US policy weakens Iran’s pro-democracy movement

[Santa Cruz Sentinel & Transnational.org,
May 31, 2013, updated Sept. 11, 2018
]
While the outcome of the Iranian elections scheduled for June 14 may be hard to predict, it will make little difference as long as power remains firmly in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei and other hard-line clerics. Indeed, while there are contending factions vying for the country’s relatively weak presidency, the narrow ideological spectrum within which candidates are allowed to run for public office offers little hope for change — at least through the electoral system. Following the 2009 election, in which the incumbent right-wing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner despite his apparent loss to the popular reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the people of Iran rose up in a popular civil insurrection, which was brutally crushed… The repression, corruption, economic injustice, imposition of ultraconservative social policies, and poor treatment of women and minorities has led to so much dissent that it has forced the regime to jail many of the Iranian Revolution’s own leadership… [FULL LINK]

Despite Horrific Repression, the U.S. Should Stay Out of Syria

Foreign Policy In Focus/Institute for Policy Studies May15, 2013
[Republished by Common Dreams, Huffington Post and Truthout]
   The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left policymakers scrambling to think of ways the United States could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to “do something” has led to increasing calls for the United States to provide military aid to armed insurgents or even engage in direct military intervention, especially in light of the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime…

Israel, Syria and the United States

Truthout May 13, 2013
   Zunes’ review of the last decade of Israel, Syria and US relations – culminating in Israel’s latest bombing raid on Syria – details cross-purposes and missed opportunities.
   To whatever extent the Israeli May 6 attack on Syria may have inflicted material damage on the regime’s war-making capability, it has allowed an untimely political victory for that brutal and besieged regime. Though Israel’s devastating bombing raid may have been focused on missiles or other military hardware bound for the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, the attack will just feed into President Bachar al-Assad’s narrative that his secular nationalist government is not fighting a popular rebellion but is instead the victim of an international conspiracy of conservative Arab monarchies, radical Islamists, Western powers and now Israel…

Hillary Clinton’s Legacy as Secretary of State

Truthout February 7, 2013
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…

Interview: The Case Against Kerry (video)

The Real News Network January 14, 2013
Also see associated articles and interviews on CBS-KDKA Pittsburgh, the Peter Collins Show, and Institute for Public Accuracy Clinton and Kerry (February 1, 2013) and Kerry’s Judgement Questioned Because of Pro-War Vote (December 21, 2012)
   With all the attention on the nomination by President Obama of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, there hasn’t been quite as much discussion about his nomination of John Kerry for secretary of state. I guess that’s partly because he seems rather beloved by the Republicans and is likely to get passed without much issue. But there are issues, according to our next guest, Stephen Zunes… [YouTube]

The Case Against Kerry

Foreign Policy In Focus January 3, 2013
[Republished by Antiwar.com, Common Dreams, the Institute for Historical Review, Transnational.org; and associated interviews]
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…

US policy on Gaza crisis rife with contradiction

National Catholic Reporter December 19, 2012
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…

Susan Rice Would Have Been a Bad Secretary of State Anyway

Foreign Policy In Focus/Institute for Policy Studies, December 17, 2012
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…

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

Full Article. Source is no longer available. Find best related links.
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… Full Article

Iraq: Remembering Those Responsible

The formal withdrawal of US troops from Iraq this month has led to a whole series of retrospectives on the invasion and the eight and a half years of occupation that followed as well as a host of unanswered questions, including – given the tens of thousands of Americans and others on the US government payroll, many of whom are armed, who are remaining in Iraq – just how total the withdrawal might actually be.

In any case, of critical importance at this juncture is that we not allow the narratives on the war to understate its tragic consequences or those responsible for the war – both Republicans and Democrats -to escape their responsibility.

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in the deaths of up to half a million Iraqis, the vast majority of whom are civilians, leaving over 600,000 orphans. More than 1.3 million Iraqis have been internally displaced and nearly twice that many have fled into exile. Almost 4,500 Americans were killed and thousands more have received lifelong serious physical and emotional injuries. Iran has advanced its influence in the region since the overthrow of its arch-enemy Saddam Hussein, and is now the most influential foreign power in Iraq. Sectarian and ethnic tensions remain high and violence and terrorism -despite being less pervasive than a few years ago – are endemic.

A whole generation of Salafi extremists in Iraq and throughout the Islamic world have been radicalized and gained experience in urban terrorism by fighting US forces. Combined with the unprecedented wave of anti-Americanism that resulted from the war, the invasion – according to US intelligence agencies – has resulted in a backlash that could threaten the United States and other countries for decades to come.

The war has cost US taxpayers close to one trillion dollars, contributing greatly to the national debt, which is now being used as an excuse to cut back vital social programs as well. Counting interest (since money to pay for the war was borrowed), care for wounded veterans, and other residual costs, the final tally could be close to three trillion dollars.

The Iraqi government, a bastion of secularism prior to the US invasion, is dominated by sectarian Shiite parties which have shown little regard for human rights, particularly evident in their brutal suppression of an incipient pro-democracy struggle last March. Offices of pro-democracy groups have been raided and shut down, intellectuals and journalists – along with other supporters of the nonviolent anti-government protests – have been rounded up; torture of suspects continues on an administrative basis; government-backed death squads have murdered suspected regime opponents and the current Iraqi government is categorized by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt regimes on Earth.

To claim that invading Iraq was to support democracy, then, was as big a lie as the claim that Iraq still had “weapons of mass destruction.” And, though Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant, events in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen over the past year have demonstrated there are better ways to oust Arab dictators than for foreign troops to invade a country and occupy it.

Furthermore, invading a foreign country on the far side of the world that was not an imminent threat was clearly illegal under international law as well as the UN Charter, which, as a signed and ratified treaty, the US government was obliged to uphold under Article VI of the US Constitution. It will be hard to expect other countries to abide by their international legal obligations if the United States – despite the enormous military, economic, and diplomatic power at its disposal – believes it is somehow exempt.
Not a “Mistake”

The Bush administration is no longer in office. There are prominent members of Congress – as well as Obama administration officials who were in Congress at the time – who are also responsible for the war in deciding to vote to authorize this illegal and unnecessary war. The Democrats controlled the Senate at the time of the October 2002 vote and could have stopped it, but a sizable number of them chose to support Bush instead.

They did not, as many now claim, make a “mistake.” They knew full well beforehand about the consequences of the invasion and the likely absence of dangerous Iraqi weapons or weapons systems. In 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.

Members of Congress were also alerted by a 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. (See, for example, my cover story in The Nation magazine, which was provided to every Congressional office weeks before the vote authorizing the invasion.) Few people I know who are familiar with Iraq have been at all surprised that the US invasion has become 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.

The October 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. By contrast, in 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 of an indefinite period.

Similarly, there was never any credible evidence that Iraq possessed chemical or biological weapons, offensive delivery systems, a nuclear program, or ties to Al-Qaeda. As someone who has done extensive research on strategic studies and terrorism in the Middle East, I can say with confidence that anyone who claimed otherwise was either a naïf, an idiot or a liar.

By contrast, there was a plethora of evidence suggesting that the Bush administration was lying about so-called “weapons of mass destruction,” Iraqi links to Al-Qaeda and other rationalizations for the war. I shared these with Congressional offices, as did former UN weapons inspectors and scores of other independent strategic analysts.

In the months leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, there were many published reports challenging Bush administration claims regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities. Reputable journals like Arms Control Today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Middle East Policy, and others published articles systematically debunking accusations that Iraq had somehow been able to preserve or reconstitute its chemical weapons arsenal, had developed deployable biological weapons, or had restarted its nuclear program. Among the disarmament experts challenging the administration was Scott Ritter, an American who had headed the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) division that looked for hidden WMD facilities in Iraq. Through articles, interviews in the broadcast media and Capitol Hill appearances, Ritter joined scores of disarmament scholars and analysts in making a compelling and – as people now admit – completely accurate case that Iraq had been qualitatively disarmed quite a few years earlier. Think tanks such as the Fourth Freedom Foundation and the Institute for Policy Studies also published a series of reports challenging the administration’s claims.

And there were plenty of skeptics within the US government. Even the pro-war New Republic observed that CIA reports in early 2002 demonstrated that “US intelligence showed precious little evidence to indicate a resumption of Iraq’s nuclear program.” A story circulated nationally by the Knight-Ridder wire service just before the congressional vote authorizing the invasion noted that “US intelligence and military experts dispute the administration’s suggestions that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction pose an imminent threat to the United States” and that intelligence analysts in the CIA were accusing the administration of pressuring the agency to highlight information that would appear to support administration policy and to suppress contrary information.

The Washington Post for years had been reporting that US officials were saying there was absolutely no evidence that Iraq had resumed its chemical and biological weapons programs. Just five weeks before the congressional vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, another nationally syndicated Knight-Ridder story revealed that there was “no new intelligence that indicates significant advances in their nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs.” The article went on to note, “Senior US officials with access to top-secret intelligence on Iraq say they have detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security.”

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 materiel 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, in effect since 1990, against imports of any additional materials needed for the manufacture of WMDs, 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” 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 WMDs, WMD programs, and delivery systems.

The House and Senate members who voted to authorize the invasion and now claim they were “misled” about Iraq’s alleged military threat fail 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 misleading summary from the 2002 NIE 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 independent 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 that claims that, although 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 and outdated and would therefore be of no threat to national security if made public.

Rewarding Liars and Militarists

In voting to authorize the war, therefore, both Republican and Democratic supporters of the invasion 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.
Even after the lies about the alleged Iraqi ties to Al-Qaeda and alleged “weapons of mass destruction” were revealed as such, most supporters of the war continued to rationalize for the invasion and occupation. Democratic Senators John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Joe Biden and others continued to defend their decision to vote to authorize the war even after acknowledging the absence of WMDs or Al-Qaeda ties, thereby effectively admitting that their vote was not about defending the United States, but ultimately about oil and empire.

Given the tragic consequences of the war, one would have thought it would have ruined their political careers. Instead, many of them were rewarded.

Though only a minority of Congressional Democrats voted to authorize the war in 2002 and even though a large majority of Democrats nationally opposed the war, the Democratic Party chose to nominate two unrepentant war supporters – Kerry and Edwards – as their nominees for president and vice-president. As a result, many of us who opposed the right of the United States (or any nation) to engage in such aggressive wars refused to support the Kerry-Edwards ticket and, not surprisingly, they lost a narrow election as a result.

Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency four years later on his promise not just to end the Iraq War, but to “end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” However, he ended up appointing supporters of the Iraq War to most of his key foreign policy and national security positions, including his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security, Chief of Staff, and Vice-President from among the right-wing minority of Democrats who supported Bush’s policy.

Meanwhile, pro-war Democrats in Congress continue to dominate such key positions as Senate Majority Leader, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Assistant House Minority Leader, and ranking members of other key House committees.

In effect, like the Republicans, the Democratic Party is willing to effectively reward failure.

And many of these Democrats are joining like-minded Republicans in threatening a new war with Iran.

As Gary Kamiya put it in Salon, “That centrist Democrats like Hillary Clinton cannot clearly reject Bush’s catastrophic war seems to reflect their deeper inability to articulate, or perhaps even to understand, two things: that Iraq has severely damaged our national security, and that the process by which the Bush administration sold their war has severely damaged our democracy… By refusing to use these legitimate arguments against Bush, the Democrats are not only committing a tactical political error, they are allowing the disease he imported to fester.”

Obama Ad Condemns Israel Aid Opponents

An ad on my Facebook page from barackobama.com reads, “Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich say they would start foreign aid to Israel at zero. Reject their extreme plan now!”

This struck me as odd for two reasons:

First, it is disingenuous and misleading. The actual position taken by these Republican presidential candidates is that all foreign aid should initially start at zero as means of reducing the deficit, to be immediately followed by the resumption of aid on a case-by-case basis. As they themselves have acknowledged, they would immediately resume aid to Israel and perhaps even increase it. Ironically, U.S. “aid for Israel” goes almost exclusively to U.S. arms manufacturers, with which the Republican candidates have a close relationship.

Secondly, millions of Americans—particularly younger voters who are the primary users of Facebook—support zeroing out aid to Israel on human rights grounds. The Obama campaign, therefore, is effectively labeling those of us who oppose the use of our tax dollars to arm the right-wing Netanyahu government, which has repeatedly used U.S. weapons against civilians, as “extreme.” Presumably, they feel the same way about those of us who support a cutoff of aid to other governments that violate international humanitarian law as well.

In 2009, Amnesty International, citing war crimes committed by both Israeli forces and the armed wing of Hamas earlier that year, called on nations to suspend arms shipments to both. The Obama administration categorically rejected the proposal. The administration has also rejected calls by human rights groups to condition military aid and arms transfers to other countries that use U.S. weapons against civilians, including Colombia, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, and Morocco. Recently, the Obama administration requested a waiver on human rights restrictions in the forthcoming foreign appropriations bill in order to resume arming the Karimov dictatorship in Uzbekistan, which has massacred hundreds of pro-democracy protesters and has literally boiled its opponents alive.

One can speculate whether, if Obama were seeking re-election in 1984, his campaign would similarly label those who opposed aid to the murderous Salvadoran junta as “extreme.” Or, if it were 1996, his campaign would have marginalized opponents of U.S. aid to the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia. The president’s re-election team for 2012 sure appears to think of us that way.

Republican candidates certainly have taken a number of extreme positions regarding Israel and Palestine. Gingrich, Perry, and Romney, for example, have aligned themselves with the far right of the Israeli political spectrum, opposing Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and opposing a freeze on illegal Israeli settlements. Gingrich has even said the Palestinians are an “invented people” and implied his support for mass population transfers.

I’ve searched barackobama.com and elsewhere, and nowhere does the Obama campaign appear to label such positions or similarly outrageous statements as “extreme.” However, if you oppose sending billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded aid to Israel—whether as a means of cutting the deficit, reducing cuts in social programs, or defending human rights—the Obama campaign considers it an “extreme plan” that should be rejected.

What is so bizarre about the Obama campaign’s hostility toward those who oppose aid to Israel is that Israel doesn’t need U.S. assistance to begin with. Israel, the region’s only nuclear power, has by far the strongest military capability in the greater Middle East, and it possesses the only significant domestic arms industry in the region. Israel also has, by far, the region’s highest standard of living, comparable to that of most European countries. Even putting human rights concerns aside, questioning why American taxpayers should be spending over $3 billion annually in aid to Israel at a time of massive cutbacks at home doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Furthermore, public opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans believe U.S. military aid should be made conditional to human rights.

Most people for whom providing unconditional support for the Netanyahu government is their top priority are going to support the Republican nominee anyway. Meanwhile, there are millions of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans who question spending billions of taxpayer dollars to prop up that rightist Israeli government every year. Why risk alienating these voters by labeling their position “extreme”? Is it simply a headline thrown together by an overzealous young wonk in the campaign? Or is this part of a larger effort to stifle debate on the Obama administration’s policies of aiding governments that violate human rights?

Either way, it sends the message that the Obama campaign does not welcome concerns about human rights. In addition, it serves as a reminder for Americans who do care about human rights that neither party will provide a presidential nominee we can vote for.

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.

Answering Obama’s UN Address

During the Bush administration, I wrote more than a dozen annotated critiques of presidential speeches. I have refrained from doing so under President Barack Obama, however, because – despite a number of disappointments with his administration’s policies — I found his speeches to be relatively reasonable. Although his September 21 address before the UN General Assembly contained a number of positive elements, in many ways it also contained many of the same kind of duplicitous and misleading statements one would have expected from his predecessor.

Below are some excerpts, followed by my comments.

“War and conflict have been with us since the beginning of civilizations. But…the advance of modern weaponry [has] led to death on a staggering scale.”

Very true. Too bad the United States remains the world’s number-one exporter of weapons, ordnance, and delivery systems in the world, most of which are provided to autocratic regimes and other governments which have used these weapons against civilian populations. For example, after more than 800 civilians were killed by U.S.-armed Israeli forces in a three-week assault on crowded civilian neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip in early 2009, the Obama administration rebuffed calls by Amnesty International for an international arms embargo on both the Israeli government and Hamas by actually increasing unconditional military aid to Israel.

“At the end of this year, America’s military operation in Iraq will be over. We will have a normal relationship with a sovereign nation that is a member of the community of nations. That equal partnership will be strengthened by our support for Iraq — for its government and for its security forces, for its people and for their aspirations.”

The repressive and autocratic Iraqi regime, dominated by sectarian Shi’ite political parties, will continue to be largely dependent on the United States, which maintains a sprawling embassy complex with thousands of employees in the heart of the Iraqi capital. The United States will continue to employ and direct tens of thousands of foreign mercenaries and others throughout the country even after the formal withdrawal of U.S. troops. This hardly constitutes an “equal partnership.”

“One year ago, when we met here in New York, the prospect of a successful referendum in South Sudan was in doubt. But the international community overcame old divisions to support the agreement that had been negotiated to give South Sudan self-determination. And last summer, as a new flag went up in Juba, former soldiers laid down their arms, men and women wept with joy, and children finally knew the promise of looking to a future that they will shape.”

The successful referendum leading to the independence of South Sudan is indeed an impressive and positive achievement. By contrast, the United States (along with France) has blocked the UN from enforcing a series of Security Council resolutions calling for a referendum by the people of Western Sahara for self-determination, illegally occupied by Morocco since its 1975 invasion. This double standard is particularly striking given that the new nation of South Sudan emerged from what was universally recognized as Sudanese territory, whereas the UN recognizes Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory.

The Arab Spring

“One year ago, the hopes of the people of Tunisia were suppressed. But they chose the dignity of peaceful protest over the rule of an iron fist. A vendor lit a spark that took his own life, but he ignited a movement. In a face of a crackdown, students spelled out the word “freedom.” The balance of fear shifted from the ruler to those that he ruled. And now the people of Tunisia are preparing for elections that will move them one step closer to the democracy that they deserve.”

It’s easy to praise a pro-democracy uprising after it has overthrown a dictator, but it should be remembered that the Obama administration was a strong supporter of the autocratic regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali almost to the very end. As the popular, largely nonviolent civil insurrection commenced in December, Congress approved an administration request for $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid in the appropriations bill. As protests increased in January and the Tunisian regime gunned down pro-democracy protesters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia” and insisted that the United States was “not taking sides.”

“One year ago, Egypt had known one President for nearly 30 years. But for 18 days, the eyes of the world were glued to Tahrir Square, where Egyptians from all walks of life — men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian — demanded their universal rights. We saw in those protesters the moral force of non-violence that has lit the world from Delhi to Warsaw, from Selma to South Africa — and we knew that change had come to Egypt and to the Arab world.”

Lauding the “moral force of non-violence” in the cause of freedom is significant, particularly coming from the president of a country that Martin Luther King – who led the Selma protests to which Obama referred – identified as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Indeed, it is significant that a U.S. president would acknowledge the power of strategic nonviolent action, which has for so long been ignored in Washington and serves as a refreshing contrast to the previous administration, which argued that democracy could only be advanced in the Middle East through U.S.-led invasions.

However, it’s important to remember that just one month prior to the Egyptian revolution, Obama and the then-Democratic Congress approved an additional $1.3 billion in security assistance to help prop up Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. Just days before the dictator’s ouster, Secretary of State Clinton insisted that “the country was stable” and that the Mubarak government was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” despite the miserable failure of the regime to do so for nearly 30 years in power. Asked whether the United States still supported Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Egypt remains a “close and important ally.” As during the Tunisian protests, the Obama administration tried to equate the scattered violence of some pro-democracy protesters with the far greater violence of the dictatorship’s security forces, with Gibbs saying, “We continue to believe first and foremost that all of the parties should refrain from violence.”

In an interview with the BBC
in 2009 just prior to Obama’s visit to Egypt, Justin Webb asked the president, “Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?” Obama’s reply was “No,” insisting that, “I tend not to use labels for folks.” Obama also refused to acknowledge Mubarak’s authoritarianism on the grounds that, “I haven’t met him,” as if the question was in regard to the Egyptian dictator’s personality rather than his well-documented intolerance of dissent. Referring to Mubarak as “a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States,” Obama went on to insist that, “I think he has been a force for stability and good in the region.”When the BBC’s Webb asked Obama how he planned to address the issue of the “thousands of political prisoners in Egypt,” he replied that the United States should not try to impose its human rights values on other countries.

“The measure of our success must be whether people can live in sustained freedom, dignity, and security. And the United Nations and its member states must do their part to support those basic aspirations. And we have more work to do.”

If President Obama really believes this, it makes it difficult to explain why he plans to veto a UN Security Council resolution recognizing the “basic aspirations” of the Palestinians for national self-determination.

“Already, the United States has imposed strong sanctions on Syria’s leaders. We supported a transfer of power that is responsive to the Syrian people. And many of our allies have joined in this effort. But for the sake of Syria — and the peace and security of the world — we must speak with one voice. There’s no excuse for inaction. Now is the time for the United Nations Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people.”

International sanctions against the Syrian dictatorship are indeed appropriate, and Obama is correct in calling for the Security Council to act. Unfortunately, the United States has little credibility in this regard, given its long history of blocking the UN from enforcing sanctions against allied regimes – including Indonesia (during its occupation of East Timor) and South Africa (when the then-apartheid regime was occupying Namibia) – and other countries that have, like the Syrian regime, massacred thousands of unarmed opponents.

“Throughout the region, we will have to respond to the calls for change. In Yemen, men, women, and children gather by the thousands in towns and city squares every day with the hope that their determination and spilled blood will prevail over a corrupt system. America supports those aspirations. We must work with Yemen’s neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh, and a movement to free and fair elections as soon as possible.”

This is a welcome change from Obama’s previous support for the Saleh regime. Indeed, in his first two years of office, U.S. security assistance to the Saleh dictatorship increased five-fold from the Bush administration. Despite suspending U.S. support to the dictator’s repressive security forces, however, Obama has refused to call for international sanctions, as he has with Syria.

“In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability. We’re pleased with that, but more is required. America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc — the Wifaq — to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people. We believe the patriotism that binds Bahrainis together must be more powerful than the sectarian forces that would tear them apart. It will be hard, but it is possible.”

It has been Bahrain’s government, controlled by the Sunni minority, not the pro-democracy opposition, which has been playing the sectarian card. And some key members of Obama’s own administration, such as special advisor Dennis Ross, have disingenuously exaggerated Iranian support for the mostly (though not exclusively) Shi’a pro-democracy opposition movement.

Unfortunately, rather than advocating sanctions, as the president has done with Syria, the U.S. Defense Department announced just a week before Obama’s speech a proposed sale of $53 million of weapons and related equipment to Bahrain’s repressive sectarian regime. According to Maria McFarland, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, “This is exactly the wrong move after Bahrain brutally suppressed protests and is carrying out a relentless campaign of retribution against its critics. It will be hard for people to take U.S. statements about democracy and human rights in the Middle East seriously when, rather than hold its ally Bahrain to account, it appears to reward repression with new weapons.”

“We believe that each nation must chart its own course to fulfill the aspirations of its people, and America does not expect to agree with every party or person who expresses themselves politically. But we will always stand up for the universal rights that were embraced by this Assembly. Those rights depend on elections that are free and fair; on governance that is transparent and accountable; respect for the rights of women and minorities; justice that is equal and fair. That is what our people deserve. Those are the elements of peace that can last.”

The nature of such universal rights is indeed in their universality. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to have embraced the same double standards of previous administrations in supporting human rights based more on a given government’s relationship with the United States than its actual human rights record.

“Moreover, the United States will continue to support those nations that transition to democracy — with greater trade and investment — so that freedom is followed by opportunity.”

Unfortunately, increased U.S. trade and investment has frequently taken place under a neo-liberal model that has actually lessened opportunities for small indigenous entrepreneurs and has harmed sustainable development practices. The result has been increased inequality and the enrichment of undemocratic elites at the expense of the poor majority.

“We will pursue a deeper engagement with governments, but also with civil society — students and entrepreneurs, political parties and the press.”

Here and at a number of other points in his speech, Obama – to his credit – has emphasized the agency of ordinary people rather focusing exclusively on the role of states and international organizations. At the same time, his administration’s continued support for autocratic regimes and occupation armies that suppress civil society raises serious questions regarding his commitment.

“We have banned those who abuse human rights from traveling to our country. And we’ve sanctioned those who trample on human rights abroad. And we will always serve as a voice for those who’ve been silenced.”

The United States has taken such actions only with human rights abusers from countries that don’t support U.S. policy. The Obama administration has been far more tolerant of human rights abusers from countries with which the United States is allied.

Palestinian Statehood and Middle East Peace

“One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the parties have not bridged their differences… It’s well known to all of us here. Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.”

Obama’s stated support for the establishment of a Palestinian state based roughly on Israel’s pre-1967 borders is far more explicit than that of any previous president, subjecting him to harsh criticism from both Republicans as well as a number of Congressional Democrats. However, given that the Palestine Authority has already “provided assurances” for Israel’s security by agreeing to, as part of a final peace settlement, an internationally supervised disarming of any and all irregular militias, a demilitarization of their state, and the banning of hostile forces from their territories, only to be met by Netanyahu’s continued refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories, it raises questions as to why Obama implied that both sides needed to “bridge their differences.”

“Now, I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress. I assure you, so am I. But the question isn’t the goal that we seek — the question is how do we reach that goal. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

The main reason that UN resolutions have failed to resolve the conflict is that the United States has vetoed no less than 42 otherwise unanimous Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to live up to its international legal obligations and has blocked the enforcement of scores of other Security Council resolutions Washington allowed to pass.

“Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians — not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.”

The UN Charter and international law has always put the impetus on the occupying power, not the country under occupation, in reaching an agreement on issues that divide them. UN Security Council resolution 242, long considered the basis of a peace settlement and cited in a number of subsequent resolutions, reiterates the illegality of any nation expanding its territory by force, yet Obama now insists that the two sides must “reach agreement” on that question. Similarly, UN Security Council resolutions 252, 267, 271, 298, 476, and 478 – passed without U.S. objections during both Democratic and Republican administrations – specifically call on Israel to rescind its annexation of Jerusalem and other efforts to alter the city’s legal status. Yet Obama also now insists that occupied East Jerusalem be subjected to an “agreement” between the occupying power and those under occupation.

“Ultimately, peace depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after our speeches are over, long after our votes have been tallied. …And that is and will be the path to a Palestinian state — negotiations between the parties.”

Obama puts forward this false symmetry between Israel – by far the strongest military power in the region – and the weak Palestinian Authority, which governs only a tiny series of West Bank enclaves surrounded by Israeli occupation forces. The United States rejected calls for negotiations by Iraq when it occupied Kuwait and never insisted that Kuwaiti statehood could only be reclaimed through “negotiations between the parties.”

“We seek a future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own, with no limit to what they can achieve. There’s no question that the Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. It is precisely because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian people that America has invested so much time and so much effort in the building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can deliver a Palestinian state.”

In reality, the United States long opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state and did not formally endorse the idea until as recently as 2003. As far back as 1976, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 22 percent of Palestine under Israeli occupation, which included strict security guarantees for Israel. Now Obama is preparing yet another veto to block Palestinian national aspirations.

“But understand this as well: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day…. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth.”

Israel would be far more secure behind internationally recognized and guaranteed borders than an archipelago of illegal settlements and military outposts amid a hostile population. The Palestinian Authority, backed by the entire Arab League, has already pledged security guarantees for, and full diplomatic relations with, Israel in return for its withdrawal from the occupied territories. If the United States really cares about Israeli security, it would force Israel’s right-wing government to accept the reasonable proposals of “land for peace.”

“Each side has legitimate aspirations — and that’s part of what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the other’s shoes; each side can see the world through the other’s eyes. That’s what we should be encouraging. That’s what we should be promoting.”

The legitimate aspirations – for peace, security, and national self-determination – for both Israelis and Palestinians cannot be denied, and Obama is one of the first American presidents to even acknowledge that the Palestinians, and not just the Israelis, have such legitimate aspirations. Indeed, his potential Republican rivals in next year’s presidential election have attacked him for such even-handedness.

However, even if one agrees that both peoples indeed have equal rights to such aspirations, the fact remains that Palestine remains occupied and Israel is the occupier. The Palestine Authority is only asking for 22 percent of historic Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), but the Israelis are insisting that that is too much. The right-wing Israeli government—backed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress—insists on annexing much of the West Bank in a manner that would leave a Palestinian “state” with only a series of tiny, non-contiguous cantons surrounded by Israel, much like the infamous Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. Obama, then, is putting forward a false symmetry in regard to a very asymmetrical power relationship.

“This body — founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war and genocide, dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every single person — must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The measure of our actions must always be whether they advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live lives of peace and security and dignity and opportunity. And we will only succeed in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down, to listen to each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and each other’s fears. That is the project to which America is committed. There are no shortcuts. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in the weeks and months to come.”

Unfortunately, in the more than 20 years since Palestinians and Israelis sat down and started listening to each other in negotiations, Israel has more than doubled the number of colonists in the occupied Palestinian territories in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and a landmark 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, all of which call on Israel to unconditionally withdraw from these settlements. The United States has pledged to veto any sanctions or other proposed actions by the United Nations to force Israel to live up to its international legal obligations.

Israel is also violating provisions of the Road Map, the Tenet Plan, the Mitchell Plan, and various other interim peace agreements that call for a freeze in additional settlements. Israel is continuing to expand these illegal settlements despite repeated objections from Washington, but Obama has steadfastly refused to condition any of the billions of dollars of U.S. aid to the rightist Israeli government to encourage them to stop. Given that Netanyahu has pledged to continue building these settlements on the very land the Palestinians need to establish a viable state regardless of negotiations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not surprisingly come to the conclusion that continued talks are pointless.

Obama’s insistence that the UN not recognize a Palestinian state without Israel’s agreement despite its recognition by more than 130 countries also reveals a double standard, given that the United States supported Israel’s application for membership in the UN back in 1948 without demanding that it first sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate borders and other issues. More recently, the United States did not demand that Kosovo negotiate an agreement with the Serbs regarding its independence and has supported its membership in the UN, even though legally Kosovo is a province of Serbia, whereas the UN recognizes the West Bank as a territory under foreign belligerent occupation.

Nuclear Weapons

“America will continue to work for a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons and the production of fissile material needed to make them.”

This statement is ironic, given that the United States is one of only a handful of countries that has yet to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was originally adopted more than 15 years ago.

“And so we have begun to move in the right direction [on nuclear proliferation]. And the United States is committed to meeting our obligations. But even as we meet our obligations, we’ve strengthened the treaties and institutions that help stop the spread of these weapons.”

This is hardly the case. For example, as part of a 2006 nuclear cooperation agreement with India – one of only three states to refuse to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) – a bipartisan majority of Congress voted to amend the U.S. Non-Proliferation Act of 2000, which had banned the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to any country that refuses to accept international monitoring of its nuclear facilities. The U.S.-Indian agreement also contravened the rules of the 40-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which had controlled the export of nuclear technology and to which the United States is a signatory. This agreement was itself a violation of the NPT, which had called on existing nuclear powers not to transfer nuclear know-how to non-signatory countries. So Obama is not being honest in claiming that the United States is committed to meeting its obligations or strengthening treaties and institutions to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

“We must continue to hold accountable those nations that flout [non-proliferation treaties and obligations].The Iranian government cannot demonstrate that its program is peaceful. It has not met its obligations and it rejects offers that would provide it with peaceful nuclear power. North Korea has yet to take concrete steps towards abandoning its weapons and continues belligerent action against the South. There’s a future of greater opportunity for the people of these nations if their governments meet their international obligations. But if they continue down a path that is outside international law, they must be met with greater pressure and isolation. That is what our commitment to peace and security demands.”

The United States hardly believes that countries that refuse to meet their international legal obligations regarding nuclear non-proliferation should be “met with greater pressure and obligations.” In addition to its nuclear cooperation treaty with India, the United States has blocked the UN Security Council from enforcing resolution 1172, which calls on India and Pakistan to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, and from enforcing resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Commission. The United States has also provided all three countries with nuclear-capable fighter aircraft. This comes despite the fact that although Iran merely “cannot demonstrate that its [nuclear] program is peaceful,” India, Pakistan, and Israel actually possess dangerous nuclear arsenals and sophisticated delivery systems. In Obama’s worldview, enforcement of international legal obligations regarding nuclear non-proliferation should not be universally enforced but instead only applied to governments the United States doesn’t like.

International Norms and Cooperation

“To combat the poverty that punishes our children, we must act on the belief that freedom from want is a basic human right.”

Ironically, the United States is the only country other than the failed state of Somalia that has refused to ratify the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, designed to protect the economic, social, and cultural rights of children.

“To preserve our planet, we must not put off action that climate change demands. We have to tap the power of science to save those resources that are scarce. And together, we must continue our work to build on the progress made in Copenhagen and Cancun, so that all the major economies here today follow through on the commitments that were made.”

This is disingenuous in the extreme. The United States has joined China as the primary roadblock to meaningful action on the most serious threat to the planet today. Indeed, the United States is the only one of the 191 countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol to have failed to ratify it. In addition, according to The Guardian, following the 2009 Copenhagen summit ending with only a non-binding statement by the United States and four other countries, “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.” Regarding the subsequent Cancun summit in 2010, John Prescott, former British deputy prime minister and subsequently the Council of Europe’s climate change rapporteur, noted how the United Stated “shared the blame” along with China “for the lack of a legally-binding deal.”

“And to make sure our societies reach their potential, we must allow our citizens to reach theirs. No country can afford the corruption that plagues the world like a cancer.”

The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq are ranked by Transparency international as among the four most corrupt on the planet. Not only have thousands of Americans lost their lives and hundreds of billions of U.S. tax dollars been squandered supporting these regimes, they are totally dependent on the United States to stay in power. Given such leverage, it raises the question of whether the Obama administration is at all serious about fighting corruption.

“No country should deny people their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but also no country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.”

Obama is the first president to so explicitly defend the rights of sexual minorities before the UN, and this is indeed positive. Unfortunately, the United States continues its close economic and strategic cooperation – including large-scale police and security assistance – with Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and (until recently) Yemen, in which homosexuality is grounds for execution, as well as Pakistan and other countries, where gays and lesbians can be sentenced to life in prison. It’s questionable as to whether the Obama administration would maintain such close strategic relationships with countries that treated religious or ethnic minorities similarly.

“And no country can realize its potential if half its population cannot reach theirs. This week, the United States signed a new Declaration on Women’s Participation. Next year, we should each announce the steps we are taking to break down the economic and political barriers that stand in the way of women and girls. This is what our commitment to human progress demands.”

Also that week, close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia sentenced a woman to a public lashing for driving a car. Indeed, despite Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan remaining perhaps the most misogynist regimes on the planet, the Obama administration apparently has few qualms about close strategic cooperation with their security forces, which enforce such sexist laws.

“Peace is hard, but we know that it is possible. So, together, let us be resolved to see that it is defined by our hopes and not by our fears. Together, let us make peace, but a peace, most importantly, that will last.”

One reason peace is so hard to attain is that the United States remains the world’s number one exporter of arms, has vetoed more UN Security Council resolutions over the past 40 years than all other member states combined, has a military budget nearly as large as all the other nations in the world put together, and maintains military forces in over half the countries of the world. Until there is a change in the Obama administration’s policies, the president has little credibility in preaching to the world about the importance of “peace.”

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.

Israel/Palestine

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.”

Impact

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.

Repression

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.