic monarchy in Morocco, which she has praised for having “women’s rights protected and expanded.” The reality for women in Morocco and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, however, is very different. For example, Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code absolves the rapist if he consents to marrying his rape victim. Just weeks after Clinton praised the Moroccan regime for its record on women’s rights, Amina Filali, a 16-year old Moroccan girl – who had been raped at the age of 15 and forced to marry her rapist, who subsequently battered and abused her – burned herself to death. Similarly, it was not long after a previous visit to Morocco, where she praised that autocratic monarchy’s human rights record, that the regime illegally expelled Aminatou Haidar, known as the Saharan Gandhi, for her leadership in the nonviolent resistance struggle to the illegal Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Haidar – a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and other honors for her nonviolent activism, and who had previously spent years in Moroccan prisons, where she was repeatedly tortured – went on a month-long hunger strike that almost killed her before Morocco relented to international pressure and allowed her to return to her country.

Given Clinton’s backing of neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women’s rights overseas within what is widely seen outside this country as being within an imperialist context, may have actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same a way that the Bush administration’s “democracy-promotion” agenda was a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy. Just as US support for dictatorial regimes in the Middle East gave little credibility to President George W. Bush’s pro-democracy rhetoric, Hillary Clinton’s call for greater respect for women’s rights in Muslim countries never had much credibility while US-manufactured ordinance is blowing up women in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Clinton’s Support for Arab Dictatorships

In the often contentious debates within the administration on how to respond to the civil insurrections in the Arab world challenging US-backed dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, Clinton was among the most reluctant to support the pro-democracy struggles.

Her first statement on Tunisia was nearly four weeks after the outbreak of the uprising, in which she expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the United States was “not taking sides” between the repressive dictatorship and the pro-democracy struggle. She went on to note that “one of my biggest concerns in this entire region is the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis was that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.” Ironically, Tunisia under the US-backed Ben Ali dictatorship – more than almost any country in the region – had been following the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs,” privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.”

Another example of her failure to recognize the pro-democracy yearning in the Arab world, Clinton insisted during the early days of the Egyptian revolution that the country was stable. She further insisted that US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” despite the miserable failure of the regime in its nearly 30 years in power to do so. As the protests grew, Clinton called for the regime to reform from within rather than supporting pro-democracy protesters’ demand that the dictator step down, saying, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” As the repression increased, Clinton pressed for restraint by security forces and called for an “orderly, peaceful transition” to a “real democracy” in Egypt, but still refused to call for Mubarak to step down, insisting that “it’s not a question of who retains power. That should not be the issue. It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people and chart a new path.”

On the one hand, she recognized that whether Mubarak would remain in power “is going to be up to the Egyptian people.” On the other hand, she continued to speak in terms of reforms coming from the regime, stating that US policy was to “help clear the air so that those who remain in power, starting with President Mubarak, with his new vice president, with the new prime minister, will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to … plan a way forward that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people.”

Despite nearly 800 Egyptians being killed over the 18-day period by the US-supplied military and police, Clinton insisted, “There is no discussion of cutting off aid.” Up until the final days of the uprising, Clinton was publicly advocating a leadership role for General Suleiman, the notorious “torturer-in-chief” of the Egyptian regime, whom Mubarak had named as his vice-president.

Similarly, that March, when Saudi-backed forces of the repressive Bahraini monarchy brutally crushed nonviolent pro-democracy demonstrators in that Persian Gulf kingdom and the killings, torture and repression were being condemned throughout the world, the Wall Street Journal reported that Clinton had emerged as one of the “leading voices inside the administration urging greater US support for the Bahraini king.” While insisting that the United States back right-wing Israeli governments because Israel is “the sole democracy in the Middle East,” Clinton has done her best to make sure other Middle Eastern countries remain undemocratic.

Clinton’s fondness for autocratic allies includes those in Central Asia. For example, despite evidence to the contrary, Secretary of State Clinton has claimed that the Karimov dictatorship – which has massacred demonstrators by the hundreds, boiled opponents in oil and forced hundreds of thousands of children into forced labor – was “showing signs of improving its human rights record and expanding political freedoms.” Similarly, when asked about the dictator’s claim that he was committed to leave a legacy of freedom and democracy for his grandchildren, one of Clinton’s top aides responded, “Yeah. I do believe him. I mean, he’s said several times that he’s committed to this. He’s made a speech last November where he talked about this.” In response to some skeptical follow-up questions by journalists, the official replied that “we think that there is really quite an important opening now to work on that stuff, also work on developing civil society, which again President Karimov has expressed support for. So, yeah, I do take him at his word.”

During her first year as Secretary of State, Clinton visited Morocco during an unprecedented crackdown on human rights activists. Instead of joining Amnesty International and other human rights groups in condemning the increase in the already-severe repression in the occupied Western Sahara, Clinton instead chose to offer unconditional praise for the Moroccan government’s human rights record. Just days before her arrival, Moroccan authorities arrested seven nonviolent activists from Western Sahara on trumped-up charges of high treason, who were immediately recognized by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience. Amnesty called for their unconditional release. Clinton decided to ignore the plight of these and other political prisoners held in Moroccan jails.

These activists were demanding implantation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, endorsed by previous US administrations, for a referendum on the fate of the occupied territory. Clinton, however, has endorsed Morocco’s plans for annexing the territory under a dubious “autonomy” plan and simply called for “mediation” between the Moroccan kingdom and the exiled nationalist Polisario Front, a process that would not offer the people of the territory a say in their future.

Support for the Israeli Occupation

Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara was not the only foreign military occupation backed by Secretary of State Clinton.

As a Senator, Clinton was an outspoken defender of Israel’s colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank and highly critical of the United Nations for its efforts to uphold international humanitarian law, even taking the time to visit a major Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank in a show of support. She moderated that stance somewhat as Secretary of State in expressing concerns over how the right-wing Israeli government’s settlements policies harms the overall climate of the peace process, but she has refused to demand that Israel abide by international demands to stop building additional illegal settlements. An outspoken critic of Palestinian efforts for UN recognition, Clinton has even equated Palestine’s legal right to have its state recognized by the United Nations with Israel’s illegal settlements policy.

When the Netanyahu government reneged on an earlier promise of a temporary and limited freeze and announced massive subsidies for the construction of new settlements on the eve of a recent Clinton visit to Israel, she spoke only of the need for peace talks to resume. Indeed, Clinton refused to travel to nearby Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders and focused the discussions with Israeli officials on Egypt and Iran, not Palestine.

In 2011, Clinton successfully pushed for a US veto of a UN Security Council resolution reiterating the illegality of the settlement drive and calling for a settlement freeze, saying, “We have consistently over many years said that the United Nations Security Council – and resolutions that would come before the Security Council – is not the right vehicle to advance the goal.” She has never explained why the UN Security Council, which has traditionally been the vehicle for enforcing international law in territories under foreign belligerent occupation, should not continue to play such a role, particularly given the US failure to stop this right-wing colonization drive on its own.

Clinton has even opposed humanitarian efforts supportive of the Palestinians, criticizing an unarmed flotilla scheduled to bring relief supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip, claiming it would “provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.” Clinton did not explain why a country had “the right to defend themselves” against unarmed ships carrying relief supplies that were clearly no threat to Israel. Not only did the organizers of the flotilla go to great steps to ensure there were no weapons on board, the only cargo bound for Gaza on the US ship were letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave who have suffered under devastating Israeli bombardments, a crippling blockade golpistas and a right-wing Islamist government. Nor did Clinton explain why she considered the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the port of Gaza to be “Israeli waters,” when the entire international community recognizes Israeli territorial waters as being well to the northeast of the ships’ intended route.

Clinton’s State Department issued a public statement designed to discourage Americans from taking part in the flotilla to Gaza because they might be attacked by Israeli forces, yet they never issued a public statement demanding that Israel not attack Americans legally traveling in international waters. Indeed, Clinton spokesperson Victoria Nuland tried to position the United States to blame those taking part in the flotilla rather than the rightist Israeli government should anything happen to them. Like those in the early 1960s who claimed civil rights protesters were responsible for the attacks by white racist mobs because they had “provoked them,” Nuland stated, “Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.” Not only did Clinton never encourage caution or restraint by the Israeli government nor mention that the International Red Cross and other advocates of international humanitarian law recognize that the Israeli blockade is illegal, it appears she successfully convinced the Greek government to deny them the right to sail from Greek ports.

In short, Clinton’s legacy at the State Department has been one of continuing the policies of her predecessors in the Bush administration of opposing international law and human rights. It remains to be seen whether John Kerry, who joined Clinton as one of the right-wing minority of Congressional Democrats who supported the invasion of Iraq, will do much better. In any case, it is important to challenge the myth that Hillary Clinton is a figure who deserves support or admiration for her role of Secretary of State, or that she deserves another opportunity for influencing US foreign policy.

The Case Against Kerry

President Obama’s selection of John Kerry as the next secretary of state sends the wrong signal to America’s allies and adversaries alike. Kerry’s record in the United States Senate, where he currently chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, has included spurious attacks on the International Court of Justice, unqualified defense of Israeli occupation policies and human rights violations, and support for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, thereby raising serious questions about his commitment to international law and treaty obligations. Furthermore, his false claims about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and his repeated denials of well-documented human rights abuses by allied governments raise serious questions about his credibility.

In the 1980s, during the early part of his Senate career, Kerry was considered one of the more progressive members of the U.S. Senate on foreign policy. His record included challenging the Reagan administration’s policies on Central America, providing strong leadership during the Iran-Contra investigation, opposing U.S. support for the Marcos regime in the Philippines and other allied dictatorships, and supporting the nuclear freeze, among other positions supporting peace and human rights.

More recently, however, Kerry became a prominent supporter of various neoconservative initiatives, including the invasion and occupation of Iraq, undermining the authority of the United Nations, and supporting Israeli militarism and expansionism.

Opposition to International Law – Iraq War

Kerry was an outspoken supporter of the Bush Doctrine, which declares that the United States has the right to unilaterally invade foreign countries, topple their governments, and occupy them indefinitely if they are deemed to pose even a hypothetical threat against the United States. In 2002, he voted against an unsuccessful resolution authorizing the president to use force against Iraq only if the United Nations Security Council permitted such force under the UN Charter and instead voted for an alternative Republican resolution, which authorized President Bush to invade that oil-rich country unilaterally in violation of the UN Charter.

The October 2002 war resolution backed by Kerry was not like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution regarding Vietnam, where there was no time for reflection and debate. Kerry had been briefed by the chief UN weapons inspector and by prominent scholars of the region, who informed him of the likely absence of any of the alleged “weapons of mass destruction” and the likely consequences of a U.S. invasion, but he voted to authorize the invasion anyway. It was not a “mistake” or a momentary lapse of judgment. It demonstrated Kerry’s dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law and international treaties that prohibit aggressive war.

Kerry and his supporters claim he does not really reject international law. They note that, in voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Kerry stated at that time that he expected President Bush “to work with the United Nations Security Council and our allies . . . if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force.” He then promised that if President Bush failed to do so, “I will be the first to speak out.”

However, Senator Kerry broke that promise. When President Bush abandoned his efforts to gain United Nations Security Council authorization for the war in late February 2003 and pressed forward with plans for the invasion without a credible international coalition, Kerry remained silent. Indeed, when President Bush actually launched the invasion soon afterwards, Senator Kerry praised him, co-sponsoring a Senate resolution declaring that the invasion was “lawful and fully authorized by the Congress” and that he “commends and supports the efforts and leadership of the President . . . in the conflict with Iraq.”

Unlike the hawkish senator from Massachusetts, most Democrats in Congress voted against authorizing the invasion. For example, Senator Robert Byrd introduced a resolution in the fall of 2002 clarifying that authorizing an invasion of Iraq would not diminish Congress’ Constitutional authority to declare war and that no additional authority not directly related to a clear threat of imminent, sudden, and direct attack on the United States could be granted to the president unless Congress authorized it. Senator Kerry voted against it, saying “Every nation has the right to act preemptively if it faces an imminent and grave threat.”

Senator Kerry’s embrace of unilateralism and his rejection of the United Nations system was further illustrated in his attacks on former Vermont governor Howard Dean—who had been a rival for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination—for arguing that a genuine international coalition should have been established before the United States invaded Iraq. Kerry claimed that such multilateralism “cedes our security and presidential responsibility to defend America to someone else” since it would “permit a veto over when American can or cannot act.” Dean’s call for the United States to work in broad coalitions, insisted Kerry, is “little more than a pretext for doing nothing.”

Even after the Bush administration acknowledged that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” or WMD programs, Kerry said he would have voted for the war anyway because of the oppressive nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the fact that Iraq could potentially make WMDs in the future. What is disturbing about this is that there are scores of oppressive governments around the world that could conceivably pose some kind of threat at some time in the future. Kerry apparently believes that the president should have the power to go after any of them right now.

Even conservative analysts like Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and later a lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, criticized what he called Kerry’s “recklessly prowar positions,” arguing that Kerry’s criteria for going to war were “wildly aggressive.” Correctly referring to Kerry as an “uber-militarist”, Edwards observed, “I know of no leading American ‘hawk,’ not even among the most militant of the neocons, who has said he or she would have supported going to war if it were absolutely known that the perceived ‘imminent threat’ did not exist.”

It appears that Kerry has not changed his hawkish view. As recently as November 2011, Kerry voted against a resolution which would have repealed the 2002 authorization for the use of force in Iraq.

Kerry basically rejects the UN Charter and the whole basis of the post-World War II international legal system, which is based on the notion of collective security and the illegality of any nation launching an aggressive war. In Kerry’s view, powerful nations like the United States can invade any country they want if they determine that it might hypothetically pose some kind of threat someday in the future. To have someone with this extremist position as secretary of state sends a message to the international community that little has changed since the Bush administration.

Opposition to International Law – Israel

Iraq is not the only example of Kerry’s hostility toward international law, however. An outspoken supporter of the policies of a series of right-wing Israeli governments in the occupied territories, Kerry has defended the Israeli re-occupation of sections of the West Bank; Israel’s ongoing violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions; Israel’s policy of assassinating suspected militants and other Palestinian leaders; former rightist Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposed annexation of vast stretches of occupied Palestinian territory in order to incorporate illegal Jewish settlements into Israel; moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; opposing Palestinian self-determination or UN recognition of statehood outside of parameters agreed to by Israel’s right wing government; and the Israeli government’s construction of an illegal separation wall deep inside occupied territory (in defiance of a recent near-unanimous ruling by the International Court of Justice, which led Kerry to strongly criticize the UN’s judicial body).

Kerry defended Israel’s 2010 attack on an unarmed humanitarian flotilla in international waters, during which they killed nine crewmen—including a 19-year-old American citizen—despite the attack’s violation of international maritime law. Despite the ships being inspected prior to leaving the port of a NATO ally, Kerry justified the fatal raid on the unarmed ships on the grounds that Israel had every right “to make sure weapons are not being smuggled in.”

In the face of international outcry at Israeli’s 2006 war on Lebanon and 2008-2009 war on the Gaza Strip, Kerry joined Republican Senate colleagues in co-sponsoring resolutions unconditionally supporting the attacks. Reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and others condemned both Israel and the Arab militias for apparent war crimes, but Kerry insisted that Israel’s actions constituted legitimate self-defense and were perfectly legal. Kerry also attacked a well-documented 575-page report by the UNHRC, led by a team of reputable international jurists, which presented evidence of war crimes by both Hamas and Israel during the 2008-2009 fighting. Kerry insisted that attacks by Israel (which were responsible for over 800 civilian deaths) were perfectly legal, attributing the entire fault to Hamas (which was responsible for three civilian deaths). Despite longstanding international legal conventions against bombing civilian-populated areas, Kerry insisted that Israel’s entire military operation constituted legitimate self-defense.

Kerry’s hostility toward international humanitarian law came into particular focus in 2004, when he launched a series of attacks against the International Court of Justice. That summer, the World Court issued a unanimous (save for the U.S. judge) advisory opinion that Israel—like all countries—is bound by international humanitarian law and that the separation barrier being built inside the occupied West Bank was illegal.

In response, Kerry cosponsored a Senate resolution “supporting the construction by Israel of a security fence to prevent Palestinian terrorist attacks, condemning the decision of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the security fence, and urging no further action by the United Nations to delay or prevent the construction of the security fence.” Kerry’s resolution claimed that “the International Court of Justice is politicized and critical of Israel” since “The United States, Korea, and India have constructed security fences to separate such countries from territories or other countries for the security of their citizens.” Kerry’s comparison, however, fails to note that the other barriers, unlike Israel’s, were placed along internationally recognized borders and were therefore not the subject of legal challenge. The Court explicitly affirmed Israel’s right to construct the barrier on their border, just not in foreign territory under Israeli occupation. Rather than displaying a bias against Israel, the World Court has actually been quite consistent: In the only other two advisory opinions issued by the ICJ involving occupied territories (South African-occupied Namibia in 1972 and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara in 1975), they also ruled against the occupying power.

In the case of the occupied West Bank, however, Kerry insisted, that the World Court “do[es] not have jurisdiction” and that any legal challenges to the route of the wall should go through the Israeli judiciary “and we should respect that process.” In other words, Kerry takes an extreme position, effectively saying that legal matters involving international humanitarian law in territories under foreign belligerent occupation should be addressed solely by the courts of the occupying power. Part of this may be that he doesn’t even recognized territory invaded by U.S. allies as occupied. Kerry’s Senate resolution against the World Court decision, had it passed, would have marked the first time either house of Congress has passed a resolution that refers to the West Bank not as an “occupied” territory but as “disputed.” This distinction is important for two reasons: the word “disputed” implies that the claims of the West Bank’s Israeli conquerors are as legitimate as the claims of Palestinians who have lived on the land for centuries, and disputed territories—unlike occupied territories—are not covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention and many other international legal statutes.

Despite rationalizing for his support for the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraq was violating a series of UN Security Council resolutions, when U.S. allies have defied UN Security Council resolutions, Kerry has defended them. For example, he has supported Israel’s annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, which Israeli forces seized in June 1967, despite a series of UN Security Council resolutions demanding that Israel rescind its annexation (such as resolutions 262 and 267). He has also opposed efforts to block Israeli efforts to colonize large sections of the West Bank, despite a series of resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from these illegal settlements (such as resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471).

Thus, in John Kerry’s world, the United States alone can decide which United Nations Security Council resolutions to enforce and how they are enforced. No less than President Bush, Kerry seeks to effectively overturn the post-World War II international system based upon the rule of law and collective security in order to forcibly impose a Pax Americana.

Credibility Problems

A U.S. secretary of state, even one as far to the right as John Kerry, must not be perceived as dishonest. Repeatedly being caught making blatant falsehoods in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary does not give America’s chief diplomat the kind of credibility our country needs to conduct relations with foreign nations.

Unfortunately, Kerry’s credibility has repeatedly been put into question by his willingness to either fabricate non-existent threats or naively believe transparently false and manipulated intelligence claiming such threats exist—such as when he chose to ignore a plethora of evidence from weapons inspectors and independent arms control analysts who said that, prior to his vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq in October 2002, Iraq had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament.

In a speech on the Senate floor immediately prior to the vote, Senator Kerry categorically stated that Saddam Hussein was “attempting to develop nuclear weapons.” However, there appears to be no evidence to suggest that Iraq had had an active nuclear program for at least eight to ten years prior to the U.S. invasion. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in 1998 and subsequently that Iraq’s nuclear program appeared to have been completely dismantled. To justify his claims of an Iraqi nuclear threat, Senator Kerry claimed that “all U.S. intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons.” The reality, of course, was that much of the U.S. intelligence community was highly skeptical of claims that Iraq was attempting to acquire nuclear materials, and this fact was widely circulated in academic journals, the mainstream media, and in intelligence reports.

In addition, despite being briefed to the contrary by former chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter and other arms control experts, Senator Kerry stated unequivocally that “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons.” He even claimed that most elements of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs “are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War.” He did not try to explain how this could be possible, given the limited shelf life of such chemical and biological agents and the strict embargo against imports of any additional banned materials that had been in place since 1990. The Massachusetts senator also asserted that authorizing a U.S. invasion of that oil-rich country was necessary since “these weapons represent an unacceptable threat.”

However, despite inspections by the United Nations Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC) and subsequent searches by U.S. forces, no chemical or biological weapons have been found.

Senator Kerry’s fabrications about Iraq did not stop there. He made similarly ludicrous claims that “Iraq is developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of delivering chemical and biological warfare agents, which could threaten Iraq’s neighbors as well as American forces in the Persian Gulf.” In a cynical effort to take advantage of Americans’ post-9/11 fears, Kerry went on to claim that “Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating agents and is capable of quickly producing and weaponizing a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery on a range of vehicles such as bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operatives which could bring them to the United States homeland.”

Again, no such Iraqi UAVs or other systems capable of delivering chemical and biological weapons have been found.

To this day, Kerry’s Senate office has refused to provide me or any other independent analysts access to the supposed intelligence that supposedly said Iraq had these supposed WMDs and delivery systems that were supposedly such a threat that we supposedly had to invade. He did, however, presumably see the polls that showed that the only way the American people would support a war on Iraq would be if Iraq was a threat to the United States, which may have influenced his decision to make that claim.

Kerry claims that under the circumstances present in October 2002, when he and his congressional colleagues made the fateful decision to grant President Bush unprecedented war-making authority, “any president would have needed the threat of force to act effectively.” Kerry went on to say, “The idea was simple: We would get the weapons inspectors back in to verify whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” This is an extraordinarily misleading statement, however. Saddam Hussein had finally agreed to unconditional unfettered United Nations inspections as demanded by the UN Security Council on September 16, nearly four weeks prior to Kerry’s vote authorizing the U.S. invasion.

Kerry has also demonstrated a tendency to make things up to rationalize war crimes by U.S. allies. For example, to explain civilian deaths caused by Israeli air strikes and other military operations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, he co-sponsored resolutions accusing Hamas and Hezbollah of deliberately using civilians as “human shields.” Subsequent human rights reports noted that Hamas and Hezbollah were guilty of other violations of international humanitarian law, but found no cases of either group deliberately holding civilians against their will as a deterrent from enemy attacks. Kerry’s office has refused to reply to a series of inquiries asking the senator to provide examples of where and when Hamas or Hezbollah ever used human shields.

Kerry insisted that a United Nations report ignored how the Israelis supposedly went to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties by dropping leaflets and sending robo-calls to Palestinian homes warning them of impending attacks. In reality, the report examined these claims in detail, but concluded that many of the calls and leaflets were sent out too late or were too vague to enable civilians to reach safety. Furthermore, Israeli calls for civilians to flee to downtown Gaza City led those who heeded such advice right into the line of Israeli fire, as when the Israelis attacked the UN compound and school with mortars and phosphorous bombs where hundreds of fleeing residents had sought refuge. The UNHRC report confirmed the conclusions of previous investigations that there were no legitimate military targets in the area.

There are quite a few other examples of Kerry’s willingness to make things up to support controversial actions by the Israeli government. For example, back in 2004, when Palestinian president Yasir Arafat was repeatedly calling for a resumption of peace negotiations but was being rejected by Israel’s right-wing prime minister Ariel Sharon, Kerry insisted that it was Arafat who was refusing to “take part in a peaceful process.”

Similarly, during an interview on Meet the Press, Kerry justified Israel’s assassination policy by saying that “The moment Hamas says, ‘We’ve given up violence. We are prepared to negotiate,’ I am absolutely confident they will find an Israel that is thirsty to have that negotiation.” In reality, the Israeli government has repeatedly stated that, even if Hamas made such a statement, they would not negotiate with the Islamic group. Furthermore, Israel’s assassination policy has included more than just terrorists: it has included community leaders such as Isaac Saada, a teacher at a Catholic high school in Bethlehem who was working with Israeli colleagues in developing a joint curriculum in conflict resolution, and Shaden Abu Hijleh, a Palestinian social worker and nonviolent activist in Nablus. A special UN investigation, headed by a prominent Jewish American professor of international law, concluded that Israel has utilized “a seemingly random hit list” in its assassinations.

Imperial Hubris

Kerry has repeatedly demonstrated an incredible level of hubris and arrogance regarding American military power. Indeed, in supporting the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Kerry apparently worked on the assumption that the United States could get away with an indefinite occupation of a heavily populated Arab country with a strong history of nationalism and resistance to foreign domination.

Similarly, his attacks on those with more moderate views raise questions as to whether he has the temperament to be secretary of state. For example, in 2003, when Governor Dean proposed that the United States take a more “even-handed role” as the chief mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “bring the sides together” in a “constructive way,” and “not point fingers” at who is to blame, Kerry not only insisted Dean was wrong for suggesting it, but made the bizarre assertion that such an approach “would throw this volatile region into even more turmoil.”

Kerry has also made a habit of accusing those who do not support his right-wing agenda as somehow being soft on terrorism. In 2004, Kerry attacked UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for backing the UN General Assembly’s decision to ask the ICJ to consider the legal questions involved in Israel’s separation barrier, claiming that doing so casts doubt on the chief UN official’s opposition to terrorism.

Kerry was particularly hostile towards those who refused to support Bush’s war in Iraq and those who believed the United Nations should take the lead in the post-war effort of stabilization and reconstruction. In 2004, when the newly elected government of Spain announced that it would fulfill its longstanding promise to withdraw its forces from Iraq unless the mission was placed under the United Nations, Kerry responded by saying, “I call on Prime Minister Zapatero to reconsider his decision and to send a message that terrorists cannot win by their act of terror.” Not only did Kerry believe that the Bush/Cheney administration was somehow more trustworthy than the international community in resolving the serious problems besetting post-war Iraq, Kerry was arguing that if a government disagreed with him and insisted that there be a UN mandate in place before participating in the occupation of a foreign country, they were somehow appeasing terrorists.

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he promised to not just end the war in Iraq, but to end the “mindset” that led to the war. However, in nominating John Kerry to be his next secretary of state, it appears that mindset is alive and well.

US policy on Gaza crisis rife with contradiction

The Obama administration’s reaction to last month’s Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip is emblematic of the contradictions in its foreign policy seen throughout its first term.

On the one hand, pushed by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the administration was virtually alone in the international community defending the bombing and shelling of the crowded civilian enclave, and single-handedly blocking a modest and balanced initiative in the U.N. Security Council calling for a cease-fire.

On the other hand, the administration was largely responsible for stopping the Israeli assault after little more than a week prior to a planned ground invasion and over the objections of most of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line cabinet.

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice correctly noted that there was “no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel.” However, she had absolutely no criticism of Israel’s far more devastating attacks against the people of the Gaza Strip, simply saying, “Israel, like any nation, has the right to defend itself against such vicious attacks.”

The real issue, however, was never Israel’s right to self-defense, but its attacks on crowded residential neighborhoods, which killed more than 100 civilians, nearly a third of them children (as compared with five Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets). The Obama administration’s position is ironic given that, while both sides share the blame for the tragedy, it appears that it was Israel that was primarily responsible for breaking the fragile cease-fires, leading to the latest round of heavy fighting, through acts such as its assassination of a leading Hamas official and cross-border attacks that killed a number of boys playing soccer.

On Nov. 20, Rice blocked an otherwise unanimous U.N. Security Council statement calling for a cease-fire, condemning all acts of terrorism and violence directed toward civilians, and reiterating support for all states to live in peace and security within their internationally recognized boundaries. It reiterated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could only be resolved through peaceful means and called for an immediate resumption of a substantive bilateral negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

This evenhandedness was too much for the Obama administration, however, which promised to prevent the passage of any statement or resolution that didn’t explicitly put the blame for the violence solely on Hamas.

It is hard to imagine anything the administration could have done that would have more greatly alienated public opinion in the Arab world than block international efforts to end the killings, particularly at a time when public opinion matters more than ever in that part of the world and as once-close U.S. allies in the region like Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia are taking increasingly independent foreign policy positions.

It is doubtful that many people at the United Nations will take Rice seriously again when she complains about Russia and China vetoing Security Council resolutions trying to stop the slaughter in Syria after her blocking efforts to stop the slaughter in Gaza.

In the face of growing calls from throughout the world for both sides to de-escalate the violence, the White House said on the third day of fighting that it would leave it to Israel to decide whether it was appropriate to launch a ground invasion. Similarly, in response to the outcry at the growing number of civilian casualties from the Israeli, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, insisted, “The Israelis are going to make decisions about their own military tactics and operations.”

While, much to the chagrin of Israeli peace activists and others, the administration was largely repeating Israeli talking points, Obama was acting very differently behind the scenes. Netanyahu is facing a tough re-election fight, leading many Israeli peace activists to charge that this latest round of fighting was politically motivated. As a result, there may have been concern that public criticism of Netanyahu or supporting U.N. efforts for a cease-fire would have played into his hands, provoking a nationalist reaction. Instead, Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Israel to pressure the right-wing government not to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip with the largest call-up of Israeli reserves in three decades. Despite having been one of most strident defenders of Israel’s right-wing government when she was senator, Clinton successfully pressed Netanyahu to accept the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, which he had initially rejected.

While many Israelis and Palestinians are understandably relieved and grateful for Washington’s intervention, it raises some disturbing questions. Though the Obama administration deserves credit for preventing greater carnage, why did it apparently give the Israelis the green light during the first bloody week of fighting? Is the insistence on sidelining the United Nations in favor of a Washington-led initiative yet another sign of the administration’s preference for U.S. unilateralism over working through the U.N. system, and for Pax Americana over real peace? Why has the Obama administration increased military aid to Israel to record levels despite Israel’s propensity to use U.S. weapons against heavily populated civilian neighborhoods and despite repeated calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups for an arms moratorium on both sides?

The United States has stridently opposed nonviolent initiatives by moderate Palestinians and their supporters — such as U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood; boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against the occupation; humanitarian aid flotillas; and allowing the International Court of Justice and the U.N. Human Rights Council to address ongoing Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. Given that, is it any surprise that Hamas and other extremists in the Gaza Strip would resort to violence?

Susan Rice Would Have Been a Bad Secretary of State Anyway

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s announcement that she would withdraw her name from consideration to be the next secretary of state is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it marks yet another example of the Obama administration’s failure to defend its appointees from concerted and misleading Republican attacks. As with National Intelligence Council chair-designate Chas Freeman, special environmental advisor Van Jones, and Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, the fact that the charges against Rice—which mostly involved her initial comments regarding the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi—were groundless did not stop the Republicans from succeeding.

On the other hand, Rice’s lack of support for international humanitarian law and her willingness to state demonstrable falsehoods to defend actions by the United States and its allies that violate international norms would have made her a poor choice for secretary of state. It is all too telling that the mainstream media was so willing to focus on spurious criticisms from the right while ignoring legitimate criticisms from the left.

One example of Rice’s disconnect from reality came up in the lead-up to the war in Iraq 10 years ago, as independent arms control analysts, scholars, investigative journalists, and anti-war activists were challenging the Bush administration’s lies about the supposed “Iraqi threat.” In an apparent effort to discredit these efforts by those who opposed the rush to war, Rice rushed to the administration’s defense. Even though Iraq had disarmed itself of its chemical and biological weapons and eliminated its nuclear program at least eight years earlier, Rice declared, “It’s clear that Iraq poses a major threat.” And, despite the success of the UN’s disarmament program, she insisted that Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that’s the path we’re on.”

In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the United Nations that Iraq had reconstituted its biological and chemical weapons arsenal, as well as its nuclear weapons program—and had somehow hidden all this from the hundreds of UN inspectors then in Iraq who were engaged in unfettered inspections. None of this was true, and Powell’s transparently false claims were immediately challenged by UN officials, arms control specialists, and much of the press and political leadership in Europe and elsewhere. (See my article written in response to his testimony: Mr. Powell, You’re No Adlai Stevenson.)

Rice, however, insisted that Powell had “proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them, and I don’t think many informed people doubted that.” In light of such widespread and public skepticism from knowledgeable sources, Rice’s dismissal of all the well-founded criticism was positively Orwellian: those who blindly accepted Powell’s transparently false claims were “well-informed,” while the UN officials, arms control specialists, and others knowledgeable of the reality of the situation were presumably otherwise.

Her openness to another U.S. war in the Middle East became apparent when she announced in September that “there is no daylight” between the United States and the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been pushing for a unilateral attack on Iran, regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Rice has also not been averse to supporting autocratic regimes in Africa, recently suppressing a UN report criticizing the government of Rwanda, a U.S. ally, for supporting the M-23 rebels in eastern Congo. The rebels, led by a notorious warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court, have wreaked havoc in the troubled province of North Kivu. Rice dismissed the report, saying, “It’s eastern Congo. If it were not the M23 killing people it would be some other armed groups.”

Similarly, this past September Rice delivered a eulogy for the late Meles Zenawi, the authoritarian ruler of Ethiopia, calling him “brilliant,” “uncommonly wise, able to see the big picture and the long game,” and “a true friend to me.”

Rice has also objected to UN initiatives challenging racism, successfully pushing the Obama administration to boycott a five-day conference in Geneva in 2009 that assessed international progress in fighting racism and xenophobia since the UN’s first conference in Durban, South Africa eight years earlier. The final document of the 2001 conference explicitly recognized “the right to security for all States in the [Middle East], including Israel, and call[ed] upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.” It called as well for “a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all peoples shall co-exist and enjoy equality, justice and internationally recognized human rights, and security.” However, because it also expressed concern regarding “the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” and recognized their “right to self-determination,” Rice determined that it was somehow “anti-Israel” since it “prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Defending Israeli colonization and repression

Indeed, Rice has developed a reputation at the United Nations as one of the world body’s most outspoken supporters of Israel’s rightist government and its settlements policy. Former Congressman Robert Wexler, who now heads a right-leaning pro-Israel advocacy group in Washington, wrote in an op-ed for Politico that “Israel has no greater champion in the current administration than Susan Rice.” Failing to distinguish between anti-Israel ideologues and legitimate criticism of the right-wing government’s violations of international law, Rice has dismissed criticism at the UN of Israeli policies as nothing more than “anti-Israel crap.” She cast one of only nine negative votes in the 193-member UN General Assembly to upgrade Palestine’s status to a non-member state. In Rice’s view, while Israeli statehood and membership in the United Nations is a given, Palestinian statehood and UN recognition should only be on terms agreed to by Israel’s hardline government.

Indeed, Rice has made clear her contempt for international law in a series of statements regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of the outstanding issues between Israel and Palestine—such as settlements and the status of East Jerusalem—are issues of international law, many of which have been previously addressed by the UN Security Council and other United Nations bodies. For example, Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has continued despite these settlements constituting a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a landmark advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, and four previous UN Security Council resolutions that passed without objection from previous administrations.

However, in justifying her veto of an otherwise unanimous resolution in 2011 reiterating the illegality of Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank, Rice insisted that it was “unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.”

Ironically, the resolution about which she spoke did not “attempt to resolve” the conflict. Indeed, it explicitly called for the resumption of negotiations. What Rice objected to was the resolution’s insistence that such negotiations be based on international law, which is actually a very appropriate role for the UN Security Council, but one which Rice somehow found to be intolerable.

During last month’s conflict between forces of Hamas and Israel, during which three Israeli civilians and over 100 Palestinian civilians died, Rice correctly noted that there was “no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel.” However, she offered absolutely no criticism for Israel’s far more devastating bombardment of the heavily populated Gaza Strip, simply saying that “Israel, like any nation, has the right to defend itself against such vicious attacks.” She blocked an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council statement that called for a cease fire, condemned all acts of terrorism and violence directed toward civilians, and reiterated support for all states to live in peace and security within their internationally recognized boundaries.

When a UN investigation of the 2008-2009 Gaza War raised concerns about possible war crimes by both Israel and Hamas, Rice denounced it because of its criticism of the actions by the U.S.-armed Israeli Defense Forces. “Our view is that we need to be focused on the future,” she argued. The report’s findings included the recommendation that both Hamas and the Israeli government bring to justice those responsible for war crimes during the three weeks of fighting and, if they failed to do so, the report urged that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible prosecution. Rice labeled this call to hold those accountable for war crimes as “basically unacceptable.” Though Rice had argued just a few months earlier during a UN debate on Darfur that war crimes charges should never be sacrificed for political reasons, she argued that following the report’s recommendations on Israel-Palestine could somehow interfere with the “peace process,” which has been stagnant for years.

Rice’s lack of concern for international humanitarian law has been particularly evident in her attacks against the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights, Richard Falk—an American Jew and a highly respected international legal scholar and professor emeritus from Princeton. When Falk recommended that companies profiting from Israel’s illegal settlements “should be boycotted until they bring their operations into line with international human rights and humanitarian law and standards,” Rice denounced his recommendations as “irresponsible and unacceptable.” Falk’s proposals, she argued, would “do nothing to further a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and indeed poison the environment for peace,” adding, that Falk’s “continued service in the role of a UN Special Rapporteur is deeply regrettable.” And, despite his outspoken criticisms of Palestinian terrorism and his insistence that his mandate should include violations of human rights by Palestinian governments (which led the Palestinian Authority to call for his resignation), Rice has labeled Falk “highly biased” against Israel.

In short, having Susan Rice as secretary of state would have been a major setback to the cause of human rights and international law. The question, though, is whether President Obama will nominate anyone better.

U.S. policy at U.N. hurts prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace

Up until the mid-20th century, Western attitudes regarding national freedom was that the independence of white Western nations was a given, but independence for nonwhite, non-Western nations could only be under conditions granted by the occupying powers.

The time at which these nations could be free, their specific boundaries and the conditions of their independence could only be reached through negotiations between the colonial occupiers and approved representatives of the conquered peoples. It was not the purview of the United Nations or any other international legal authority to adjudicate such matters, so went the argument, since the rights of those in the colonies were limited to what was willingly agreed to by the colonizers.

This appears to be the attitude of the Obama administration, which became one of only nine countries in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly late last month to vote against upgrading Palestine’s status at the United Nations to “non-member state.” Though an overwhelming majority of countries would have likely supported granting Palestine full membership, the threat of a U.S. veto made this impossible.

The Obama administration has faced strong bipartisan pressure by Congress to take such a hard line. In resolutions backed by California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Santa Cruz area Reps. Sam Farr and Anne Eshoo last year, both houses of Congress went on record calling on the president to lead diplomatic efforts to oppose U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state except on terms agreed to by Israel.

Israel certainly has legitimate security concerns, which is why the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242–long seen as the basis of Israeli-Palestinian peace– calls for security guarantees from Israel’s neighbors as a prerequisite for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Arab territories. However, the Palestine Authority (PA), under the leadership of the moderate President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has already agreed to such security guarantees, including a demilitarized state, the disarming of militias and the stationing of Israeli and international monitors inside Palestine. Indeed, there have been virtually no attacks against civilians inside Israel from areas of the West Bank controlled by the PA since Abbas became president in 2005.

The PA is only seeking statehood within 22 percent of historical Palestine, the part seized by Israel in 1967 and which is recognized by the international community as occupied territory. Under international law, peoples under foreign belligerent occupation have a legal right to national self-determination. However, the Obama administration and Congress apparently believe that this 22 percent is too much and the Palestinians should settle for even less.

By contrast, the Israeli government under the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that Israel would only consider allowing for a Palestinian “state” in a series of tiny non-contiguous urban cantons surrounded by Israel.

Palestine declared itself an independent state back in 1988 and was soon recognized by more countries than recognize Israel. The United States, however, insists they are somehow still not yet ready to have their state recognized by the UN until after a peace agreement with Israel. By contrast, when Israel sought to join the UN in 1949, the U.S. didn’t insist that it wait until the Palestinians and other Arabs signed a peace agreement with them first.

It is this failure to support legitimate Palestinian national aspirations under the leadership of the moderate PA which has contributed to the rise of extremist groups like Hamas, which argue that such moderation doesn’t work. Opposing legitimate nonviolent diplomatic initiatives such as those at the United Nations to establish a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel only encourages the violent extremists who wish to see Israel destroyed.

Obama to Aid Uzbek Dictatorship

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, in a move initiated by the Obama administration, has voted to waive Bush-era human rights restrictions on military aid to the Islam Karimov dictatorship in Uzbekistan, one of the most brutal and repressive regimes on the planet. The lifting of the restrictions, now part of the Foreign Operations bill, is before the full Senate and appears to have bipartisan support. The Obama administration has indicated that it intends to provide taxpayer-funded military assistance to Uzbekistan once the legislation passes both houses of Congress.

Torture is endemic in Karimov’s Uzbekistan, where his regime has banned all opposition political parties, severely restricted freedom of expression, forced international human rights and NGOs out of the country, suppressed religious freedom, and annually taken as many as two million children out of school to engage in forced labor for the cotton harvest. Thousands of dissidents have been jailed and many hundreds have been killed, some of them literally boiled alive.

In reaction to the Obama administration’s efforts, 20 human rights, labor, consumer, and other groups signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying “We strongly urge you to oppose passage of the law and not to invoke this waiver.” The signers encouraged the administration “to stand behind your strong past statements regarding human rights abuses in Uzbekistan” and not move toward “business as usual” with that regime.

Signatories included the AFL-CIO, Amnesty International USA, and Human Rights Watch, as well as organizations with close ties to the foreign policy establishment like Freedom House and the International Crisis Group.

White House Claims

Despite evidence to the contrary, Secretary of State Clinton, who visited Uzbekistan on October 23, has claimed that the regime was “showing signs of improving its human rights record and expanding political freedoms.” Similarly, when asked about the dictator’s claim that he was committed to leave a legacy of freedom and democracy for his grandchildren, a senior State Department official responded, “Yeah. I do believe him. I mean, he’s said several times that he’s committed to this. He’s made a speech last November where he talked about this.” In response to some skeptical follow-up questions by journalists, the official replied that “we still have some quite serious concerns about the situations on the human rights.” However, “we think that there is really quite an important opening now to work on that stuff, also work on developing civil society, which again President Karimov has expressed support for. So, yeah, I do take him at his word.”

A White House official told me that Obama had spoken directly to Karimov in recent weeks about human rights concerns, noting “he said more on democracy in that call than eight years of Bush administration dealings with Karimov.” The official also insisted that the Obama administration would condition future policy on the regime’s performance and that was made clear to the Uzbek leadership.

U.S. administrations, however, have rarely followed through on suspending aid when regimes fail to improve their human rights record. Despite assertions that military aid and cooperation can be used to improve a regime’s human rights record, it usually results in the opposite. Indeed, this line has been used for decades – most notoriously as a rationale for arming the death squads and murderous counter-insurgency units of the right-wing junta in El Salvador in the 1980s – and has been repeatedly shown to facilitate rather than limit the repression.

The Obama administration is making this controversial move in order to open the Central Asian nation to transit military equipment and other supplies in and out of Afghanistan, particularly after neighboring Kyrgyzstan looks likely to close its U.S. military base in Manas when the lease runs out in 2014. Potentially of greater consequence, Pakistan has threatened to cut off supply routes to U.S. forces in that land-locked country, so there is a scramble to look for alternatives. Unfortunately, as defenders of administration policy have put it, Afghanistan is surrounded by dictatorships, leaving them little choice but to provide assistance in return for transit rights.

The Uzbek government has insisted that these human rights restrictions be dropped in return for providing U.S. forces with a northern route into the country. As Justin Elliot of Salon put it, “Operation Enduring Freedom — otherwise known as the war in Afghanistan — could soon result in less freedom for the people of Uzbekistan, if the Obama administration gets its way.”

To those who question whether the United States should still be fighting in Afghanistan in the first place, defenders of administration policy stress that travel through Uzbekistan may be necessary not just to supply the troops, but to get them and their equipment out of there.

However, the administration has not made a convincing case as to why U.S. forces could not be supplied or evacuated by air. The U.S. military has thousands of C-130s and other huge planes designed for that very purpose. Although countries have to provide clearance for foreign aircraft to cross their airspace, it’s hard to imagine that the Pakistanis would risk war by shooting down U.S. transport planes.

A History of Repression

Karimov became leader of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989 in the waning days of the Soviet era. He backed the unsuccessful coup by Communist Party hard liners against reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and personally opposed Uzbek independence. But finding himself president of a sovereign state when the Soviet Union suddenly dissolved, he quickly modified his position, changing his first name to “Islam” and morphing into an Uzbek nationalist. – President Obama called him in September to congratulate him on the twentieth anniversary of independence.

As president of the newly independent Uzbekistan, Karimov quickly banned leading opposition parties and has since held onto power through the suppression of the opposition and a series of rigged elections and plebiscites, labeling virtually all opponents as Islamist radicals.

Uzbekistan is the largest country in Central Asia in terms of population, and its capital Tashkent is the region’s largest city, with a modern subway system and an international airport built during the Soviet era. As an independent state under Karimov’s rule, however, Uzbekistan remains one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics despite its generous natural resources, including one of the world’s largest sources of natural gas and sizable but largely untapped oil reserves. Karimov pockets virtually all of the revenue generated by the country’s natural endowments. Corruption is rampant, and his brutal militias routinely engage in robbery and extortion. Businessmen who refuse to pay bribes are frequently labeled as Islamic extremists and then jailed, tortured, and murdered.

Despite this, Craig Murray, who served as the British ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004, observed how Karimov was “very much George Bush’s man in Central Asia” and that no Bush administration official ever said a negative word about him. Indeed, Uzbekistan was a destination in the “extraordinary rendition” program, where the United States would send suspected Islamist extremists for torture. Popular pressure forced a reluctant Bush administration to cut off military aid to the dictatorship in 2004.

In May 2005, following an eruption of pro-democracy demonstrations in Andijan and other cities, Uzbeki government forces massacred more than 700 protesters over a two-day period. The Bush administration successfully blocked a call by NATO for an international investigation, though a report from Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with scores of eyewitnesses, determined that government troops had used ”indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed people.” The British newspaper The Independent reported that Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov “almost certainly personally authorized the use of…deadly force.”

When asked about the 2005 massacres during Clinton’s October visit, a senior State Department official responded, “We’ve definitely – we’ve moved on from that.”

If Congress approves the waiver, it will send a message to other dictators facing pro-democracy uprisings that they can murder people by the hundreds and still receive U.S. assistance. This is nothing short of a license to kill. Other despots will likely interpret such assistance to indicate that warnings – such as those given by the Obama administration to the Egyptian military back in February that ties would be severed if pro-democracy protesters were massacred—are not to be taken seriously.

Along with administration efforts to provide additional military supplies to Bahrain following that regime’s brutal crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year, it is yet another indication of the Obama administration’s continued willingness to prop up some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.

Obama’s Mideast Speech: Two Steps Back, One Step Forward

Although President Barack Obama’s May 19 address on U.S. Middle East policy had a number of positive elements, overall it was a major disappointment. His speech served as yet another reminder that his administration’s approach to the region differs in several important ways from that of his immediate predecessor, but he failed to consistently assert principled U.S. support for human rights, democracy, or international law.

Obama was most eloquent in noting how popular nonviolent struggles were the driving agent of change in the region, and how this had in many ways made al-Qaeda decreasingly relevant even before the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this month. Correctly recognizing that, through the use of nonviolent action, “the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades,” the president also observed, unlike the problematic efforts of “democracy promotion” in Iraq, “It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo — it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome.”

Also to his credit, Obama did not just talk about free elections as the sole determinant of democracy, but the right of a free press, free assembly, and the right to information. Similarly, it is positive that he committed the United States to “build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future — particularly young people.”

In doing so, however, he will face the widespread opposition of these young people and other democratic forces to continued U.S. arms transfers and security assistance to corrupt and repressive regimes, the pursuit of a neo-liberal economic agenda that has exacerbated inequality in their countries, and ongoing U.S. support for the continued Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.

Bahrain and Syria

In his most forceful comments on the situation in Bahrain to date, Obama addressed concerns about the worsening repression in that island kingdom. However, he did not push for democratic change in Bahrain, a U.S. ally, nearly as much as he did regarding Syria, a longtime U.S. adversary. This unbalanced emphasis was particularly striking given that — as a percentage of the population — even more people have been killed and jailed in the former. For example, while calling for greater freedom for Bahrainis, Obama did not call on King Hamad to “lead that transition or get out of the way” as he did with Syrian President Assad. The United States has enormous leverage with Bahrain through its contributions to the government’s coffers in rent for military bases, as well as through arms sales and related security assistance that has been used to oppress pro-democracy demonstrators. But Obama has refused to impose sanctions on Bahrain as he did on Syria.

Another double standard apparent in the president’s speech was, while complaining that Iran has allegedly “tried to take advantage of the turmoil” in Bahrain, Obama refused to endorse international demands that U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdraw the troops they sent into that island kingdom to brutally repress the overwhelmingly nonviolent freedom struggle.

Obama’s claim that, in Iraq, “we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy” is rather incredible given the ongoing sectarianism and political repression, including the killing and jailing of pro-democracy activists — including leading journalists and intellectuals — and the destruction of offices of civil society groups calling for greater freedom and transparency in the U.S.-backed regime.

It is gratifying to hear a president say that the United States “will oppose an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion — not consent.” However, as long as the United States continues to provide allied regimes with billions of dollars worth of security assistance to make that coercion possible, there remain serious questions regarding how seriously Obama is willing to follow through on that commitment.

In addition, his claim that the United States “will not tolerate aggression across borders” continues to be somewhat selective given its ongoing support for the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and support for Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories. And although Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq, he has yet to withdraw U.S. forces from that country whose borders the United States crossed in what is recognized by most authorities of international law as an illegal act of aggression.


The good news is that Obama stressed that the Israeli occupation should end and an independent Palestinian state should be established, with its boundaries based on the internationally recognized pre-June 1967 borders. Though this has been the international consensus for years, right-wing Republicans and other allies of Israel’s rightist government have attacked Obama for his position.

However, Obama did not call for a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from occupied Palestinian territory. The unspecified variations from the pre-1967 borders, Obama insisted, should be made through “mutually agreed-upon” land swaps. Unfortunately, despite Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agreeing to such reciprocal territorial swaps — even though it would leave the Palestinian state with a bare 22 percent of Palestine — Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has refused to consider trading any land within Israel while simultaneously insisting on annexing large swathes of occupied Palestinian territory. How such “mutually agreed-upon” swaps will take place without the United States exerting enormous leverage — such as withholding some of the annual $3 billion in unconditional aid provided annually, which Obama has already ruled out — is hard to imagine.

The failure of Netanyahu to compromise has forced the Palestinian Authority to consider a unilateral declaration of independence in September within the areas of Palestine recognized by the United States as under foreign belligerent occupation — the 22 percent of Palestine consisting of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. However, in his speech, Obama arrogantly dismissed such an exercise of the Palestinians’ moral and legal right to self-determination as “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations.” His line that “a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River” came across as particularly bizarre since this is exactly where Palestinians had lived for centuries, not the neighboring Arab countries where millions of refugees now live.

Similarly, despite ongoing violations of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, a landmark advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, and basic international humanitarian law by the government of Israel, Obama vowed “we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.”

It was positive that Obama specified that Palestinian borders must be with “Israel, Jordan and Egypt.” This appears to be an open challenge to Israeli efforts to control the occupied Jordan Valley (thereby having Israel completely surround a proposed Palestinian mini-state and closing off their access to its eastern neighbor) and — since the West Bank does not border Egypt — to prevent the Gaza Strip from joining the new Palestinian republic.

It seemed particularly odd that Obama refused to point out areas of Israeli intransigence and violations of international legal norms but made a point of chastising the Palestinians for their “efforts to delegitimize Israel” and insisting “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.” Although such criticism of such actions are certainly reasonable in themselves, he seemed to ignore the fact that the Palestine Authority, their president and prime minister, the ruling Fatah party, and the Palestine Liberation Organization have repeatedly reiterated their recognition of Israel’s right to exist as an independent viable state in peace and security, which is more than the current Israeli government has ever done in regard to Palestine.

Also disturbing is Obama’s insistence that the borders of the new Palestinian state be agreed on prior to negotiations over the status of East Jerusalem, the nominal Palestinian capital and the base of leading Palestinian universities, businesses, and cultural and religious landmarks. Any idea that the Palestinians will accept an independent mini-state without East Jerusalem as its capital is frankly naïve.

Most disturbingly, Obama raised concern about whether the Israeli government should even negotiate with the recently announced national unity government formed between the two largest Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, on the grounds of Hamas’ ongoing refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Obama failed to note that the current Israeli government includes parties that refuse to recognize Palestine’s right to exist or raise concerns about whether the Palestinians should negotiate with an Israeli government that included such parties. This blatant double standard raises serious questions regarding Obama’s commitment to being an honest broker in resolving the conflict.

Obama concluded his speech by declaring that “we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.” Unfortunately, for decades, the United States has refused to do this. And, although the Obama administration has taken small steps in that direction relative to previous administrations, it still has a long way to go before fulfilling such a promise.

Mitchell’s Inevitable Resignation

At age 77, George Mitchell’s resignation as President Barack Obama’s envoy on Arab-Israeli affairs may have indeed been for personal reasons, as he claimed. More likely, however, it came out of frustration at the Obama administration’s failure to pressure the right-wing Israeli government to make the necessary compromises for peace.

The failure of the Obama administration to adequately support Mitchell in pursuing the peace process is all the more remarkable given that the former senator is such a quintessential establishment figure.

Mitchell’s Rise

Mitchell had been a prominent Maine attorney, Democratic Party activist and US district judge before being appointed to the US Senate in 1980 following President Jimmy Carter’s selection of Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie to be his secretary of state, which left the Maine seat empty. Mitchell was subsequently elected to two full terms, quickly rising in the ranks to serve as majority leader between 1989 and 1995. Raised in a blue-collar family in Waterville, Maine, his mother was a textile worker who had emigrated from Lebanon as a young woman.

Although he was one of the most prominent Arab-Americans in politics, Mitchell rarely openly embraced his Arab heritage. As a senator, he accepted large amounts of campaign contributions from right-wing political action committees that supported Israeli policies, and was a strong proponent of unconditional military and economic aid to the rightist Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Mitchell criticized Republican Secretary of State James Baker from the right for characterizing the Jewish settlements ringing eastern Jerusalem on lands seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 War as part of the Occupied Territories. Mitchell effectively argued that the United States should recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of a part of the West Bank, in contravention of international law and a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

Following his retirement from the Senate in 1995, Mitchell led the commission that oversaw the Northern Ireland peace process and played an important role as a mediator in negotiations between Catholic and Protestant leaders that produced the Good Friday Accords of 1998. In an analysis with potential relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mitchell argued that the peace process succeeded in Northern Ireland because of the recognition that all interested parties had to be at the table and could not be excluded because they engaged in terrorism; that while insisting upon an end to the violence, it was not necessary to demand full disarmament; and, that while insisting upon peaceful means, one cannot ask a people to give up on their dreams.

Mitchell subsequently served on a number of corporate boards, bipartisan commissions and academic positions.

In the fall of 2000, the UN General Assembly created a commission charged with investigating the causes of and possible solutions to the recent outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence. As a means of countering the UN commission, which was expected to stress Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law, President Clinton appointed a US-led team to put forward its own report. After a US-convened security conference in Sharm al-Shaykh, Egypt, Clinton announced the formation of a fact-finding committee to be led by Mitchell. Other members of the commission included former US Sen. Warren Rudman, also a strong supporter of Israel’s earlier right-wing governments, as well as a former president of Turkey, Suleyman Demirel, a strong ally of Israel. The three outnumbered the more moderate commission members – Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland and European Union representative Javier Solana.

The United States determined that the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, better known as the Mitchell Commission, would operate primarily out of Washington, and that its investigations in Israel and the Occupied Territories would be strictly limited. The commission’s report, released at the end of April 2001, held neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians solely responsible for the breakdown of the peace process or for the ongoing violence. Instead the report called for a cease-fire, in particular for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the interim government, to “make clear through concrete action to Palestinians and Israelis alike that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable and that the PNA will make a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators.” It urged Israel to “ensure that the [Israeli Defense Forces] adopt and enforce policies and procedures encouraging non-lethal responses to unarmed demonstrators with a view to minimizing casualties and friction between the two communities.”

The report noted that the violence was not solely a result of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to an Islamic holy site in occupied East Jerusalem the previous autumn, nor was it part of a Palestinian plan to launch a violent struggle. The uprising, it stated, was rooted in Palestinian frustration over the failure of the peace process to get their land back and fueled by unnecessarily violent responses by both sides early in the fighting. Yet, when the report failed to call for an international force to separate the sides, it underscored the commission’s unwillingness to support decisive steps necessary to curb further bloodshed. Although the Mitchell Commission Report did not call for Israel to withdraw from its illegal settlements, as required under UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, 471 and 476, it did call for a “freeze on all settlement activity including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements,” emphasizing that “a cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement activity.”

To minimize civilian casualties on both sides, the report called on the PNA to prevent gunmen from firing at Israeli military and civilian areas from Palestinian populated areas. It also called on Israel to lift its closures of Palestinian population centers, transfer all the tax revenues it owed to the PNA and permit Palestinians formerly employed in Israel to return to their work. The Mitchell Commission Report also emphasized that Israeli security forces and settlers needed to “refrain from the destruction of homes and roads, as well as trees and other agricultural property in Palestinian areas” and that the PNA should “renew cooperation with Israeli security agencies to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that Palestinian workers employed within Israel are fully vetted and free of connections to organizations and individuals engaged in terrorism.”

Although formally accepting the Mitchell Commission Report, the succeeding administration of George W. Bush, as well as Congress, stressed the need for a cease-fire from the Palestinian side, effectively ignoring the report’s insistence on a settlement freeze and other Israeli responsibilities.

Obama’s Envoy

On January 22, 2009, President Obama announced Mitchell’s selection as special envoy for Arab-Israeli affairs at a public forum at the State Department. Choosing the relatively moderate former senate majority leader over more hawkish candidates for the post gave hope among some analysts that Mitchell’s appointment could signal that the incoming administration would pursue a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, with pressure from Congressional Republicans as well as hawkish Democratic leaders, Obama refused to pressure Israel to live up to its obligations under the Quartet and other peace initiatives, such as freezing the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, even vetoing a UN Security Council resolution reiterating the illegality of the ongoing Israeli colonization drive. Given that no viable Palestinian state would be possible as long as these illegal settlements kept expanding, and given that Obama has refused to threaten to withdraw even a portion of the billions of dollars of unconditional aid annually sent to prop up Israel’s rightist government in order to press Israel to withdraw from these settlements or even cease their expansion, it may have become obvious to Mitchell that the US government was not really interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace.

President Obama has also blocked consideration of a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation, which documented possible war crimes by Hamas, because it also documented possible war crimes by Israel as well as sabotaged independent investigations into an illegal Israeli attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla on the high seas. Similarly, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisting that the United States will not support any Palestinian government that includes cabinet members who refuse to adopt the Quartet principles while continuing to support an Israeli government dominated by cabinet members who refuse to adopt the Quartet principles, it may have become clear that Mitchell would not be allowed to be an honest broker.

Furthermore, according to the Palestine Papers, the 1,600 leaked documents from the Israeli-Palestine negotiations, the Palestine Authority had made a series of major unilateral concessions, including allowing the Israelis to hold on to the larger settlement blocs, giving up on Palestinian refugees’ right to return, sharing Jerusalem, providing strict security guarantees and more, but the Israelis still rejected a peace agreement. With Obama refusing to push Israel to accept such a compromise and Mitchell realizing it was unrealistic to expect any more concessions from the Palestinian side, he may have realized his mission was hopeless.

Indeed, as long as there is such an asymmetry of power between an occupying power that has by far the most powerful armed forces in the region and an occupied people under a weak governing body, which controls a few pockets of noncontiguous territory surrounded by the occupying power, even an “even-handed” approach was doomed. The fact that Obama would not allow Mitchell even that much support may have made his resignation inevitable.

Obama’s Veto on Israeli Settlements Demonstrates Contempt for International Humanitarian Law

The US veto of a mildly worded United Nations Security Council resolution supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and reiterating the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied territories leaves little doubt that, in certain critical respects, President Barack Obama shares his predecessor’s contempt for international law. All fourteen of the other members of the Security Council voted for the resolution — which was cosponsored by a nearly unprecedented majority of UN members — not only situating the United States as an extreme outlier in the international community, but placing President Obama to the right of the conservative governments of Great Britain and France.

The draft resolution Obama found so objectionable called on both Israelis and Palestinians to act on the basis of international law, other obligations and previous agreements; to help advance the peace process through confidence-building measures and continued negotiations on final status issues; and for regional actors and the international community to support the peace process. The resolution specifically reaffirmed previous UN Security Council resolutions acknowledging that Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands occupied since the June 1967 war are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to peace. Unlike these previous resolutions, however, which called on Israel to withdraw from already existing settlements, this resolution simply insisted that Israel cease additional settlement activity in Palestinian areas.

Even this was still too much for President Obama, however, who had UN ambassador Susan Rice cast the first veto of his administration.

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — to which both Israel and the United States are signatories — prohibits any occupying power from transferring “parts of its civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The United Nations has repeatedly recognized that Israel is in violation of this critical international treaty, including UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471, which were passed without US objections.

In addition, a landmark 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice also confirmed the illegality of the settlements, noting the illegitimacy of “any measures taken by an occupying Power in order to organize or encourage transfers of parts of its own population into the occupied territory.” Given that the World Court decision also enjoined the United States and other signatories to “ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law,” the US veto of a UN Security Council resolution attempting to encourage compliance indicates that President Obama is willing for the United States to violate the decision by the World Court as well.

The administration acknowledged that its problem with the resolution was that it reiterated the illegality of the settlements. However, the official State Department position, in effect for nearly 33 years and never formally repealed, states categorically that, “While Israel may undertake, in the occupied territories, actions necessary to meet its military needs and to provide for orderly government during the occupation, for the reasons indicated above the establishment of the civilian settlements in those territories is inconsistent with international law.” Obama, in vetoing this resolution, is thereby undermining the official position of his own State Department.

Refusal to recognize the illegality of Israeli settlements at the United Nations was not always the US position. When Israel’s colonization drive began in the 1970’s, the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations were quite willing to do so. However, despite his distinguished legal background, Obama has demonstrated — on this issue, at least — he has even less respect for the law than Richard Nixon.

Dubious Rationalizations

Rice, in justifying the administration’s veto of the resolution, insisted that it is “unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.” However, the resolution did not “attempt to resolve” anything. Instead, it explicitly called for the resumption of negotiations. What Obama objected to, however, was the resolution’s insistence that such a resolution be based on international law, which is a very appropriate role for the United Nations Security Council.

In expressing the Obama administration’s opposition to the resolution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who, as a senator, was an outspoken defender of Israel’s colonization efforts and a critic of the United Nations — insisted that the Obama administration supported the idea of a settlement freeze, but, “We have consistently over many years said that the United Nations Security Council — and resolutions that would come before the Security Council — is not the right vehicle to advance the goal.”

Rice argued that “the only way to reach that common goal is through direct negotiations between the parties.” Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg reiterated, “We have made very clear that we do not think the Security Council is the right place to engage on these issues. We have had some success, at least for the moment, in not having that arise there, and we will continue to employ the tools that we have to make sure that continues to not happen.”

It’s unclear what “success” Steinberg is referring to. The right-wing Netanyahu government has rejected the Obama administration’s repeated calls for a freeze on settlement construction. The Palestinians have been demanding for nearly eighteen years through the US-led “peace process” that Israel stop expanding its settlements on their land. In that time, the number of settlements has more than doubled, dividing up the West Bank in such a way that creating a viable contiguous Palestinian state is now increasingly difficult. In insisting that the only way to deal with the settlements is through talks, which have clearly been incapable of stopping Israel’s colonization drive, a growing number of Palestinians and their supporters are reluctantly coming to the conclusion that — rhetoric to the contrary — the Obama administration actually wants to see Israel expand its settlements further and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Obama’s insistence that resolving the conflict over Israel’s illegal settlements should be restricted to bilateral negotiations assumes symmetry in power and legality in the two sides that doesn’t, in fact, exist.

There are certainly plenty of rights and wrongs on both sides, and both Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve the right to live in peace and security. However, when it comes to the settlements, there is no question that the Palestinian position is consistent with international law and the broad international consensus of what is necessary for a just and lasting peace, and the Israeli position is not. In addition, without pressure from the United States or the United Nations, Israel – the occupying power and by far the region’s most powerful state – clearly has the upper hand in negotiations with a weak and divided interim governing body of an occupied population. The Obama administration’s position that Israel’s blatant violation of international law should not be addressed at the United Nations and instead should be subjected to bilateral negotiations between an occupying power and those under foreign military occupation is demonstrative as to just how far removed from reality Obama has become.

Obama’s veto raises serious questions as to whether his public criticism of Netanyahu’s construction of additional illegal settlements was sincere. It may be that the president’s public protestations against the right-wing Israeli prime minister’s settlement drive – which Israel had agreed to freeze as part of the US-sponsored roadmap for peace – was largely an effort to try to gain credibility from interested Arab parties and his liberal pro-peace and pro-human rights base in the United States. For when it comes down to actually trying to enforce Israel’s previous commitments and international legal principles that would end the expansion of settlements, he tries to stop it. As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch observed, “President Obama wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won’t let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way.”

Obama’s Political Alignment

In vetoing the resolution, Obama has placed himself to the right of scores of traditionally pro-Israel and decidedly mainstream leaders of the political establishment – including scholars, journalists, and former officials – who signed a letter to the president encouraging him to support the resolution. The letter, sent to him in January, stated, “The time has come for a clear signal from the United States to the parties and to the broader international community that the United States can and will approach the conflict with the objectivity, consistency and respect for international law required if it is to play a constructive role in the conflict’s resolution.” Noting how the resolution “would in no way deviate from our strong commitment to Israel’s security,” they warned that “deploying a veto would severely undermine US credibility and interests, placing us firmly outside of the international consensus, and further diminishing our ability to mediate this conflict.”

The signatories included US Trade Representative and Council on Foreign Relations Chair Carla Hills, journalist and former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, former Assistant Secretary of State James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pastor, former New Republic editor and Atlantic Senior Editor and Daily Dish publisher Andrew Sullivan, former US Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and former US Ambassador to Israel Ned Walker, among others. Obama, however, decided to place himself to the right of these decidedly centrist and moderately conservative figures.

Obama also placed himself to the right of the liberal and mainstream Jewish community, the majority of whom — according to public opinion polls — believe the United States should take a harder line against illegal settlements. Moderate pro-Israel groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now had encouraged President Obama not to veto the resolution, but the president rejected their pleas, instead allying himself with such right-wing groups as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In short, this is not simply a matter of Obama catering to the “Jewish vote” or to “pro-Israel groups,” which were clearly divided on this issue. Instead, he was allying with the right-wing of the Jewish and pro-Israel community and with the right-wing overall, effectively endorsing the Bush administration’s view that international humanitarian law, the United Nations and basic international legal principles are not considered applicable if the violator is the United States or an ally.

Instead, Obama decided to ally with the neoconservatives and other right-wing opponents of international humanitarian law, such as House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who claimed that accepting any criticism in the United Nations of Israeli policies in the occupied territories would be “a concession to enemies of the Jewish State and other free democracies.”

Also taking the position that criticizing a right-wing government’s violations of international humanitarian law is the same as attacking the nation itself was House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) — joined by the hawkish assistant House minority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) in declaring the resolution “anti-Israel.” Their joint statement insisted, “We strongly urge the Administration to veto this resolution and to uphold our longstanding commitment to Israel’s security.”

Even the Conservative British Foreign Minister William Hague — traditionally a strong supporter of Israel — recognized the absurdity of such arguments regarding the resolution, which his government strongly supported, noting, “We believe that Israel’s security and the realization of the Palestinians’ right to statehood are not opposing goals. On the contrary, they are intimately intertwined objectives.”


The first impact of Obama’s veto is being felt in the occupied West Bank itself. Having gotten a green light from the Obama administration, the rate of illegal settlement construction in the two weeks since the veto has grown by 60 percent. Now that the Obama administration has made clear its unwillingness to stop Israel’s colonization drive on the West Bank, it is only a matter of time until the colonization of the West Bank will be so extensive to make the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel impossible. The end of a “two-state solution” and the permanent relegation of Palestinians into tiny, Bantustan-type enclaves will almost certainly lead to large-scale violence and bloodshed.

Supporters of international law and Middle East peace the world over denounced Obama’s decision; Human Rights Watch noted how it “undermines enforcement of international law.” Israeli journalist Ami Kaufman, writing in the Jerusalem Post, contends that, “The US has lost any ounce of credibility it had left with this latest move.” Writing in Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote that Obama’s first veto “was a veto against the chance and promise of change, a veto against hope. This is a veto that is not friendly to Israel; it supports the settlers and the Israeli right, and them alone.” He added, “America, which Israel depends on more than ever, said yes to settlements. That is the one and only meaning of its decision, and in so doing, it supported the enterprise most damaging to Israel.”

A final casualty of Obama’s veto is what trust and goodwill remain among those of us who support human rights and international law. Due to Obama’s apparent contempt for these principles, many of us who enthusiastically supported his candidacy in 2008 will now likely sit out the next election. As a result of his Bush-like contempt for international law and the United Nations, we can no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. Obama’s veto shows that he is not a man of the left or the center, but a captive of the right-wing.

America Blows It on Bahrain

The Obama administration’s continued support of the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain, in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrators, once again puts the United States behind the curve of the new political realities in the Middle East. For more than two weeks, a nonviolent sit-in and encampment by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters has occupied the Pearl Roundabout. This traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama – like Tahrir Square in Cairo – has long been the symbolic center of the city and, by extension, the center of the country. Though these demonstrations and scores of others across the country have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, they have been met by severe repression by the U.S.-backed monarchy.

Understanding the pro-democracy struggle unfolding in this tiny island nation requires putting into context the country’s unique history, demographics, and its historically close relations to the United States.

Though Bahrain has a long and rich history, the modern state did not receive full independence from Great Britain until 1971. This is the same year the British withdrew their security commitments from the area and the United States stepped in as the major foreign power. Bahrain is the smallest country in the Middle East, located on an island of only 290 square miles (smaller in area than New York City) in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Its population is only 1.2 million (smaller than San Antonio, Texas). More than half of that total consists of foreign guest workers, primarily from India and other South Asian countries. The small size of the country belies its perceived importance by the U.S. government.

The Ties that Bind

The fortress-like U.S. embassy in Manama is probably the largest embassy relative to the population of the host country of any in the world. The U.S. military in Bahrain, which directs the Fifth Fleet and the U.S. Naval Central Command, controls roughly one-fifth of this small nation, making the southern part of the island essentially off-limits to Bahrainis. For more than 20 years, approximately 1,500 Americans have been stationed at the base (which the U.S. government refers to as a “forward operations center”), supporting operations and serving as homeport for an additional 15,000 sailors. As University of California–Irvine Professor Mark LeVine describes it, “If the United States is Egypt’s primary patron, in Bahrain it is among the ruling family’s biggest tenants.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe once told me in an interview that Bahrain was “pound for pound, man for man, the best ally the United States has anywhere in the world.”

Unlike in other Gulf states, where Americans have traditionally kept a low profile, the U.S. presence is quite visible in Bahrain as a major port of call for sailors on leave. Just prior to my last visit, the government threw a big Christmas party for American military personnel, even bringing in Santa Claus riding on a camel. This is made possible thanks to its U.S.-friendly dictator, King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa. The prime minister is Prince Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, the king’s uncle and reputedly the richest man in the Bahrain, who has governed for nearly 40 years. Both are firmly committed to a close strategic alliance with the United States. And close economic ties as well.

Indeed, economic interests also draw the two nations together. Bahrain was the first Arab country to produce oil back in 1932. Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), later joined by Texaco, succeeded in controlling the country’s oil industry through ownership of the Bahrain Petroleum Company, until the Bahraini government purchased the company in 1980. In 2005, Bahrain became the first Persian Gulf state to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. The government has embarked upon a massive privatization program in recent years–selling banks, financial services, telecommunication, and other public assets to private interests. The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom ranks Bahrain as having the “freest” economy in the Middle East and the tenth “freest” in the world.


Most Bahrainis are not happy with such policies. But Bahrain’s political system doesn’t allow them to do much about it. Even the State Department acknowledges that the Bahraini government “restricts civil liberties, freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and some religious practices.”

As far back as the 1990s, Bahraini officials with whom I met were beginning to sense that greater attention needed to be paid to human rights and economic justice. At that time, the United States did not appear to push them in that direction. “An overemphasis on profitability for corporations at the expense of other more basic concerns could lead to political instability,” said Mohammed Ali Fakhro, Bahrain’s minister of education, in all-too prescient remarks. “If there is going to be stability, there needs to be greater fairness in the distribution of wealth, both between the North and the South, but also within countries, including the United States.” He, and other Bahraini officials I interviewed at that time, stressed that the United States needed to be more consistent with its professed concerns about human rights, that American policymakers often compromised on these principles when they conflicted with short-term interests. Democratization is sweeping the world, they observed, including in the Middle East. In their view, it would be in the interest of regional stability for the United States to play a role as catalyst of change rather than simply as an armed power.

The 1990s saw periodic and widespread protests throughout Bahrain, including scattered acts of violence, against the authoritarian Sheik Issa. When Issa died in 1999, his son and successor King Hamad announced a series of major reforms. Approval of the National Action Charter of Bahrain, codified in a 2001 referendum, ended more than seven years of protests against the regime. While Bahrainis did enjoy a somewhat more liberal social and political environment under their new ruler, most promised reforms never materialized. For example, the charter allowed for the establishment of an elected lower house of parliament, but it has remained largely powerless. The upper house – appointed by the king – must approve any legislation passed by the lower house. Furthermore, the king can still veto any legislation with no option of override and can abolish the entire parliament at will. All of the important cabinet posts – and majority of the cabinet posts overall – are filled by members of the royal family.

While Bahrain permits greater freedom of speech than in many neighboring countries, criticism of the royal family – which applies to the government and most of its ministries – is significantly restricted. Similarly, laws against fomenting “sectarianism” have been broadly applied. This comes as no surprise, given that the royal family is Sunni and most opposition groups are based in the majority Shia community.

Several political forces boycotted the October 2010 parliamentary elections, including the main opposition party Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy (which includes both Shia and Sunni leadership) as well as the Wafa Party, the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Khalas Movement, and the Islamic Action Society. Just prior to the vote, the authorities arrested a number of opposition leaders after they raised concerns about human rights abuses.

A Popular Progressive Tradition

The authoritarianism of the Bahraini government contrasts with the island’s relatively progressive and pluralistic tradition. Despite many years under monarchies and empires, Bahrainis have long embraced a tradition of freedom and social justice. During most of the 10th and 11th centuries, an Islamic sect known as the Qarmatians governed the island and created a radically egalitarian society based on reason and the equal distribution of all wealth and property among the adherents. In the 19th century, Bahrain was the largest trading center in the entire Gulf region – with Arab, Persian, Indian, and other influences – reinforcing traditions of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and pluralism.

A visit to Manama today reveals not only Sunni and Shia mosques, but Christian churches, Hindu and Sikh temples, and a Jewish synagogue. Bahrain was the first Arab country in the Gulf to provide formal modern education to women. With an economy traditionally based on fishing, pearl diving, and trade – and with too little land for much grazing or fresh water for farming – Bahrain has been a largely urban society for centuries, even prior to the discovery of oil. Thus, it has never been subjected to the kind of parochial tribalism of other Arabian countries. Furthermore, unlike the other oil-rich sheikdoms of the Gulf region, the diverse sources of its wealth have led to the establishment of an indigenous middle class.

Though an island, Bahrain is accessible by road. A 16-mile causeway connects it to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Bahrain’s relatively liberal social mores have made it a residence of choice for Saudis who wish to live in a less restrictive environment. It’s also become a popular weekend destination for Saudis who want to party.

Although Bahrain’s oil supplies are running out, it still serves as a major refinery center. It still has plenty of natural gas reserves and has become a major financial center. Ship repair, aluminum refining, and light manufacturing have also helped diversify the economy. With an annual per capita income of $26,000 (similar to Greece), low unemployment, a literacy rate over 90 percent, and an average life expectancy and infant mortality rate comparable to some European countries, it is one of the better-off nations in the Middle East. Still, impressive social and economic statistics are no substitute for political freedom, particularly when combined with ongoing discrimination against the Shia majority.

The Nonviolent Struggle

Inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Iran, pro-democracy activists called for nationwide pro-democracy protests on February 14, the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter referendum. The mostly young organizers called on Bahrainis “to take to the streets on Monday 14 February in a peaceful and orderly manner” in order to rewrite the constitution and establish a body with a “full popular mandate to investigate and hold to account economic, political and social violations, including stolen public wealth, political naturalisation, arrests, torture, and other oppressive security measures, [and] institutional and economic corruption.”

According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the government’s response was “a state of confusion, apprehension and anticipation,” including an attempt to placate the opposition with money. The king ordered that 1000 Bahrani dinars (approximately $2,600) be distributed to each family in celebration of the referendum’s tenth anniversary.

On February 12, the BCHR sent an open letter to the king to “ease tensions” and “avoid the use of force” by releasing 450 detainees, dissolving the security apparatus, and prosecuting officials guilty of human rights violations, and beginning “serious dialogue with civil society and opposition groups on disputed issues.” BCHR President Nabeel Rajab stated, “The dissolving of the security apparatus and the prosecution of its officials will not only distance the King from the crimes committed by this apparatus especially since 2005, such as systemic torture and the use of excessive force against peaceful protests, but will avoid the fatal mistake committed by similar apparatuses in Tunisia and Egypt which led to the loss of lives and hundreds of casualties and eventually resulted in the fall of the regimes who created these ‘double edged swords.'”

When protests did break out across the country on February 14, the government responded with mass arrests and beatings, killing one young man and injuring dozens of others. At his funeral, police shot into the crowd. One person was killed and 25 injured. Al Wefaq, a predominantly Shia party that had won a plurality of seats in the recent parliamentary elections, announced a suspension of their participation in the parliament and formally joined the demonstrations. Tens of thousands of protesters occupied the Pearl Roundabout, setting up tents in a manner similar to the mass sit-ins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At around 3:00 AM on February 17, without warning, riot police attacked the sleeping encampment of thousands with tear gas, batons, and bullets. Four more people were killed, including a two-year old girl shot multiple times. Al Jazeera reported that hospitals in Manama were filled with hundreds of wounded protesters and described “doctors and emergency personnel who were overrun by the police while trying to attend to the wounded.” Directly contradicting eyewitness accounts and video footage, the regime insisted the protesters had attacked the police and that security forces had used only minimal force in self-defense. Bahrain’s government, like the dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Libya, tried to blame outsiders. It insisted, for instance, that it had found weapons and flags from the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Despite such provocations, the opposition’s response was largely peaceful. Pro-democracy activists gathered to pray and hold vigil outside hospitals. They engaged in more peaceful protests in the capital the following day. When confronted by security forces, protesters held their hands up high and shouted, “Peaceful! Peaceful!” Police and army units again attacked the demonstrators – along with mourners, journalists, and medics – resulting in one additional death and scores of injuries.

As has often occurred elsewhere, when a government uses illegitimate force against peaceful protesters, the protests increased in intensity rather than diminished. Recognizing this, the regime withdrew the military and police from the capital. Thousands of protesters returned to the Pearl Roundabout to resume their peaceful sit-in.

On February 22, more than 100,000 anti-government protesters took to the street. This time, the government allowed the demonstrators to march. Smaller protests continued over subsequent days. The government attempted to back down from its hard line stance–declaring a national day of mourning for those killed, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, dismissing four unpopular cabinet officials, allowing an exiled opposition leader to return, and making a series of economic concessions. On February 25, more than 200,000 people marched, a number constituting a full 40 percent of the indigenous Bahraini population. In recent days, they have escalated their protests by blockading the state television headquarters and the parliament building

Most of these protesters have called for a transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, rather than the overthrow of the monarchy. They want the prime minister to resign, greater civil liberties, and a popularly elected parliament with real power.

The Iranian Bogeyman

Nearly three-quarters of the indigenous Bahraini population are Shia, even though Shias constitute barely 10 percent of the Islamic community worldwide (they are also the majority in neighboring Iran and Iraq). The Sunni-controlled Bahraini government has long discriminated against Shias in employment, housing, and infrastructure projects. The military, particularly the top elite, is mostly Sunni. The secret police are almost exclusively Sunni, and reportedly include Pakistanis and other foreign elements. Only a handful of cabinet posts, restricted to the less important ministries, have been granted to Shias. In an effort to bolster the number of Sunnis, the government has taken the unusual step of granting citizenship to some foreign Sunni workers, virtually unprecedented in other Gulf countries with large foreign worker populations. As a result, there is a sectarian element to the ongoing struggle, even if the majority of the pro-democracy protesters are not seeking a Shia-dominated state per se.

When disenfranchised Shia populations in the Middle East have organized for their rights, the regimes often label them as Iranian agents. In some cases, Iranian intelligence has supported these movements, although the vast majority are popular indigenous struggles with legitimate grievances. The Iranian connection, however false or exaggerated, introduces the fear of an Iranian plot to assert their influence and establish an Iranian-style theocracy. Thus, the specter of Iran is raised to bolster the argument that it is in the U.S. interest to support repressive regimes to suppress such movements.

However, most Bahraini Shias, unlike their counterparts in Iran and other countries, do not follow ayatollahs. Having been conquered by the Persian Empire for periods of their history, they cherish their independence and reject calls by some Persian ultra-nationalists to reincorporate Bahrain into Iran. While many Bahraini Shias were initially enthusiastic about the Islamic revolution in the immediate aftermath of the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, they – like most Iranians themselves – have since soured on the revolution as a result of its reactionary and repressive turn. Despite some fear-mongering from some pro-authoritarian elements in the United States and elsewhere who seek to depict the Bahraini uprising as a fundamentalist Shiite revolution, the protests in Bahrain have the support of both the progressive Sunni and secular populations. This pro-democracy movement is as legitimate as the popular struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Signs and chants at the demonstrations indicate that they eschew sectarianism, emphasizing Shia-Sunni unity in the cause of democracy.

At the same time, because the Shia majority has the most to gain from democratic change, the protesters have been overwhelmingly Shia. The U.S.-backed regime, in a divide-and-rule strategy, has raised the specter of a Shiite fundamentalist takeover in an effort to enlist the sizable Sunni minority in protecting their privileged status, thereby creating the potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy of a polarization of Bahraini society along sectarian lines. Indeed, it was no accident that a pro-government rally organized by the regime took place in the plaza near the grand Sunni mosque–a rally thousands of Indian and Pakistani Sunnis were encouraged to join. The government is also feeling the pressure from the Saudi regime to crack down. The Saudis fear that a successful Shia-led pro-democracy struggle in Bahrain might not only encourage pro-democracy elements in their kingdom, but might encourage the restive and oppressed Shia minority in Saudi Arabia – which is concentrated in the oil-rich northeastern part of the country – to rebel as well.

International Accountability

In the aftermath of the nonviolent overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, President Obama warned other Middle Eastern leaders that they should “get ahead of the wave of protest” by quickly moving toward democracy. Even though his February 15 press conference took place during some of the worst repression in Bahrain, he chose not to mention the country by name. In the face of Bahraini security forces unleashing violence on peaceful protesters, Obama insisted that “each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies.” Although certainly a valid statement in itself, in this case it appears to have been little more than a rationalization for silence in the face of extreme violence by an autocratic ally. Indeed, the United States has hardly been silent in the face of the ongoing repression by the authoritarian regime in Libya, even though elements of the pro-democracy movement in that country, unlike in Bahrain, have taken up arms.

Meanwhile, on February 23, U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Bahrain to meet King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman, who serves as commander-in-chief for the Bahraini armed forces. According to Mullen’s spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, the admiral “reaffirmed our strong commitment to our military relationship with the Bahraini defense forces.” And, despite the massacres of the previous week, he thanked the Bahraini leaders “for the very measured way they have been handling the popular crisis here.”

Indeed, the February 25 The New York Times reported how the Obama administration “has sent out senior diplomats in recent days to offer the monarchs reassurance and advice — even those who lead the most stifling governments.” The article stressed that the administration is not averse to encouraging reforms, noting however that “American officials have sought to keep the focus on what they insist have been concessions made by Bahrain, where the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed, as a sign that the protests can prod the king, and the crown prince who will head the dialogue with the protesters, in the right direction.”

A more democratic Bahrain would probably be friendlier to the Iranian regime than the current Bahraini government, but it would certainly not be an Iranian puppet. Similarly, a more democratic Bahrain would likely scale back the U.S. military presence on their small island, though it would not be stridently anti-American. Questions remain as to how much democracy the United States will encourage, even if led by a popular mass nonviolent movement. Putting the normative arguments aside, anything short of support for full democratization would be extremely short-sighted. As Professor Levine puts it, “What is more essential to American security today, convenient bases for its ships, planes and troops across the Middle East, or a full transition to democracy throughout the region?”

In both Tunisia and Egypt, the United States had to play catch up in its policy toward these allied regimes in the face of popular struggles against authoritarianism, only belatedly coming out in support of the massive nonviolent pro-democracy struggles in those countries. It would be nice if, when it comes to Bahrain, the United States would not wait until the last minute to be on the right side of history.

MSNBC Q&A on Egypt

Q: Which countries in the region share similar economic, political, demographic and social conditions to those that have ignited unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?

A: Most Arab countries share these problems. However, some are more susceptible to these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.

Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?

these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.
Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?
A: Israel, of course, is traditionally America’s strongest ally. Egypt is the most important Arab ally in terms of strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth, is most important economically. Iraq continues to be the biggest worry, given the ongoing violence and instability and the domination of the government by hard-line Shiite parties, some of which have ties to Iran. In general, while the prospects of democratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere may result in their pursuing policies that are less amenable to the United States, international financial institutions, and other Western powers than the current pro-Western dictators, in the long term, I would argue that greater democratization in the Arab world is beneficial to America’s economic and security interests: When people can address their grievances nonviolently through an established political process, they are far less prone to embrace extremist ideologies and terrorism.
Q: What can you tell us about how widespread the support is for the uprising among Egyptians?
A: One thing that’s struck me about this uprising is its breadth — old-young, men-women, Christian-Muslim, secular-poor and middle class; factory workers and intellectuals. Though the initial instigators were young and middle class, it’s one of the broadest based uprisings of its kind I’ve ever seen. If there were a free election held today I’d be surprised if Mubarak got more that 20-23 percent of the vote. Of course, he wouldn’t hold free elections and all the elections held in the past have been rigged.
Q: I know this situation has a very long history, but can you tell us what has spurred this to happen now?
A: Frustration with the Mubarak regime has been growing, but no doubt the democratic revolution in Tunisia played a role. Indeed, recent decades have seen scores of unarmed insurrections against corrupt autocratic regimes from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to Serbia, from Maldives to Mali.
Q: What are the basics that the people are demanding? That is, for what are they struggling/fighting?
A: Freedom of speech, press, assembly, free/honest elections, etc. which they believe is impossible as long as Mubarak (or his son) is in power. Also, greater economic justice; poverty and inequality are growing. Liberalizing the economy while not liberalizing the political system is a dangerous combination.
Q: Given that this is happening in more than one Arab country, what do you think the likelihood is that this could spread to Saudi Arabia? Is the House of Fahd any better positioned to deal with an uprising than Mubarak?
A: Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, will probably be among the last to change. As an oil-rich … state, they can buy off a lot of potential opponents. In addition, the power of the hard-line Wahabbi clerics may make pro-democracy elements nervous about challenging the monarchy for fear at what might replace it.
Q: What role do you believe the Muslim Brotherhood is playing in the Egypt protests and does that organization enjoy broad support among the Egyptian people?
A: The demonstrations are led primarily by young people who are not only anti-regime, but find the aging leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the government. There seems little support for the more extreme Islamists either. The Brotherhood’s refusal to endorse the protests until after they started and were clearly gaining support was clearly opportunistic and doesn’t help their standing.
Q: Does Iran play any part in this … behind the scenes?
A: Iran has very little influence in Egyptian politics.
Q: With the U.S. support of Mubarak, how can they expect anyone that replaces him to be friendly to the U.S. It seems like the U.S. once again has provided an excuse to an Islamic state to hate them.
A: While I don’t expect a post-Mubarak government to be fanatically anti-American or dominated by Islamist radicals, there is understandable disappointment among most Egyptians at the longstanding support from Washington of the Mubarak dictatorship. A democratic Egyptian government would likely be somewhat more independent from the U.S. and the IMF, but not overtly hostile.
Q: Is there popular support for Mohamed ElBaradei? What aspirations does he have?
both secular nationalists and moderate Islamists. Has strong democratic credentials.
Q: How do these protests affect other moderate governments in the region, such as Jordan?
A: I think authoritarian governments throughout the region, whether they are pro- or anti-American, are probably pretty nervous right now.
Q: Does Mubarak still enjoy support from the military, or is their allegiance leaning towards the protesters?
A: The military leadership still supports him, but there are serious questions as to whether ordinary soldiers will be willing to suppress the protesters.
Q: Do you think people in Egypt will be able to accomplish anything out of this protest? Even with the strict government they have?
A: Egypt will never be the same. The apathy and feelings of powerlessness have been shattered. Even if Mubarak survives the current round of protests, Egyptian civil society has been re-awakened. His days in power are numbered. It’s a reminder that if democracy comes to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Western capitals, but from the people themselves.
Q: Is the safety of Israel at risk if the government is toppled, and what would happen to the world’s oil supply’s ability to make it thru the Suez Canal?
A: The people of Egypt want social and economic justice and would not be inclined to get in a war with Israel or risk a confrontation with the international community around oil supplies. These protests are about domestic issues, about freedom and justice. While there is certainly broad sympathy for the Palestinian cause, they have more pressing matters at home to deal with.
Q: Is this an uprising more rooted in oppression from the government rather than a religious ideology?
A: There are Christians and Muslims and secularists all out of the street. This is very much about resisting government oppression and its mismanagement of the economy than about religion.
Q: How do the riots affect us here in the U.S.? Why should we care?
A: The United States has been the major economic, political and military supporter of the Mubarak regime for nearly 30 years. This has hurt our standing. Much of the anti-Americanism in the Middle East is not because they “hate our freedom” but because our policies have, unfortunately, been less about freedom than about supporting dictators like Mubarak. This needs to change if we are to have any credibility in that part of the world.
Q: Do you think that regional unrest will prompt U.S. military action? Will it prompt any economic sanctions or other penalties?
A: Not likely. Military force paradoxically doesn’t work very well against hundreds of thousands of unarmed demonstrators. In addition, I would assume that the Obama administration would recognize it would put us on the wrong side of history. U.S. intervention will probably be limited to the diplomatic front. So far there have been no threats of suspending U.S. military aid.
Q: What sort of time frame are you expecting in terms of transition in Egypt? And, what other power players might try to muscle in?
A: No telling. Obviously lots of domestic and foreign elements will try to take advantage of the situation, but it will be the Egyptian people on the streets who will ultimately determine the nation’s future.
Q: Would whatever type of regime that arises from this keep similar relations that Israel and Egypt currently have, or could this lead to a step back?
A: I would guess that a democratic Egyptian government might be more outspokenly critical of certain Israeli policies, but I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of breaking off the peace treaty or anything like that.
Q: Are we seeing signs of broader support from the Egyptian middle class or the intellectual community and how important is that to the success of the protesters in this situation?
A: Yes, there is growing opposition across class lines. And, even if the protests are initially suppressed, I think it will embolden Egyptian intellectuals to be more outspoken in their opposition.
Q: Is this similar to the protests in Iran, i.e., the government will slowly squash it?
A: The Egyptian government could, like the Iranian regime in 2009, successfully crush the rebellion this round. However, the Egyptian regime has a much smaller social base than the Iranian regime, and is therefore far more vulnerable in the longer term.
Q: How will this affect control of the Suez canal – thus the price of oil?
A: It shouldn’t affect the normal operations of the Suez Canal, unless the canal operators joined a general strike. Even in that case, the impact on oil prices would be minimal, since most supertankers are too big for the canal anyway.
Q: If Hosni Mubarak steps down, how likely is it that his son, Gamal Mubarak, (or perhaps his other son) would take over and be accepted by the people? … Do the Egyptian citizens view the sons any differently than the father? (Editor’s note: BBC News reported Saturday that the elder Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, had flown to London; Egypt’s state-run television denied the report.)
A: Gamal is disliked even more than his father. I was one of those predicting an uprising like we are seeing now if he was named president. Even in Hosni Mubarak can hold on for awhile longer, I think it’s safe to say at this point that Gamal’s career is finished.
Q: Why is Gamal more disliked than his father?
A: Gamal is seen as a spoiled brat and not particularly competent. In addition, the 1952 revolution was to overthrow a monarchy and establish a republic, so hereditary succession is seen as something of an anachronism.
Q: How will this unrest affect U.S. citizens who want to travel to Egypt?
A: I don’t think they have to worry about their personal safety in terms of being attacked for being Americans. However, normal travel could be disrupted because of demonstrations, etc.
Q: What is the “best case” scenario for this demonstration?
A: Best case scenario in my view would be a speedy transition to an interim government under ElBaradei or similar credible figure with free elections some time in the next few months.
Q: Is it probable that Mubarak will agree to at least some of the protesters’ demands? And, are the protesters likely to accept?
A: Mubarak may try to accede to some of the protesters demands, but at this point he may need to be thinking more in terms of sooner or later going into exile. His credibility is shot at this point.
Q: What role are women playing in the protests? Are Muslim and Christian women taking to the streets?
A: Women have not been as visible as during the Tunisian protests, but they have been present, particularly during the more nonviolent protests during daylight. And there have been both Christians and Muslims, both with headscarves and without.
Q: Do you see a warmer peace with Israel if Mubarak falls? I would describe the current peace as a cold peace.
A: At least while the current right-wing Israeli government is in power, it will more likely continue to be a cold peace. Things could warm up with a more moderate Israeli leadership, however.
Q: What do you think the U.S. response should be?
A: I have been disappointed in the Obama administration’s failure to more openly challenge the Mubarak regime and more openly support the pro-democracy movement. I would advocate, for example, for a suspension of U.S. military aid.
Q: Does the wave of activism in north Africa prompt the populations of Iran and Syria to respond in a similar manner? Are there benevolent monarchies in the region that have earned a viable relationship with their citizenry, thereby mitigating the populist uprisings?
A: Civil society is weaker in Syria and their secret police are stronger, but there is still a lot of discontent with Assad. I do expect to see another round of protests in Iran at some point, not because of North Africa, but because the grievances with the Iranian regime are as strong as ever. Kuwait, in part because of major nonviolent protests a few years ago, has opened up politically. The monarchy is still ultimately in charge, but the parliament has some real power as well.
Q: In light of the events in Egypt, how significant is it that Jordan’s King Abdullah sacked his government? How do you rate the likelihood of a “domino effect” toppling other strongmen in the region?
A: It is indicative that even under a monarchy, people power can lead to changes in unpopular appointees and unpopular policies. Whether the monarchy itself is threatened is unclear at this time. There is little question that events in Tunisia and Egypt will inspire pro- democracy movements throughout the region. Egypt is particularly significant, given that it is not only by far the largest Arab country, but traditionally the center of media, scholarship, and popular culture.
Regimes will be forced to make substantial reforms in order to survive. Those that don’t could be putting themselves in jeopardy. Indeed, 2011 could be to the Middle East what 1989 was to Eastern Europe.

Obama’s Shift on Egypt

There has been a major shift within the Obama administration over the weekend regarding its policy toward Egypt. President Obama appears to have finally realized that reform within the regime, as the administration had been advocating until Sunday, will not placate the Egyptian people. The administration has yet to issue an explicit call for the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, at least in public. However, yesterday, for the first time, Secretary of State Clinton and other officials began calling for “an orderly transition” to democracy.

The apparent change in the administration’s approach comes from the belated realization that nothing short of a Tienanmen Square-style massacre would probably stop the protests, and such measures using US-provided weaponry would inflame anti-Americanism throughout Egypt and the entire Arab world and would likely drive the anti-Mubarak resistance underground into the arms of violent extremists. White House sources indicate that the Obama administration has made it clear to the Egyptian military that any large-scale repression would have seriously negative implications for the US-Egyptian relationship, presumably meaning severing US military aid and cooperation, which has amounted to $1.5 billion annually. They are pushing for Mubarak and the military to bow out in place of an interim civilian coalition followed by free elections.

Given the ambivalent signals from the administration last week and continued support for Mubarak by some prominent Republican Congressional leaders and influential media pundits, there is concern within the White House as to whether the Egyptian regime has gotten the message. Already, Republicans and their allies are building the foundations of an “Obama lost Egypt” attack should a democratic transition lead to an anti-American government or serve as a precedent for further instability in the Middle East. Ironically, the position of hard-line elements in the Egyptian military may also be bolstered by human rights advocates and other critics of the Obama administration on the left who, understandably angry at US support for the longstanding support of the Mubarak dictatorship, have continued to underscore the outlandish statements late last week by Clinton and by Vice-President Joe Biden in which they appeared to be defending the regime.

There have been major divisions within the administration over the past few days regarding US policy toward Egypt. However, Biden, Clinton, and others who favored backing Mubarak, or steering the regime to a milder authoritarianism under Omar Suleiman and the military, appear to have lost out. Obama appears to have recognized that the future of Egypt will come not from Washington and other Western capitals, but from the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities and that, when an unarmed insurrection advances to the stage it currently is in Egypt, the United States can no more suppress or co-opt pro-democracy forces than the Soviet Union could do in regard to similar movements in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Indeed, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

In belatedly pushing for a democratic transition in Egypt, Obama has demonstrated a rare show of spine against not only Congressional Republicans, but many prominent Democratic hawks, State Department veterans, the Israel Lobby, and other supporters of the Mubarak dictatorship. Obama may have finally realized that, at this crucial historical juncture, the United States cannot afford be on the wrong side of history.

This change is long overdue. The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, had fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, Obama’s understandable skepticism of the neoconservative doctrine of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” turned into an excuse for further arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular, indigenous, bottom-up struggles for democratization.

At the same time, there was a subtle, but important, shift in the US government’s discourse on human rights when Obama came to office two years ago. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding US power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest, recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above.

Until now, this had largely been rhetorical. Military aid and arms sales to Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and other repressive Arab regimes continued unabated. However, the White House’s statement yesterday calling for the Egyptian regime to support “universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech,” the exercise of which would surely lead to its downfall, is indicative of an awareness that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.

The United States still needs to take a firmer stance toward Mubarak and the Egyptian military. The lingering hopes in Washington that Mubarak will be able to stay in office until the presidential election in September are completely unrealistic. And, regarding US policy in the region as a whole, the United States needs to stop propping up other Arab dictators and supporting the Israeli occupation through the ongoing military assistance.

However, this apparent shift away from the Mubarak regime — like the similar reversal in US policy toward the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia a couple weeks ago — serves as an important reminder as to where power actually comes from: Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. Through general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, who — like the Tunisians, Serbians, Filipinos, Chileans, Poles, and others — have faced down the teargas, water cannons, truncheons and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s No.1 supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support for freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

WikiLeaks Cables on Western Sahara Show Role of Ideology in State Department

Over the years, as part of my academic research, I have spent many hours at the National Archives poring over diplomatic cables of the kind recently released by WikiLeaks. The only difference is that rather than being released after a 30+ year waiting period — when the principals involved are presumably dead or in retirement and the countries in question have very different governments in power — the WikiLeaks are a lot more recent, more relevant and, in some cases, more embarrassing as a result.

However, those of us who have actually read such cables over the years find nothing in them particularly unusual or surprising. Indeed, the only people who would be surprised or shocked by what has been released in the recent dump of diplomatic cables are those who have a naïve view that the U.S. foreign policy is not about empire, but about freedom, democracy, international law, and mutually-respectful relationships between sovereign nations. There is little indication that the foreign governments in question are particularly surprised at any of the content in these cables either.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume the interpretations of events by State Department personnel contained in these documents are accurate reflections of reality. While many career Foreign Service officers are sincere and dedicated people, the nature of their role forces them to see the world from inside the prism of a hegemonic power. They cannot expect to have a more enlightened view of developments within a Middle Eastern state than, for example, a representative of the British Foreign Office would have had a century earlier.

For my doctoral dissertation on what motivated U.S. military intervention in Latin America and the Middle East during the 1950s, I spent many hours reviewing cables sent to and from U.S. embassies in Guatemala and Iran in the months prior to the U.S.-backed coups in those countries. I read frantic messages sent by senior diplomats in the U.S. embassy and top officials in the State Department and the White House regarding what they feared to be imminent Communist takeovers of those countries. Neither of these fears was based on reality, of course, but it was widely believed to be true.

By contrast, there is absolutely nothing in the hundreds of cables I reviewed in the lead-up to the coups indicating that the desire to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossedegh was based primarily on his nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or that the plans to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was based upon his nationalization of some lands owned by the United Fruit Company. It was based on a sincere, if grossly exaggerated, fear that there was a real threat that these countries would become dominated by pro-Soviet Communists. This certainly does not rule out the likelihood that powerful corporate interests which had a stake in ousting these nationalist leaders helped create the climate that led to such paranoid speculation. However, as far as those who made the key decisions were concerned, it appears to have been based primarily on this fear of Communist takeovers.

There is a tendency among critics of U.S. foreign policy to assume a level of rationality in decision-making that has led to the emergence of many popular conspiracy theories. Yes, there have certainly been conspiracies. Yes, in the final analysis, powerful corporate interests do play an important role in U.S. foreign policy. Yet what is often overlooked is the role of ideology, of the way that those embedded in U.S. embassies are willing to take the prevailing line simply because that it what they are pre-disposed to believe and they didn’t have the opportunity or the willingness to figure things out otherwise. This is why, absent of corroborating evidence, I’m skeptical about leaked documents regarding large-scale Iranian support of Iraqi insurgents and other claims which appear to legitimate U.S. militarism.

Our man in Rabat

One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon of allowing ideology to interfere with honest reporting comes in a recently-released cable from the U.S. charge d’affairs in the U.S. embassy in Morocco, Robert P. Jackson.

In his lengthy analysis regarding the conflict over Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, he makes the preposterous assertion that the independence struggle is essentially an Algerian creation, ignoring decades of popular resistance and longstanding Sahrawi nationalism which pre-dated Algeria’s support for the nationalist Polisario Front. He bases this claim on the fact that because the Polisario has failed to claim Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco as part of the Western Sahara state, this somehow proves that the struggle is “less nationalist than geopolitical, linked to the much older dispute between Algeria and Morocco, and hardly boosts the case for an independent state.”

In reality, the reasons for this distinction between the two Sahrawi-populated regions is that the Polisario — unlike Morocco and its supporters — understands international law: The Sahrawi-populated Tefaya region is universally-recognized as part of Morocco whereas Sahrawi-populated Western Sahara is recognized as a non-self-governing territory under foreign belligerent occupation and therefore has the right to self-determination, including the option of independence. If Morocco would allow the Tefaya region to become part of an independent Western Sahara, there certainly would be no objections by the Polisario, but they simply understand that they have a much stronger case regarding Western Sahara itself. Instead, this U.S. diplomat implies that this willingness to recognize this important legal distinction somehow delegitimizes the nationalist struggle.

Jackson goes on to criticize the United Nations for recognizing the Polisario, along with Morocco, as the two principal parties in the conflict, insisting that the Algerians — who have no claim to Western Sahara — are the key to peace because of their support for the Polisario. Rather than pressure Morocco to abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision by the International Court of Justice to allow for an act of self-determination, he calls on UN special envoy Christopher Ross, a veteran U.S. diplomat, to “budge [Algerian] President Bouteflika and his government” to allow Morocco to consolidate their conquest.

This cable is very reminiscent of the longstanding effort by State Department officials during the Cold War to delegitimize national liberation struggles by claiming they were simply the creation of Cuba, the Soviet Union, or some other nation-state challenging U.S. hegemony. Indeed, in a throwback to Cold War rhetoric, Jackson insists that the Polisario Front, which has been recognized as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by over 80 governments, is “Cuba-like.” In the cable, Jackson calls for U.S. support for Moroccan calls for a census and audit of international programs in Polisario-led refugee camps, but not support for the international call for human rights monitors in the occupied territory. In addition, rather than recognizing the right of Sahrawi refugees to return under international law, he unrealistically suggests that the Sahrawi refugees all be resettled in Spain.

Contradicting findings by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other observers which provide evidence to the contrary, he insists that “respect for human rights in the territory has greatly improved” and “once common beatings and arbitrary imprisonment have also essentially ceased.” Despite an unprecedented level of popular resistance against the occupation, he insists “support for independence is waning.” He praises Morocco’s development efforts in the occupied territory, even claiming that Al Aioun, the occupied Western Sahara capital, is “without any Shantytowns,” which is news to those of us who have actually been there and seen them.

In a rare moment of candor, Jackson acknowledges that Morocco’s “hard-line stance may have been bolstered by what was perceived in the Palace as uncritical support from Washington.” However, he falsely claims that most governments in the UN Security Council support Morocco’s “autonomy” plan for Western Sahara, which not only promises a very circumscribed level of self-governance but prohibits the people of Western Sahara from voting on the option of independence as required under international law.

Not long after this cable was written, Jackson was promoted by President Obama to his first post as full ambassador, to the U.S.-backed dictatorship in the Republic of Cameroon. This serves as yet another example that a willingness to tow the official line rather than critically examining the evidence is the key to advancement in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Iraq: The Democrats’ War

The ongoing presence of over 50,000 US troops, many thousands of civilian employees and tens of thousands of US-backed mercenaries raises serious questions over the significance of the partial withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The August 31 deadline marking the “end of US combat operations in Iraq” is not as real or significant a milestone as President Obama implied in his speech. Indeed, hearing for the umpteenth time that the US has “turned a corner” in Iraq, it makes one think that the country must be some kind of dodecahedron.

Nevertheless, with all the attention on the supposed withdrawal of US combat forces, it is important to acknowledge the forces that got us into this tragic conflict in the first place.

It was not just George W. Bush.

Had a majority of either the Republican-controlled House or the Democratic-controlled Senate voted against the resolution authorizing the invasion or had they passed an alternative resolution conditioning such authority on the approval of the use of force from the United Nations Security Council, all the tragic events that have unfolded as a consequence of the March 2003 invasion would have never taken place.

The responsibility for the deaths of over 4,400 American soldiers, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the waste of nearly one trillion dollars of our national treasury and the rise of terrorism and Islamist extremism that has come as a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq rests as much in the hands of the members in Congress who authorized the invasion as it does with the administration that requested the lawmakers’ approval. Indeed, the October 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion had the support of the majority of Democratic senators, as well as the support of the Democratic Party leadership in both the House and the Senate.

On this and other web sites – as well as in many scores of policy reports, newspaper articles, academic journals, and other sources – the tragic consequences of a US invasion of Iraq and a refutation of falsehoods being put forward by the Bush administration to justify it were made available to every member of the House and Senate (see, for example, “The Case Against a War with Iraq”). The 2002 vote authorizing the invasion was not like the vote on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution on the use of force against North Vietnam, for which Congress had no time for hearings or debate and for which most of those supporting it (mistakenly) thought they were simply authorizing limited short-term retaliatory strikes in response to a specific series of alleged incidents. In contrast, with regard to the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Congress had many months to investigate and debate the administration’s claims that Iraq was a threat as well as the likely implications of a US invasion; members of Congress also fully recognized that the resolution authorized a full-scale invasion of a sovereign nation and a subsequent military occupation for an indefinite period.

Violating International Legal Covenants

Those who voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq did so despite the fact that it violated international legal conventions to which the US government is legally bound to uphold. The resolution constituted a clear violation of the United Nations Charter that, like other ratified international treaties, should be treated as supreme law according to Article VI of the US Constitution. According to articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter, no member state has the right to enforce any resolution militarily unless the UN Security Council determines that there has been a material breach of its resolution, decides that all nonmilitary means of enforcement have been exhausted and then specifically authorizes the use of military force.

This is what the Security Council did in November 1990 with Resolution 678 in response to Iraq’s ongoing violations of UN Security Council resolutions demanding its withdrawal from Kuwait, but the Security Council did not do so for any subsequent lesser Iraqi violations. The only other exception for the use of force authorized by the charter is in self-defense against armed attack, which even the Bush administration admitted had not taken place.

This effective renunciation of the UN Charter’s prohibition against such wars of aggression constituted an effective repudiation of the post-WW II international legal order. Alternative resolutions, such as one authorizing force against Iraq if authorized by the UN Security Council, were voted down by a bipartisan majority.

Concerned Scholars and Strategic Analysts

Members of Congress were also alerted by large numbers of scholars of the Middle East, Middle Eastern political leaders, former State Department and intelligence officials and others who recognized that a US invasion would likely result in a bloody insurgency, a rise in Islamist extremism and terrorism, increased sectarian and ethnic conflict, and related problems. Few people I know who are familiar with Iraq have been at all surprised that the US invasion became such a tragedy. Indeed, most of us were in communication with Congressional offices and often with individual members of Congress themselves in the months leading up to the vote warning of the likely consequences of an invasion and occupation. Therefore, claims by leading Democratic supporters of the war that they were unaware of the likely consequences of the invasion are completely false.

The resolution also contained accusations that were known or widely assumed to be false at that time, such as claims of Iraqi support for al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. A definitive report by the Department of Defense noted that, not only did no such link exist, but that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based on the evidence available at that time.

The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq was “actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability.” In reality, Iraq had long eliminated its nuclear program, a fact that was confirmed in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1998, four years prior to the resolution.

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The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq at that time continued “to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability.” In reality, as the US government now admits, Iraq had rid itself of its chemical and biological weapons nearly a decade earlier and no longer had any active chemical and biological weapons programs. This likelihood that Iraq no longer had operational chemical or biological weapons was brought to the attention of members of Congress by a number of top arms control specialists, as well as Scott Ritter, the American who headed UNSCOM’s efforts to locate Iraq’s possible hidden caches of chemical and biological weapons, hidden supplies or secret production facilities. As I have written elsewhere, academic journals, testimony by arms control inspectors, newspaper articles, reports from independent think tanks and countless other sources in the months leading up to the Congressional authorization vote provided a plethora of evidence suggesting that Iraq had achieved at least qualitative disarmament and was not a threat to its neighbors, much less the United States.

No Evidence

Virtually all of Iraq’s known stockpiles of chemical and biological agents had been accounted for, and the shelf life of the small amount of material that had not been accounted for – which, as it ends up, had also been destroyed – had long since expired and was therefore no longer of weapons grade. There was no evidence that Iraq had any delivery systems for such weapons, either. In addition, the strict embargo of that country, in effect since 1990, against imports of any additional materials needed for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), combined with Iraq’s inability to manufacture such weapons or delivery systems themselves without detection, made any claims that Iraq constituted any “significant chemical and biological weapons capability” as claimed in the resolution transparently false to anyone who cared to investigate the matter at that time. Indeed, even the classified full version of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, while grossly overestimating Iraq’s military capability, was filled with extensive disagreements, doubts and caveats regarding President Bush’s assertions regarding Iraq’s WMD, WMD programs and delivery systems.

The House and Senate members who now claim they were “misled” about Iraq’s alleged military threat have failed to explain why they found the administration’s claims so much more convincing than the many other reports made available to them from more objective sources that presumably made a much stronger case that Iraq no longer had offensive WMD capability. Curiously, except for one excerpt from a 2002 National Security Estimate released in July 2003 – widely ridiculed at the time for its transparently manipulated content – not a single member of Congress has agreed to allow me or any other strategic analyst any access to any documents they claim convinced them of the alleged Iraqi threat. In effect, they are using the infamous Nixon defense from the Watergate scandal, claiming that, while they have evidence to vindicate themselves, making it public would somehow damage national security. In reality, if such reports actually exist, they are clearly inaccurate, outdated and are in regard to a government no longer in existence and would, therefore, be of no threat to national security if made public.

International Opposition

The US invasion of Iraq was opposed by virtually the entire international community, including Iraq’s closest neighbors, who presumably had the most to be concerned about in terms of any possible Iraqi military threat. However, the members of Congress who voted to authorize the invasion were determined to make the case that the United States – with the strongest military the world has ever known and thousands of miles beyond the range of Iraq’s alleged weapons and delivery systems – was so threatened by Iraq that the United States had to launch an invasion, overthrow its government and occupy that country for an indefinite period.

This shows a frighteningly low threshold for effectively declaring war, especially given that, in most cases, these members of Congress had been informed by knowledgeable sources of the widespread human and material costs which would result from a US invasion. It also indicates that they would likely be just as willing to send American forces off to another disastrous war again, also under false pretenses. Indeed, those who voted for the war demonstrated their belief that:

the United States need not abide by its international legal obligations, including those prohibiting wars of aggression;
claims by right-wing US government officials and unreliable foreign exiles regarding a foreign government’s military capabilities are more trustworthy than independent arms control analysts and United Nations inspectors;
concerns expressed by scholars and others knowledgeable of the likely reaction by the subjected population to a foreign conquest and the likely complications that would result should be ignored; and, faith should instead be placed on the occupation policies forcibly imposed on the population by a corrupt right-wing Republican administration.
As a result, support for the 2002 Iraq war resolution is not something that can simply be forgiven and forgotten.

Democrats’ Responsibility

The Democrats who voted to support the war and rationalized for it by making false claims about Iraq’s WMD programs are responsible for allowing the Bush administration to get away with lying about Iraq’s alleged threat. For example, Bush correctly noted how “more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate – who had access to the same intelligence – voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.” In a speech attacking anti-war activists, Bush noted, “Many of these critics supported my opponent [Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry] during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: ‘When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat and a grave threat, to our security.'”

The resolution also claimed that “the risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States … or provide them to international terrorists who would do so … combine to justify action by the United States to defend itself.” In other words, those members of the House and Senate who supported this resolution believed, or claimed to believe, that an impoverished country, which had eliminated its stockpiles of banned weapons, destroyed its medium and long-range missiles and eliminated its WMD programs more than a decade earlier and had been suffering under the strictest international sanctions in world history for more than a dozen years, somehow threatened the national security of a superpower located more than 6,000 miles away. Furthermore, these members of Congress believed, or claimed to believe, that this supposed threat was so great that the United States had no choice but to launch an invasion of that country, overthrow its government and place its people under military occupation in the name of “self-defense,” regardless of whether Iraq allowed inspectors back into the county to engage in unfettered inspections to prove that the WMD, WMD programs and weapons systems no longer existed.

It’s also important to recognize that not everyone in Congress voted to authorize the invasion. There were the 21 Senate Democrats – along with one Republican and one Independent – who voted against the war resolution. And 126 of 207 House Democrats voted against the resolution as well. In total, then, a majority of Democrats in Congress defied their leadership by saying no to war. This means that the Democrats who did support the war, despite being overrepresented in leadership positions and among presidential contenders, were part of a right-wing minority and did not represent the mainstream of their party.

Despite this, the Democratic Party has largely rewarded their right-wing minority who did support the war. Since casting their fateful vote and making their false statements about WMD, Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was elected senate majority leader, John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) has been selected to head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, Dianne Feinstein (D-California) has been selected to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee. In the House, Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) was elected House Majority leader and Howard Berman (D-California) was selected to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And, in 2004, after the lies which led up to the war had already been exposed and US occupation troops were being dragged down into a bloody counterinsurgency war, the Democrats chose to nominate two pro-war senators – Kerry and John Edwards (D-North Carolina) – as their presidential and vice presidential candidates, both of whom at that time continued to defend their vote to authorize the invasion and to continue prosecuting the war. As a result, many anti-war Democrats refused to support their party’s nominees, resulting in their narrow defeat.

The Obama Administration

To his credit, Barack Obama – then an Illinois state senator who had no obligation to take a stand either way – took the initiative to speak at a major anti-war rally in Chicago in October 2002. While his future rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden were making false and alarmist statements that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still a danger to the Middle East and US national security, Obama had a far more realistic understanding of the situation, stating: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.”

Recognizing that there were alternatives to using military force, Obama called on the United States to “allow UN inspectors to do their work.” He noted, “that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”

Furthermore, unlike the Iraq war’s initial supporters, Obama recognized that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Understanding the dangerous consequences to regional stability resulting from war, Obama accurately warned that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Indeed, he referred to it as “a dumb war” and “a rash war,” nothing less than a “cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.”

It was this prescience, contrasted with Hillary Clinton’s blind support for the Iraq war, that played a decisive role in Obama upsetting her for the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination. Indeed, as a candidate for president, Obama promised that not only would he end the Iraq war, he would “end the mindset that led to the Iraq war.”

Unfortunately, the majority of President Obama’s appointees to key positions dealing with foreign policy – Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Blair, Janet Napolitano, Richard Holbrooke and Rahm Emanuel – have been among those who represent that very mindset.

Their support for the invasion of Iraq was not simply a matter of misjudgment. Those who supported the war demonstrated a dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law and disdain for the United Nations Charter and international treaties which prohibit aggressive war. They demonstrated a willingness to either fabricate a nonexistent threat or naively believe transparently false and manipulated intelligence claiming such a threat existed, ignoring a plethora of evidence from weapons inspectors and independent arms control analysts who said that Iraq had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Perhaps worst of all, they demonstrated an incredible level of hubris and stupidity in imagining that the United States could get away with an indefinite occupation of a heavily populated Arab country with a strong history of nationalism and resistance to foreign domination.

Nor does it appear that they were simply fooled by the Bush administration’s manufactured claims of an Iraqi threat. For example, Napolitano, after acknowledging that there were not really WMD in Iraq as she had claimed prior to the invasion, argued, “In my view, there were lots of reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein.” Similarly, Clinton insisted months after the Bush administration acknowledged the absence of WMD that her vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion “was the right vote” and was one that, she said, “I stand by.”

Clearly, then, despite their much-touted “experience,” these Obama appointees demonstrated, through their support for the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, a profound ignorance of the reality of the Middle East and an arrogant assumption that peace, stability and democratic governance can be created through the application of massive US military force.

Given that the majority of Democrats in Congress, a larger majority of registered Democrats nationally and an even larger percentage of those who voted for Obama opposed the decision to invade Iraq, it is particularly disappointing that Obama would choose his vice president, chief of staff, secretary of state, secretary of defense, secretary of Homeland Security and special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan from the right-wing minority who supported the war.

The most striking examples of Obama’s betrayal of his anti-war constituency have been his appointments to the influential positions of vice president and secretary of state.


It is difficult to overestimate the critical role Biden played in making the tragedy of the Iraq war possible. More than two months prior to the 2002 war resolution even being introduced, in what was widely interpreted as the first sign that Congress would endorse a US invasion of Iraq, Biden declared on August 4 that the United States was probably going to war. In his powerful position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he orchestrated a propaganda show designed to sell the war to skeptical colleagues and the America public by ensuring that dissenting voices would not get a fair hearing.

As Scott Ritter, the former chief UN weapons inspector, noted at the time, “For Sen. Biden’s Iraq hearings to be anything more than a political sham used to invoke a modern-day Gulf of Tonkin resolution-equivalent for Iraq, his committee will need to ask hard questions – and demand hard facts – concerning the real nature of the weapons threat posed by Iraq.”

It soon became apparent that Biden had no intention of doing so. Biden refused to even allow Ritter himself – who knew more about Iraq’s WMD capabilities than anyone and would have testified that Iraq had achieved at least qualitative disarmament – to testify. Ironically, on “Meet the Press” in 2007, Biden defended his false claims about Iraqi WMD by insisting that “everyone in the world thought he had them. The weapons inspectors said he had them.”

Biden also refused to honor requests by some of his Democratic colleagues to include some of the leading anti-war scholars familiar with Iraq and Middle East (myself included) in the hearings. These involved both those who would have reiterated Ritter’s conclusions about nonexistent Iraqi WMD capabilities as well as those prepared to testify that a US invasion of Iraq would likely set back the struggle against al-Qaeda, alienate the United States from much of the world and precipitate bloody, urban, counterinsurgency warfare amid rising terrorism, Islamist extremism and sectarian violence. All of these predictions ended up being exactly what transpired.

Nor did Biden even call some of the dissenting officials in the Pentagon or State Department who were willing to challenge the alarmist claims of their ideologically-driven superiors. He was willing, however, to allow Iraqi defectors of highly dubious credentials to make false testimony about the vast quantities of WMD materiel supposedly in Saddam Hussein’s possession. Ritter correctly accused Biden of having “preordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts and … using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq.”

Rather than being a hapless victim of the Bush administration’s lies and manipulation, Biden was calling for a US invasion of Iraq and making false statements regarding Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of WMD years before President George W. Bush even came to office.

As far back as 1998, Biden was calling for a US invasion of that oil rich country. Even though UN inspectors and the UN-led disarmament process had led to the elimination of Iraq’s WMD threat, Biden – in an effort to discredit the world body and make an excuse for war – insisted that UN inspectors could never be trusted to do the job. During Senate hearings on Iraq in September of that year, Biden told Ritter, “As long as Saddam’s at the helm, there is no reasonable prospect you or any other inspector is ever going to be able to guarantee that we have rooted out, root and branch, the entirety of Saddam’s program relative to weapons of mass destruction.”

Calling for military action on the scale of the Gulf War seven years earlier, he continued, “The only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein is we’re going to end up having to start it alone.” He told the Marine veteran, “it’s going to require guys like you in uniform to be back on foot in the desert taking Saddam down.”

When Ritter tried to make the case that President Bill Clinton’s proposed large-scale bombing of Iraq could jeopardize the UN inspections process, Biden condescendingly replied that decisions on the use of military force were “beyond your pay grade.” As Ritter predicted, when Clinton ordered UN inspectors out of Iraq in December of that year and followed up with a four-day bombing campaign known as Operation Desert Fox, Saddam was provided with an excuse to refuse to allow the inspectors to return. Biden then conveniently used Saddam’s failure to allow them to return as an excuse for going to war four years later.

In the face of widespread skepticism over administration claims regarding Iraq’s military capabilities, Biden declared that President Bush was justified in being concerned about Iraq’s alleged pursuit of WMD. Even though Iraq had eliminated its chemical weapons arsenal by the mid-1990s, Biden insisted categorically in the weeks leading up to the Iraq war resolution that Saddam Hussein still had chemical weapons. Even though there is no evidence that Iraq had ever developed deployable biological weapons and its biological weapons program had been eliminated some years earlier, Biden insisted that Saddam had biological weapons, including anthrax and that “he may have a strain” of small pox. And, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported as far back as 1998 that there was no evidence whatsoever that Iraq had any ongoing nuclear program, Biden insisted Saddam was “seeking nuclear weapons.”

Said Biden, “One thing is clear: These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam, or Saddam must be dislodged from power.” He did not believe proof of the existence of any actual weapons to dislodge was necessary, however, insisting that “If we wait for the danger from Saddam to become clear, it could be too late.” He further defended President Bush by falsely claiming, “He did not snub the U.N. or our allies. He did not dismiss a new inspection regime. He did not ignore the Congress. At each pivotal moment, he has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation.”

In an Orwellian twist of language designed to justify the war resolution, which gave President Bush the unprecedented authority to invade a country on the far side of the world at the time and circumstances of his own choosing, Biden claimed, “I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe it is a march to peace and security. I believe that failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war will occur.”

It is also important to note that Biden supported an invasion in the full knowledge that it would not be quick and easy and that the United States would have to occupy Iraq for an extended period, declaring, “We must be clear with the American people that we are committing to Iraq for the long haul; not just the day after, but the decade after.”

Despite all this, Obama offered him the vice presidency and has given him a leading role in his administration’s foreign policy.


The most critical foreign policy appointment is that of secretary of state. For this position and despite enormous skepticism regarding the war among most State Department veterans, President Obama chose Clinton, one of the Senate’s most outspoken supporters of Bush’s Iraq policy. In order to justify her vote to authorize the US invasion of Iraq in October 2002, despite widespread and public skepticism expressed by arms control experts over the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had somehow rearmed itself, Senator Clinton was insisting that Iraq’s possession of biological and chemical weapons was “not in doubt” and was “undisputed.” She also falsely claimed that Iraq was “trying to develop nuclear weapons.”

Nonexistent WMD were not the only false claims Clinton made to justify a US invasion of Iraq. For example, she insisted that Saddam had given aid, comfort and sanctuary to al-Qaeda terrorists

Even after US forces invaded and occupied Iraq and confirmed that Iraq did not have WMD, active WMD programs, offensive delivery systems or ties to al-Qaeda as she and other supporters of the war had claimed, Clinton defended her vote to authorize the invasion anyway. As a result, she essentially acknowledged that Iraq’s alleged possession of WMD was not really what motivated her vote to authorize the war after all, but was instead a ruse to frighten the American people into supporting the invasion. Her actual motivation appears to have been about oil and empire.

During the first four years following the invasion, Clinton was a steadfast supporter of Bush administration policy. When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania) made his first call for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in November 2005, she denounced his effort, calling a withdrawal of US forces a big mistake. In 2006, when Senator Kerry sponsored an amendment that would have required the redeployment of US forces from Iraq in order to advance a political solution to the growing sectarian strife, she voted against it. She came out against the war only when she began her presidential campaign, recognizing that public opinion had turned so decisively in opposition that there was no hope of her securing the Democratic nomination unless she changed her position.

She has also decried Iran’s “involvement in and influence over Iraq,” an ironic complaint for someone who voted to authorize the overthrow of the anti-Iranian secular government of Saddam Hussein despite his widely predicted replacement by pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalist parties. She also went on record repeating a whole series of false, exaggerated and unproven charges by Bush administration officials regarding Iranian support for the Iraqi insurgency, even though the vast majority of foreign support for the insurgency had come from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and that the majority of the insurgents are fanatically anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite.

Where’s the Hope?

A foreign policy team like this in charge raises serious questions as to whether Obama – despite his admirable anti-war position during the period leading up to the invasion – can really get us out of Iraq. His August 31 speech failed to condemn the decision to go to war or the politicians of both parties who lied about the alleged Iraqi threat.

Nor is it likely that the US Congress, the leadership of which is largely composed of pro-war Democrats and pro-war Republicans, will provide pressure to accelerate the withdrawal or demand that all troops be out by next year as promised. The way the Democratic Party has essentially rewarded those who made possible the needless sacrifice of American lives, treasure and credibility in the world leaves little incentive for those like Clinton, Biden, Kerry, Reid, Feinstein, Berman and Hoyer to get us out of Iraq and little disincentive for leading us into another senseless and tragic war.



Pavlovian Congress Jumps to Israel’s ‘Self-’ Defense

In a letter to President Barack Obama date June 17, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives referred to 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, as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” 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,” claiming 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.”

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 defend 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.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that 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 on 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 insisted, despite the fact that several of those killed on the Mavi Marmara were shot at point blank range in the back or the back of the head and a video showing a 19-year old U.S. citizen shot execution style on the ground, 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.

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 apparent whitewash forthcoming 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 recent public opinion poll shows a clear majority of Americans — including 65 percent of Democrats — favor an international inquiry over allowing Israel alone to investigate the circumstances of the attack .

Ironically, a number of progressive organizations, web sites and list serves have called on the peace and human rights community to support the re- election of some of the very senators who signed this letter, including Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, and Russell Feingold. MoveOn, Council for a Livable World, and other progressive groups with PAC money have been are calling on their members, many of whom are peace and human rights activists, to donate their money to these right-wing Democrats who defend attacking peace and human rights activists and lie about the circumstances to justify it. They have no problems with supporting the re-election of those who lie and mislead their constituents in order to defend illegal actions by allied right-wing governments, even when they kill and injure participants in a humanitarian flotilla on the high seas.

There may be an underlying current of racism at work here. It is unlikely MoveOn, Council for a Livable World and other groups would defend such actions if, for example, if the activists were helping those under siege in Sarajevo in the 1990s or West Berlin in the 1940s, who happened to be white Europeans.

It is important to remember that the majority of Democrats joined in with Republicans in supporting the Salvadoran junta in the early 1980s and the Suharto regime in the 1990s until voters made clear they would withdraw their support from them if they did not change their policy. AIPAC and other right-wing “pro-Israel” groups are only as powerful as the absence of counter-pressure from the peace and human rights community. Letters like these will continue to be supported by most Democrats only as long they know they can get away with it.


Obama Stumbles on Human Rights

It was a relatively short response to a question in a town hall-style meeting in Florida, yet it said much about President Barack Obama’s lack of concern about human rights in his foreign policy. The question came not from a hostile Republican opponent, but from a young college student who had volunteered on Obama’s campaign. She spoke directly to an issue that has alienated much of Obama’s Democratic base since the president took office: ongoing U.S. support for Israeli and Egyptian human rights abuses. The Israeli and Egyptian governments, both of which have notoriously poor human rights records, are the two largest recipients of U.S. security assistance.

The student’s question was simple: Given that Obama had spoken about “America’s support for human rights,” she asked, “Why have we not condemned Israel and Egypt’s violations of human rights against the occupied Palestinian peoples [while continuing to support such oppression] with billions of dollars coming from our taxes?”

Obama didn’t even try to answer her question. He didn’t even utter the words “human rights” at any point in his rambling four-and-half-minute response (though he did praise Israel as “a vibrant democracy”).

Perhaps he could be forgiven in some respects. Obama looked tired. It wasn’t a formal White House press conference or a one-on-one interview with a knowledgeable reporter, but a town-hall meeting with an audience for whom he may have felt he needed to frame the larger subject. Perhaps he was intimidated by right-wingers in the audience, who booed the student’s question at the outset.

Yet Obama’s fumbled answer seemed to underscore the administration’s dismissive attitude toward human rights overall. Indeed, at the end, Obama even implied that the student’s question was inappropriate, saying, “I think that it’s important, when we’re talking about this issue to make sure we don’t use language that’s inflammatory.” What the president apparently found inflammatory was the very suggestion that the United States should object to human rights abuses committed by its “strategic allies.”

At the UN

Obama directed the U.S. delegation at the United Nations last week to vote against a General Assembly resolution, which called on the Palestinians and Israelis to conduct “independent, credible” investigations into alleged war crimes by their forces during the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009. The United States was one of only seven countries to vote no.

Previously, Obama administration officials denounced the Goldstone Report as “unacceptable” and “deeply flawed.” The meticulously researched 575-page report, led by the eminent South African jurist Richard Goldstone and a blue-ribbon panel of investigators, documented likely war crimes by both Israel and Hamas. A similar report by Amnesty International called for an international moratorium of arms transfers to both Israel and Hamas. After that report was released, the Obama administration announced increased military aid to Israel.

Obama has also failed to show any greater concern about human rights abuses by Egypt, even when Egyptian security forces charged and beat hundreds of Americans and other internationals seeking to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip late last year. In an interview with the BBC, Obama rejected the journalist’s characterization of Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler, and praised the Egyptian dictator as a “stalwart ally” and “a force for stability.” He then evaded a question on the thousands of political prisoners being held by the Egyptian regime by saying the United States shouldn’t impose its values on other countries.


The young woman’s question at the Florida town hall appeared to trip up the usually articulate Obama from the outset. He began his response with a tautology reminiscent of former Vice President Dan Quayle: “The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries.” After setting the audience straight on that score, he goes on to say that “both sides are going to have to make compromises,” ignoring the fundamental asymmetry between one side, which is an occupying power, and the other side, which is under foreign military occupation. If Obama had been president in late 1990, he wouldn’t have told Iraqis and Kuwaitis that “both sides are going to have to make compromises.” Obama appears to share his predecessors’ view that issues of conquest and self-determination shouldn’t be based upon universal legal principles, but on whether the occupier is seen as an ally or an adversary. The call on both sides to compromise is also rather bizarre, given that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have recognized Israeli control of 78 percent of historic Palestine, while Israel has insisted that Palestinian demands for an independent state on the remaining 22 percent are too much and that it should control much of that territory as well.

“As a first step, the Palestinians have to unequivocally renounce violence and recognize Israel,” Obama also insisted. However, he failed to likewise insist that the Israelis unequivocally renounce violence and recognize Palestine — as a “first step” or at any other time. The ratio of Palestinian civilians killed to Israeli civilians killed in recent years has been roughly 200:1, which makes his one-sided demand particularly bizarre. He also ignored the fact that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization — the recognized ruling bodies of the Palestinian territories — have already renounced violence and recognized Israel. He seems to imply that until Hamas, which illegally seized control of the Gaza Strip three years ago, also unilaterally renounces violence and recognizes Israel, which it won’t do until Israel is willing to reciprocate — then Israel can continue to deny statehood to the majority of Palestinians who live under the PA-administered West Bank.

The only thing that Obama insisted that Israel needed to do was to “recognize legitimate grievances and interests of the Palestinians.” He is unclear as to what that entails, other than a brief reference to the right to education and employment. He didn’t insist, however, on their right to be free of the threat of massive bombardments against civilian population centers, like an Israeli assault on Gaza that killed more than 700 civilians, nearly 300 of whom were children.

Such lack of concern for human rights not only raises serious ethical and legal concerns, but makes the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace even more remote. It’s also bad politics. Thousands of young people, like the student who posed the question, volunteered for Obama and other Democrats partly because they thought the party would offer a foreign policy based upon strong ethical and legal principles, such as respect for international humanitarian law.

Until the Obama administration is willing to live up to that promise, and governments like Israel and Egypt know they can no longer get a blank check from the U.S. government no matter how terrible their human rights record, U.S. complicity in war crimes and other abuses will be obvious to all. As a result, many who worked for Obama and the Democrats in 2008 — like that young woman from Florida — will question how different they are from Republicans, and whether they deserve their continued support.


Obama and the Denial of Genocide

The Obama administration, citing its relations with Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full House of Representatives of a resolution passed this past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of a 1.5 million Armenians. Even though the Obama administration previously refused to acknowledge and even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern ally, few believed that the administration would go as far as to effectively deny genocide.

Following the committee vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that “We are against this decision,” and pledged that the administration would “work very hard” to prevent the bill from coming to the floor. Despite widespread support for the resolution by House Democrats, she expressed confidence that the administration would find a means of blocking the resolution, saying, “Now we believe that the U.S. Congress will not take any decision on this subject.”

As candidates, both Clinton and Barack Obama had pledged that their administrations would be the first to formally recognize the Armenian genocide. Clinton acknowledged that this was a reversal, but insisted that circumstances had “changed in very significant ways.” The State Department, however, has been unable to cite any new historical evidence that would counter the broad consensus that genocide had indeed taken place in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. The official excuse is that it might harm an important rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. However, there is no indication the Armenian government is at all concerned about potential negative fallout in their bilateral relations over a resolution passed by a legislative body in a third country.

More likely, the concern is over not wanting to jeopardize the cooperation of Turkey, which borders Iran, in the forthcoming enhanced sanctions against the Islamic republic.

Back in 2007, a similar resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide also passed through the House Foreign Relations Committee. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promised that she would allow it to come for a vote. With 226 cosponsors — a clear majority of the House — there was little question it would pass. However, in response to claims by the Bush White House and Republican congressional leaders that it would harm the “Global War on Terror,” Pelosi broke her promise and used her power as speaker to prevent a vote on the resolution. She will also certainly buckle under pressure from an administration of her own party.

The Historical Record

Between 1915 and 1918, under orders of the leadership of the Ottoman Empire, an estimated two million Armenians were forcibly removed from their homes in a region that had been part of the Armenian nation for more than 2,500 years. Three-quarters of them died as a result of execution, starvation, and related reasons.

According to Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during that period, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.” While issuing a “death warrant to a whole race” would normally be considered genocide by any definition, this apparently isn’t the view of the Obama administration.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by the United States, officially defines genocide as any effort “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The earliest proponent of such an international convention was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who originally coined the term “genocide” and identified the Armenian case as a definitive example.

Dozens of other governments — including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia — and several UN bodies, as well as 40 U.S. states, have formally recognized the Armenian genocide. The Obama administration does not, however, and is apparently determined to prevent Congress from doing so.

Congress has previously gone on record condemning Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for refusing to acknowledge the German genocide of the Jews. Congress appears unwilling, however, to challenge Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. While awareness of anti-Semitism is fortunately widespread enough to marginalize those who refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust, tolerance for anti-Armenian bigotry appears strong enough that it’s still considered politically acceptable to deny their genocide.

The Turkey Factor

Opponents of the measure argue that they’re worried about harming relations with Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire and an important U.S. ally. However, the United States has done much greater harm in its relations with Turkey through policies far more significant than a symbolic resolution acknowledging a tragic historical period. The United States clandestinely backed an attempted military coup by right-wing Turkish officers in 2003, arming Iraqi and Iranian Kurds with close ties to Kurdish rebels in Turkey who have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish citizens. The United States also invaded neighboring Iraq. As a result, the percentage of Turks who view the United States positively declined from 52 percent to only 9 percent.

Generations of Turks have been taught that there was no Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, but that there were scattered atrocities on both sides. Indeed, most Turks believe their country is being unfairly scapegoated, particularly when the United States refuses to label its treatment of American Indians as genocide or acknowledge more recent war crimes. As a result, some argue that a more appropriate means of addressing the ongoing Turkish denial of historical reality would be through dialogue and some sort of re-education, avoiding the patently political device of a congressional resolution that would inevitably make Turks defensive.

Failure to acknowledge the genocide, however, is a tragic affront to the rapidly dwindling number of genocide survivors as well as their descendents. It’s also a disservice to the many Turks who opposed the Ottoman Empire’s policies and tried to stop the genocide, as well as the growing number of Turks today who face imprisonment by their U.S.-backed regime for daring to publicly concede the crimes of their forebears. For example, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature, was prosecuted and fled into exile to escape death threats after making a number of public references to the genocide.

Some opponents of the resolution argue that it is pointless for Congress to pass resolutions regarding historical events. Yet there were no such complaints regarding resolutions commemorating the Holocaust, nor are there normally complaints regarding the scores of dedicatory resolutions passed by Congress in recent years, ranging from commemorating the 65th anniversary of the death of the Polish musician and political leader Ignacy Jan Paderewski to noting the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.

The Obama administration insists that that this is a bad time to upset the Turkish government. However, it was also considered a “bad time” to pass the resolution back in 2007, on the grounds that it not jeopardize U.S. access to Turkish bases as part of efforts to support the counter-insurgency war by U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. It was also considered a “bad time” when a similar resolution was put forward in 2000 because the United States was using its bases in Turkey to patrol the “no fly zones” in northern Iraq. And it was also considered a “bad time” in 1985 and 1987, when similar resolutions were put forward because U.S. bases in Turkey were considered important listening posts for monitoring the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For deniers of the Armenian genocide, it’s always a “bad time.”

While the passage of the resolution would certainly lead to strong diplomatic protests from Turkey, it is dubious that there would be much of a rupture between Ankara and Washington. When President Ronald Reagan, a major backer of the right-wing military dictatorship then ruling Turkey, once used the term genocide in relation to Armenians, U.S.-Turkish relations did not suffer.

The Obama administration, like administrations before it, simply refuses to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide even took place. As recently as the 1980s, the Bulletin of the Department of State claimed that “Because the historical record of the 1915 events in Asia Minor is ambiguous, the Department of State does not endorse allegations that the Turkish government committed genocide against the Armenian people.” Even more recently, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense in President George W. Bush, stated in 2002 that “one of the things that impress me about Turkish history is the way Turkey treats its own minorities.”

The operative clause of the resolution simply calls upon Obama “to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide and the consequences of the failure to realize a just resolution.” Therefore, if Obama really doesn’t want Congress to pass such a resolution, all he needs to do is make an executive order acknowledging the genocide. Despite whatever excuses one wants to make, failure to do so amounts to genocide denial.

Genocide Denial

Given the indisputable record of the Armenian genocide, many of those who refuse to recognize Turkey’s genocide of Armenians, like those who refuse to recognize Germany’s genocide of European Jews, are motivated by ignorance and bigotry. The Middle East scholar most often cited by members of Congress as influencing their understanding of the region is the notorious genocide-denier Bernard Lewis, a fellow at Washington’s Institute of Turkish Studies.

Not every opponent of the current resolution explicitly denies that there was genocide. Some acknowledge that genocide indeed occurred, but have apparently been convinced that it’s detrimental to U.S. security to state this publicly. This is still inexcusable. Such moral cowardice is no less reprehensible than refusing to acknowledge the Holocaust if it were believed that doing so might upset the German government, which also hosts critical U.S. bases.

Obama is not the first Democratic president to effectively deny the Armenian genocide. President Bill Clinton successfully persuaded House Speaker Dennis Hastert to suppress a similar bill, after it passed the Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 40-7 and was on its way to easy passage before the full House. President Jimmy Carter also suppressed a Senate effort led by Bob Dole, whose miraculous recovery from near-fatal wounds during World War II was overseen by an Armenian-American doctor who had survived the genocide.

Interestingly, neoconservatives — quick to defend crimes against humanity by the Bush administration, the Israeli government, and others — are opportunistically using Obama’s flip-flop on this issue as evidence of the moral laxity of Democrats on human rights.

Adolf Hitler, responding to concerns about the legacy of his crimes, once asked, “Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?” Obama is sending a message to future tyrants that they can commit genocide without acknowledgement by the world’s most powerful country.

Indeed, refusing to recognize genocide and those responsible for it in a historical context makes it easier to deny genocide today. In 1994, the Clinton also refused to use the word “genocide” in the midst of the Rwandan government’s massacres of over half that country’s Tutsi population, a decision that contributed to the delay in deploying international peacekeeping forces until after the slaughter of 800,000 people.

As a result, the Obama administration’s position on the Armenian genocide isn’t simply about whether to commemorate a tragedy that took place 95 years ago. It’s about where we stand as a nation in facing up to the most horrible of crimes. It’s about whether we are willing to stand up for the truth in the face of lies. It’s about whether we see our nation as appeasing our strategic allies or upholding our longstanding principles.


Obama’s State of the Union: Little Focus on the World Beyond Our Borders

For eight years, I wrote annotated critiques of the foreign policy segments of George W. Bush’s State of the Union speeches. Despite two ongoing wars, it was striking that Obama focused so little in his first State of the Union speech on the world outside our borders other than the call to be competitive in the global economy. Indeed, he dedicated only eight minutes of the 70-minute speech to foreign policy.

Yet many of the pressing economic problems the country faces that were addressed in the speech are directly related to foreign policy. And, despite promises of change, much of this foreign policy shows disappointing continuity with previous administrations.

Military Blind Spot

For example: Obama declared, to enthusiastic applause, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.” He is certainly making sure that the United States remains number one in military spending. Indeed, the United States spends six times more than China, the number-two country in military appropriations. In his rejection of the single-payer option as being too expensive, however, Obama seems quite willing to accept the 37th place that the United States occupies in the health care ranking.

In announcing a freeze on domestic spending, he dismissed “some in my own party [who] will argue that we can’t address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting” by emphasizing that “if we don’t take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery.” If Obama really cared about the deficit, however, he would have called for major cuts in military spending. Not only did he refuse to do so, he specifically exempted the Pentagon budget from the freeze, underscoring his commitment to spend more and more taxpayer dollars to ensure the profits of military contractors and the continued prosecution of overseas wars, even as the country’s social services and domestic infrastructure deteriorate still further.

The president talked of strengthened sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program, adding – to enthusiastic bipartisan applause – that “as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.” While it is certainly true that Iran and North Korea are in defiance of demands by the UN Security Council regarding their nuclear programs, it is also true that Israel, India, and Pakistan are in defiance of the UN Security Council regarding their nuclear programs as well. However, the Obama administration has shown little inclination to impose or even threaten sanctions against its allies, which not only are engaged in far more advanced nuclear reprocessing but – unlike the Iranians – actually possess nuclear weapons. UN Security Council resolution 487 calls on Israel to turn its nuclear facilities over to the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Pakistan and India, meanwhile, remain in defiance of UNSC resolution 1172, calling on them to eliminate their nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles altogether. Indeed, Obama is continuing his predecessor’s practices of providing all three countries with nuclear-capable aircraft and other delivery systems as well as directly facilitating India’s nuclear program.

To his credit, Obama acknowledged the importance of the two largest nuclear powers – the United States and Russia – completing negotiations on a far-reaching arms control treaty as part of “a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons and seeks a world without them.” This, however, is a long-overdue legal obligation of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires the existing nuclear weapons states to make good-faith efforts to pursue complete nuclear disarmament, something which even such Cold War hawks as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn have acknowledged as necessary. Again, it will be hard to convince Iran and North Korea to live by their NPT obligations as long as the United States and the other major nuclear powers fail to do so as well.

Similarly, it will be virtually impossible to control the threatened spread of nuclear weapons as long as nuclear power remains a preferred source of energy. Obama’s oxymoronic call for taxpayer-funded incentives for the construction of “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country” will make non-proliferation efforts all the more difficult.

On the Side of Freedom?

Obama, as he often does, eloquently appealed to both the moral obligation and the enlightened self-interest of the United States in declaring that “America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity.” He noted that such principles were why “we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran” and “why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea.” The influence the United States has on these countries, however, is far less than those of such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Equatorial Guinea, whose corrupt and repressive regimes are bolstered by American economic and security assistance.

Obama’s early and prescient opposition to the Iraq War was largely responsible for his securing the Democratic presidential nomination from his initially pro-war opponents. In his State of the Union speech he reiterated “As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President.” Specifically, he promised that “We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.” Unfortunately, what constitutes “combat troops” remains vague. By most accounts, the United States will still have over 50,000 troops in Iraq after this “withdrawal,” virtually all of whom will be fully armed and will still be authorized to use lethal force whenever they deem necessary. He also promised to “support the Iraqi government as they hold elections” despite their banning of prominent opposition politicians from running, engaging in ongoing human rights abuses, and remaining one of the most corrupt regimes in the world.

In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon insisted that escalating the war in Vietnam and its neighbors and training the armed forces of a corrupt and fraudulently elected allied government was necessary to bring American troops home. Similarly, Obama declared that “in Afghanistan, we’re increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.” In Vietnam, nearly four years elapsed between the time when U.S. troops began to come home and the withdrawal was finally completed, during which an additional 20,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were killed. Even Obama administration officials acknowledge that U.S. forces could remain fighting in Afghanistan for at least another decade.

Though this year’s critique of the foreign policy segments of the State of the Union address is not nearly as long as those I wrote under Bush, I am still disappointed to have to write one at all. Yes, the problems with the Obama administration’s foreign policy are not nearly as egregious as its predecessor. But U.S. citizens must continue to push the administration to pursue a more rational and more ethical global agenda.


Obama’s Human Rights Record a Disappointment

One year into their term in office, the Obama administration’s record on human rights has been a major disappointment.

In part because the Bush administration abused the promotion of democracy and human rights to rationalize its militaristic policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama administration has at times been reluctant to be a forceful advocate for those struggling against oppression. For example, Obama was cautious in supporting the ongoing freedom struggle in Iran, in part because he believes that more overt advocacy could set back what he sees as the more critical issue of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He is also aware of how the history of U.S. interventionism in that country, overt threats of “regime change” by the previous administration, and the U.S. invasion of two neighboring countries in the name of promoting democracy could lead to a nationalist reaction to such grandstanding. (Despite this caution, however, the Iranian regime has falsely accused Obama of guiding the massive pro-democracy movement that is challenging the increasingly repressive rule in that country.)

Harder to defend is Obama’s continuation of the Bush administration’s policy of arming and training security forces in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan and other dictatorial regimes in the region.

During his highly anticipated address in Cairo last June, Obama failed to praise his autocratic host, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He also invited leading critics of the regime, including secular liberals and moderate Islamists, to witness his speech. On the other hand, he refused to criticize the Mubarak regime, acknowledge its autocratic nature, or address any concern over its thousands of political prisoners — even when pushed to do so in a BBC interview. Indeed, Egyptian grassroots pro-democracy group Kefaya chose to boycott the speech, demanding that Obama show his commitment to democracy in deeds, not just words. Obama’s foreign aid budget includes over $1.5 billion in unconditional aid to the Mubarak dictatorship. And Washington didn’t publicly express concern when Egyptian police attacked American human rights activists attempting to deliver relief supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip last month.

Most of the opposition to Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan has been based on cost and the dubious prospects of victory. But there is concern that the government for which Americans are expected to fight and die is a serious abuser of human rights. Not only did U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai steal the most recent presidential election, but his cabinet includes a number of notorious warlords who have engaged in serious crimes against humanity. Furthermore, U.S.-backed Afghan security forces have engaged in gross and systematic human rights violations, and U.S. bomb and missile attacks killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan since Obama assumed office.

Similarly, U.S. forces remain in Iraq, and billions of dollars support the sectarian regime despite ongoing violations of human rights by Baghdad’s rulers. The recent dismissal of charges against U.S. Blackwater mercenaries, who massacred 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Al-Nusur Square, and the Obama administration’s refusal to extradite them to face justice have also raised concerns regarding the U.S. commitment to basic human rights.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Obama administration rejected calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel following its use of U.S. weaponry against civilian targets in last year’s war on the Gaza Strip, which resulted in more than 700 civilian deaths, over 300 of whom were children. Even worse, Obama has pledged to increase military aid over and above the more than $10 billion provided to the Israelis by the Bush administration. The Obama administration called on Israel to freeze expansion of its colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank and threatened to cut planned loan guarantees to the Israeli government if it continues to refuse. But Obama still rejects conditioning direct aid and has similarly refused to call on Israel to withdraw from the its illegal settlements, as required under international humanitarian law and confirmed through a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

When the UN Human Rights Council investigation led by Richard Goldstone documented war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government — confirming previous investigations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others — the Obama administration rejected the commission’s findings, calling them “deeply flawed.” Rather than challenge the content of the meticulously documented 575-page report, U.S. officials instead issued strong but vague critiques. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was particularly critical of the report’s recommendation that Palestinians and Israelis suspected of war crimes should be tried before the International Criminal Court. “Our view is that we need to be focused on the future,” she argued.

The human rights community was initially pleased when Obama appointed Michael Posner, cofounder and director of Human Rights First, as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. However, Crowley took the lead in quashing the Goldstone Commission report, insisting it “should not be used as a mechanism to add impediments to getting back to the peace process.” Ironically, just weeks earlier, the Obama administration argued during a UN debate on Darfur that war crimes charges should never be sacrificed for political reasons.

The Obama administration has shown a lack of concern for democracy and human rights outside the Middle East as well. Washington initially raised objections to the coup in Honduras that ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. But then Obama — in opposition to virtually the entire hemisphere — recognized the November elections that took place under a censured media, widespread political repression, and a boycott by pro-democracy forces. The administration also pledged to continue sending over half a billion dollars of aid annually to the Colombian regime, despite its notoriously poor human rights record. It even signed an agreement that allows U.S. forces to be stationed at seven military bases across that country. Though ostensibly the focus is to curb the drug trade, such aid has also been used in broader counterinsurgency efforts that have serious human rights consequences.

Rejecting calls by liberal Democratic members of Congress, leading human rights groups, Pope Benedict XVI, and most of the international community to participate, the Obama administration decided to boycott the UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Geneva. And most disturbingly, the Obama administration decided to continue the Bush administration’s policy of remaining one of the few nations in the world to refuse to sign the international treaty banning landmines, completing its review process in secret without allowing for any input from human rights organizations.

Despite all this, there have been some gestures in support of individual human rights activists. For example, in an unprecedented move, the White House hosted the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, with Obama personally honoring this year’s recipients, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, who have been struggling for human rights under the repressive Mugabe regime. The White House also intervened on behalf of the 2008 winner, Western Saharan nonviolent activist Aminatou Haidar, as she verged on death from a hunger strike following expulsion from her country by Moroccan occupation authorities. The Obama administration has failed, however, to demand that Morocco honor a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a World Court ruling allowing the people of Western Sahara the right of self-determination.

To Obama’s credit, there is now a subtle but important shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view of human rights. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing the rights of free expression, particularly the right of protest, and recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not through imposed means.

In the short term, however, Obama’s failure to more boldly address human rights concerns has alienated much of Obama’s progressive base of support. The right wing, meanwhile, disingenuously portrays Obama as retreating from his predecessor’s supposed support for democracy and human rights. Although the Bush administration provided even more assistance to governments engaged in human rights abuses and used pro-democracy rhetoric largely as a ruse for empire, Obama’s lukewarm support for human rights has enabled right-wingers to seize the moral high ground. As a result, the perceived weakness of the Obama administration’s human rights record raises important ethical and political questions.


Human Rights: C+

The Obama administration’s record on human rights has been a major disappointment.

In part because the Bush administration abused the promotion of democracy and human rights to rationalize its militaristic policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama administration has at times been reluctant to be a forceful advocate for those struggling against oppression. For example, Obama was cautious in supporting the ongoing freedom struggle in Iran, in part because he believes that more overt advocacy could set back what he sees as the more critical issue of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He is also aware of how the history of U.S. interventionism in that country, overt threats of “regime change” by the previous administration, and the U.S. invasion of two neighboring countries in the name of promoting democracy could lead to a nationalist reaction to such grandstanding. (Despite this caution, however, the Iranian regime has falsely accused Obama of guiding the massive pro-democracy movement that is challenging the increasingly repressive rule in that country.)

Harder to defend is Obama’s continuation of the Bush administration’s policy of arming and training security forces in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan and other dictatorial regimes in the region.

During his highly anticipated address in Cairo last June, Obama failed to praise his autocratic host, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He also invited leading critics of the regime, including secular liberals and moderate Islamists, to witness his speech. On the other hand, he refused to criticize the Mubarak regime, acknowledge its autocratic nature, or address any concern over its thousands of political prisoners — even when pushed to do so in a BBC interview. Indeed, Egyptian grassroots pro-democracy group Kefaya chose to boycott the speech, demanding that Obama show his commitment to democracy in deeds, not just words. Obama’s foreign aid budget includes over $1.5 billion in unconditional aid to the Mubarak dictatorship. And Washington didn’t publicly express concern when Egyptian police attacked American human rights activists attempting to deliver relief supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip last month.

Most of the opposition to Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan has been based on cost and the dubious prospects of victory. But there is concern that the government for which Americans are expected to fight and die is a serious abuser of human rights. Not only did U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai steal the most recent presidential election, but his cabinet includes a number of notorious warlords who have engaged in serious crimes against humanity. Furthermore, U.S.-backed Afghan security forces have engaged in gross and systematic human rights violations, and U.S. bomb and missile attacks killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan since Obama assumed office.

Similarly, U.S. forces remain in Iraq, and billions of dollars support the sectarian regime despite ongoing violations of human rights by Baghdad’s rulers. The recent dismissal of charges against U.S. Blackwater mercenaries, who massacred 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Al-Nusur Square, and the Obama administration’s refusal to extradite them to face justice have also raised concerns regarding the U.S. commitment to basic human rights.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Obama administration rejected calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel following its use of U.S. weaponry against civilian targets in last year’s war on the Gaza Strip, which resulted in more than 700 civilian deaths, over 300 of whom were children. Even worse, Obama has pledged to increase military aid over and above the more than $10 billion provided to the Israelis by the Bush administration. The Obama administration called on Israel to freeze expansion of its colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank and threatened to cut planned loan guarantees to the Israeli government if it continues to refuse. But Obama still rejects conditioning direct aid and has similarly refused to call on Israel to withdraw from the its illegal settlements, as required under international humanitarian law and confirmed through a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

When the UN Human Rights Council investigation led by Richard Goldstone documented war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government — confirming previous investigations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others — the Obama administration rejected the commission’s findings, calling them “deeply flawed.” Rather than challenge the content of the meticulously documented 575-page report, U.S. officials instead issued strong but vague critiques. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was particularly critical of the report’s recommendation that Palestinians and Israelis suspected of war crimes should be tried before the International Criminal Court. “Our view is that we need to be focused on the future,” she argued.

The human rights community was initially pleased when Obama appointed Michael Posner, cofounder and director of Human Rights First, as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. However, Posner took the lead in quashing the Goldstone Commission report, insisting it “should not be used as a mechanism to add impediments to getting back to the peace process.” Ironically, just weeks earlier, the Obama administration argued during a UN debate on Darfur that war crimes charges should never be sacrificed for political reasons.

The Obama administration has shown a lack of concern for democracy and human rights outside the Middle East as well. Washington initially raised objections to the coup in Honduras that ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. But then Obama — in opposition to virtually the entire hemisphere — recognized the November elections that took place under a censured media, widespread political repression, and a boycott by pro-democracy forces. The administration also pledged to continue sending over half a billion dollars of aid annually to the Colombian regime, despite its notoriously poor human rights record. It even signed an agreement that allows U.S. forces to be stationed at seven military bases across that country. Though ostensibly the focus is to curb the drug trade, such aid has also been used in broader counterinsurgency efforts that have serious human rights consequences.

Rejecting calls by liberal Democratic members of Congress, leading human rights groups, Pope Benedict XVI, and most of the international community to participate, the Obama administration decided to boycott the UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Geneva. And most disturbingly, the Obama administration decided to continue the Bush administration’s policy of remaining one of the few nations in the world to refuse to sign the international treaty banning landmines, completing its review process in secret without allowing for any input from human rights organizations.

Despite all this, there have been some gestures in support of individual human rights activists. For example, in an unprecedented move, the White House hosted the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, with Obama personally honoring this year’s recipients, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, who have been struggling for human rights under the repressive Mugabe regime. The White House also intervened on behalf of the 2008 winner, Western Saharan nonviolent activist Aminatou Haidar, as she verged on death from a hunger strike following expulsion from her country by Moroccan occupation authorities. The Obama administration has failed, however, to demand that Morocco honor a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a World Court ruling allowing the people of Western Sahara the right of self-determination.

To Obama’s credit, there is now a subtle but important shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view of human rights. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing the rights of free expression, particularly the right of protest, and recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not through imposed means.

In the short term, however, Obama’s failure to more boldly address human rights concerns have alienated much of Obama’s progressive base of support. The right wing, meanwhile, disingenuously portrays Obama as retreating from his predecessor’s supposed support for democracy and human rights. Although the Bush administration provided even more assistance to governments engaged in human rights abuses and used pro-democracy rhetoric largely as a ruse for empire, Obama’s lukewarm support for human rights has enabled right-wingers to seize the moral high ground. As a result, the perceived weakness of the Obama administration’s human rights record raises important ethical and political questions.