Syrian Repression, the Chinese-Russian Veto, and U.S. Hypocrisy

As the Syrian regime continues to slaughter unarmed civilians, the major powers at the United Nations continue to put their narrow geopolitical agenda ahead of international humanitarian law. Just as France shields Morocco from accountability for its ongoing occupation and repression in Western Sahara and just as the United States shields Israel from having to live up to its obligations under international humanitarian law, Russia and China have used their permanent seats on the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian regime from accountability for its savage repression against its own citizens.

On Saturday, Russia and China vetoed an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council resolution condemning the ongoing repression in Syria and calling for a halt to violence on all sides, unfettered access for Arab League monitors, and “a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs.”

Although the joint Russian and Chinese veto of the resolution is inexcusable, the self-righteous reaction by U.S. officials betrays hypocrisy on a grand scale and fails to take into account a series of policy blunders that have contributed to the tragic impasse.

Using the Veto

Since 1970, China has used its veto power eight times, Russia (including the former Soviet Union) has used its veto power 13 times, and the United States has used its veto power 83 times, primarily in defense of allies accused of violating international humanitarian law. Forty-two of these U.S. vetoes were to protect Israel from criticism for illegal activities, including suspected war crimes. To this day, Israel occupies and colonizes a large swath of southwestern Syria in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists that it is the Russians and Chinese who have “neutered” the Security Council’s ability to defend basic human rights.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice expressed the feelings of many human rights advocates around the world when she said that she was “disgusted” by the Russian-Chinese veto. Ironically, Rice herself disgusted many human rights advocates around the world last year when she vetoed an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council resolution that simply reiterated a longstanding principle of international humanitarian law—codified in the Fourth Geneva Convention, four previous UNSC resolutions, and a landmark World Court decision—that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal and there should be a freeze on further construction.

By contrast, the call in Saturday’s resolution for an internationally recognized government to effectively hand over power to the opposition, although justifiable in light of the extraordinary repression, is a virtually unprecedented move by the UN Security Council. Although territories under foreign military occupation, like those occupied by Israel, are clearly under UN purview, the willingness of the UN to challenge human rights abuses within a country’s internationally recognized borders is relatively new.

Obama’s veto last year, then, was on far weaker ground legally than last weekend’s veto by China and Russia. So were most of the other UN Security Council resolutions vetoed by previous U.S. administrations.

Still, the double veto by Russia and China is particularly disappointing because it foiled what could have been an important precedent of the international community taking a stand against internal repression by delegitimizing a sitting government because of its large-scale killing of civilian citizens. Given Russia’s large-scale killings of Chechen civilians and China’s massacres of its citizens in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere, it is a precedent that neither regime wanted to see.

Only recently has the UN Security Council even attempted to address large-scale and systematic human rights abuses within the borders of its member states. Despite the Russian and Chinese veto, it’s a credit to the growing influence of human rights advocates and civil society activists (notwithstanding the hypocrisy and double standards of some of the resolution’s sponsors) that the resolution even came before the Security Council in the first place. If Assad eventually falls, Russia and China will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Though the veto has prevented the Security Council from being able to curb aggression and promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts, the resolution nonetheless forced recalcitrant governments to embarrass themselves before world opinion and perhaps think twice before so openly defending repression in the future.

Other Factors Strengthening Assad and His Allies

There are other factors that have unfortunately played into the hands of the Assad regime and its international supporters.

The turn to armed struggle by some elements of the Syrian resistance has weakened the moral imperative to sanction the Syrian regime. It has allowed Assad’s backers to call the Syrian uprising a civil war led by Islamist extremists, a claim no one took seriously when the struggle largely maintained its nonviolent discipline. Instead of coming to the defense of an unarmed populace being brutally massacred by an illegitimate repressive regime, the rise of the Free Syrian Army has given the appearance that the UN is attempting to take sides in a civil war.

Although it is certainly understandable that the large-scale killings of peaceful protesters could lead many in the resistance to support armed struggle, it was just such nonviolent discipline that led to so many defections from the Syrian armed forces in the first place. Soldiers and officers are far more likely to defect if they are being ordered to shoot into an unarmed group of demonstrators than if they are being shot at. General strikes and other actions were crippling the economy, leading to major fissures among the regime’s supporters. The rise of the Free Syrian Army, however, appears to have solidified the regime’s wavering support.

Indeed, according to a recent study of the more than 300 major uprisings against autocratic regimes and colonial powers over the past century, unarmed resistance has proved to be more than twice as successful as armed resistance.

Another factor that may have helped prompt the Russian and Chinese veto was the two countries’ willingness to allow passage of last year’s resolution on Libya, which called for the establishment of a no-fly zone and other defensive measures to protect the civilian population from attacks by Gaddafi’s forces. Unfortunately, NATO went well beyond its UNSC mandate to protect civilian lives and effectively became the air force for the rebels—and even ended up being responsible for scores of civilian casualties itself. Although the recently vetoed resolution on Syria did not authorize foreign intervention, NATO’s overreach on Libya certainly contributed to Russia and China’s intransigence on Syria.

Still another factor has been the U.S. use of the UN to unfairly single out Syria in the past. For example, the United States imposed strict sanctions on Syria in 2003 (the “Syria Accountability Act”), in part because of Syria’s violation of UNSC Resolution 520, which called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon. However, the only foreign forces mentioned by name in the UN resolution were those of Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon for 22 years with the active support of the U.S. government, which successfully blocked the enforcement of that resolution and nine subsequent resolutions calling for Israel’s unconditional withdrawal. (Israel finally pulled its occupation forces out of Lebanon in May 2000 over U.S. objections.)

Even since Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2005, U.S. sanctions have remained in effect because of other U.S. conditions, such as the demand that Syria unilaterally halt its development and deployment of missiles as well as chemical and biological weapons. Yet the United States allowed its allies Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to continue developing their larger and more advanced missile systems, and allowed Israel and Egypt in particular to develop their larger and more sophisticated arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

In a further irony, the primary sponsor of last weekend’s resolution on Syria was Morocco, a non-permanent member of UN Security Council that is currently in violation of a series of Security Council resolutions regarding its illegal occupation of Western Sahara. Secretary of State Clinton, backed by a bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate, is on record supporting Morocco’s refusal to abide by these resolutions, effectively recognizing the kingdom’s illegal annexation of the territory by supporting the Moroccan king’s limited “autonomy” proposal.

The Syria Accountability Act demanded that the UN remove Syria from its non-permanent seat in the Security Council because of its violation of UNSC resolution 520. But no such demand has been made by the United States regarding Morocco, despite its far more numerous and egregious violations of UNSC resolutions.

Such double standards inevitably raise questions about what is actually motivating the United States and other Western powers, which have long been the primary backers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and other Arab dictatorships that have unleashed state violence against unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators.

Indeed, Washington was targeting the Syrian regime for possible overthrow long before the popular indigenous pro-democracy struggle erupted last year. The Syrian Accountability Act included clauses stating that the Syrian regime threatened “the national security interests of the United States” and warned that “Syria will be held accountable” for the deaths of American soldiers in the region if Syrian arms are involved. These clauses raised concerns that the resolution, which was adopted with only four dissenting votes in both houses of Congress, might be paving the way for a U.S. attack. Just as the 1998 “Iraq Liberation Act” was used in part as the basis for the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country, the late Senator Robert Byrd warned that the Syrian Accountability Act “could later be used to build a case for military intervention against Syria.”

Although foreign military intervention is not the answer, the international community needs to take decisive steps to stop the repression in Syria and support a transition to democracy. The Russian and Chinese veto of the moderate and reasonable UN Security Council resolution was unconscionable. Unfortunately, the policies of the United States and its allies have made it all the more difficult for the UN and peoples of the world to oppose Syrian government repression and defend the Syrian people.

Washington Okays Attack on Unarmed U.S. Ship

The Obama administration appears to have given a green light to an Israeli attack on an unarmed flotilla carrying peace and human rights activists — including a vessel with 50 Americans on board — bound for the besieged Gaza Strip. At a press conference on June 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Campaign by saying it would “provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.”

Clinton did not explain why a country had “the right to defend themselves” against ships which are clearly no threat. Not only have organizers of the flotilla gone to great steps to ensure are there no weapons on board, the only cargo bound for Gaza on the U.S. ship are letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave who have suffered under devastating Israeli bombardments, a crippling blockade, and a right-wing Islamist government. Nor did Clinton explain why the State Department suddenly considers the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the port of Gaza to be “Israeli waters,” when the entire international community recognizes Israeli territorial waters as being well to the northeast of the ships’ intended route.

The risk of an Israeli attack on the flotilla is real. Israeli commandoes illegally assaulted a similar flotilla in international waters on May 31 of last year, killing nine people on board one of the vessels, including Furkan Dogan, a 19-year old U.S. citizen. Scores of others, including a number of Americans, were brutally beaten and more than a dozen others were shot but survived their wounds. According to a UN investigation, based on eyewitness testimony and analysis by a forensic pathologist and ballistic expert, Dogan was initially shot while filming the assault and then murdered while lying face down with a bullet shot at close range in the back of the head. The United States was the only one of the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council to vote against the adoption of the report. The Obama administration never filed a complaint with the Israeli government, demonstrating its willingness to allow the armed forces of U.S. allies to murder U.S. citizens on the high seas.

As indicated by Clinton’s statement of last week, the administration appears to be willing to let it happen again.

Congressional Response

Last year, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter that referred to Israel’s attack that killed Dogan and the others as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” A Senate letter — signed by 87 out of 100 senators — went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense,” claiming that the effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”

But not everyone in Congress believes the assaulting and killing human rights activists on the high seas is legitimate. Last week, on June 24, six members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting that she “do everything in her power to work with the Israeli government to ensure the safety of the U.S. citizens on board.” As of this writing, they have not received a response.

Earlier in the week, the State Department issued a public statement to discourage Americans from taking part in the second Gaza flotilla because they might be attacked by Israeli forces. Yet thus far neither the State Department nor the White House has issued a public statement demanding that Israel not attack Americans legally traveling in international waters. Indeed, on Friday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland implied that the United States would blame those taking part in the flotilla rather than the rightist Israeli government should anything happen to them. Like those in the early 1960s who claimed civil rights protesters were responsible for the attacks by white racist mobs because they had “provoked them,” Nuland stated, “Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.” Again, The Obama administration didn’t offer even one word encouraging caution or restraint by the Israeli government, nor did it mention that the International Red Cross and other advocates of international humanitarian law recognize that the Israeli blockade is illegal.

Who’s On Board

Passengers of the U.S. boat, christened The Audacity of Hope, include celebrated novelist Alice Walker, holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, veteran foreign service officer and retired lieutenant colonel Ann Wright, Israeli-American linguistics professor Hagit Borer, and prominent peace and human rights activists like Medea Benjamin, Robert Naiman, Steve Fake, and Kathy Kelly. Ten other boats are carrying hundreds of other civilians from dozens of other countries, along with nearly three thousand tons of aid. Those on board include members of national parliaments and other prominent political figures, writers, artists, clergy from various faith traditions, journalists, and athletes.

Fifteen ships have previously sailed or attempted to sail to Gaza as part of the Free Gaza Campaign. None was found to contain any weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes. The current flotilla organizers have stated that their cargoes are “open to international inspection.” Despite this, however, the Obama State Department insists that the Israelis have the right to intercept the ships due to the “vital importance to Israel’s security of ensuring that all cargo bound for Gaza is appropriately screened for illegal arms and dual-use materials.”

Though the flotilla organizers have made clear that the U.S. boat is only carrying letters of support for the people of Gaza, the State Department has also threatened participants with “fines and incarceration” if they attempt to provide “material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas.”

As with many actions supporting Palestinian rights, the coalition of groups endorsing the flotilla includes pro-Palestinian groups as well as peace, human rights, religious, pacifist and liberal organizations, including Progressive Democrats of America, Pax Christi, Peace Action, Nonviolence International, Jewish Voice for Peace, War Resisters League, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Despite this, Brad Sherman (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, has claimed that organizers of the flotilla have “clear terrorist ties” and has called upon U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute U.S. citizens involved with the flotilla and ban foreign participants from ever entering the United States.

Israel’s Position

Largely as a result of last year’s flotilla, Israel has somewhat relaxed its draconian siege on the territory, which had resulted in a major public health crisis. The State Department has gone to some lengths to praise Israel for allowing some construction material into the Gaza Strip to make possible the rebuilding of some of the thousands of homes, businesses and public facilities destroyed in Israel’s devastating U.S.-backed 2008-2009 military offensive, which resulted in the deaths of over 800 civilians. At no point, however, has the Obama administration ever criticized Israel for destroying those civilian structures in the first place.

As with many potentially confrontational nonviolent direct actions, there are genuine differences within the peace and human rights community regarding the timing, the nature, and other aspects of the forthcoming flotilla. However, the response to the Obama administration’s position on the flotilla has been overwhelmingly negative. Many among his progressive base, already disappointed at his failure to take a tougher line against the rightist Israeli government as well as his reluctance to embrace human rights and international law as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace, feel increasingly alienated from the president.

More significantly, the Obama administration’s response may signal a return to the Reagan administration’s policies of defending the killing of U.S. human rights workers in order to discourage grassroots acts of international solidarity, as when Reagan officials sought to blame the victims and exonerate the perpetrators for the murder of four American churchwomen by the El Salvadoran junta and the murder of American engineer Ben Linder by the Nicaraguan Contras. Perhaps the Obama administration hopes that giving a green light to an Israeli attack on the U.S. ship and other vessels in the flotilla will serve as a warning. Perhaps they hope that Americans volunteering for groups like Peace Brigades International, Witness for Peace, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemaker Teams, International Solidarity Movement, and other groups operating in conflict zones like Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Nepal, Indonesia and elsewhere will think twice, knowing that the U.S. government will not live up to its obligations to try to protect nonviolent U.S. activists from violence perpetrated by allied governments.

Indeed, nothing frightens a militaristic state more than the power of nonviolent action.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/washington_okays_attack_on_unarmed_us_ship

Why Egypt Will Not Turn Into Another Iran

Some prominent congressional leaders and media pundits, in a cynical effort to mislead the American public into supporting the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and opposing the popular nonviolent struggle for democracy, have raised the specter of Egypt’s government falling into the hands of radical Islamists who would attack Israel and support international terrorism. To illustrate this frightening scenario, these apologists for authoritarianism try to compare the current pro-democracy uprising against the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak with the 1978-79 insurrection against the U.S.-backed Iranian dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

These backers of the Egyptian dictator point out that the Iranian revolution was, like the current uprising in Egypt, initially a broad-based movement of young left-leaning activists struggling for greater democracy. They note, however, that not long after the Shah’s overthrow, the Iranian government was taken over by anti-democratic Islamist clerics and their allies who soon turned Iran into a brutal authoritarian theocratic state whose repression soon surpassed even that of the ousted U.S.-backed monarch.

In reality, there is virtually no chance that Egypt will take such a tragic turn should the revolution succeed in, not only overthrowing Mubarak, but ousting his allies in the military and ruling party. Indeed, comparing the possible popular overthrow of the Egyptian regime with that of the Shah is completely ahistorical.

More accurate analogies to the current struggle in Egypt would include the popular nonviolent insurrections that ousted the right-wing Latin American military juntas in Chile and Bolivia, the authoritarian Asian regimes in Mongolia, the Philippines and Nepal, the Eastern European Communist systems in Poland, East Germany ,and Czechoslovakia,, the African dictatorships in Madagascar and Benin, the post-Communist autocrats in Serbia and Ukraine, and more than a dozen other repressive regimes including such Muslim countries as Mali, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. The transition away from authoritarianism has been smoother in some of these countries than in others, but virtually all of them – including those in which Islamist played a role in the pro-democracy struggle – are democracies at this point.

Not Iran 1979

The difference between Egypt today and Iran of the late 1970s is striking.

The direction of the anti-Shah movement in Iran from the outset came from the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini and other Shiite Muslim clerics. Inspirational sermons, tactical advice, and specific calls for strikes and demonstrations came through smuggled cassette tapes, radio broadcasts, and other communication from the clerical leadership. Though many on the ground in the struggle against the Shah were leftists and other secular democratic forces – some of whom organized important strikes, demonstrations, and other actions independently from the religious hierarchy – the religious overtone of the demonstrations was apparent in the slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, and other means throughout the 13-month struggle that led to the Shah’s overthrow in February 1979.

The overwhelming role played by religious forces in Iran contrasts with the ongoing demonstrations, strikes, and other actions in Egypt, which has been led from the outset by secular youth through the Internet and other means of communication. The slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, tweets, and Facebook messages have been almost exclusively secular in orientation, pushing nationalistic and liberal democratic themes. And, despite decades of U.S. support for the Mubarak dictatorship, the Egyptian protests have featured virtually no explicit anti-Americanism, a striking contrast with the Iranian revolution. Indeed, the current protests have almost exclusively focused on Mubarak’s misrule rather than the U.S. role in enabling it.

Although most of the Egyptian protesters are presumably practicing Muslims, they show no desire to establish an Islamic state, which was an explicit demand of much of the Iranian revolution’s leading activists from the beginning of the struggle.

The Shah’s forced secularization of Iranian society – which was merged in the minds of many Iranians with authoritarianism, corruption, inequality, and Western imperialism – helped create the Islamist reaction. By contrast, Mubarak’s regime, although nominally secular, quietly worked with conservative Muslim elements both to placate religious Egyptians – by expanding religious programming in the media, engaging in religiously based censorship, and discrimination against the country’s Coptic Christian minority – as well as to mobilize some pro-regime Islamists to attack liberal and leftist opponents.

Another key distinction is that Iranian Muslims are overwhelmingly from the Shiite tradition, whereas Egyptian Muslims are Sunni. Shiites have a clear religious hierarchy; ayatollahs are essentially the equivalent of cardinals in the Catholic Church, with schools, medical facilities, social services, and businesses – not to mention houses of worship and large numbers of clergy – under their direct control. Iranian clerics had strong organizational networks under their command they could mobilize and consolidate against democratic secular forces in aftermath of the Shah’s overthrow.

By contrast, Sunnis have an egalitarian tradition. Some clerics may have a bigger following than others, but – unlike Shiites – they do not have a privileged class of spiritual leaders whom believers are obliged to obey. While the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups have supported a network of health care clinics and other social services in Egypt, their leadership does not have anything close to the mobilizing capacity the Shiite clerics had in Iran. Indeed, according to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the group’s Guidance Council, they only operate half a dozen clinics in Cairo, a city of 18 million people.

The ayatollahs influence in Iranian society ended up determining the outcome of the Iranian revolution due to the thoroughness by which the Shah, through his dreaded U.S.-trained SAVAK (secret police), decimated the secular democratic opposition. The mosques and the Shiite religious institutions, by contrast, were much harder to penetrate and suppress and were thereby in a better position to take advantage of the power vacuum after the Shah’s fall.

Most significantly, compared with Iran in the 1970s, Egypt today has a much stronger civil society, a more literate and educated population, greater access to information technologies that didn’t exist in Iran or anywhere else 30 years ago, and – despite serious economic hardships – a larger middle class . Egypt also has a strong tradition of political parties going back to the nineteenth century. Though Egypt has for decades been a one-party state in terms of governance, and elections have been routinely stolen, there are well-established legal political parties. These include the New Wafd, Al-Ghad (“Tomorrow”), the National Progressive Unionists, the Nasserists, the Liberals (Ahrar), and more than a dozen others, virtually all liberal or left-wing.

In addition to these secular political parties, major secular pro-democracy groups include Kefaya (Enough!) and the April 6 Movement, the primary organizers of the recent demonstrations. Industrial labor unions and professional associations are far more prominent in the current demonstrations and in Egyptian society overall than they were in Iran at the time of the revolution. And, unlike Iran under the Shah, Egypt has virtually no prominent dissident Islamic clergy.

Another key distinction between Iran in the 1970s and Egypt today is economic. In Iran, the powerful traditional merchant class – known as bazaaris – was bitter at the Shah’s draconian taxation, fines, and other efforts to place them at a disadvantage to his preferred neo-liberal economic development model that brought in foreign investment, foreign consumer goods, and other competition. They found a natural affinity with the religious hierarchy, who opposed such Western economic (and other) penetration and with whom they had strong historical ties, including intermarriage. As a result, they threw their considerable political and economic influence into the consolidation of clerical rule.

By contrast, the comparable traditional merchant class in Egypt is largely dependent on the tourist trade. Although Iran’s foreign revenue overwhelmingly comes from its sizable oil exports, the number one source of foreign income for Egyptians has long been Western tourism, which would drop off considerably if Egypt fell under radical Islamist control. In addition, the merchant class in Egypt is disproportionately made up of Coptic Christians, who would obviously never support the establishment of an Islamist state.

In addition to the tourist trade, Egypt is far more dependent than Iran on good economic ties with Western countries in other ways as well. Egypt is the largest importer of grain in the world, most of which comes free of charge in the form of U.S. foreign aid. The country’s very economic survival would be a stake if it developed a hostile relationship with the West. Iran, by contrast, is one of the world’s largest oil exporters and – despite U.S. sanctions – has always had a steady source of outside revenue without foreign tourists or foreign aid.

The Muslim Brotherhood

U.S. apologists for the Egyptian dictatorship point to the fact that the largest single opposition group – and arguably best organized – is the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which has played a role in Egyptian politics since the 1920s. Being the single largest opposition group, however, does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood has majority support – far from it. Most estimates put their popular support at 20-15 percent, with the upper estimate at 30 percent or slightly higher. Its active adherents probably number no more than 100,000 out of a population of over 82 million. There are also serious divisions between the more progressive and more conservative elements within the movement, and it would likely split into two or more political parties once legalized. Indeed, according to the Egyptian newspaper El-Masry El-Youm, both the women’s and youth wing appear to have already split from the Muslim Brotherhood last week and joined the April 6 Movement.

Many Egyptians have been attracted to the Brotherhood simply because it was the largest and best-organized opposition to the dictatorship. With Mubarak gone and a democratic order in place encouraging a plethora of other political movements to organize without fear or political repression, many more visible and viable choices would be available to the Egyptian voter.

The young activists of Kefaya and the April 6 Movement consider the Muslim Brotherhood and its aging leadership to be as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the regime. A full 60 percent of Egypt’s population is under 30 years of age and – like young people in most countries – their attitudes regarding the role of women, sexuality, and related issues tends to be more tolerant than their elders, so the Muslim Brotherhood’s social conservatism is not very appealing. In addition, since the Brotherhood has had a hard time recruiting younger members in recent years, their median age is much older than almost any other political grouping. The young people who have joined the movement during the past decade or so have tended to be modernists and reformers.

Also limiting the Muslim Brotherhood’s appeal is that it not only refused to endorse the smaller protests and strikes of the young pro-democracy activists in the years leading up to the current uprising, it offered only a half-hearted and very belated endorsement of the massive protests of January 25 that launched the pro-democracy insurrection. Although their support for the demonstrations became more visible subsequently as the popular struggle gained momentum, this apparent opportunism has undoubtedly weakened their standing among those committed to creating a new Egypt.

U.S. officials in the State Department and elsewhere familiar with Egyptian politics, even under the Bush administration, have long dismissed claims that the demise of the Egyptian regime would lead to a fundamentalist state. U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Ricciardone argued in a January 2006 cable recently made public through Wikileaks that “We do not accept the proposition that Egypt’s only choices are a slow-to-reform authoritarian regime or an Islamist extremist one; nor do we see greater democracy in Egypt as leading necessarily to a government under the MB.” In another cable three months earlier, the ambassador noted how Egyptian authorities “have a long history of threatening us with the MB bogeyman.”

Not only will the Muslim Brotherhood not likely play a major role in a post-revolutionary Egyptian government, it is not an extremist group like the Taliban. A number of radical Islamist organizations, ranging from the Palestinian Hamas to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, split off from the Muslim Brotherhood several decades ago. Today’s Brotherhood is a relatively moderate organization committed to electoral politics and nonviolent organizing. It formally renounced armed struggle more than 40 years ago and has repeatedly condemned terrorism, particularly the large-scale international terrorism of al-Qaeda.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s so-called “al-Qaeda link” cited by U.S. apologists for the Egyptian dictatorship primarily is in regard to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who had been a Muslim Brotherhood activist as a teenager and much later went on to co-found the terrorist organization with Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri, however, rejected the Brotherhood precisely because of its rejection of violence and relatively moderate politics, which he denounced as a “betrayal” of “Islamic principles.” According to the al-Qaeda second-in-command, the Muslim Brotherhood was “falsely affiliated with Islam” because its leadership allegedly “forget about the rule of Shariah, welcome the Crusaders’ bases in your countries and acknowledge the existence of the Jews.”

In a democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely win scores of seats in the 454-member lower house and could even conceivably be a junior partner in a coalition government. But its political orientation would not be much different from the legal conservative Muslim-identified parties currently in the Jordanian and Moroccan parliaments or even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely be more moderate and more committed to the democratic process than some of the hard-line fundamentalist Jewish parties in the current ruling coalition government of Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Though strongly anti-Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood recognizes along with the Egyptian armed forces that Israel cannot be defeated militarily. Egypt fought four wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973 and lost each one badly at considerable costs; the military balance is even more skewed in Israel’s favor today. Support for terrorist groups would invite devastating Israeli military reprisals. With so many desperate economic and other domestic problems to deal with in a post-Mubarak era, the last thing Egyptians would support is a war with a powerful neighbor they would surely lose. Although a democratic Egyptian government would likely be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause and in opposition to the current right-wing Israeli government – and would likely ease the blockade of food, medicines and other humanitarian goods into the besieged Gaza Strip – it would never abrogate Egypt’s 1978 peace agreement with Israel. Too much U.S. aid depends on maintaining the agreement.

Nonviolent Democratic Change

Virtually all of the largely nonviolent civil insurrections around the world over the past three decades have led to democratic governance and moderate secular leadership. There is little reason to suspect Egypt would be different. Such nonviolent revolutions require the building of broad coalitions that help encourage pluralism and compromise, empower ordinary people, and build civil society. This creates not just political change but fundamental social change of the kind that has the will and the means to resist potential encroachments against newfound democratic institutions and individual liberties.

Such movements contrast with armed struggles against authoritarian governments, where martial values predominate and an elite vanguard controls the course of the revolution, more often than not resulting in another dictatorship.

Even more problematic is when a dictator is overthrown through outside intervention, since the newly installed regime dependent on a foreign occupying force tends to result in its delegitimization in the eyes of their citizens, creating a nationalist reaction that could lead to a violent insurrection that in turn leads to repressive rule. Indeed, this is exactly what has taken place in Iraq. Ironically, most of the prominent American pundits and politicians now claiming that Egypt’s nonviolent indigenous struggle against Mubarak will result in a repressive Iranian-backed fundamentalist regime are some of the very people who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq – which has resulted in a repressive Iranian-backed fundamentalist regime.

A democratic Egyptian government will certainly take more independent positions from the United States on some strategic and economic issues. It would likely be less amenable to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions. Being dependent on the will of the Egyptian people for its authority, such a government will likely be relatively nationalistic, attempting to prioritize the needs of Egyptians more than the current authoritarian regime has felt obliged to do.

However, while a democratic Egypt – which could help pave the way for greater democracy elsewhere in the Arab world – may set back certain perceived U.S. strategic and economic interests in the short- to medium-term, it would be the best thing that could happen in the long-term.

Terrorism and extremism, Islamic and otherwise, tend to grow out of authoritarian societies where it becomes impossible to address grievances, defend human rights, and demand social and economic justice through democratic means. “The images of intimidation and fraud that have emerged from the recent elections favor the Islamist extremists whom we both oppose,” Ambassador Ricciardone acknowledged in a cable to FBI director Robert Mueller following the 2005 Egyptian elections. “The best way to counter narrow-minded Islamist politics is to open the system.” It’s no surprise that virtually all of al-Qaeda’s leaders and financial backers – and a large majority of its members – have come from countries ruled by U.S.-backed dictators like Mubarak.

For its overall national security interests, then, the United States must end its support of the Mubarak regime and other Middle Eastern dictators and welcome nonviolent democratic movements for change.

Pro-Democracy Uprising Fails to Keep Washington From Backing Tunisian Dictatorship

The regime U.S.-backed Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has been the target of a nationwide popular uprising in recent weeks, which neither shooting into crowds of unarmed demonstrators nor promised reforms has thus far quelled. Whether this unarmed revolt results in the regime’s downfall remains to be seen. In recent decades, largely nonviolent insurrections such as this have toppled corrupt authoritarian rulers in the Philippines, Serbia, Bolivia, Ukraine, the Maldives, Georgia, Mali, Nepal and scores of other countries and have seriously challenged repressive regimes in Iran, Burma and elsewhere.

On the one hand, the Tunisian opposition seems rather disorganized and the protests largely spontaneous. The lack of a stricter nonviolent discipline at some of the demonstrations, which at times have deteriorated into full-scale riots, has given the regime the political space for increased repression. At the same time, the dissatisfaction with the regime is widespread and growing.

In the course of some civil insurrections, like Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, like Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, particularly if the dictatorship is a U.S. ally like Tunisia, Washington has either backed the government or largely remained silent.

Indeed, rather than praise Tunisia’s largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn its repressive regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has instead expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the U.S. is “not taking sides” and that she will “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers.

In addition, as the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month, Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid.

Along with limited political freedom and government accountability, the poor economic situation in Tunisia has been the major focus of the protests, particularly among unemployed educated youth. Clinton acknowledged this issue in noting that “One of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis is that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.”

In reality, however, Tunisia – more than almost any country in the region – has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.” These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country’s top ruling families. This has been privately acknowledged by the U.S. embassy in a recently-released Wikileaks cable, which labeled the U.S.-backed regime as a “kleptocracy.” The U.S. has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector.

Rather than anti-American extremism in the Arab world being a result of hostility towards “our freedoms,” it is such policies backing such corrupt authoritarian regimes as Tunisia which have alienated so many young Arabs from the United States. As John F. Kennedy once warned, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

The U.S. Deserves Its Share of Blame for Fate of Arab Christians

It was the second week in January in 1991. I was in the sanctuary of a large Catholic Church in Baghdad. Every votive candle in the place was lit, no doubt in support of prayers for loved ones in anticipation of the massive US bombing campaign — which was to be known as “Operation Desert Storm” – that was soon to commence. A member of our group asked the priest whose side the church would be on in the forthcoming conflict. He replied that “The Church can only be on one side. That of the victims.”

Little did he realize that, less than twenty years later, Iraq’s Christians would become among the greatest victims.

At that time, there were nearly one million Christians in Iraq. While anyone who openly challenged Saddam Hussein’s government would be subjected to repression, as a decidedly secular regime, there was no fear of being persecuted as Christians. Indeed, Christians played prominent roles in Saddam’s government, including that of foreign minister and vice-president.

As a result of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled that secular government and brought to power a coalition led by Shia Muslim fundamentalist parties and created a backlash by Sunni Muslim extremists, the Christian community in Iraq has been reduced by more than half. Except for a tiny enclave in the autonomous Kurdish region, there were no active Al-Qaeda cells in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. They have since become a major threat, having massacred hundreds of Iraqi Christians since the United States “liberated” Iraq, including sixty worshippers at a church in October. Though many of us familiar with Iraq predicted just this kind of extremist backlash in the event of an invasion of Iraq, President Bush – backed by such key Democrats as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry – went ahead with the war anyway, including an occupation which deliberately exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. (See my article The US Role in Iraq’s Sectarian Violence.)

Christmastide is the time of year when the Western media focuses some attention on the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East. There is a special place in the hearts of those of us who share that tradition with these descendents of the first Christians. Ironically, however, the plight of Arab Christians is often used by the right to demonize the Islamic faith and to rationalize the very policies which have led to their oppression and exodus in the first place.

The U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak has increased its persecution of the country’s Coptic Christian minority, numbering nearly six million. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Saudi regime denies the right of Christians to worship openly. Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts, have suffered greatly under a U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, with the majority forced into exile.

Perhaps the Middle Eastern country where Christians are safest is under the secular Assad regime in Syria, where they number close to two million, roughly 10% of the population. Yet the United States has targeted that regime with punitive sanctions and threats to topple the government. A 2005 bill strengthening US sanctions declared that Syria constitutes a “threat to the national security of the United States,” language identical to resolutions that targeted Iraq prior to the invasion of that country. Human rights activists fear a US-backed overthrow of the Syria’s secular government could result in sectarian strife and a rise of extremism comparable to what took place in Iraq.

Prior to twentieth century Western intervention, Christian and Jewish minorities in the Islamic world – considered “people of the Book” due to their worship of the same God as Muslims – fared relatively well, certainly better than Muslim and Jewish minorities in Europe. “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, spoken both in mosques and in Arabic-speaking Christian churches. More than a century of Western colonialism, however, followed by more recent U.S. interventions, has severely weakened this traditional tolerance.

So whenever you read the sanctimonious articles regarding the plight of Arab Christians, rather than simply bemoan the intolerance of Islamic extremists, let’s remember the role that Washington in supporting repressive regimes and creating the backlash that threatens them.

http://www.fpif.org/blog/the_us_deserves_its_share_of_blame_for_fate_of_arab_christians

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

In a letter to President Barack Obama date June 17, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives referred to Israel’s May 31 attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers and crew and injuries to scores of others, as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” Similarly, a June 21 Senate letter — signed by 87 out of 100 senators — went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense,” claiming that the widely supported effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”

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

What is perhaps most disturbing is that many of the key arguments in the letters were misleading and, in some cases, factually inaccurate.

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

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

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

The House letter insisted, despite the fact that several of those killed on the Mavi Marmara were shot at point blank range in the back or the back of the head and a video showing a 19-year old U.S. citizen shot execution style on the ground, that “Israeli forces used necessary force as an act of self-defense and of last resort.” Similarly, the Senate letter refers to the murders of passengers and crew resisting the illegal boarding of their vessel in international waters as a situation where the Israeli raiders were “forced to respond to that attack” when they “arrived” on the ship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.fpif.org/blog/pavlovian_congress_jumps_to_israels_self-_defense

Israel’s Dubious Investigation of Flotilla Attack

Few decisions of the Obama administration have outraged the peace and human rights community as much as its successful efforts to block an international inquiry into May’s Israeli aid flotilla attack. Instead, supported by leading Republican and Democratic members of Congress, the Obama administration has thrown its weight behind an investigative committee handpicked by right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to examine the incident.

The three-member panel is not a full committee of inquiry as defined under Israeli law, so it does not have subpoena power or the ability to question Israeli soldiers. Nor can it compel anyone in the military to provide evidence. All the committee members can do is request documents and “summaries of operational investigations” that have already been conducted by the Israeli military itself.

The committee would not have the authority to even request testimony or other evidence “in regard to military personnel and personnel from the other security forces.” They would not be able to interview any soldiers or officers individually or even see their testimony or statements, instead relying only on “summaries” and other documents of internal military inquiries. These are generally done by officers who have no training in such inquiries on possible violations of international law. At most, the conclusions the panel gets will be lessons learned rather than any kind of investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing.

Israel’s Claims

“Israel claims the panel is independent, but insists that it accept the military’s version of events,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the Israel’s military poor record of investigating itself in past cases of possible wrongful death, it is hard to have confidence that the panel’s dependence on the Israeli military will lead to the truth.”

There are also questions regarding the committee’s makeup. None of the three members has any experience in this sort of inquiry. The committee is led by the conservative former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Jacob Turkel, who has attacked credible international inquiries into Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. A second member is Amos Horev, a reserve Israeli major general and major figure in the Israeli military industrial complex. The third member is Shabtai Rosen, a 93-year-old law professor who was involved in the cover-up of the 1953 massacre in the village of Qibya when Israeli forces crossed into Jordanian territory, destroying 41 buildings (including the school) and killing 60 villagers.

The Obama administration and other supporters of Netanyahu have emphasized the presence of two foreign observes, Canadian Brigadier General Kenneth Watkin and Northern Ireland’s pro-British Unionist Party leader David Trimble. The news media has emphasized that Trimble won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Good Friday peace accord. What they have largely failed to mention is that Trimble was also one of the key players — along with right-wing former Bush UN ambassador John Bolton and the conservative former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar — in a group organized late last month known as “Friends of Israel.” The initiative was launched, according to Trimble and the other sponsors, because of their concern about “the onslaught of radical Islamism” and outrage over the “unprecedented delegitimization campaign against Israel, driven by the enemies of the Jewish state and perversely assumed by numerous international authorities.”

Watkin has been implicated in a scandal, arising from the disappearance and torture of several detainees arrested by the Canadian Forces and turned over to Afghan security services. When called to speak before the Canadian House of Commons, he refused to answer questions about his role in authorizing the transfers despite knowledge of the likelihood of torture and other maltreatment of the prisoners.

International Response

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon noted how Netanyahu’s panel was “not sufficient enough to have international credibility.” The leading Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, in its analysis of the probe, editorialized, “The government’s efforts to avoid a thorough and credible investigation of the flotilla affair seem more and more like a farce.”

By contrast, the Obama White House issued a statement praising the formation of the committee as an “important step forward,” insisting that “the structure and terms of reference of Israel’s proposed independent public commission can meet the standard of a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation,” as called for by the UN Security Council. U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Alejandro Wolff insisted, “We are convinced and support an Israeli investigation…and have every confidence that Israel can conduct a credible and impartial and transparent, prompt investigation internally.”

Congressional Democrats have defended the Obama’s decision to cover-up for the incident and prevent a credible investigation. Even though Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented the failure of the Netanyahu government to investigate possible war crimes by its armed forces, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) recently insisted that “the Israeli government…has a very good record of holding the Israeli government to account,” and that “the Israeli government has a better record of legitimate self-criticism than almost any other government in the world.” Turning the consensus of international human rights organizations on its head, Frank argues that the only a group “commissioned by the Israeli government” would have credibility, while “clearly no inquiry chartered by the U.N. would have the credibility.” Other congressional Democrats have insisted that the right-wing Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu be entrusted with the investigation, including Brad Ellsworth (D-IN), Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL), Rep. Sestak (D-PA), and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

All this comes in spite of a recent public opinion poll shows a clear majority of Americans — including 65 percent of Democrats — favor an international inquiry over allowing Israel alone to investigate the circumstances of the attack. It appears, then, that the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are committed to burying the truth and preventing Israel’s right-wing government from any culpability for its attack.

Quid Pro Quo?

At the same time, however, the Obama administration’s acceptance of this whitewash might have been an explicit quid pro quo: The United States would defend the suppression of the truth in the Israeli attack in return for Israel substantially loosening the blockade of humanitarian goods. If true, this maneuver would be yet another case of Obama provoking the outrage of the left wing of his party in order to pursue a behind-the-scenes deal he believes will advance the greater good. Some analysts, like Marc Lynch, make a compelling case that such a trade-off is worthwhile, in terms of easing an enormous level of human suffering as a result of the four-year old-siege.

While tactically defensible, such a quid pro quo is strategically questionable. Given the Israeli government’s history of reneging on its various international commitments, there are questions as to how comprehensive this lifting of the blockade actually may be and how long it will last. It would also mark yet another bad precedent of the United States effectively granting an ally a license to get away with violating international humanitarian law and other illegal activities, thereby further weakening the international legal protection of civilians.

The apparent weakening of the blockade is cause for cautious optimism. But global civil society must continue to pressure governments to ensure that Israel — no more or less than any other country — be held accountable for its violations of international legal norms.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/israels_dubious_investigation_of_flotilla_attack

Missing an Anti-Racism Moment

In boycotting the United Nations conference on racism, the Obama administration demonstrated that just because an African American can be elected president doesn’t mean the United States will be any more committed than the Bush administration in fighting global racism. Rejecting calls by liberal Democratic members of Congress, leading human rights groups, Pope Benedict XVI, and most of the international community to participate, the Obama administration instead gave into pressure by Congressional hawks and other anti-UN forces by joining a handful of other nations refusing to participate in the historic gathering.

The five-day conference, which is taking place this week in Geneva, assessed international progress in fighting racism and xenophobia since the UN’s first conference in Durban, South Africa eight years ago. The Bush administration withdrew from that gathering, but there had been hope the Obama administration wouldn’t continue its predecessor’s ideology-driven opposition to the UN and its human rights agenda.

With pressure from the United States and some other countries, the draft declaration prepared for this year’s conference dropped a call to ban “defamation of religion,” which raised concerns regarding restricting free speech, as well as any references to Israel and Palestine. State Department spokesperson Robert Wood acknowledged that the draft was “significantly improved,” and that the United States was “deeply grateful” that requested changes had been made. Yet he announced the United States would boycott the conference anyway because the document reaffirmed the final declaration of the 2001 meeting in Durban right-wing critics had labeled “anti-Israel.”

Anti-Israel?

Despite ongoing claims to the contrary by various right-wing pundits, however, the final document didn’t contain any anti-Israel statements or language equating Zionism with racism. Efforts by some participating states to include that and similar objectionable language were defeated.

Indeed, the only mention of Israel in the final 61-page document was as follows:

We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion; We call for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all peoples shall co-exist and enjoy equality, justice and internationally recognized human rights, and security.

Why would the Obama administration find such a statement so reprehensible that it would boycott a conference whose focus isn’t on Israel, but on ending racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerances? Since the document explicitly recognizes Israel’s right to security, the Obama administration apparently objects to its formal recognition that Palestinians are under foreign occupation, and that they have a right to self-determination and statehood. Yet virtually the entire international community — including the United Nations, the World Court and a broad consensus of legal scholars — recognizes this reality.

According to the State Department, the Obama administration believes the 2001 declaration “prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.” In other words, it appears the Obama administration believes that assuming the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and statehood, and calling for a Middle East in which all peoples “shall coexist and enjoy equality, justice and international recognized human rights, and security” should not be givens.

During the more than 15 years of these U.S.-facilitated negotiations, the Palestinians have seen illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank more than double, their freedom of movement restricted, their human rights deteriorate, and their social and economic standards plummet. Moreover, the new Israel government with which the Palestinians need to negotiate is led by a coalition of far right-wing parties that have refused to acknowledge Palestinian rights, and have threatened further war against its neighbors. Its foreign minister is an outspoken anti-Arab racist who has proposed the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories.

Yet the Obama administration insists that rather than the international community reiterating the longstanding international legal principle of the right to self-determination, the Palestinians’ future should instead be placed on the bargaining table under an ongoing U.S.-led “peace process,” which has thus far only worsened their suffering.

Addressing Anti-Semitism

Legitimate concerns about Israeli policies regularly appear at international forums sponsored by the United Nations. But they have sometimes been contaminated by sweeping statements condemning the state of Israel itself, and portraying some of the most racist and chauvinistic aspects of Zionism as representative of Jewish nationalism as a whole. However, these kinds of discriminatory resolutions have been declining in recent years, as countries have become more willing to recognize that, while some governments may pursue racist policies, no state should be singled out as inherently racist in and of itself. Efforts by anti-Israel delegations at the 2001 anti-racism conference in Durban were defeated and weren’t considered a realistic threat at the Geneva Conference either. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that Israel was a “racist state” during a speech on the opening day of this year’s conference was not well-received, prompting many delegates to walk out in protest.

Still, even some of the more reasonable resolutions critical of Israel proposed at the 2001 conference distracted attention from the broader issues at stake. Such efforts often result in dividing Jews — themselves a historically oppressed people — from their natural allies among people of color. Furthermore, other governments that have as bad or even more racist policies than Israel have not been subjected to as much attention at such conferences.

The Israeli government has been able to inflict its racist policies on neighboring Arab populations largely as a result of the unconditional diplomatic, economic, and military support of the United States. Any country with a history of war with its neighbors that found itself effectively immune from sanctions, or any other negative repercussions for violating international norms, would likely behave the same way, regardless of whether it were Jewish, “Zionist,” or anything else. Were it not for the United States providing Israel with protection from international pressure to end its illegal occupation and colonization of neighboring lands, the “just, comprehensive and lasting peace” called for in the 2001 declaration the Obama administration apparently finds so objectionable could have by now been a reality.

However legitimate some of the concerns regarding anti-Semitism at international forums, nothing in the final 2001 declaration at Durban — the alleged reason for the U.S. boycott this year — appears to have been even remotely anti-Semitic. Indeed, the final declaration states:

We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten…We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities…We condemn the persistence and resurgence of neo-Nazism, neo-Fascism and violent nationalist ideologies based on racial or national prejudice, and state that these phenomena can never be justified in any instance or in any circumstances.

Even if the 2001 declaration was as problematic as the Obama administration depicted it, participation in this year’s conference would not have implied an endorsement of every single phrase of a lengthy and wide-ranging declaration hammered together by representatives of more than 200 governments.

Reaction to the Decision

The Congressional Black Caucus, which strongly encouraged U.S. participation in the international meeting, stated that it was “deeply dismayed” by Obama’s decision. “Had the United States sent a high-level delegation reflecting the richness and diversity of our country, it would have sent a powerful message to the world that we’re ready to lead by example,” the statement reads. “Instead, the administration opted to boycott the conference, a decision that does not advance the cause of combating racism and intolerance, but rather sets the cause back.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) observed how the U.S. decision to boycott the conference was “inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with.” She added that “the United States is making it more difficult for it to play a leadership role on UN Human Rights Council as it states it plans to do. This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple.”

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch noted how the meeting would lack the diplomatic gravitas it deserved as a result of Washington’s absence. “For us it’s extremely disappointing and it’s a missed opportunity, really, for the United States,” she said. Other human rights groups, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also expressed their disappointment.

By contrast, the right wing applauded Obama’s decision. A bipartisan group of congressional hawks, which pressured Obama to boycott the conference, sent him an open letter applauding Obama’s decision. The letter claims that the meeting “undermines freedom of expression and is tainted by an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic agenda that questions the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.” The effort was led by such influential members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as Ron Klein (D-FL), Mike Pence (R-IN), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), as well as Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, all of whom previously attacked the United Nations, the World Court, and various human rights groups for challenging certain U.S. and Israeli policies.

By accepting the recommendation of these congressional militarists and unilateralists to boycott the conference, while rejecting calls to participate by the Black Caucus, reputable human rights groups, UN officials, and world religious leaders, Obama has given the clearest indication yet as to who he will listen to in determining how his administration approaches the United Nations and other international initiatives in support for human rights.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/missing_an_anti-racism_moment

Biden, Iraq, and Obama’s Betrayal

Incipient Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate constitutes a stunning betrayal of the anti-war constituency who made possible his hard-fought victory in the Democratic primaries and caucuses.

The veteran Delaware senator has been one the leading congressional supporters of U.S. militarization of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, of strict economic sanctions against Cuba, and of Israeli occupation policies.

Most significantly, however, Biden, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the lead-up to the Iraq War during the latter half of 2002, was perhaps the single most important congressional backer of the Bush administration’s decision to invade that oil-rich country.

Shrinking Gap Between Candidates

One of the most important differences between Obama and the soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee John McCain is that Obama had the wisdom and courage to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Obama and his supporters had been arguing correctly that judgment in foreign policy is far more important than experience; this was a key and likely decisive argument in the Illinois senator’s campaign against Senator Hillary Clinton, who had joined McCain in backing the Iraq war resolution.

However, in choosing Biden who, like the forthcoming Republican nominee, has more experience in international affairs but notoriously poor judgment, Obama is essentially saying that this critical difference between the two prospective presidential candidates doesn’t really matter. This decision thereby negates one of his biggest advantages in the general election. Of particular concern is the possibility that the pick of an establishment figure from the hawkish wing of the party indicates the kind of foreign policy appointments Obama will make as president.

Obama’s choice of Biden as his running mate will likely have a hugely negative impact on his once-enthusiastic base of supporters. Obama’s supporters had greatly appreciated the fact that he did not blindly accept the Bush administration’s transparently false claims about Iraq being an imminent danger to U.S. national security interests that required an invasion and occupation of that country. At the same time Biden was joining his Republican colleagues in pushing through a Senate resolution authorizing the invasion, Obama was speaking at a major anti-war rally in Chicago correctly noting that Iraq’s war-making ability had been substantially weakened and that the international community could successfully contain Saddam Hussein from any future acts of aggression.

In Washington, by contrast, Biden was insisting that Bush was right and Obama was wrong, falsely claiming that Iraq under Saddam Hussein – severely weakened by UN disarmament efforts and comprehensive international sanctions – somehow constituted both “a long term threat and a short term threat to our national security” and was an “extreme danger to the world.” Despite the absence of any “weapons of mass destruction” or offensive military capabilities, Biden when reminded of those remarks during an interview last year, replied, “That’s right, and I was correct about that.”

Biden Shepherds the War Authorization

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

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

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

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

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

Supported an Invasion Before Bush

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

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

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

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

Biden’s False Claims to Bolster War

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

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

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

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

Biden’s Current Position

In response to the tragic consequences of the U.S. invasion and the resulting weakening of popular support for the war, Biden has more recently joined the chorus of Democratic members of Congress criticizing the administration’s handling of the conflict and calling for the withdrawal of most combat forces. He opposed President Bush’s escalation (“surge”) of troop strength early last year and has called for greater involvement by the United Nations and other countries in resolving the ongoing conflicts within Iraq.

However, Biden has been the principal congressional backer of a de facto partition of the country between Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shia Arab segments, a proposal opposed by a solid majority of Iraqis and strongly denounced by the leading Sunni, Shia, and secular blocs in the Iraqi parliament. Even the U.S. State Department has criticized Biden’s plan as too extreme. A cynical and dangerous attempt at divide-and-rule, Biden’s ambitious effort to redraw the borders of the Middle East would likely make a violent and tragic situation all the worse.

Yet it is Biden’s key role in making possible the congressional authorization of the 2003 U.S. invasion that elicits the greatest concern among Obama’s supporters. While more recently expressing regrets over his vote, he has not formally apologized and has stressed the Bush administration’s mishandling of the post-invasion occupation rather than the illegitimacy of the invasion itself.

Biden’s support for the resolution was not simply poor judgment, but a calculated rejection of principles codified in the UN Charter and other international legal documents prohibiting aggressive wars. According to Article VI of the Constitution, such a rejection also constitutes a violation of U.S. law as well. Biden even voted against an amendment sponsored by fellow Democratic senator Carl Levin that would have authorized U.S. military action against Iraq if the UN Security Council approved the use of force and instead voted for the Republican-backed resolution authorizing the United States to go to war unilaterally. In effect, Biden has embraced the neo-conservative view that the United States, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, somehow has the right to invade other countries at will, even if they currently pose no strategic threat.

Given the dangerous precedent set by the Iraq war resolution, naming one of its principal supporters as potentially the next vice president of the United States has raised serious questions regarding Senator Obama’s commitment to international law. This comes at a time when the global community is so desperately hoping for a more responsible U.S. foreign policy following eight years of Bush.

Early in his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to not only end the war in Iraq, but to challenge the mindset that got the United States into Iraq in the first place. Choosing Biden as his running mate, however, raises doubts regarding Obama’s actual commitment to “change we can believe in.”

http://www.fpif.org/articles/biden_iraq_and_obamas_betrayal

Biden, Iraq, and Obama’s Betrayal

Incipient Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate constitutes a stunning betrayal of the anti-war constituency who made possible his hard-fought victory in the Democratic primaries and caucuses.

The veteran Delaware senator has been one the leading congressional supporters of U.S. militarization of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, of strict economic sanctions against Cuba, and of Israeli occupation policies.

Most significantly, however, Biden, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the lead-up to the Iraq War during the latter half of 2002, was perhaps the single most important congressional backer of the Bush administration’s decision to invade that oil-rich country.

Shrinking Gap Between Candidates

One of the most important differences between Obama and the soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee John McCain is that Obama had the wisdom and courage to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Obama and his supporters had been arguing correctly that judgment in foreign policy is far more important than experience; this was a key and likely decisive argument in the Illinois senator’s campaign against Senator Hillary Clinton, who had joined McCain in backing the Iraq war resolution.

However, in choosing Biden who, like the forthcoming Republican nominee, has more experience in international affairs but notoriously poor judgment, Obama is essentially saying that this critical difference between the two prospective presidential candidates doesn’t really matter. This decision thereby negates one of his biggest advantages in the general election. Of particular concern is the possibility that the pick of an establishment figure from the hawkish wing of the party indicates the kind of foreign policy appointments Obama will make as president.

Obama’s choice of Biden as his running mate will likely have a hugely negative impact on his once-enthusiastic base of supporters. Obama’s supporters had greatly appreciated the fact that he did not blindly accept the Bush administration’s transparently false claims about Iraq being an imminent danger to U.S. national security interests that required an invasion and occupation of that country. At the same time Biden was joining his Republican colleagues in pushing through a Senate resolution authorizing the invasion, Obama was speaking at a major anti-war rally in Chicago correctly noting that Iraq’s war-making ability had been substantially weakened and that the international community could successfully contain Saddam Hussein from any future acts of aggression.

In Washington, by contrast, Biden was insisting that Bush was right and Obama was wrong, falsely claiming that Iraq under Saddam Hussein – severely weakened by UN disarmament efforts and comprehensive international sanctions – somehow constituted both “a long term threat and a short term threat to our national security” and was an “extreme danger to the world.” Despite the absence of any “weapons of mass destruction” or offensive military capabilities, Biden when reminded of those remarks during an interview last year, replied, “That’s right, and I was correct about that.”

Biden Shepherds the War Authorization

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

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

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

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

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

Supported an Invasion Before Bush

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

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

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

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

Biden’s False Claims to Bolster War

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

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

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

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

Biden’s Current Position

In response to the tragic consequences of the U.S. invasion and the resulting weakening of popular support for the war, Biden has more recently joined the chorus of Democratic members of Congress criticizing the administration’s handling of the conflict and calling for the withdrawal of most combat forces. He opposed President Bush’s escalation (“surge”) of troop strength early last year and has called for greater involvement by the United Nations and other countries in resolving the ongoing conflicts within Iraq.

However, Biden has been the principal congressional backer of a de facto partition of the country between Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shia Arab segments, a proposal opposed by a solid majority of Iraqis and strongly denounced by the leading Sunni, Shia, and secular blocs in the Iraqi parliament. Even the U.S. State Department has criticized Biden’s plan as too extreme. A cynical and dangerous attempt at divide-and-rule, Biden’s ambitious effort to redraw the borders of the Middle East would likely make a violent and tragic situation all the worse.

Yet it is Biden’s key role in making possible the congressional authorization of the 2003 U.S. invasion that elicits the greatest concern among Obama’s supporters. While more recently expressing regrets over his vote, he has not formally apologized and has stressed the Bush administration’s mishandling of the post-invasion occupation rather than the illegitimacy of the invasion itself.

Biden’s support for the resolution was not simply poor judgment, but a calculated rejection of principles codified in the UN Charter and other international legal documents prohibiting aggressive wars. According to Article VI of the Constitution, such a rejection also constitutes a violation of U.S. law as well. Biden even voted against an amendment sponsored by fellow Democratic senator Carl Levin that would have authorized U.S. military action against Iraq if the UN Security Council approved the use of force and instead voted for the Republican-backed resolution authorizing the United States to go to war unilaterally. In effect, Biden has embraced the neo-conservative view that the United States, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, somehow has the right to invade other countries at will, even if they currently pose no strategic threat.

Given the dangerous precedent set by the Iraq war resolution, naming one of its principal supporters as potentially the next vice president of the United States has raised serious questions regarding Senator Obama’s commitment to international law. This comes at a time when the global community is so desperately hoping for a more responsible U.S. foreign policy following eight years of Bush.

Early in his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to not only end the war in Iraq, but to challenge the mindset that got the United States into Iraq in the first place. Choosing Biden as his running mate, however, raises doubts regarding Obama’s actual commitment to “change we can believe in.”

U.S. Role in Georgia Crisis

The international condemnation of Russian aggression against Georgia – and the concomitant assaults by Abkhazians and South Ossetians against ethnic Georgians within their territories – is in large part appropriate. But the self-righteous posturing coming out of Washington should be tempered by a sober recognition of the ways in which the United States has contributed to the crisis.

It has been nearly impossible to even broach this subject of the U.S. role. Much of the mainstream media coverage and statements by American political leaders of both major parties has in many respects resembled the anti-Russian hysterics of the Cold War. It is striking how quickly forgotten is the fact that the U.S.-backed Georgian military started the war when it brutally assaulted the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in an attempt to regain direct control of the autonomous region. This attack prompted the disproportionate and illegitimate Russian military response, which soon went beyond simply ousting invading Georgian forces from South Ossetia to invading and occupying large segments of Georgia itself.

The South Ossetians themselves did much to provoke Georgia as well by shelling villages populated by ethnic Georgians earlier this month. However, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ruled out signing a non-aggression pact and repeatedly refused to rejoin talks of the Joint Control Commission to prevent an escalation of the violence. Furthermore, according to Reuters, a draft UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease fire was blocked when the United States objected to “a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides ‘to renounce the use of force.'”

Borders and Boundaries

In the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Russian empire and its Soviet successors, like the Western European colonialists in Africa, often drew state boundaries arbitrarily and, in some cases, not so arbitrarily as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. The small and ethnically distinct regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Ajaria were incorporated into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and – on the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 – remained as autonomous regions within the state of Georgia. Not one of the regions was ethnically pure. They all included sizable ethnic Georgian minorities, among others. Despite cultural and linguistic differences, there was not much in the way of ethnic tension during most of the Soviet period and inter-marriage was not uncommon.

As the USSR fell apart in the late 1980s, however, nationalist sentiments increased dramatically throughout the Caucasus region in such ethnic enclaves as Chechnya in Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, as well as among those within Georgia. Compounding these nationalist and ethnic tensions was the rise of the ultra-nationalist Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who assumed power when the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. With the possible exception of the Baltic states, Georgia had maintained the strongest sense of nationalism of any of the former Soviet republics, tracing its national identity as far back as the 4th century BC as one of most advanced states of its time. This resurgent nationalism led the newly re-emerged independent Georgia to attempt to assert its sovereignty over its autonomous regions by force.

A series of civil conflicts raged in Georgia in subsequent years, both between competing political factions within Georgia itself as well as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, resulting in widespread ethnic cleansing. Backed by Russian forces, these two regions achieved de facto independence while, within Georgia proper, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze emerged as president and brought some semblance of stability to the country, despite a weak economy and widespread corruption.

Russian troops, nominally in a peacekeeping role but clearly aligned with nationalist elements within the two ethnic enclaves, effectively prevented any subsequent exercise of Georgian government authority over most of these territories. Meanwhile, the United States became the biggest foreign backer of the Shevardnadze regime, pouring in over $1 billion in aid during the decade of his corrupt and semi-authoritarian rule.

The Rose Revolution

Though strongly supported by Washington, Shevardnadze was less well-respected at home. For example, The New York Times reported how “Georgians have a different perspective” than the generous pro-government view from Washington, citing the observation in the Georgian daily newspaper The Messenger that, “Despite the fact that he is adored in the West as an ‘architect of democracy’ and credited with ending the Cold War, Georgians cannot bear their president.” Though critical of the rampant corruption and rigged elections, the Bush administration stood by the Georgian regime, as they had the post-Communist dictatorships in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and most of the other former Soviet republics.

Georgia enjoyed relatively more political freedom and civil society institutions than most other post-Soviet states. Nevertheless, high unemployment, a breakdown in the allocation of energy for heating and other needs, a deteriorating infrastructure, widespread corruption, and inept governance led to growing dissatisfaction with the government. By 2003, Shevardnadze had lost support from virtually every social class, ethnic group, and geographical region of the country. Heavy losses by his supporters in parliamentary elections early that November were widely anticipated. Still, Shevardnadze continued to receive the strong support of President George W. Bush due to his close personal relationship with high-ranking administration officials. Contributing to this relationship were his pro-Western policies, such as embarking upon ambitious free market reforms under the tutelage of the International Monetary Fund, agreeing to deploy 300 Georgian troops to Iraq following the U.S. invasion, and sending Georgian troops trained by U.S. Special Forces to the Pankisi Gorge on the border of Chechnya to fight Chechen rebels. Opposition leaders Zurab Zhvania and Mikheil Saakashvilli strongly criticized the United States for its continued support of the Georgian president.

In addition to the electoral opposition, a decentralized student-led grassroots movement known as Kmara emerged, calling for an end to corruption and more democratic and accountable government as well as free and fair elections. Though not directly supported by the Bush administration, a number of Western NGOs, including the Open Society Institute (backed by Hungarian-American financier George Soros) and the National Democratic Institute (supported, ironically, by U.S. congressional funding) provided funding for election-monitoring and helped facilitate workshops for both the young Kmara activists and mainstream opposition leaders. This led to some serious tension between these non-governmental organizations and the U.S. embassy in Georgian capital.

For example, when U.S. ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles learned that some leaders from the successful student-led nonviolent civil insurrection in Serbia three years earlier were in Tbilisi to give trainings to Kmara activists, he tried to discourage them by telling them that “Shevardnadze is the guarantee for the peace and stability of the region.” Noting that the United States was providing training and equipment of the Georgian army that anti-government demonstrators would soon be facing down in the streets, he referred to the Kmara as “troublemakers.” Similarly, Miles discouraged Kmara leaders from working with the Serb activists, whom he had known from his prior post as chief of mission in Belgrade, insisting that “Georgia is not the same as Serbia.” (The young Serbs ignored him, and the scheduled trainings in strategic nonviolent action went forward anyway.)

The parliamentary elections that November were marred by a series of irregularities. These included widespread ballot-stuffing, multiple voting by government supporters, late poll openings, missing ballots, and missing voter lists in opposition strongholds. These attempts to steal the election elicited little more than finger-wagging from the Bush administration.

The Georgians themselves did not take the situation so lightly, however. They launched general strikes and massive street protests against what they saw as illegitimate government authority. This effort was soon dubbed the “Rose Revolution.” Gaining support from the United States only after the success of the nonviolent civil insurrection appeared inevitable, this popular uprising forced Shevardnadze to resign.

Presidential elections, certified as free and fair by international observers, were held two months later, in which opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili emerged victorious. Four months later, the authoritarian ruler of the autonomous region of Ajaria, a Shevardnadze ally, was ousted in a similar nonviolent civil insurrection.

Though not responsible for the change of government itself, the Bush administration soon moved to take advantage of the change the Georgian people brought about after the fact.

U.S. Embrace of Saakashvili

Despite its longstanding support for Shevardnadze, the Bush administration quickly embraced Georgia’s new president. Taking advantage of Georgia’s desperate economic situation, the United States successfully lobbied for a series of additional free market reforms and other neoliberal economic measures on the country, including a flat tax of 14%. Though official corruption declined, tax collection rates improved, and the rate of economic growth increased, high unemployment remained and social inequality grew.

With strong encouragement from Washington, Saakashvili’s government reduced domestic spending but dramatically increased military spending, with the armed forces expanding to more than 45,000 personnel over the next four years, more than 12,000 of whom were trained by the United States. Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars of military assistance to Georgia, a small country of less than five million people. In addition, the United States successfully encouraged Israel to send advisors and trainers to support the rapidly-expanding Georgian armed forces.

Although facing growing security concerns at home, the Bush administration also successfully pushed Saakashvili to send an additional 1,700 troops to Iraq. Thus, Georgia increased its troop strength in Iraq by more than 500% even as other countries in the U.S.-led multinational force were pulling out.

Though Georgia is located in a region well within Russia’s historic sphere of influence and is more than 3,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Bush nevertheless launched an ambitious campaign to bring Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Russians, who had already seen previous U.S. assurances to Gorbachev that NATO would not extend eastward ignored, found the prospects of NATO expansion to the strategically important and volatile Caucasus region particularly provocative. This inflamed Russian nationalists and Russian military leaders and no doubt strengthened their resolve to maintain their military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Washington’s embrace of Saakashvili, like its earlier embrace of Shevardnadze, appears to have been based in large part on oil. The United States has helped establish Georgia as a major energy transit corridor, building an oil pipeline from the Caspian region known as the BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylan) and a parallel natural gas pipeline, both designed to avoid the more logical geographical routes through Russia or Iran. The Russians, meanwhile, in an effort to maintain as much control over the westbound oil from the region, have responded by pressuring the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to sign exclusive export agreements and to construct natural gas pipelines through Russia. (See Michael Klare’s Russia and Georgia: All About Oil.)

Amid accusations of widespread corruption and not adequately addressing the country’s growing poverty, Saakashvili himself faced widespread protests in November 2007, to which he responded with severe repression, shutting down independent media, detaining opposition leaders, and sending his security forces to assault largely nonviolent demonstrators with tear gas, truncheons, rubber bullets, water cannons, and sonic equipment. Human Rights Watch criticized the government for using “excessive” force against protesters and the International Crisis Group warned of growing authoritarianism in the country. Despite this, Saakashvili continued to receive strong support from Washington and still appeared to have majority support within Georgia, winning a snap election in January by a solid majority which – despite some irregularities – was generally thought to be free and fair.

Lead-up to the Current Crisis

A number of misguided U.S. policies appear to have played an important role in encouraging Georgia to launch its August 6 assault on South Ossetia.

The first had to do with the U.S.-led militarization of Georgia, which likely emboldened Saakashvili to try to resolve the conflict over South Ossetia by military means. Just last month, the United States held a military exercise in Georgia with more than 1,000 American troops while the Bush administration, according to The New York Times, was “loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia’s separatist enclaves.” As the situation was deteriorating last month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a high-profile visit to Saakashvili in Tbilisi, where she reiterated the strong strategic relationship between the two countries.

Radio Liberty speculates that Saakashvili “may have felt that his military, after several years of U.S.-sponsored training and rearmament, was now capable of routing the Ossetian separatists (“bandits,” in the official parlance) and neutralizing the Russian peacekeepers.” Furthermore, Saakashvili apparently hoped that the anticipated Russian reaction would “immediately transform the conflict into a direct confrontation between a democratic David and an autocratic Goliath, making sure the sympathy of the Western world would be mobilized for Georgia.”

According to Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States may have caused Saakashvili to “miscalculate” and “overreach” by making him feel that “at the end of the day that the West would come to his assistance if he got into trouble.”

Another factor undoubtedly involved the U.S. push for Georgia to join NATO. The efforts by some prominent Kremlin lawmakers for formal recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia coincided with the escalated efforts for NATO’s inclusion of Georgia this spring, as well as an awareness that any potential Russian military move against Georgia would need to come sooner rather than later.

And, as a number of us predicted last March, Western support for the unilateral declaration of independence by the autonomous Serbian region of Kosovo emboldened nationalist leaders in the autonomous Georgian regions, along with their Russian supporters, to press for the independence of these nations as well. Despite the pro-American sympathies of many in that country, Georgians were notably alarmed by the quick and precedent-setting U.S. recognition of Kosovo.

No Standing to Challenge Russian Aggression

Russia’s massive and brutal military counter-offensive, while immediately provoked by Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, had clearly been planned well in advance. It also went well beyond defending the enclave to illegally sending forces deep into Georgia itself and inflicting widespread civilian casualties. It has had nothing to do with solidarity with an oppressed people struggling for self-determination and everything to do with geopolitics and the assertion of militaristic Russian nationalism.

While the international community has solid grounds to challenge Russian aggression, however, the United States has lost virtually all moral standing to take a principled stance.

For example, the brutally punitive and disproportionate response by the Russian armed forces pales in comparison to that of Israel’s 2006 attacks on Lebanon, which were strongly defended not only by the Bush administration, but leading Democrats in Congress, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

Russia’s use of large-scale militarily force to defend the autonomy of South Ossetia by massively attacking Georgia has been significantly less destructive than the U.S.-led NATO assault on Serbia to defend Kosovo’s autonomy in 1999, an action that received broad bipartisan American support.

And the Russian ground invasion of Georgia, while a clear violation of international legal norms, is far less significant a breach of international law as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, authorized by a large majority in Congress.

This doesn’t mean that the Russia’s military offensive should not be rigorously opposed. However, the U.S. contribution to this unfolding tragedy and the absence of any moral authority to challenge it must not be ignored.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/us_role_in_georgia_crisis

Behind Obama and Clinton

Voters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are rightly disappointed by the similarity of the foreign policy positions of the two remaining Democratic Party presidential candidates, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. However, there are still some real discernable differences to be taken into account. Indeed, given the power the United States has in the world, even minimal differences in policies can have a major difference in the lives of millions of people.

As a result, the kind of people the next president appoints to top positions in national defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs is critical. Such officials usually emerge from among a presidential candidate’s team of foreign policy advisors. So, analyzing who these two finalists for the Democratic presidential nomination have brought in to advise them on international affairs can be an important barometer for determining what kind for foreign policies they would pursue as president. For instance, in the case of the Bush administration, officials like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle played a major role in the fateful decision to invade Iraq by convincing the president that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat and that American forces would be treated as liberators.

The leading Republican candidates have surrounded themselves with people likely to encourage the next president to follow down a similarly disastrous path. But what about Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Who have they picked to help them deal with Iraq war and the other immensely difficult foreign policy decisions that they’ll be likely to face as president?

Contrasting Teams

Senator Clinton’s foreign policy advisors tend to be veterans of President Bill Clinton’s administration, most notably former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. Her most influential advisor – and her likely choice for Secretary of State – is Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke served in a number of key roles in her husband’s administration, including U.S. ambassador to the UN and member of the cabinet, special emissary to the Balkans, assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, and U.S. ambassador to Germany. He also served as President Jimmy Carter’s assistant secretary of state for East Asia in propping up Marcos in the Philippines, supporting Suharto’s repression in East Timor, and backing the generals behind the Kwangju massacre in South Korea.

Senator Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisers, who on average tend to be younger than those of the former first lady, include mainstream strategic analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations, such as former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake, former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice, and former navy secretary Richard Danzig. They have also included some of the more enlightened and creative members of the Democratic Party establishment, such as Joseph Cirincione and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. His team also includes the noted human rights scholar and international law advocate Samantha Power – author of a recent New Yorker article on U.S. manipulation of the UN in post-invasion Iraq – and other liberal academics. Some of his advisors, however, have particularly poor records on human rights and international law, such as retired General Merrill McPeak, a backer of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and Dennis Ross, a supporter of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Contrasting Issues

While some of Obama’s key advisors, like Larry Korb, have expressed concern at the enormous waste from excess military spending, Clinton’s advisors have been strong supporters of increased resources for the military.

While Obama advisors Susan Rice and Samantha Power have stressed the importance of U.S. multilateral engagement, Albright allies herself with the jingoism of the Bush administration, taking the attitude that “If we have to use force, it is because we are America! We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further into the future.”

While Susan Rice has emphasized how globalization has led to uneven development that has contributed to destabilization and extremism and has stressed the importance of bottom-up anti-poverty programs, Berger and Albright have been outspoken supporters of globalization on the current top-down neo-liberal lines.

Obama advisors like Joseph Cirincione have emphasized a policy toward Iraq based on containment and engagement and have downplayed the supposed threat from Iran. Clinton advisor Holbrooke, meanwhile, insists that “the Iranians are an enormous threat to the United States,” the country is “the most pressing problem nation,” and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is like Hitler.

Iraq as Key Indicator

Perhaps the most important difference between the two foreign policy teams concerns Iraq. Given the similarities in the proposed Iraq policies of Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, Obama’s supporters have emphasized that their candidate had the better judgment in opposing the invasion beforehand. Indeed, in the critical months prior to the launch of the war in 2003, Obama openly challenged the Bush administration’s exaggerated claims of an Iraqi threat and presciently warned that a war would lead to an increase in Islamic extremism, terrorism, and regional instability, as well as a decline in America’s standing in the world.

Senator Clinton, meanwhile, was repeating as fact the administration’s false claims of an imminent Iraqi threat. She voted to authorize President Bush to invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his own choosing and confidently predicted success. Despite this record and Clinton’s refusal to apologize for her war authorization vote, however, her supporters argue that it no longer relevant and voters need to focus on the present and future.

Indeed, whatever choices the next president makes with regard to Iraq are going to be problematic, and there are no clear answers at this point. Yet one’s position regarding the invasion of Iraq at that time says a lot about how a future president would address such questions as the use of force, international law, relations with allies, and the use of intelligence information.

As a result, it may be significant that Senator Clinton’s foreign policy advisors, many of whom are veterans of her husband’s administration, were virtually all strong supporters of President George W. Bush’s call for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. By contrast, almost every one of Senator Obama’s foreign policy team was opposed to a U.S. invasion.

Pre-War Positions

During the lead-up to the war, Obama’s advisors were suspicious of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq somehow threatened U.S. national security to the extent that it required a U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor in the Carter administration, argued that public support for war “should not be generated by fear-mongering or demagogy.”

By contrast, Clinton’s top advisor and her likely pick for secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke, insisted that Iraq remained “a clear and present danger at all times.”

Brzezinski warned that the international community would view the invasion of a country that was no threat to the United States as an illegitimate an act of aggression. Noting that it would also threaten America’s leadership, Brzezinski said that “without a respected and legitimate law-enforcer, global security could be in serious jeopardy.” Holbrooke, rejecting the broad international legal consensus against offensive wars, insisted that it was perfectly legitimate for the United States to invade Iraq and that the European governments and anti-war demonstrators who objected “undoubtedly encouraged” Saddam Hussein.

Another key Obama advisor, Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment, argued that the goal of containing the potential threat from Iraq had been achieved, noting that “Saddam Hussein is effectively incarcerated and under watch by a force that could respond immediately and devastatingly to any aggression. Inside Iraq, the inspection teams preclude any significant advance in WMD capabilities. The status quo is safe for the American people.”

By contrast, Clinton advisor Sandy Berger, who served as her husband’s national security advisor, insisted that “even a contained Saddam” was “harmful to stability and to positive change in the region,” and therefore the United States had to engage in “regime change” in order to “fight terror, avert regional conflict, promote peace, and protect the security of our friends and allies.”

Meanwhile, other future Obama advisors, such as Larry Korb, raised concerns about the human and material costs of invading and occupying a heavily populated country in the Middle East and the risks of chaos and a lengthy counter-insurgency war.

And other top advisors to Senator Clinton – such as her husband’s former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – confidently predicted that American military power could easily suppress any opposition to a U.S. takeover of Iraq. Such confidence in the ability of the United States to impose its will through force is reflected to this day in the strong support for President Bush’s troop surge among such Clinton advisors (and original invasion advocates) as Jack Keane, Kenneth Pollack, and Michael O’Hanlon. Perhaps that was one reason that, during the recent State of the Union address, when Bush proclaimed that the Iraqi surge was working, Clinton stood and cheered while Obama remained seated and silent.

These differences in the key circles of foreign policy specialists surrounding these two candidates are consistent with their diametrically opposed views in the lead-up to the war.

National Security

Not every one of Clinton’s foreign policy advisors is a hawk. Her team also includes some centrist opponents of the war, including retired General Wesley Clark and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

On balance, it appears likely that a Hillary Clinton administration, like Bush’s, would be more likely to embrace exaggerated and alarmist reports regarding potential national security threats, to ignore international law and the advice of allies, and to launch offensive wars. By contrast, a Barack Obama administration would be more prone to examine the actual evidence of potential threats before reacting, to work more closely with America’s allies to maintain peace and security, to respect the country’s international legal obligations, and to use military force only as a last resort.

Progressive Democrats do have reason to be disappointed with Obama’s foreign policy agenda. At the same time, as The Nation magazine noted, members of Obama’s foreign policy team are “more likely to stress ’soft power’ issues like human rights, global development and the dangers of failed states.” As a result, “Obama may be more open to challenging old Washington assumptions and crafting new approaches.”

And new approaches are definitely needed.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/behind_obama_and_clinton

Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles

The United States has done for the cause of democracy what the Soviet Union did for the cause of socialism. Not only has the Bush administration given democracy a bad name in much of the world, but its high-profile and highly suspect “democracy promotion” agenda has provided repressive regimes and their apologists an excuse to label any popular pro-democracy movement that challenges them as foreign agents, even when led by independent grassroots nonviolent activists.

In recent months, the governments of Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus, and Burma, among others, have disingenuously claimed that popular nonviolent civil insurrections of the kind that toppled the corrupt and autocratic regimes in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine in recent years – and that could eventually threaten them as well – are somehow part of an effort by the Bush administration and its allies to instigate “soft coups” against governments deemed hostile to American interests and replace them by more compliant regimes.

This confuses two very different phenomena.

The U.S. government has undeniably provided small amounts of money to various opposition groups and political parties through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and other organs. Such funding has at times helped a number of opposition groups cover some of the costs of their operations, better enabling them to afford computers, Internet access, fax machines, printing costs, office space and other materials. Assistance from foreign governments has also helped provide for poll watchers and other logistical support to help insure free and fair elections. In addition, the United States, through the NED, the IRI and other U.S.-funded projects, has also provided seminars and other training for opposition leaders in campaign strategies.

What is controversial about these endeavors is that they have been directed primarily at helping conservative, pro-Western parties with a free-market orientation and generally not parties of the democratic left. Nor are they aimed solely at pro-democracy struggles challenging autocratic regimes. Indeed, U.S. agencies have also backed opposition parties in countries such as Venezuela, despite it already being a democracy.

Some opposition groups in some countries have welcomed U.S. assistance while others have rejected such aid on principle. There is no evidence, however, to suggest – even in cases where this kind of limited U.S. support for opposition organizations has taken place – that the U.S. government or any U.S.-funded entity has ever provided training, advice, or strategic assistance for the kind of mass popular nonviolent action campaigns that have toppled governments or threatened the survival of incumbent regimes.

How Democratic Change Occurs

The United States remains the world’s number one supplier of armaments and security assistance to the world’s dictatorships. There is little reason to take seriously the idea that U.S. foreign policy, under either Republican or Democratic administrations, has been based upon a sincere belief in advancing freedom and democracy as a matter of principle. History has shown repeatedly that the U.S. government, like most Western powers, supports democratic rule only if it is seen to promote perceived economic and strategic interests. Conversely, the U.S. government has frequently opposed democratic rule if it is seen to be contrary to perceived economic and strategic interests. Since the vast majority of Americans, according to public opinion polls, do support democracy as a matter of principle, however, support for “democracy” has long been used as a rationalization for various U.S. foreign policy initiatives, even when these policies end up supporting authoritarianism and repression. As a result, though support for democratic change in countries ruled by autocratic regimes is certainly a worthwhile goal, skepticism over the Bush administration’s pro-democracy rhetoric is indeed warranted.

In any case, true democratic change comes from within. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a series of broadly based nonviolent social movements that have succeeded in toppling dictatorships and forcing democratic reforms in such diverse countries as the Philippines, Chile, Bolivia, Madagascar, Nepal, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia, Serbia, Mali, and Ukraine. Even the relatively conservative Washington-based Freedom House, after examining the 67 countries that have moved from authoritarianism to varying degrees of democratic governance over the past few decades, published a study concluding that these transitions did not come as a result of foreign intervention and only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary elite-driven reforms. In the overwhelming majority of cases, according to this report, change came through democratic civil society organizations engaging in massive nonviolent demonstrations and other forms of civil resistance, such as strikes, boycotts, tax refusal, occupations of public space, and other forms of non-cooperation.

Whenever governments are challenged by their own people, they tend to claim that those struggling for freedom and justice are traitors to the nation and agents of foreign enemies. In previous decades, opposition activists challenging U.S.-backed dictatorships in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere were routinely labeled as “communist agents” and “Soviet sympathizers.” Today, pro-democracy movements within U.S. client states in the Middle East are depicted as “Islamic fundamentalists” and “Iranian agents.” Similarly, opposition activists in Iran, Belarus, Burma, and Zimbabwe have been labeled as “supporters of Western imperialism” and “American agents.”

In reality, the limited amount of financial support provided to opposition groups by the United States and other Western governments in recent years cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place any more than the limited Soviet financial and material support for leftist movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution to take place. As Marxists and others familiar with popular movements have long recognized, revolutions are the result of certain objective conditions. Indeed, no amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and put their bodies on the line unless they had a sincere motivation to do so.

Conspiracy Theories

A number of regimes facing popular opposition have gone so far as to claim that certain small independent non-profit organizations and supporters of nonviolent action from Europe and the United States who have provided seminars and workshops for opposition activists on the history and dynamics of nonviolent resistance are somehow working as agents of the Bush administration. Some Western bloggers and other writers critical of the Bush administration and understandably concerned about U.S. intervention in the name of “democracy,” have actually bought into some of the claims by these governments. These conspiracy theories have in turn been picked up by some progressive websites and periodicals and even by some in the mainstream press, which then repeat them as fact.

Virtually all of these seminars and workshops, however, come at the direct request of opposition organizers themselves. And at least as many of them have been on behalf of pro-democracy activists struggling against right-wing dictatorships as there have been on behalf of pro-democracy activists struggling against left-wing dictatorships. Over just this past year, for example, my colleagues and I have worked with Egyptians, Maldivians, Palestinians, West Papuans, Sahrawis, Azerbaijanis, and Guatemalan Indians struggling against repressive U.S.-backed governments. In addition, virtually all of these groups have a strict policy of refusing support from the NED or any other government-funded entities. As a result of my own involvement in a number of these groups and personally knowing most of their principal workshop leaders, I recognize that charges that Gene Sharp, Jack DuVall, Bob Helvey, Ivan Marovic, the Albert Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), and the Center on Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) are somehow in cahoots with the CIA or are serving as agents of U.S. imperialism are totally unfounded.

Unfortunately, even Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – echoed by some of his North American supporters – has apparently fallen for these false charges and has accused some of these individuals and groups of plotting with his opponents to overthrow him. Chavez has every right to be a bit paranoid, given the very real U.S. government efforts to subvert his regime, including support for a short-lived coup in 2002. In reality, however, the only visit to Venezuela that has taken place on behalf of any of these non-profit groups engaged in educational efforts on strategic nonviolence was in early 2006 when I – along with David Hartsough, the radical pacifist director of Peaceworkers – led a series of workshops at the World Social Forum in Caracas. There we lectured and led discussions on the power of nonviolent resistance as well as offered a series of screenings of a film ICNC helped develop on the pro-democracy movement in Chile against the former U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet. The only reference to Venezuela during those workshops was how massive nonviolent action could be used to resist a possible coup against Chavez, not foment one. In fact, Hartsough and I met with some Venezuelan officials regarding proposals that the government train the population in various methods of nonviolent civil defense to resist any possible future attempts to overthrow Chavez.

Workshops on Strategic Nonviolence

The American and European groups that share generic information on the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolence with civil society organizations in foreign countries are not unlike the Western private voluntary organizations that share environmentally sustainable technologies and agricultural techniques to farmers in developing nations. Both offer useful tools that, if applied consistently and effectively, could improve the quality of life for millions of people. There is nothing “imperialistic” about it.

Just as sustainable agricultural technologies and methods are more effective in meeting human needs and preserving the planet than the conventional development strategies promoted by Western governments, nonviolent action has been shown to be more effective in advancing democratic change than threats of foreign military intervention, backing coup plotters, imposing punitive sanctions, supporting armed rebel groups, and other methods traditionally instigated by the United States and its allies. And just as the application of appropriate technologies can also be a means of countering the damage caused by unsustainable neo-liberal economic models pushed by Western governments and international financial institutions, the use of massive nonviolent action can counter some of the damage resulting from the arms trade, military intervention, and other harmful manifestations of Western militarism.

Development based on Western models usually means that multinational corporations and the governments of wealthy capitalist countries end up exerting a large degree of control over these societies, whereas appropriate technologies allow for genuine independence and self-sufficiency. Similarly, unlike fomenting a military coup or establishing a military occupation – which relies on asserting control over the population and potential political opponents – successful nonviolent civil insurrections are necessarily based on a broad coalition of popular movements and are therefore impossible for an outside power to control.

It is ironic, then, that some elements of the left are attacking those very individuals and groups who are trying to disseminate these tools of popular empowerment against the forces of oppression and imperialism.

People Power

Another difference between these people-to-people educational efforts and U.S. intervention is that, unlike the NED and other government-backed “pro-democracy” efforts, which often focus on developing conventional political initiatives led by pro-Western elites, these workshops on strategic nonviolence are primarily designed for grassroots activists unaffiliated with established political parties who seek to make change from below.

Historically, individuals and groups with experience in effective nonviolent action campaigns tend to come from leftist and pacifist traditions which carry a skeptical view of government power, particularly governments with a history of militarism and conquest. For example, my own background in strategic nonviolent action is rooted in my involvement in the late 1970s as a nonviolence trainer for the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance and the nonviolent revolutionary group Movement for a New Society, both of which were radically decentralist in structure and decidedly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist in orientation. More recently, my fellow workshop leaders have included a South African veteran of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front, a leading Palestinian activist from the first intifada, and former student leaders from the left-wing Serbian opposition to Milosevic.

Conversely, large bureaucratic governments accustomed to projecting political power through military force or elite diplomatic channels have little understanding or appreciation of nonviolent action or any other kind of mass popular struggle. Indeed, what would CIA operatives know about nonviolence, much less grassroots organizing?

In short, not only is it naïve to assume than an external power could provoke a revolution of any kind, it should be apparent that the U.S. government does not know the first thing about fomenting a nonviolent civil insurrection. As a result, the dilemma for U.S. policy-makers – and the hope for all of us who support democracy as a matter of principle and not political expediency – is that the most realistic way to overthrow the world’s remaining autocratic regimes is through a process the U.S. government cannot control.

The U.S. government has historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’etats, and other kinds of violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent “people power” movements, by contrast, make regime change possible through empowering pro-democratic majorities. As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world’s remaining autocratic states comes from civil society, not the U.S. government, which deserves neither the credit nor the blame for the growing phenomenon of nonviolent democratic revolutions.

Strengthening the Bush Agenda

The emergence of civil society organizations and the growing awareness of the power of nonviolent action in recent years have been among the most positive political developments in what has otherwise been largely depressing political times. It is most unfortunate, then, that supposedly “progressive” voices have chosen to attack this populist grass roots phenomenon as some kind of Bush administration conspiracy.

It is also ironic that so many on the American left – after years of romanticizing armed struggle as the only way to defeat dictatorships, disparaging the potential of nonviolent action to overthrow repressive governments, and dismissing the notion of a nonviolent revolution — are now expressing their alarm at how successful popular nonviolent insurrections can be, even to the point of naively thinking that it is so easy to pull off that it could somehow be organized from foreign capitals. In reality, every successful popular nonviolent insurrection has been a home grown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their rulers were illegitimate and the current political system was incapable of redressing injustice. By contrast, no nonviolent insurrection has succeeded when the movement’s leadership and agenda did not have the backing of the majority of the population. This is why the 2002-2003 “strike” in Venezuela’s oil industry failed to bring down Chavez while comparable disruptions to economies elsewhere have often forced out less popular leaders.

“Leftist” critics of nonviolent pro-democracy movements parallel right-wing supporters of U.S. intervention in that both denigrate the power of individuals to take their destiny into their own hands and overthrow oppressive leaders and institutions. Instead, both appear to believe that people are passive victims and that social and political change can only come through the manipulation of foreign powers.

Reagan Redux

For example, despite President Ronald Reagan’s insistence during the 1980s that the popular armed insurgencies that challenged repressive U.S.-backed regimes in Central America were the result of a Soviet “hit list,” the reality was that the revolutions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala were homegrown popular movements. The Soviets provided a limited amount of assistance and obviously wanted to take political advantage of the possible overthrow of pro-American oligarchs by having them replaced with leftist revolutionaries who would be friendlier to their interests. But the oppressed peasants and workers of those Central American countries were not following the dictates of Moscow. They were struggling for basic rights and an end to repression.

Similar claims heard today that the United States is somehow a major force behind contemporary popular movements against dictatorships in Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Belarus or that the United States was somehow responsible for the successes of previous movements in Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine are equally ludicrous. This attitude parallels claims by those on the right who disingenuously credited Reagan’s dangerous and militaristic Cold War policies for the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and tried to depict the union activists, peasants, students, priests, and others martyred in the course of popular struggles in Central America as Soviet agents.

In addition, it is important to remember that the vast majority of successful nonviolent civil insurrections have not been against dictatorships opposed by the U.S. government, but dictatorships supported by the U.S. government. Right-wing autocrats toppled by such “people power” movements have included Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, the Shah of Iran, Duvalier in Haiti, Pinochet in Chile, Chun in South Korea, and Numeiry in Sudan, to name only a few.

Another problem with this kind of simplistic reductionism is that when nonviolent civil insurrections do succeed in bringing democrats to power in countries previously under anti-American dictatorships, the new often-inexperienced leaders are faced with plaudits from the American right and suspicion from the European and North American left. This could lead them to wonder who their friends really are and reinforce the myth that those of the right, rather than the left, are the real champions of freedom.

The conspiratorial thinking and denigration of genuine popular movements appearing increasingly in some leftist circles serves to strengthen the hand of repressive regimes, weaken democratic forces, and bolster the argument of American neo-conservatives that only U.S. militarism and intervention – and not nonviolent struggle by oppressed peoples themselves – is capable of freeing those suffering under repressive rule.

How Change Occurs

Successful nonviolent revolutions, like successful armed revolutions, often take years or decades to develop as part of an organic process within the body politic of a given country. There is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government or a foreign non-governmental organization could put together, since the history, culture and political alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government or NGO can recruit or mobilize the large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging the established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.

Trainers and workshop leaders like me and my colleagues emphasize certain strategies and tactics that have been successful elsewhere in applying pressure on governments to change their policies and undermining the support and loyalty required for governments to successfully suppress the opposition. In some cases, local activists may try to emulate some of them. However, a regime will lose power only if it tries to forcibly maintain a system that the people oppose, not because a foreign workshop leader described to a small group of opposition activists certain tactics that had been used successfully in another country at another time.

In maintaining our steadfast opposition to U.S. interventionism and exposing the hypocrisy and double-standards of the Bush administration’s rhetoric in support of democracy, we must also challenge those who denigrate popular indigenous movements as creations of Washington or slander reputable non-profit groups that share their generic knowledge of nonviolent strategies and tactics with like-minded organizations overseas.

Finally, both to maintain our credibility and because it is the right thing to do, progressives should recognize the moral imperative of opposing repressive regimes regardless of their ideology or their relationship with the United States. Progressives should also embrace strategic nonviolent action in the cause of freedom as an ethical and realistic alternative to U.S. interventionism.

http://www.fpif.org/reports/nonviolent_action_and_pro-democracy_struggles

Barack Obama on Diplomacy

The rise in popular support for Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy reflects the growing skepticism among Democratic and independent voters regarding both the Bush administration’s and the Democratic Party establishment’s foreign policies. Indeed, on issues ranging from Iraq to nuclear weapons to global warming to foreign aid, as well as his general preference for diplomacy over militarism, Obama has also staked out positions considerably more progressive than the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

In my previous FPIF commentary, Barack Obama on the Middle East, I analyzed both the enlightened and disturbing aspects of Obama’s positions regarding Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine and related Middle East issues. This article examines Obama’s overall foreign policy positions which, while containing many positive attributes that are bolstering the presidential candidate’s popularity, also reveal that he’s far less progressive than many of his enthusiastic supporters tend to believe. It therefore remains an open question as to whether these positions really represent the kind of sweeping changes his campaign has promised an Obama presidency would bring.

Obama’s Advisers

Obama’s foreign policy advisers run the gamut from mainstream strategic analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations to outspokenly liberal academics and activists. On the one hand, those from the Democratic foreign policy establishment tend to be associated with its more enlightened wing. On the other hand, even those among the liberal activists seem to be more inclined to criticize the U.S. government for failing to take a firmer stand against the crimes of others than acknowledge the crimes, past and present, for which the United States bears responsibility. While maintaining a strong stated commitment to international humanitarian law and a belief in the responsibility of the international community to respond to crises such as Darfur, there’s little open recognition of U.S. culpability in humanitarian crises elsewhere or any real critique of empire.

Still, there’s a marked contrast between the team for foreign policy experts assembled around Obama and those of his principal rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. In contrast with Clinton’s foreign policy advisers – most of whom strongly supported the invasion of Iraq – virtually all of Obama’s advisers opposed the war from the beginning. The Nation magazine noted that members of Obama’s foreign policy team, who also tend to be younger than those of the former first lady, are “more likely to stress ‘soft power’ issues like human rights, global development and the dangers of failed states.” As a result, “Obama may be more open to challenging old Washington assumptions and crafting new approaches.”

Human Rights

Unlike his other rivals for the Democratic Party’s nomination, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Obama has refused to unconditionally endorse U.S. ratification of the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. He has stated his openness, however, to ratification after addressing what he claims are inadequate safeguards protecting members of the U.S. armed forces.

Unlike the Bush administration, which has focused its rhetoric on human rights and democracy solely at countries opposed by the U.S. government, Obama has taken a broader perspective, demonstrating a willingness to criticize the policies of autocratic allied regimes as well. For example, Obama has argued that the United States should “make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

Recognizing that, despite the rhetoric, the Bush administration has “done little to advance democracy around the world,” Obama has promised to “focus on achieving concrete outcomes that will advance democracy.” While calling for increased U.S. government financial support for independent institutions supporting pro-democracy movements abroad, he recognizes that “direct financial assistance from the U.S. government will not always be welcome or beneficial.” He has also called for increased support – through foreign aid, debt relief, technical assistance and investment – for countries undergoing post-conflict and post-authoritarian transitions.

Despite all this, he has fallen short of promising to end security assistance to repressive regimes.

Though unwilling to impose sanctions against most right-wing dictatorships, Obama apparently has fewer problems with supporting strict economic sanctions against left-wing dictatorships, joining the other major presidential contenders in refusing to call for an end to most U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. Unlike Senator Clinton, however, Obama has called for lifting the ban on family travel and on remittances.

Nuclear Weapons

In a break with the other leading presidential contenders, Obama supports the United States’ commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work to ultimately eliminate nuclear stockpiles. However, although the United States possesses by far the largest number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems on earth, Obama hasn’t indicated support for any unilateral American initiatives to move the process forward, such as cuts in weapons or delivery systems where the United States has a qualitative advantage.

Though he has called for a “worldwide ban on weapons to interfere with satellites and a ban on testing anti-satellite weapons,” he has not endorsed a ban on nuclear weapons in space as called for by virtually the entire international community. And, though critical of the enormous wastes incurred from Bush’s missile defense program, he has announced his support for the continued development of missile defense capabilities.

On a positive note, Obama has pledged to work vigorously to better secure the world’s nuclear weapons materials, work with Russia to take both countries’ nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and to negotiate with Russia and other nuclear powers for a dramatic reduction in nuclear stockpiles. He is also on record strongly opposing the Bush administration’s efforts to build a new generation of nuclear weapons and supporting ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT.)

Use of Force

Obama has harshly criticized the Bush administration’s unilateralism and militarism and promises to be far more cautious regarding sending Americans off to war. Yet he leaves loopholes big enough to drive a tank through. Rather than categorically declaring he would use military force only as a last resort, he insists that “no president should ever hesitate to use force – unilaterally if necessary,” not only “to protect ourselves . . . when we are attacked,” but also to protect what he refers to as “our vital interests” when the president believes they are “imminently threatened.” And, rather than calling on the United States to strictly abide by the United Nations Charter and other international treaty obligations regarding the use of military force, he simply says “we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others.”

At the same time, Obama has demonstrated enough of an awareness of history to indicate that he would be less likely to repeat some of the mistakes of the past, telling The New York Times, “For most of our history our crises have come from using force when we shouldn’t, not by failing to use force.”

Obama strongly supports the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Despite recent pleas by the democratically elected Afghan president Harmid Karzai that the ongoing U.S. bombing and the over-emphasis on aggressive counterinsurgency operations was harming efforts to deal with the resurgence of violence by the Taliban and other radical groups, Obama has promised to send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. He has also threatened bombings and incursions into Pakistan to root out al-Qaeda cells.

Though critical of the billions of dollars wasted annually on anachronistic Cold War-era military procurement projects, Obama calls for increasing America’s already-bloated military budget. Even though U.S military spending already totals more than all the military budgets of all the other countries in the world combined, Obama insists that Bush’s military spending spree of recent years has somehow not been enough.

Indeed, Obama has promised to enlarge the size of the uniformed armed forces by more than 92,000 troops. Given that the United States – surrounded by two oceans and two weak friendly neighbors – is essentially safe from any potential conventional attack, this position inevitably raises the question of what he intends to do with that expanded military capability.

Broadened Concepts of Security

Despite these disturbing indications of his readiness to use military force, Obama appears to recognize U.S. national security interests in much broader terms than virtually any major presidential contender past or present. He has called for a much greater emphasis on preventative diplomacy as well as the creation of a civilian corps that can “participate in post-conflict, humanitarian and stabilization efforts around the globe.”

He appears to more fully recognize the complexities of challenges faced in today’s world and carries a refreshingly less state-centric approach than most leaders of either party, both in terms of emerging threats as well as in terms of potential good. He argues that “while America and our friends and allies can help developing countries build more secure and prosperous societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them.”

Obama has recognized the pernicious influence of corporate interests in promoting dangerous foreign policies, illustrated in his criticism of “the arms merchants in our own country” for “feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe” and his call on the United States to “wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.”

In addition to calling on the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, Obama has called for a series of policy initiatives “to bring developing countries into the global effort to develop alternative sources of energy and prepare for the ravages of a changing climate,” including “funding to leverage the investment and venture capital needed to expand the developing world’s renewable energy portfolio.” Despite his emphasis on climate change as a national security issue, however, many environmentalists find that his proposals do not go nearly far enough.

Though Obama has indicated a willingness to take international law and the United Nations more seriously than the current administration, he still appears to accept the same double standards regarding to whom such international legal standards apply. For example, while he has called for the strict enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions targeted at Iran and Syria, he has not called for the strict enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions targeted at U.S. allies like Israel and Morocco.

On a positive note, despite strong criticism from Republicans and from Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama has promised to talk with foreign leaders of governments labeled by the United States as “rogue states,” rejecting the current thinking dominant in Washington that isolating and threatening foreign governments is somehow more effective than talking with them over issues of mutual concern.

Development

Obama has called for making “the critical investments needed to fight global poverty” by doubling foreign non-military assistance and has pledged that his administration would work to “build the capacity of weak states to confront the common, transnational challenges we face including terrorism, conflict, climate change, proliferation and epidemic disease.” In the Senate, Obama co-sponsored legislation in support of the United Nations millennium development goals over the Bush administration’s objections. He has called for the establishment of a $2 billion Global Education Fund to develop primary education in impoverished regions and for increased funding to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Significantly, Obama has called for 100% debt cancellation for the world’s most heavily indebted poor countries. He has promised to press the World Bank to provide poor countries with grants rather than loans and to enact reforms that ensure that “countries have the resources they need to respond to the external shocks that threaten to derail economic progress.” He has also pledged to lead a multilateral effort to address the issue of “odious debts” created by previous corrupt non-elected governments and to seek out ways in which “loan sanctions” could be enacted to create disincentives to discourage private creditors from lending money to repressive, authoritarian regimes.

At the same time, while making vague calls “modernization and reform,” he has failed to critique the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Forum.

Global Leadership

Obama has rejected calls from both the left and the right, smitten by the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, for the United States to disengage from playing a leading role in international affairs. He has warned against isolationism and the country turning inward and has called for the United States to reassert its global leadership, albeit tempered by a skeptical view towards unilateralism and an emphasis on partnership with other nations.

With a Kenyan father and having spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, Obama understands the non-Western world unlike any president to date. Combined with his mixed racial heritage, spending his formative adolescence in Hawaii (a state where people of color are a clear majority) and having worked as a community organizer in impoverished African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, he would be able to show the world a new face of America and thereby do much to heal the U.S. image. At the same time, his emphasis on America’s global leadership – including the assumption that the world would be willing to follow if only the United States had a decent and responsible administration – may prove naïve. Even during the the1990s, resentment at the United States – particularly towards American unilateralism and the ways the Clinton administration was taking unfair advantage of the country’s new status as the world’s sole superpower – was at an all-time high.

Whether for good or ill, Obama would likely be very much an activist president on foreign policy. His outlook is reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy’s grandiose view of U.S. global leadership, emphasizing threats abroad and the power of American ideals as imperatives for the United States to exercise a predominant role. For example, he has promised to that to “renew American leadership in the world, I will strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity. Our global engagement cannot be defined by what we are against; it must be guided by a clear sense of what we stand for. We have a significant stake in ensuring that those who live in fear and want today can live with dignity and opportunity tomorrow.”

A Mixed Prognosis

Despite his rather limited experience in national office, Obama appears to be one of the smartest, most visionary and most knowledgeable members of the U.S. Senate on foreign policy. As a result, he would be more likely to take creative and independent initiatives and less reliant on the traditional foreign policy establishment than any modern president of ether party.

As many of the examples above illustrate, however, that doesn’t mean he’ll always be right. A combination of his limited vision and the constraints imposed upon any president by the imperatives of powerful economic and strategic interests make it doubtful that Obama will be able to move the country significantly forward in ways that will address the most important challenges facing the country and the world today on his own. However, there are indications that he could be more open to a more progressive foreign policy if the growing social movements in this country for peace and justice are able to mobilize effectively and provide the necessary counter-pressures. Obama’s strong showing thus far in the race for the Democratic nomination is a direct result of such movements. If he wins the presidency, he would be obliged to listen to those who would play such an important role in bringing him to the White House.

In summary, we must neither be naïve about Barack Obama’s limitations nor cynical about his potential.

There are genuine reasons for hope regarding certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the event of an Obama administration. If he secures the Democratic Party’s nomination, therefore, these more enlightened positions will subject him to organized attacks from the right-wing that will likely be even worse than those unleashed against the less progressive John Kerry four years earlier. As a result, Obama will need to be vigorously defended.

At the same time, he must also continue to be challenged by those who support a more progressive foreign policy. Ultimately, the directions that we as an informed electorate give the new president matter far more than who wins the election.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/barack_obama_on_diplomacy

The United States and the Kurds: a brief history

To add to the tragic violence unleashed throughout Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion of that country, the armed forces of Turkey have launched attacks into the Kurdish-populated region in northern Iraq to fight guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Taking advantage of the establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, the PKK has been escalating their raids into Turkey, prompting the October 17 decision by the Turkish parliament to authorize military action within Iraq.

The Kurds are a nation of more than 30 million people divided among six countries, primarily in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey and with smaller numbers in northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and the Caucuses. They are the world’s largest nation without a state of their own. Their struggle for self-determination has been hampered by the sometime bitter rivalry between competing nationalist groups, some of which have been used as pawns by regional powers as well as by the United States.

The Beginnings

At the 1919 Versailles Conference, in which the victorious allies of World War I were carving up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, President Woodrow Wilson unsuccessfully pushed for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Since that time, however, U.S. policy toward the Kurds has been far less supportive and often cynically opportunistic.

For example, in the mid-1970s, in conjunction with the dictatorial Shah of Iran, the United States goaded Iraqi Kurds into launching an armed uprising against the then left-leaning Iraqi government with the promise of continued military support. However, the United States abandoned them precipitously as part of an agreement with the Baghdad regime for a territorial compromise favorable to Iran regarding the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Suddenly without supply lines to obtain the necessary equipment to defend themselves, the Iraqi army marched into Kurdish areas and thousands were slaughtered. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dismissed concerns about the humanitarian consequences of this betrayal by saying that “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

The 1980s

The uprising by Iraqi Kurds against the central government in Baghdad resumed in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, led by guerrillas of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK.) Strong Iranian support for the PUK made virtually all Kurds potential traitors in the eyes of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which responded with savage repression. In the latter part of the decade, in what became known as the Anfal campaign, as many as 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, more than 100,000 Kurdish civilians were killed and more than one million Iraqi Kurds–nearly one-quarter of the Iraqi Kurdish population–were displaced.

Despite this, the United States increased its support for Saddam Hussein’s regime during this period, providing agricultural subsidies and other economic aid as well as limited military assistance. American officials looked the other way as much of these funds were laundered by purchasing military equipment despite widespread knowledge that it was being deployed as part of Baghdad’s genocidal war against the Kurds. The United States also sent an untold amount of indirect aid–largely through Kuwait and other Arab countries–which enabled Iraq to receive weapons and technology to increase its war-making capacity.

The March 1988 Iraqi attacks on the Kurdish town of Halabja–where Iraq government forces massacred upwards to 5,000 civilians by gassing them with chemical weapons–was downplayed by the Reagan administration, even to the point of leaking phony intelligence claiming that Iran, then the preferred American enemy, was actually responsible. The Halabja tragedy was not an isolated incident, as U.S. officials were well aware at the time. UN reports in 1986 and 1987 documented Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, which were confirmed both by investigations from the CIA and from U.S. embassy staff who visited Iraqi Kurdish refugees in Turkey. However, not only was the United States not particularly concerned about the ongoing repression and the use of chemical weapons, the United States actually was supporting the Iraqi government’s procurement efforts of materials necessary for the development of such an arsenal.

When a 1988 Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report brought to light Saddam Hussein’s policy of widespread killings of Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq, Senator Claiborne Pell introduced “The Prevention of Genocide Act” to put pressure on the Iraqi government. However, the Reagan administration–insisting on being able to continue its military and economic support of Saddam Hussein’s regime–successfully moved to have the measure killed.

This history of appeasement raises serious questions regarding the sincerity of both the strategic and moral concerns subsequently raised by U.S. officials about both the nature of the Iraqi regime and the treatment of the Kurdish population.

Military intervention against Saddam’s regime could have arguably been considered legal during this period under provisions of the Genocide Treaty. It could not, however, justify such military intervention retroactively a full fifteen years later, as argued by the Bush administration and its supporters. It was therefore disingenuous in the extreme to justify the U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country in 2003 on the grounds that “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people” when the United States did nothing to stop the slaughter when it was actually going on. The suffering of the Kurdish people under Saddam’s rule was shamelessly used as an excuse, but should under no circumstances be considered an actual motivation, for the American conquest.

Indeed, as a result of the destruction of most of the Iraqi air force in the 1991 Gulf War, the establishment of an international embargo prohibiting the import of needed spare parts and the lack of domestic sources effectively grounding what remained, the post-Gulf War autonomy exercised by the Kurdish population, and the strict enforcement of a “no-fly zone” covering most Kurdish-populated areas in northern Iraq, the regime in Baghdad no longer had the capacity to engage in such large-scale repression, even if Saddam Hussein had remained in power.

The 1991 Kurdish Uprising

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the Kurds launched a major popular rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s regime. With the Iraqi army already devastated from six weeks of massive assaults by the United States and allied forces and then forced to fight a simultaneous Shiite-led rebellion in southern Iraq, the Kurds initially made major advances, seizing a series of key towns. These gains were soon reversed by a brutal counter-attack by Iraqi government forces, however. Despite President George Bush calling on the people of Iraq to rise up against the dictatorship, U.S. forces–which at that time temporarily occupied a large strip of southern Iraq–did nothing to support the post-war rebellion and stood by while thousands of Iraqi Kurds, Shiites, and others were slaughtered.

In the cease-fire agreement following the expulsion of Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait, the United States made a conscious decision to exclude Iraqi helicopter gunships from the ban on Iraqi military air traffic. These were the very weapons that proved so decisive in crushing the rebellions.

U.S. officials have claimed that they were tricked into thinking that Iraqi military helicopters would be used only for post-war humanitarian relief. Others suspect, however, that the Bush administration feared a victory by Iraqi Kurds might encourage the ongoing Kurdish uprising in Turkey, a NATO ally.

By the end of March 1991, as many one million Kurds had fled their homes to escape advancing Iraqi government forces. Most were able to flee to safety in Iran, but the U.S.-backed Turkish regime–while allowing some to seek temporary refuge–blocked more than 100,000 Kurds from entering their country, thereby trapping them in snowy mountains in violation of their obligations under international humanitarian law to allow the fleeing civilians sanctuary. Without food, water, or shelter, as many as 1,000 refugees reportedly died each day. With the humanitarian crisis growing, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 688, demanding that the Iraqi government immediately end the repression and allow access for humanitarian organizations to provide relief and calling on member states to contribute to humanitarian operations. US. forces, operating out of its bases in Turkey and with the assistance of a dozen other countries, began air dropping emergency supplies, soon followed by the deployment of thousands of troops into northern Iraq to provide additional aid and to construct resettlement camps. By July, most U.S. troops were withdrawn to a forward operating base on the Turkish side of the border. At the request of Turkey, concerned about the detrimental impact on its relations with Iraq and Iran, U.S. ground operations were phased out by the end of 1996.

The No-Fly Zone

Meanwhile, the United States–along with Great Britain and France–unilaterally banned the Iraqi government from deploying any of its aircraft in northern Iraq above the 36th parallel with the stated goal of enforcing UN Security Council resolution 688. The UN resolution did not authorize such enforcement mechanisms, however, and there was no precedence in international law allowing foreign countries to indefinitely prevent the deployment of a sovereign government’s armed forces within its internationally-recognized territory. Despite its dubious legality, the establishment of the no-fly zone initially received widespread bipartisan support in Washington and even among human rights advocates as an appropriate means of preventing a renewal of the Iraqi government’s savage repression of the Kurdish people. (A second no-fly zone was later unilaterally established for much of southern Iraq.)

According to two State Department reports in 1994 and 1996, the creation and military enforcement of the “no-fly zone” in fact did not protect the Iraqi Kurdish populations from potential assaults by Iraqi forces, which–after crushing the March 1991 rebellion–had pulled back and were focused on post-war reconstruction and protecting the regime in Baghdad. In addition, the straight latitudinal demarcations of the no-fly zone did not correspond with the areas of predominant Kurdish populations, excluding large Kurdish-populated areas which had previously been subjected to air attacks (such as Hallabja) and including predominantly Arab areas which had not been a target of Iraqi government forces. Seeing what had began as an apparent humanitarian effort evolve into an excuse for continuing a low-level war against Iraq, France soon dropped out of the enforcement efforts.

At the end of August 1996, factional fighting broke out between the PUK and the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan. Concerned about possible advances by the Iranian-backed PUK, tens of thousands of Iraqi forces headed north in an effort to force PUK militiamen out of the key northern city of Irbil. In response, President Bill Clinton ordered a series of major bombing raids and missile attacks against Iraq. Despite concerns over the illegality of this unilateral intervention and the possibility of becoming embroiled in an inter-Kurdish conflict, the American air and missile strikes received widespread bipartisan support in Washington. This supposed rush to the defense of the Kurds may have been just a pretext, however: while the incursion by Iraqi government forces took place in the north, most of the U.S. strikes took place in the central and southern part of Iraq–hundreds of miles from the Iraqi advance.

In what became a prime example of “mission creep,” U.S. forces patrolling the no-fly zone gradually escalated its rules of engagement. The use of force was initially justified as a means to challenge Iraqi encroachments into the proscribed airspace. Later, it was escalated to include assaults on anti-aircraft batteries that fired at allied aircraft enforcing the zone. It escalated still further when anti-aircraft batteries were attacked simply for locking on their radar toward allied aircraft, even without firing. By the end of the decade, President Clinton began ordering attacks on additional radar installations and other military targets within the no-fly zone, even when they were unrelated to an alleged Iraqi threat against a particular U.S. aircraft. When the Bush administration came to office, the targeting was expanded still further, with the U.S. attacking radar and command-and-control installations well beyond the no-fly zones. By 2002, U.S. air strikes against Iraq were taking place almost daily.

Authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in October 2002, Congress justified the war in part because “the current Iraqi regime has demonstrated its continuing hostility toward, and willingness to attack, the United States … by … firing on many thousands of occasions on United States and Coalition Armed Forces engaged in enforcing the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.” In reality, however, there was no such UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone or the penetration of Iraqi airspace by U.S. forces (beyond providing direct humanitarian relief or direct support for weapons inspections teams.) Indeed, during the debate leading to the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 688 in 1991, there was absolutely no mention of no-fly zones. Indeed, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali flatly declared the U.S. attacks “illegal.”

In short, rather than an expression of humanitarian concern for Iraq’s Kurdish population, the no-fly zones became instruments to legitimize U.S. attacks against Iraq. Indeed, in the dozen years the no-fly zone was in effect for northern Iraq, far more Kurds were killed by U.S. air strikes than by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Supporting anti-Kurdish Repression from Turkey

The insincerity of U.S. support for the Kurdish people during this period could not have been more apparent than through the strong U.S. support for the Turkish government in its repression of its own Kurdish population.

The Kurds of Turkey number well over 15 million, the largest of any country. Yet there have been periods in recent history when simply speaking the Kurdish language or celebrating Kurdish festivals has been severely repressed. In addition to being denied basic cultural and political rights, Kurdish civilians for years suffered from the counter-insurgency campaign by Turkish armed forces ostensibly targeting the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist-led guerrilla group fighting for greater autonomy. The Turkish regime capitalized on the PKK’s use of terrorism as an excuse to crush even nonviolent expressions of Kurdish nationalism. During the height of the repression during the 1990s, the United States–while condemning the PKK–was largely silent regarding the Turkish government’s repression.

The Clinton administration justified its eleven-week bombing campaign of Yugoslavia in 1999 on the grounds that atrocities such as the Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanians must not take place “on NATO’s doorstep.” Ironically, similar ethnic-based repression on an even greater scale had been already taking place for a number of years within a NATO country without U.S. objections.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the United States supplied Turkey with $15 billion worth of armaments as the Turkish military carried out widespread attacks against civilian populations in the largest use of American weapons by non-U.S. forces since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Most of this took place during President Clinton’s first term. Over 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed and over two million Kurds became refugees in an operation where more than three-quarters of the weapons were of U.S. origin. Human Rights Watch, which also criticized the PKK rebels for serious human rights violations, documented how the U.S.-supplied Turkish army was “responsible for the majority of forced evacuations and destruction of villages.” The fifteen-year war cost over 40,000 lives.

n addition, despite justifying air strikes against Iraq in the name of enforcing the Kurdish “safe haven” and the no-fly zone in the northern part of that country, the Clinton administration defended periodic incursions into the safe haven by thousands of Turkish troops as well as air strikes by the Turkish military inside Iraqi territory which resulted in the deaths of large numbers of PKK guerrillas and Iraqi Kurdish civilians. These attacks were widely condemned by the international community, but defended by the U.S. government, with President Clinton standing out as the only international leader to openly support the Turkish regime’s military interventions in Iraq. According to Clinton State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, “Turkey’s an ally. And we have no reason to question the need for an incursion across the border.”

The United States provided a major boost for Turkey’s fight against the Kurds in 1998, when the Clinton administration successfully pressured Syria to expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In February the following year, the United States assisted Turkish intelligence agents in locating Ocalan in Kenya, where he was kidnapped, brought to Turkey and initially sentenced to death, though this was later commuted to life in prison. Despite what most observers saw as prejudicial treatment, the Clinton State Department refused to question the fairness of the proceedings.

The following year, the PKK declared a unilateral cease fire. Subsequently, with a respite from the violence and under pressure from European governments and human rights groups, the government of Turkey granted greater cultural rights and political freedom for its Kurdish minority. Despite hundreds of nonviolent Kurdish dissidents remaining in Turkish jails, the emergence of a more moderate PKK leadership and a lessening of Turkish repression gave some hope for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

Emboldened by the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq resulting from the 2003 U.S. invasion, however, the PKK resumed its armed struggle in 2004.

Iraqi Kurdistan

Though effectively autonomous since the establishment of the safe haven in the spring of 1991, Iraqi Kurds formally gained unprecedented rights as a result of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The Democratic Patriot Alliance of Kurdistan–an alliance of the KDP and the PUK and some minor parties–constitutes the second largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, holding 54 seats. PUK leader Jalal Talabani has held the position of Iraqi president–a largely-ceremonial post–since 2005. Other Kurdish parties hold an additional 14 seats. Collectively, these Kurdish nationalists constitute the strongest pro-American bloc in the Iraqi parliament

As a result of U.S. pressure, the Iraqi constitution requires super-majorities for key pieces of legislation, giving the Kurdish nationalists effective veto power against legislation deemed harmful to U.S. interests.

Also as a result of the U.S.-backed constitutional structure and in return for providing a working parliamentary majority for the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, most of the predominantly Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq have come under the control of the KDP/PUK-dominated Kurdish Regional Government. The former KDP guerrilla leader Nechirvan Barzani serves as prime minister.

Baghdad has virtually no jurisdiction in the northern part of their country and Iraqi Kurdistan has evolved into a de facto independent state. Foreigners entering northern Iraq now have their passports stamped not with the official Iraqi insignia, but with one for “Iraqi Kurdistan.” Though the Kurdish flag is omnipresent, any display of the Iraqi national flag is effectively forbidden. Signs are in Kurdish, virtually none are in Arabic. Iraqi government troops are forbidden from entering the region without expressed approval of the Kurdish parliament.

Government corruption is widespread in Iraqi Kurdistan and opposition activists are routinely beaten, tortured, and killed. Kurdish-born Austrian lawyer and professor Kamal Sayid Qadir reported how “the Kurdish parties transformed Iraqi Kurdistan into a fortress for oppression, theft of public funds, and serious abuses of human rights like murder, torture, amputation of ears and noses, and rape.” He added that these “privileges and gains achieved since 1 991 by the Kurdish parties were impossible without direct American backing and support.” For his efforts to alert the international community about such abuses by the U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison, though international pressure led to his release several months later.

Despite the corruption and repression–and occasional incidents of terrorism, bombings and ethnic strife–Iraqi Kurdistan has become the most stable and prosperous part of Iraq. The region hosts thousands of American troops, diplomats and businesspeople.

In early October 2007, the Kurdistan Regional Government signed an oil exploration agreement with Hunt Oil Company, a Texas-based operation with close ties to the Bush administration. The Iraqi government in Baghdad, which was completely bypassed in the deal, has declared the action illegal, but it appears that they will be unable to stop it.

U.S. military policy in Iraq has strained relations between Kurds and other Iraqis still further. With American troops already stretched thin and U.S. military leaders not trusting most Arab-dominated units of the Iraqi armed forces, the United States has relied extensively on Kurdish forces for counter-insurgency operations throughout Iraq, further inflaming ethnic tensions, particularly in Kirkuk, Mosul, and other areas with mixed Kurdish and Arab populations.

A Guerrilla Base

In terms of regional security, the most dangerous policy of the U.S.-backed Kurdish Regional Government has been its decision to allow its territory to become a base for separatist guerrillas to launch attacks against neighboring countries.

Iraqi Kurdistan has become the base of an Iranian Kurdish group known as PEJAK, which has launched frequent cross-border raids into Iran, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Iranians. Unlike the more conciliatory line taken by the traditional Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, PEJAK has been inspired by the quasi-independent status provided their brethren in Iraq to take a much harder line toward the Teheran government. There have been numerous reports that the U.S. government has provided equipment, training, and targeting information for PEJAK guerrillas. In retaliation, Iran has shelled and launched small-scale incursions into Iraqi territory against suspected guerrillas, actions strongly condemned by the United States.

Kurdish autonomy in Iraq has also led to increased nationalist activity among Syria’s 300,000 Kurds, who constitute 10% of that country’s population, including scattered acts of nationalist violence. The Syrian government has responded with increased repression, which has also led to strong condemnation by Washington.

By far the biggest concern, however, is that the Turkish military response to attacks by the Iraq-based PKK against its territory could escalate dramatically, dwarfing the incursions of the 1990s.

This ongoing escalation along the Iraqi-Turkish border and the prospects of a greater conflict is not surprising. Indeed, prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of the major arguments by opponents of the war was that it could lead to the effective establishment of a Kurdish state led by nationalist guerrillas that would then destabilized the region, including reigniting a Turko-Kurdish war. Like the warnings about prospects of sectarian conflict, a rise of terrorism and Islamist extremism, and the prospects of U.S. forces becoming bogged down in a bloody urban counter-insurgency war, the Bush administration–with the support of a large bipartisan majority in Congress–went ahead with the invasion anyway.

Solutions to the Crisis

As with the other tragic results from the U.S. invasion, a solution to the crisis in Kurdistan is not easy. Given the close U.S. relations with both the Turkish government and the Kurdish Regional Government, however, as well as U.S. culpability in creating the current crisis in the first place, greater American leadership is critical.

On the Iraqi Kurdish side, the United States must insist that the Kurdish Regional Government crack down on PKK military activities inside their territory. Though the Turkish Kurds have many legitimate grievances against the government in Ankara, the PKK’s reliance on armed struggle-particularly their propensity to engage in acts of terrorism–has actually hurt the Kurdish cause, serving to legitimize the Turkish government’s repression. Allowing the PKK to continue to operate out of Iraqi territory puts Iraqi Kurds at risk as well. The Bush administration needs to make it clear that failure by the Kurdish Regional Government to rein in the PKK will mean an end to U.S. financial and strategic assistance.

Unfortunately, as long as the United States continues to support PEJAK military activities inside Iraqi Kurdish territory, including this PKK-allied group’s attacks into Iran, such demands will not be taken seriously. As a result, the U.S. must sever its ties to the PEJAK and insist that the regional government crack down on all such guerrilla activity.

On the Turkish side of the conflict, the United States should pressure the Turks–save for the right of hot pursuit–to honor Iraqi sovereignty and cease their attacks against suspected PKK targets inside Iraqi territory. Following the October 21 cross-border raid by PKK guerrillas, resulting in the deaths of 12 Turkish soldiers and the kidnapping of eight others, the United States condemned the attack but also called on Turkey to show restraint. However, given the strong bipartisan support given to Israel for its massive military onslaught against Lebanon following a cross-border raid by Hezbollah guerrillas which resulted in the deaths of three Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others, Turkey may have little reason to take Washington’s pleas seriously. Any pressure on the Turkish government, which is dependent on the United States for much of its arms imports and foreign military training, to refrain from attacking neighboring countries must therefore be part of a broader critical re-evaluation of U.S. support for comparable actions by Israel and other allies.

The United States should also pressure Turkey to more carefully calibrate its counter-insurgency operations inside their country (and anywhere else) so to minimize civilian casualties. Indeed, such “collateral damage” has proven to be one of greatest recruitment tools for insurgencies. The United States should also encourage the Turkish government to offer amnesty to Kurdish nationalists willing to put down their arms, more fully recognize Kurdish civil and cultural rights, and allow the country’s Kurdish minority to advance their concerns nonviolently without fear of repression. Given the widespread civilian casualties resulting from U.S. counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and U.S. rejections of amnesty and other political compromises with Iraqi insurgents, the Turks may again have reason to reject such advice. As a result, these needed efforts to alter Turkish policies must be concomitant with a critical re-evaluation of U.S. counter-insurgency policy in Iraq and elsewhere.

In short, though the struggle by the Kurdish people and the governments which seek to control them pre-dates large-scale U.S. intervention in the region, it is American policy which has brought the situation to its current critical juncture and makes prospects for a just and peaceful solution so challenging. Perhaps, though, the current crisis will force the United States to re-think not just its disastrous policies in Iraq, but to also consider more seriously the need to more fully respect national sovereignty, support the right of self-determination and consider non-military alternatives to conflict.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb6426/is_2007_Oct_25/ai_n31487187/?tag=content;col1

U.S. Role in Lebanon Debacle

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to resist pressure that he resign following the publication late last month of the interim report by a special Israeli commission on Israel’s war on Lebanon last summer. Military chief Dan Halutz has already been forced to step down and Defense Minister Amir Peretz has announced he will also be resigning shortly.

The report from the Winograd commission concludes that “the decision to respond with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan.” In making the decision to go to war in Lebanon, the Israeli government “did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of ‘containment.’”

Unlike previous Israeli commissions that critically examined alleged government misdeeds, and were appointed by the Israeli Supreme Court, the Winograd Commission was appointed by the Olmert government itself. That makes its harsh criticism all the more surprising. It is also indicative of how, despite years of military occupations and war crimes against its neighbors by successive governments, as well as the systemic discrimination against the country’s Arab minority, Israeli democracy is strong enough to allow for a rigorous investigation of their leaders’ decision to launch an unnecessary and self-defeating war. It’s more than can be said for the United States.

During the five weeks of fighting in July and August, 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 Israeli civilians were killed. More than 1,100 Lebanese were killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

The commission failed, however, to address the fact that the Israeli government went well beyond what constituted legitimate self-defense in its response to Hezbollah’s provocative attack on an Israeli border outpost and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by targeting major segments of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure unrelated to the radical militia. The report also failed to directly address the large-scale war crimes committed by Israeli forces in its attacks on civilian population centers.

Bush Administration Exerted Pressure

Nor did the commission directly address the reason as to why Israel, in the words of the report, decided to “launch a military campaign and deviate from the policy of containment.” The answer in large part lies in pressure exerted on Olmert by the Bush administration, which had long been pushing the Israelis to launch a war on Lebanon to cripple Hezbollah, the anti-American Shiite Islamist movement allied with Iran.

Seven weeks before the start of the war, in his May 23 summit with Olmert, Bush strongly encouraged the Israeli prime minister to launch an attack on Lebanon soon, offering full U.S. support for the massive military operation. Just three days later, Israeli agents assassinated two Islamic militants in Sidon, leading to a series of tit- for-tat assassinations and abductions which eventually led to Hezbollah’s July 12 seizure of two Israeli soldiers, which was then used as the excuse for a war that had been planned for many months.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh quoted a consultant with the U.S. Department of Defense soon after the outbreak of the fighting as describing how the Bush administration “has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a preëmptive blow against Hezbollah.” He added, “It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.”
A War Planned in Advance

Rather than a spontaneous reaction to Hezbollah’s July 12 attack on Israel’s northern border, as depicted by the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties, Israel and the United States had been planning the war since at least 2004. Israeli officials had briefed U.S. officials with details of the plans, including PowerPoint presentations, in what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “revealing detail.”

Though the Winograd Commission report cited poor planning on logistics, political science professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University was quoted as saying, “Of all of Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared. In a sense, the preparation began in May 2000, immediately after the Israeli withdrawal…” In addition, Hersh noted how “several Israeli officials visited Washington, separately, ‘to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear,’” soon getting the final approval from Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and soon thereafter President George W. Bush.

Some reports indicated that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was less sanguine about the proposed Israeli military offensive, believing that Israel should focus less on bombing and more on ground operations, despite the dramatically higher Israeli casualties that would result. Still, Hersh quotes a former senior intelligence official as saying that Rumsfeld was “delighted that Israel is our stalking horse.”

As Ze’ev Schiff, dean of Israel’s military correspondents put it, “Rice is the figure leading the strategy of changing the situation in Lebanon, not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz.”
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Martin Indyk–who served in the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and U.S. ambassador to Israel–noted that the United States had no leverage on Hezbollah except “through Israel’s use of force.” As Haaretz analyst Shmuel Rosner wrote during the fighting, “the way has been found for Israel to recompense the administration for its supportive attitudes during the six year of the Bush administration,” illustrating “the regional power’s importance for the great power.”

“America Is Fully Complicit”

As the fighting continued into its third week and with civilian casualties mounting, international and domestic pressure increased on Israel to stop the onslaught, but Rice flew to Israel to push the government to continue prosecuting the war. As veteran Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put it, “Rice was back and forth, dictating when to start, when to stop, what to do, what not to do. America is fully complicit…”

By the first week of August, domestic pressure was forcing the Israelis to rethink continuing the war indefinitely. Fearing the Israelis might seek a cease fire, Bush reportedly told them, “You can’t stop now; you’re acting for all of us.” Israel indicated its willingness to accept a 10,000-member NATO force in southern Lebanon as a condition for a cease-fire, but the Bush administration was demanding that Hezbollah accept a 30,000-member force or be defeated militarily first.

However, by the beginning of the second week of August, it was becoming apparent to U.S. officials that Israelis were becoming increasingly resentful of their role as an American proxy. While the worsening humanitarian crisis and international outcry was not enough for the Bush administration to shift U.S. policy, a senior administration official reported that “it increasingly seemed that Israel would not be able to achieve a military victory, a reality that led the Americans to get behind a cease-fire.”

That the war on Lebanon was fought primarily as an effort to advance America’s hegemonic objectives in the Middle East rather than as a defense of Israel’s legitimate security interests is made more apparent by how damaging the war was to Israel’s political and strategic interests.

An Unnecessary War

In the years prior to Israel’s July 12 air strikes on Lebanese cities, which prompted Hezbollah’s retaliatory rocket attacks on Israel cities, the militia had become less and less of a threat. No Israeli civilian had been killed by Hezbollah for more than a decade (with the exception of one accidental fatality in 2003 caused by a Hezbollah anti-aircraft missile fired at an Israeli plane illegally violating Lebanese airspace landing on the Israeli side of the border), and there had been no Hezbollah attacks against civilian targets since well before the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.

Virtually all of Hezbollah’s military actions between May 2000 and July 2006 had been against Israeli occupation forces in a disputed border region between Lebanon and the Israel-occupied portion of southwestern Syria. Hezbollah’s longstanding policy had been that they would fire into Israel only in response to Israeli attacks on their political leadership or on Lebanese civilians. When the Israeli government, in preparation for the U.S.-backed assault on Lebanon, advised residents in northern Israel to participate in a drill in May 2006, a number of communities reported they could not locate the keys to the bomb shelters since they had been out of use for so long.

Hezbollah was down to about 500 full-time fighters prior to the Israeli assault, and a national dialogue was going on between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government regarding disarmament. As the Winograd Commission report points out, Hezbollah was not enough of a serious threat to Israel’s security that required such a massive strike against it, much less the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon as a whole. Though Hezbollah had hardly renounced their extremist ideology, major acts of terrorism were largely a thing of the past.

War Boosted Support for Hezbollah

The majority of Lebanese had opposed Hezbollah, both its reactionary fundamentalist social agenda as well as its insistence on maintaining an armed presence independent of the country’s elected government. Thanks to the U.S.-backed Israeli attacks on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, however, support for Hezbollah grew to more than 80% according to polls, even within the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities. Within four months of successfully countering the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah was in strong enough a position to launch a civil rebellion to oust Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Sinora’s moderate pro-Western government.

Even Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of State during Bush’s first term and a leading hawk, acknowledged by the third week of the conflict that “the only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”

As Israelis began to recognize how deleterious the war was to Israel’s legitimate security interests, a growing awareness emerged of the American role in getting them into that mess. Not long after the beginning of the war, reports began to circulate how a growing number of Israeli leaders, including some top military officials, were furious at Bush for pushing Olmert to war. This was also apparent at the grassroots level. A Haaretz article on an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv July 22 noted how “this was a distinctly anti-American protest” that included “chants of ‘We will not die and kill in the service of the United States’ and slogans condemning President George W. Bush.”

U.S. Congress Still Backing War

Though Israelis on the streets of Tel Aviv may have been declaring their unwillingness to “die and kill in the service of the United States,” an overwhelming bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress passed resolutions that offered unconditional support for Bush’s backing of the war on Lebanon. The Senate version passed on a voice vote, and there were only eight dissenting votes in the House. The House version – co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), whom the Democrats later named to chair the House Foreign Relations Committee – went so far as to praise Israel for “minimizing civilian loss,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and to claim that the attacks were “in accordance with international law,” despite an a broad consensus of international legal opinion to the contrary.

A number of the otherwise liberal members of Congress who supported the July 20 House resolution responded to constituents’ outraged at their vote by claiming they were simply defending Israel’s legitimate interests. In reality, however, by supporting Bush administration’s support for the massive Israeli attacks and blocking international efforts to impose a cease fire, these self-proclaimed “friends of Israel” were in fact defending policies which cynically use Israel to its detriment in order to advance the Bush administration’s militarist agenda.

Meanwhile, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) – now the front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination – defended the role of the Jewish state as an American proxy, praising Israel’s efforts to “send a message to Hamas, Hezbollah, to the Syrians [and] to the Iranians,” for their opposition to the United States’ and Israel’s commitment to “life and freedom.”

At that time, American journalist Robert Scheer made the far more reasonable observation that “long after Bush is gone from office, Israel will be threatened by a new generation of enemies whose political memory was decisively shaped by these horrible images emerging from Lebanon. At that point, Israelis attempting to make peace with those they must coexist with will recognize that with friends such as Bush and his neoconservative mentors, they would not lack for enemies.”
Overwhelming Bipartisan Support

Even Israelis who recognize the key role the Bush administration had in goading Israel on to attack Lebanon correctly emphasize that rightist elements within Israel had their own reasons independent from Washington to pursue the conflict. And yet, while they certainly believe that Israeli leaders who agreed to serve as American surrogates and prosecuted the war so poorly should be held accountable for their actions, there is still enormous bitterness that the Bush administration – with overwhelming bipartisan support from Congress – was so willing to sacrifice Israeli lives and Israel’s long-term security interests to advance American imperial objectives.

Indeed, given the enormous dependence Israel has on the United States militarily, economically, and diplomatically, this latest war on Lebanon could not have taken place without a green light from Washington. President Jimmy Carter, for example, was able to put a halt to Israel’s 1978 invasion of Lebanon within days and force Israel to withdraw from the south bank of the Litani River to a narrow strip just north of the border. The strident condemnation of the former Democratic president by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean and other leading Democrats in recent months in response to Carter’s recent book in which he reiterates his strong support for Israel but criticizes its occupation policies as contrary to the interests of peace and security is indicative how far to the right the Democratic Party has come under its current leadership.

While the Lebanese people, their infrastructure, and their environment suffered the most from this immoral and misguided U.S. policy, Israel was a victim as well. Just as ruling elites of medieval Europe cynically used some members of the Jewish community as money-lenders and tax-collectors in order to maintain their power and set up this vulnerable minority as scapegoats, so the United States is cynically using the world’s only Jewish state to advance its hegemonic agenda in the Middle East, thereby contributing to the disturbing rise of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments in the Islamic world.

Despite the Winograd Commission’s shortcomings, Israelis should be commended for allowing a serious investigation into their government’s actions. But Olmert and other Israeli leaders did not act alone. Americans who profess to care about Israel should also demand an independent investigation here in the United States as well to examine why the Bush administration, with the support of such a broad bipartisan majority of Congress, goaded Israel into waging an unnecessary war that cost the lives of scores of its citizens and emboldened anti-Israel extremists in Lebanon and beyond.

Bring ‘Em Home, Bring ‘Em Home

I first heard it while driving home from work on a college FM station. It was a song I had forgotten about but had known, with slightly different opening lyrics, in my childhood:

If you love this land of the free
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
Bring them back from overseas
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

A roar went up for the arena-sized crowd on this live recording. I also recognized the singer’s voice, but it was not one I associated with the song.

It will make the politicians sad, I know
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
They wanna tangle with their foe
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

I then recalled when I first heard it: it was in 1965 at one of the early anti-war rallies in Washington, DC and I had come up from North Carolina with my parents. On the stage, was a 45-year old folk singer named Pete Seeger, with the thousands of demonstrators joining him in the line “bring ‘em home.”

They wanna test their grand theories
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
With the blood of you and me
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

This wasn’t Pete Seeger on the radio, though. It was a recent recording by Bruce Springsteen. And the lyrics are tragically apropos today.

Now we’ll give no more brave young lives
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
For the gleam in someone’s eyes
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

I was born just a few years too late for me and my friends to have been shipped off and killed in Vietnam. I knew only a few people indirectly who had died: The older brother of my classmate David. The boy who used to deliver the News & Observer to our driveway every morning. It was sad and, as I got older, I started going to anti-war protests on my own, but individual deaths still seemed rather distant to me.

The men will cheer and the boys will shout
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
Yeah and we will all turn out
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

I turned 50 this past year. And my first-born went off to college. As a result, the deaths of the young Americans who are being killed in the Iraq hits me on a deeper emotional level than those who have died during other wars in my lifetime: these are the sons and daughters of my generation. I have been a father for nearly 20 years now and now have some sense of just how unbearable it would be to lose one of my children.

The church bells will ring with joy
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
To welcome our darlin’ girls and boys
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

Thousands of American parents and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi parents have lost their children since the U.S. invasion a little over four years ago. And the death toll continues to rise. I have three former students, all of whom opposed the war but who are now being forced to fight it, having joined the ROTC in order to afford a college education.

We will lift their voice and sound
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home
Yeah, when Johnny comes marching home
Bring ’em home, bring ’em home

At the end of the song, at the top of the hour, the radio station switched to the news. The lead story was that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have required the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within nine months. Congress could have also, with a simple majority and no need for an override, simply zeroed out all war funding except for the costs of bringing our troops safely home, but that option wasn’t even considered. Later that evening, however, my Congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, pushed through a bill providing for $40 billion of unconditional supplemental funding to enable the Bush administration to continue to make war on Iraq at least through July.

That’s not why you and the Democrats were elected to lead Congress, Ms. Pelosi.

No more compromises. Bring ‘em home!

http://www.fpif.org/articles/bring_em_home_bring_em_home

Iran in Iraq?

[Foreign Policy In Focus, April 14, 2007]Faced with growing public opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq, the Bush administration has been desperately trying to divert attention to Iran. Washington has gone so far as to make a series of dubious and unfounded charges that blame the Iranian government for the difficulties facing American forces fighting the Iraqi insurgency. Despite the absence of any credible reports of Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, President George W. Bush last month formally authorized U.S. forces to “kill or capture” suspected Iranian agents in Iraq… [Download PDF & Source Link]