The U.S. and Chemical Weapons: No Leg to Stand On

If, as alleged, the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, it would indeed be a serious development, constituting a breach of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, one of the world?s most important disarmament treaties, which banned the use of chemical weapons.

In 1993, the international community came together to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, a binding international treaty that would also prohibit the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, and transfer or use of chemical weapons. Syria is one of only eight of the world?s 193 countries not party to the convention.

However, U.S. policy regarding chemical weapons has been so inconsistent and politicized that the United States is in no position to take leadership in response to any use of such weaponry by Syria.

The controversy over Syria?s chemical weapons stockpiles is not new. Both the Bush administration and Congress, in the 2003 Syria Accountability Act, raised the issue of Syria?s chemical weapons stockpiles, specifically Syria’s refusal to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. The failure of Syria to end its chemical weapons program was deemed sufficient grounds by a large bipartisan majority of Congress to impose strict sanctions on that country. Syria rejected such calls for unilateral disarmament on the grounds that it was not the only country in the region that had failed to sign the CWC?nor was it the first country in the region to develop chemical weapons, nor did it have the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the region.

Indeed, neither Israel nor Egypt, the world?s two largest recipients of U.S. military aid, is a party to the convention either. Never has Congress or any administration of either party called on Israel or Egypt to disarm their chemical weapons arsenals, much less threatened sanctions for having failed to do so. U.S. policy, therefore, appears to be that while it is legitimate for its allies Israel and Egypt to refuse to ratify this important arms control convention, Syria needed to be singled out for punishment for its refusal.

The first country in the Middle East to obtain and use chemical weapons was Egypt, which used phosgene and mustard gas in the mid-1960s during its intervention in Yemen?s civil war. There is no indication Egypt has ever destroyed any of its chemical agents or weapons. The U.S.-backed Mubarak regime continued its chemical weapons research and development program until its ouster in a popular uprising two years ago, and the program is believed to have continued subsequently.

Israel is widely believed to have produced and stockpiled an extensive range of chemical weapons and is engaged in ongoing research and development of additional chemical weaponry. (Israel is also believed to maintain a sophisticated biological weapons program, which is widely thought to include anthrax and more advanced weaponized agents and other toxins, as well as a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal with sophisticated delivery systems.) For more than 45 years, the Syrians have witnessed successive U.S. administration provide massive amounts of armaments to a neighboring country with a vastly superior military capability which has invaded, occupied, and colonized Syria’s Golan province in the southwest. In 2007, the United States successfully pressured Israel to reject peace overtures from the Syrian government in which the Syrians offered to recognize Israel and agree to strict security guarantees in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory.

The U.S. position that Syria must unilaterally give up its chemical weapons and missiles while allowing a powerful and hostile neighbor to maintain and expand its sizable arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons is simply unreasonable. No country, whether autocratic or democratic, could be expected to accept such conditions.

This is part of a longstanding pattern of hostility by the United States towards international efforts to eliminate chemical weapons through a universal disarmament regime. Instead, Washington uses the alleged threat from chemical weapons as an excuse to target specific countries whose governments are seen as hostile to U.S. political and economic interests.

One of the most effective instruments for international arms control in recent years has been the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention by inspecting laboratories, factories, and arsenals, and oversees the destruction of chemical weapons. The organization?s most successful director general, first elected in 1997, was the Brazilian diplomat Jose Bustani, praised by the Guardian newspaper as a ?workaholic? who has ?done more in the past five years to promote world peace than anyone.? Under his strong leadership, the number of signatories of the treaty grew from 87 to 145 nations, the fastest growth rate of any international organization in recent decades, and ? during this same period ? his inspectors oversaw the destruction of 2 million chemical weapons and two-thirds of the world?s chemical weapons facilities. Bustani was re-elected unanimously in May 2000 for a five-year term and was complimented by Secretary of State Colin Powell for his ?very impressive? work.

However, by 2002, the United States began raising objections to Bustani?s insistence that the OPCW inspect U.S. chemical weapons facilities with the same vigor it does for other signatories. More critically, the United States was concerned about Bustani?s efforts to get Iraq to sign the convention and open their facilities to surprise inspections as is done with other signatories. If Iraq did so, and the OPCW failed to locate evidence of chemical weapons that Washington claimed Saddam Hussein?s regime possessed, it would severely weaken American claims that Iraq was developing chemical weapons. U.S. efforts to remove Bustani by forcing a recall by the Brazilian government failed, as did a U.S.-sponsored vote of no confidence at the United Nations in March. That April, the United States began putting enormous pressure on some of the UN?s weaker countries to support its campaign to oust Bustani and threatened to withhold the United States? financial contribution to the OPCW, which constituted more than 20 percent of its entire budget. Figuring it was better to get rid of its leader than risk the viability of the whole organization, a majority of nations, brought together in an unprecedented special session called by the United States, voted to remove Bustani.

The Case of Iraq

The first country to allegedly use chemical weapons in the Middle East was Great Britain in 1920, as part of its efforts to put down a rebellion by Iraqi tribesmen when British forces seized the country following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. According to Winston Churchill, who then held the position of Britain?s Secretary of State for War and Air, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.?

It was the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, that used chemical weapons on a scale far greater than any country had dared since the weapons were banned nearly 90 years ago. The Iraqis inflicted close to 100,000 casualties among Iranian soldiers using banned chemical agents, resulting in 20,000 deaths and tens of thousands of long-term injuries.

They were unable to do this alone, however. Despite ongoing Iraqi support for Abu Nidal and other terrorist groups during the 1980s, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department?s list of state sponsors of terrorism in order to provide the regime with thiodiglycol, a key component in the manufacture of mustard gas, and other chemical precursors for their weapons program. Walter Lang, a senior official with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, noted how “the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern” to President Reagan and other administration officials since they “were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose.” Lang noted that the DIA believed Iraq?s use of chemical was ?seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival.? In fact, DIA personnel were dispatched to Baghdad during the war to provide Saddam Hussein?s regime with U.S. satellite data on the location of Iranian troop concentrations in the full knowledge that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons against them.

Even the Iraqi regime?s use of chemical weapons against civilians was not seen as particularly problematic. The March 1988 massacre in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja, where Saddam’s forces murdered up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons, was downplayed by the Reagan administration, with some officials even falsely claiming that Iran was actually responsible. The United States continued sending aid to Iraq even after the regime?s use of poison gas was confirmed.

When a 1988 Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report brought to light Saddam’s policy of widespread extermination in Iraqi Kurdistan, Senator Claiborne Pell introduced the Prevention

of Genocide Act to put pressure on the Iraqi regime, but the Bush administration successfully moved to have the measure killed. This came despite evidence emerging from UN reports in 1986 and 1987, prior to the Halabja tragedy, documenting Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians?allegations that were confirmed both by investigations from the CIA and from U.S. embassy staff who had visited Iraqi Kurdish refugees in Turkey. However, not only was the United States not particularly concerned about Iraq?s use of chemical weapons, the Reagan administration continued supporting the Iraqi government’s procurement effort of materials necessary for their development.

Given the U.S. culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of people by Iraqi chemical weapons less than 25 years ago, the growing calls for the United States to go to war with Syria in response to that regime?s alleged use of chemical weapons that killed a few dozen people leads even many of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad?s fiercest opponents to question U.S. motivations.

This is not the only reason U.S. credibility on the issue of chemical weapons is questionable, however.

After denying and covering up Iraq?s use of chemical weapons in the late 1980s, the U.S. government?first under President Bill Clinton and then under President George W. Bush?began insisting that Iraq?s alleged chemical weapons stockpile was a dire threat, even though the country had completely destroyed its stockpile by 1993 and completely dismantled its chemical weapons program.

Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel?when they served in the U.S. Senate in 2002?all voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, insisting that Iraq still had a chemical weapons arsenal that was so extensive it constituted a serious threaten to the national security of the United States, despite the fact that Iraq had rid itself of all such weapons nearly a decade earlier. As a result, it is not unreasonable to question the accuracy of any claims they might make today in regard to Syria?s alleged use of chemical weapons.

It should also be noted that many of today?s most outspoken congressional advocates for U.S. military intervention in Syria in response to the Damascus regime?s alleged use of chemical weapons were among the most strident advocates in 2002-2003 for invading Iraq. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), whom the Democrats have chosen to be their ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was among the right-wing minority of House Democrats who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction. When no such weapons were found, Engel came up with the bizarre allegation that ?it would not surprise me if those weapons of mass destruction that we cannot find in Iraq wound up and are today in Syria.?

Engel is currently the chief sponsor of the Free Syria Act of 2013 (H.R. 1327), which would authorize the United States to provide arms to Syrian rebels.

UN resolutions

Unlike the case of Saddam Hussein?s Iraq, there are no UN Security Council resolutions specifically demanding that Syria unilaterally disarm its chemical weapons or dismantle its chemical weapons program. Syria is believed to have developed its chemical weapons program only after Israel first developed its chemical, biological, and nuclear programs, all of which still exist today and by which the Syrians still feel threatened.

However, UN Security Council Resolution 687, the resolution passed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War demanding the destruction of Iraq?s chemical weapons arsenal, also called on member states ?to work towards the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of such weapons.?

Syria has joined virtually all other Arab states in calling for such a ?weapons of mass destruction-free zone? for the entire Middle East. In December 2003, Syria introduced a UN Security Council resolution reiterating this clause from 12 years earlier, but the resolution was tabled as a result of a threatened U.S. veto. As I wrote at time, in reference to the Syrian Accountability Act, ?By imposing strict sanctions on Syria for failing to disarm unilaterally, the administration and Congress has roundly rejected the concept of a WMD-free zone or any kind of regional arms control regime. Instead, the United States government is asserting that it has the authority to say which country can have what kind of weapons systems, thereby enforcing a kind of WMD apartheid, which will more likely encourage, rather than discourage, the proliferation of such dangerous weapons.?

A case can be made, then, that had the United States pursued a policy that addressed the proliferation of non-conventional weapons through region-wide disarmament rather than trying to single out Syria, the Syrian regime would have rid itself of its chemical weapons some years earlier along with Israel and Egypt, and the government?s alleged use of such ordnance?which is now propelling the United States to increase its involvement in that country?s civil war?would have never become an issue.

Abetting the Carnage in Gaza

The November 22 ceasefire between Israeli and Hamas forces is a huge relief for the civilian population on both sides—the primary victims of the conflict. But the Obama administration’s unconscionable decision the previous week to block a ceasefire effort by the UN Security Council not only resulted in additional civilian deaths but also serves as an indication that, despite the president owing his re-election to the hard work of his progressive base, his foreign policy will continue to lean to the right.

The draft resolution blocked by the United States explicitly condemned all acts of terrorism and violence towards civilians, reaffirmed the right of all states to live in peace within secure and recognized borders, and called for an immediate and durable ceasefire. It reiterated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could only be resolved through peaceful means and called for an immediate resumption of a substantive bilateral negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

This even-handedness was too much for the Obama administration, however, which promised to prevent the passage of any statement or resolution that didn’t explicitly put the blame for the violence solely on Hamas. The administration’s blockage of any consideration of any other effort made it appear as though President Obama would rather have the slaughter continue.

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

Though Rice has appropriately condemned Palestinians when Islamist radicals fire rockets into Israel, she has also opposed nonviolent forms of resisting the occupation as well, such as rejecting recommendations by the UN’s independent special rapporteur on human rights (who happens to be an American Jew) for a boycott of companies supporting Israel’s illegal colonization of the West Bank as “irresponsible and unacceptable.” The United States has also threatened to block any effort by the Palestine Authority to upgrade its status at the United Nations or raise its concerns about ongoing Israeli violations of international humanitarian law with the International Court of Justice or the UN Human Rights Council.

The administration has also adamantly opposed the use of strategic nonviolent action to help ease the suffering of the people of the Gaza Strip, defending Israel’s attacks on unarmed ships on the high seas seeking to bring relief supplies. It appears that the United States wants the Palestinians to instead simply trust the “peace process”— brokered by world’s primary military, economic, and diplomatic supporter of their occupier—with a right-wing government that rejects the necessary territorial compromise for a viable Palestinian state.

Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai has acknowledged that the goal of the offensive is to “send Gaza back to the middle ages,” but Obama insisted that Israel’s massive assault on the densely populated enclave was simply about “self-defense.” While the rest of the world acknowledged that both sides were wrong, Obama insisted it was all the fault of the weaker party.

More than 25 times as many Palestinian civilians died from Israeli attacks than Israelis died from Palestinian attacks in the recent fighting, yet the Obama administration insisted that only the Israelis had the right to resist. Obama proclaimed that “There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Yet he insisted that Palestinians must somehow tolerate much greater destruction without striking back.

Indeed, in response to the outcry at the growing number of civilian casualties from the Israeli bombardment of civilian areas of the Gaza Strip, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes insisted, “The Israelis are going to make decisions about their own military tactics and operations.” When pressed as to whether the Obama administration would support international efforts to try to prevent an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, Rhodes replied, “they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard.”

Meanwhile, both the U.S. Senate and House passed by unanimous consent resolutions defending Israel’s ongoing war on the Gaza Strip. Unlike the Obama administration’s statements in support of Israel’s attacks, these resolutions failed to call on both sides to exercise restraint and expressed no regret at the resulting casualties. In contrast to similar resolutions four years ago in support of Israel’s deadly Operation Cast Lead, there was nothing in these most recent resolutions calling on the parties to avoid civilian casualties or work towards a durable and sustainable ceasefire. Nor was there any call for the president to try to calm the situation.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) noted how this supposedly “unanimous” vote supporting Israel’s war on Gaza was taken with “no notice, no committee hearing, no discussion and no debate,” adding, “In such a fashion, we achieve unanimity on great matters related to the Middle East.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was no doubt emboldened in launching his recent offensive by the strong support Israel received from the United States four years ago. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives—in a direct challenge to the credibility of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, and other reputable humanitarian organizations—passed a resolution in January of 2009 declaring that the Israeli armed forces bore no responsibility for the large numbers of civilian casualties from their assault on the Gaza Strip. The resolution put forward a disturbing reinterpretation of international humanitarian law: that, by allegedly breaking the cease-fire, Hamas was responsible for all subsequent deaths, and that the presence of Hamas officials or militia members in mosques, hospitals, or residential areas made those locations legitimate targets.

The human rights investigations from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UNHRC, and elsewhere examined Israeli claims that Hamas’ alleged use of “human shields” was responsible for the large number of civilian casualties. While these probes sharply criticized Hamas for at times having men and materiel too close to civilian-populated areas, they were unable to find even one incident of Hamas deliberately holding civilians against their will in an effort to deter Israeli attacks, the legal definition of using human shields. The Obama administration and congressional leaders, however, insisted that they knew more about what happened inside the Gaza Strip than these expert human rights monitors and respected international jurists on the ground. They made similarly dubious claims to justify the most recent wave of Israeli attacks on civilian population centers.

As Amnesty and other human rights groups have observed, however, even if Hamas were using human shields, it would still not justify Israel killing Palestinian civilians. Indeed, if a botched bank robbery resulted in a hostage situation, it would not justify the police killing the bank’s customers and tellers on the grounds that the robbers were using them as human shields.

In February 2009, Amnesty International called for an international arms embargo on both Israel and Hamas to prevent the kind of tragic attacks on civilians in which both sides are currently engaging. As an indication of his lack of support for international humanitarian law, Obama categorically rejected Amnesty’s proposal and instead increased U.S. military aid to Israel to record levels. We saw the tragic results during the most recent wave of attacks. As it did four years earlier, Amnesty International has again called for an international arms embargo on both Israel and Hamas. Once again, however, it appears Obama and Congress will ignore it.

If Obama, as a private citizen, gave a gun to someone whom he knew would likely use it in a crime and a crime was committed with that gun, he could go to jail. He could not get away with saying, “This guy lives in a dangerous neighborhood and I thought he might need it for self-defense.” As president, however, Obama can provide Netanyahu with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, some of which he knows would likely be targeted in populated neighborhoods resulting in civilian deaths, and never face the consequences.

The latest and most deadly round of fighting began when the fragile truce was broken by the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari. The Israeli media has reported that al-Jabari was in the process of negotiating a permanent truce. The Israeli government has had a history of killing Palestinian leaders once they moderate their activism.

And Hamas and other extremist groups have a history of lobbing rockets towards civilian-populated areas inside Israel, which is not only illegal and immoral, but is incredibly stupid in terms of hardening Israeli attitudes even further. Indeed, Hamas’ actions set back the cause of Israeli moderates. And Israel’s actions set back the cause of Palestinian moderates. More salient to those of us in the United States, Obama’s actions hurt both.

The great wish of the early Zionist leader Theodor Herzl was that Israel would be treated like any other state. And there are certainly those who do unfairly single out Israel for criticism. It is just as wrong, however, to unfairly exempt Israel from criticism for its violations of international humanitarian law in its ongoing aerial bombardments of civilian neighborhoods, as the Obama administration has done.

Those of us who supported Obama’s re-election have a special obligation to challenge his unconscionable support for Israel’s attacks against civilian population centers in the Gaza Strip. It was wrong when Bush did it four years ago. And it’s wrong now.

Remembering Israel’s West Bank Offensive

Ten years ago this month, following a particularly deadly series of Palestinian terrorist attacks, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched an assault on several Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank. The Bush administration largely supported the Israeli offensive, even as hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands of young men were detained without charge amid widespread reports of torture.

Both Israeli and international human rights groups condemned the widespread violations of international humanitarian law. According to Amnesty International, which had also strongly condemned attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists,

[T]he IDF acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity; many of these, such as unlawful killings, destruction of property and arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, violated international human rights and humanitarian law. The IDF instituted a strict curfew and killed and wounded armed Palestinians. But they also killed and targeted medical personnel and journalists, and fired randomly at houses and people in the streets. Mass arbitrary arrests were carried out in a manner designed to degrade those detained.

However, the U.S. House of Representatives categorically rejected Amnesty International’s findings. On May 2 of that year, by a vote of 352-21, the House declared that “Israel’s military operations are an effort to defend itself . . . and are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” This was widely interpreted as an attack against the credibility of Amnesty International, winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. In an apparent retort to growing demands by peace and human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel, the resolution called for an increase in military aid, which seemed to reward Israel for its repressio

In a 94-2 vote that same day, the Senate passed a similar resolution, again referring to the Israeli assault on Palestinian towns and refugee camps as “necessary steps to provide security to [Israel’s] people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” Both resolutions stressed their support for Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank.

A joint statement by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), co-sponsors of an amendment that would block Palestinian officials from entering the United States and otherwise keep the Palestinians out of the peace process, declared that “Israel has done no less – and certainly no more – than what any country would do to defend itself…. Israel’s military operation has been one based on specific intelligence information, with specific military goals – to act directly against terrorists…– and carried out with considerable restraint.” This statement, like the resolutions, came even after journalists’ cameras were finally allowed into the areas targeted by the Israeli assaults. The widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure was apparent even to casual viewers of the evening news.

Meanwhile, then-House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt proclaimed that, in supporting the Israeli government’s offensive, “We will stand for freedom.”

Sending the Wrong Message

For Arabs and Muslims throughout the world, these bipartisan endorsements of Israeli aggression were indicative of the lack of U.S. concern for basic human rights, or even its racism. The majority of liberal Democrats – most of whom were on record in support of human rights in Guatemala, East Timor, Colombia, Tibet, and elsewhere – had decided, in a situation where the victims of human rights abuses were Arabs, to instead throw their support to the perpetrator of the human rights abuses. In fact, one of the two principal sponsors of the House resolution was California Democrat Tom Lantos, the longtime chairman of the so-called “Human Rights Caucus.”

Remarkably, liberal groups like MoveOn and Democracy for America endorsed the reelection of many of the key Democratic supporters of the right-wing Israeli government’s offensive, labeling them “progressive heroes.”

On May 7, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Israel for its assaults against Palestinian civilians, and for its refusal to cooperate with a UN fact-finding team. The resolution emphasized the importance of civilian safety and wellbeing throughout the Middle East and condemned all acts of violence and terror resulting in deaths and injuries among both Palestinian and Israeli civilians. The United States was one of only four countries in the 189-member body voting in opposition. (In addition to Israel and the United States, the only others voting “no” were the tiny island states of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, both former U.S. colonies heavily dependent on U.S. aid.)

Meanwhile, the Bush administration supported Israel’s successful effort to block the UN investigation. This came despite a public opinion poll that week that showed that more than three-quarters of the American public believed Israel should allow the United Nations to investigate.

During Israel’s April 2002 offensive, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson reiterated her call for an end of the suicide bombings as well as an end to the occupation. She particularly criticized the Israelis for placing 600,000 Palestinians under a strict curfew for most of the month, for destroying Palestinian medical, religious, and service institutions, and for using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Robinson, a former president of Ireland and now head of the International Commission of Jurists, had been one of the most visible and effective Human Rights commissioners in UN history. In response to her criticisms of America’s most important Middle East ally, however, the United States – which has veto power over the re-appointment of top UN officials – forced her to step down at the end of her first term.

Emboldened by this strong bipartisan support, Israel launched even deadlier assaults against civilian targets in Lebanon in July 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in December 2008. As with the West Bank offensive 10 years ago, Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups condemned the actions of both Israel and its armed Arab opponents.

In both cases, as with 10 years ago, the Israeli attacks were supported in bipartisan congressional resolutions as legitimate acts of self-defense, in language that directly contradicted findings by Amnesty and other human rights groups. And yet again, prominent Democrats who supported these resolutions were labeled “progressive heroes.”

Until the right-wing Israeli government and its supporters in Congress are held accountable, such large-scale attacks against civilian population centers will continue.

Obama Ad Condemns Israel Aid Opponents

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

This struck me as odd for two reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The U.S. and Afghan Tragedy

One of the first difficult foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration will be what the United States should do about Afghanistan. Escalating the war, as National Security Advisor Jim Jones has been encouraging, will likely make matters worse. At the same time, simply abandoning the country — as the United States did after the overthrow of Afghanistan’s Communist government soon after the Soviet withdrawal 20 years ago — would lead to another set of serious problems.

In making what administration officials themselves have acknowledged will be profoundly difficult choices, it will be important to understand how Afghanistan — and, by extension, the United States — has found itself in this difficult situation of a weak and corrupt central government, a resurgent Taliban, and increasing violence and chaos in the countryside.

Many Americans are profoundly ignorant of history, even regarding distant countries where the United States finds itself at war. One need not know much about Afghanistan’s rich and ancient history, however, to learn some important lessons regarding the tragic failures of U.S. policy toward that country during the past three decades.

The Soviet Union invaded in December 1979, after the Afghan people rose up against two successive communist regimes that seized power in violent coup d’états in 1978 and 1979. The devastating aerial bombing and counterinsurgency operations led to more than six million Afghans fleeing into exile, most of them settling into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan. The United States, with the assistance of Pakistan’s Islamist military dictatorship, found their allies in some of the more hard-line resistance movements, at the expense of some very rational enlightened Afghans from different fields and aspect of life.

The United States sent more than $8 billion to Pakistani military dictator Zia al-Huq, who dramatically increased the size of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) to help support Afghan mujahedeen in their battle against the Soviets and their puppet government. Their goal, according to the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was “to radicalize the influence of religious factions within Afghanistan.” The ISI helped channel this American money, and billions more from oil-rich American allies, from the Gulf region to extremists within the Afghan resistance movement.

Extremist Education

The Reagan administration sensed the most hard-line elements of the resistance were less likely to reach negotiated settlements, but the goal was to cripple the Soviet Union, not free the Afghan people. Recognizing the historically strong role of Islam in Afghan society, they tried to exploit it to advance U.S. policy goals. Religious studies along militaristic lines were given more importance than conventional education in the school system for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The number of religious schools (madrassas) educating Afghans rose from 2,500 in 1980 at the start of Afghan resistance to over 39,000. The United States encouraged the Saudis to recruit Wahhabist ideologues to come join the resistance and teach in refugee institutes.

While willing to contribute billions to the war effort, the United States was far less generous in providing refugees with funding for education and other basic needs, which was essentially outsourced to the Saudis and the ISI. Outside of some Western non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee, secular education was all but unavailable for the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. None of these projects could match the impact the generous funding for religious education and scholarships to Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. As a result, the only education that became available was religious indoctrination, primarily of the hard-line Wahhabi tradition. The generous funding of religious institutions during wartime made it the main attraction of free education, clothing, and boarding for poor refugee children. Out of these madrassas came the talibs (students), who later became the Taliban.

This was no accident. It seemed that such policies were intentionally initiated that way to drag young Afghans towards extremism and war, and to be well prepared not only to fight a war of liberation, but to fight the foes and rivals of foreigners at the expense of Afghan destruction and blood. And the indoctrination and resulting radicalization of Afghan youth that later formed the core of the Taliban wasn’t simply from outsourcing but was directly supported by the U.S. government as well, such as through textbooks issued by the U.S. Agency for International Development for refugee children between 1986 and 1992, which were designed to encourage such militancy.

Often mathematics and other basic subjects were sacrificed altogether in favor of full-time religious and indoctrination. Sardar Ghulam Nabi, an elementary school teacher in a Peshawar refugee camp, stated that he was discouraged by the school administration to teach Afghan history to Afghan refugee children, since most of the concentration and emphasis was placed on religious studies rather than other subjects.

This focus on a rigid religious indoctrination at the expense of other education is particularly ironic since, while the Afghans have tended to be devout and rather conservative Muslims, they hadn’t previously been inclined to embrace the kind of fanatic Wahhabi-influenced fundamentalism that dominated Islamic studies in the camps.

It seemed during the Afghan wars that no one cared and valued Afghan lives. Afghans became the subject of struggle between different rival and competing ideologies. The foreign backers of Afghanistan didn’t care about the impact and consequences of their policies for the future of Afghanistan. Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war, commented that “the United States was fighting the Soviets to the last Afghan.” According to Sonali Kolhatkar, in her book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories Press, 2006), some in the United States saw the Soviet invasion as a “gift.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, even claimed that the United States helped provoke the Soviet invasion by arming the mujahideen beforehand, noting how “we did not push the Russians to intervene but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” Once they did, he wrote to Carter, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”

Professor Hassan Kakar, a renowned Afghan historian formerly of Kabul University now exiled in California after spending time in a Afghan prison during the communist era, notes in his book how the competition between the Afghan left and right had been previously confined to a verbal debate, comparable to those taking place in intellectual and other politicized circles in other developing countries during the late Cold War period. With the invasion of Soviet troops and the U.S. backing of the mujahideen, however, it took the shape of direct armed conflict. The conflict evolved into open confrontation backed by the two Cold War rivals and other regional powers. Afghanistan was split and divided into different ideological groups, resulting in bloodshed, killing, destruction, suffering, and hatred among Afghans.

A whole generation of Afghan children grew up knowing nothing of life but bombings that destroyed their homes, killed their loved ones, and drove them to seek refuge over the borders. As a result, they became easy prey to those willing to raise them to hate and to fight. These children, caught in the midst of competing extremist ideologies from all sides, learned to kill each other and destroy their country for the interests of others.

Most Afghans with clear vision and strategic insight were deliberately marginalized by outside supporters of the Afghan radicalization process. Members of the Afghan intelligentsia who maintained their Afghan character in face of foreign ideologies and were therefore difficult to manipulate were threatened, eliminated, and in some cases forced into exile. One was Professor Sayed Bahauddin Majrooh, a renowned Afghan writer, poet, and visionary. Another was Aziz-ur-Rahman Ulfat, the author of Political Games, a book that criticized the politics of the U.S.-backed Afghan resistance movements based in Pakistan. Both were among the many who were assassinated as part of the effort to silence voices of reason and logic.

The Hezb-e-Islami faction, a relatively small group among the resistance to the Soviets and their Afghan allies, received at least 80% of U.S. aid. According to Professor Barnett Rubin’s testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, the militia — led by the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — conducted a “reign of terror against insufficiently Islamic intellectuals” in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Despite all this, Rubin further noted how “both the ISI and CIA considered him a useful tool for shaping the future of Central Asia.”

Assassinations of Afghan intellectuals deprived Afghan refugees of enlightened visionaries who would have represented the balanced Afghan character of religious faith, cultural traditions, and modern education. What these early victims of extremist violence had in common was opposition to the radicalization and hijacking of the Afghan struggle for purposes other than Afghan self-determination. The Afghan resistance to the Soviets was a nationalist uprising that included intellectuals, students, farmers, bureaucrats, and shopkeepers as well as people from all the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Their purpose was the liberation of their country, not the subjugation and radicalization of their society by bloodthirsty fanatics. Some Afghan field commanders with clear conscience and strategic insight also took a different approach than radical Afghan leaders supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who — with U.S. acquiescence — sought to replace hard-line communist puppets with hard-line Islamist puppets.

Abdul Haq

Among these was the legendary Afghan resistance leader Abdul Haq (Full disclosure: Haq was the uncle of Khushal Arsala, one of this article’s co-authors). He realized that the Afghans’ legitimate struggle for their independence and self-determination was being intentionally dragged towards fanatical indoctrination for the interests of others. In a letter to The New York Times he wrote:

We started our struggle with the full support and determination of our people and will continue regardless of the wishes or commands of others. We don’t want to be an American or Soviet puppet…I would like you to be with us as a friend, not as somebody pulling the strings. The struggle of our nation is for the establishment of a system that assures human rights, social justice and peace. This system does not threaten any nation.

Haq openly criticized the United States and its allies’ support for extremists among the resistance through the Pakistani government, warning U.S. officials of the dire consequences of such support for the radicalization of Afghan society through the support for extremists. In a 1994 interview with the Times, he warned that terrorists from all over the world were finding shelter in his increasingly chaotic country and that Afghanistan “is turning into poison and not only for us but for all others in the world. Maybe one day the Americans will have to send hundreds of thousands of troops to deal with it.” Noting that Afghanistan had been a graveyard for both the British and Russians, he expressed concerns that soon American soldiers could be flying home in body bags due to Washington’s support for extremists during the Afghan-Soviet War during the 1980s and then abandoning the country following the Communist government’s overthrow in 1992.

Preference for Extremists

In a 2006 interview on the PBS documentary “The Return of the Taliban,” U.S. Special Envoy to the Afghan Resistance Peter Tomsen observed how the leadership of the Pakistani army

wanted to favor Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with seventy percent of the American weapons coming into the country, but the ISI and army leadership’s game plan was to put Hekmatyar top down in Kabul, even though he was viewed by the great majority of Afghans — it probably exceeded 90 percent — of being a Pakistani puppet, as unacceptable as the Soviet puppets that were sitting in Kabul during the communist period. However, that was what the [Pakistani] generals wanted to create: a strategic Islamic [ally] with a pro-Pakistani Afghan in charge in Kabul.

Hekmatyar was extremely useful to Pakistan not only because he was rabidly anticommunist, but also because — unlike most other mujahideen leaders less favored by Washington — he wasn’t an Afghan nationalist, and was willing to support the agenda of hard-line Pakistani military and intelligence leaders. Pakistan’s support for radical Muslim domination has been in part for keeping the long-running territorial dispute with Afghanistan over Pashtun areas suppressed. Islamist radicals like Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and later the Taliban mullahs tended to de-emphasize state borders in favor of uniting with the Muslim Umma (community of believers) wherever it may be — in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Middle East, or Central Asia.

Many State Department officials were wary of U.S. support for Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly was quoted as saying that Hekmatyar “is a person who has vehemently attacked the United States on a number of issues…. I think he is a person with whom we do not need to have or should not have much trust.” However, even when the State Department — over CIA objections — succeeded in cutting back on U.S. support for Hezb-e-Islami, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia would then increase its aid and, with CIA assistance, recruited thousands of Arab volunteers to join the fight, including a young Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden.

The renowned journalist Ahmed Rashid stated in his book the Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia that

CIA chief William Casey committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujahideen. The ISI had encouraged this since 1982 and by now all the other players had their reasons for supporting the idea. President Zia aimed to cement Islamic unity, turn Pakistan into the leader of the Muslim world and foster an Islamic opposition in Central Asia. Washington wanted to demonstrate that the entire Muslim world was fighting the Soviets Union alongside the Afghans and their American benefactors. And the Saudis saw an opportunity both to promote Wahabbism and get rid of its disgruntled radicals…which would eventually turn their hatred against the Soviets on their own regimes and the Americans.

After having their country largely destroyed and its social fabric torn apart as pawns in a Cold War rivalry, the Soviets were finally forced out in 1989 and the communist regime was overthrown two years later.

While Hizb-e-Islami and other U.S. and Pakistani-backed groups weren’t truly representative of the Afghan people, they had become the best-armed as a result of their foreign support. Wanting power for themselves, they soon turned the capital city of Kabul into rubble as the remaining infrastructure surviving from the Soviet-Afghan war was destroyed by a senseless civil war.

Afghanistan became a failed state. In the three years following the fall of the Communist regime, at least 25,000 civilians were killed in Kabul by indiscriminate shelling by Hezb-e-Islami and other factions. There was no proper functioning government. Educational institutions, from elementary schools to university buildings, weren’t spared in the violence. Most of the teachers and students again joined refugees in the neighboring countries. The chaos and suffering created conditions such that when the Pakistani-backed Taliban emerged promising stability and order, they were welcomed in many parts of the country.

Once in power, the Taliban — made up of students from the same refugee religious institutions promoted and encouraged by the United States and its allies — shrouded Afghan society in the darkness of totalitarianism and illiteracy. They didn’t value modern scientific education. They barred girls from school. With the help of Arab recruits originally brought in with support of the United States to fight the Soviets, they destroyed Afghan cultural heritage and attempted to transform Afghanistan into a puritanical theocracy. Fanatics and criminals from all over the world found safe-haven in Afghanistan, thanks to the blunders made by U.S. policymakers who created, promoted, and encouraged fanaticism against the Soviet Union.

In October 2001, in an interview with Newsweek, Abdul Haq said:

Why are the Arabs here? The U.S. brought the Arabs to Pakistan and Afghanistan [during the Soviet war]. Washington gave them money, gave them training, and created 10 or 15 different fighting groups. The U.S. and Pakistan worked together. The minute the pro-Communist regime collapsed, the Americans walked away and didn’t even clean up their shit. They brought this problem to Afghanistan.

One week after this interview, Abdul Haq — an opponent of the 2001 U.S. intervention and one of the few Afghans capable of uniting his country under a nationalist banner — was captured by the Taliban and later executed. U.S. forces in the area ignored pleas for assistance to rescue him and his comrades while they were being pursued and in the period soon after their capture.

Afghans are still paying the price for the Taliban’s continued destruction in Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan. Taliban remnants are killing and threatening school staff members and burning down educational facilities. Their heinous crimes mean that the young minds needed to drag the country out from current miserable situation are being deprived of their desperately needed education. And, despite strong evidence of ongoing support for the Taliban by elements of the ISI and the Pakistani military, the Bush administration continued to send billions of dollars worth of arms and other support for the Musharraf dictatorship in Pakistan.

Implications for Today

The consequences of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan through the 1980s and 1990s played a major role in the Taliban’s rise and al-Qaeda’s subsequent sanctuary. The September 11 attacks brought the United States directly into battle in Afghanistan for the first time, and U.S. troops are to this day fighting the forces of former Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami allies.

The United States has made many errors during the more than eight years of fighting, but one of most dangerous was repeating the tragic mistake of placing short-term alliances ahead of the Afghanistan’s long-term stability. During the 1980s, the United States was so focused on defeating the Soviets and the Afghan communists that an alliance was made with Islamist extremists, who ended up contributing to the country’s destruction. In this decade, the United States has been so focused on defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda it’s made alliances with an assortment of drug lords, opium magnates, militia leaders, and other violent and corrupting elements which have contributed to the country’s devastation still further.

There’s no easy answer to Afghanistan’s ongoing tragic situation. Nor is the question of the most appropriate role the United States can now play after contributing so much to this tragedy.

What’s important, however, is recognizing that Afghanistan’s fate belongs to the people of Afghanistan. Indeed, any further efforts by the United States to play one faction off against the other for temporary political gain won’t only add to that country’s suffering but — as we became tragically aware on a September morning eight years ago — could some day bring the violence home to American shores.

Sharp Attack Unwarranted

Gene Sharp, an 80-year-old scholar of strategic nonviolent action and veteran of radical pacifist causes, is under attack by a number of foreign governments that claim that he and his small research institute are key players in a Bush administration plot against them.

Though there is no truth to these charges, several leftist web sites and publications have been repeating such claims as fact. This raises disturbing questions regarding the ability of progressives challenging Bush foreign policy to distinguish between the very real manifestations of U.S. imperialism and conspiratorial fantasies.

Gene Sharp’s personal history demonstrates the bizarre nature of these charges. He spent two years in prison for draft resistance against the Korean War, was arrested in the early civil rights sit-ins, was an editor of the radical pacifist journal Peace News, and was the personal assistant to the leftist labor organizer A.J. Muste. He named his institute after Albert Einstein, who is not only remembered as the greatest scientist of the 20th century but was also a well-known socialist and pacifist.

Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983, dedicated to advancing the study and utilization of nonviolent conflict in defense of freedom, justice, and democracy. Long considered the foremost authority in his field, Sharp has inspired generations of progressive peace, labor, feminist, environmental, and social justice activists in the United States and around the world. In the past few decades, as nonviolent pro-democracy movements have played the decisive role in ending authoritarian rule in such countries as the Philippines, Chile, Madagascar, Poland, Mongolia, Bolivia and Serbia, interest among peace and justice activists has grown in his research and the work of other scholars studying strategic nonviolent action.

Fabricated Allegations

Unfortunately, however, as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s open advocacy for “regime change,” any American group or individual who provides educational resources on strategic nonviolence to civil society organizations or human rights activists in foreign countries has suddenly become suspect of being an agent of U.S. imperialism – even Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.

For example, in February Iranian government television informed viewers that Gene Sharp was “one of the CIA agents in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries.” It included a computer-animated sequence of him and John McCain in a White House conference room plotting the overthrow of the Iranian regime. In reality, Sharp has never worked with the CIA, has never met Senator McCain, and has never even been to the White House. Government spokespeople and supporters of autocratic regimes in Burma, Zimbabwe, and Belarus have also blamed Sharp for being behind dissident movements in their countries as well.

Ironically, some on the left have picked up and expanded on these charges. For example, in an article about the Bush administration promoting “soft coups” against foreign governments it doesn’t like, Jonathan Mowat claims that “The main handler of these coups on the ‘street side’ has been the Albert Einstein Institution,” which he says is funded by Hungarian-American financier George Soros. Venezuelan-American attorney Eva Golinger, meanwhile, claimed that “Peter Ackerman, a multimillionaire banker had sponsored ‘regime changes’ in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia through the Albert Einstein Institute.” Tony Logan insists that AEI “is a U.S. government run operation designed to link Gandhian methods of nonviolent protest to Pentagon and U,S, State Department efforts to overthrow foreign governments.” In a similar vein, Counterpunch readers were recently informed that the Albert Einstein Institution plays “a central role in a new generation of warfare, one which has incorporated the heroic examples of past nonviolent resistance into a strategy of obfuscation and misdirection that does the work of empire.”

Absolutely none of these claims is true. Yet such articles have been widely circulated on progressive websites and list serves. Such false allegations have even ended up as part of entries on the Albert Einstein Institution in SourceWatch, Wikipedia, and other reference web sites.

The international press has occasionally echoed some of these bogus claims as well. For example, a commentary published in the Asia Times last fall accused Sharp of being the “concert-master” for the Saffron Revolution in Burma, claiming that the Albert Einstein Institution is funded by an arm of the U.S. government “to foster U.S.-friendly regime change in key spots around the world” and that its staff includes “known CIA operatives.” Though these charges were utterly false, the article was then widely circulated on a number of progressive list serves, including such academic networks as the Peace and Justice Studies Association.

Implicit in such charges is that Burmese monks and other pro-democracy activists in that country are unable to initiate such actions themselves and their decision to take to the streets last fall in mass protests against their country’s repressive military junta came about because an octogenarian academic in Boston had somehow put them up to it. One Burmese human rights activist, referring to his country’s centuries-old tradition of popular resistance, noted how the very idea of an outsider having to orchestrate the Burmese people to engage in a nonviolent action campaign is like “teaching grandma to peel onions.” (The Asia Times article also tried to connect Sharp to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China and another article from the Straits Times in Singapore even places Sharp and AEI behind the recent uprising in Tibet.)

This racist attitude that the peoples of non-Western societies are incapable of deciding on their own to resist illegitimate authority without some Western scholar telling them to do so has been most dramatically highlighted by French Marxist Thierry Meyssan. In his article “The Albert Einstein Institution: non-violence according to the CIA,” he insists that Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution were personally responsible for the 1991 Lithuanian independence struggle against the Soviet Union; the 2000 student-led pro-democracy movement that ousted Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia; the 2003 Rose Revolution that forced out Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze; and, the 2004 Orange Revolution that forced the revote on the rigged national election in Ukraine. He also credits (or, more accurately, blames) Gene Sharp for personally playing a key role in uniting the Tibetan opposition under the Dalai Lama, as well as forming the Burmese Democratic Alliance, the Taiwanese Progressive Democratic Party, and a dissident wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization that Sharp supposedly trained secretly in the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

The failure of people power movements to succeed in some other cases was not, according to Meyssan, due to weaknesses within the movement or strengths in the state apparatus. Says Meyssan, “Gene Sharp failed in Belarus and Zimbabwe for he could not recruit and train in the proper time the necessary amount of demonstrators.”

Despite the absurdity of these claims and the attribution of seemingly superhuman capabilities to this mild-mannered intellectual, Meyssan’s article has been repeatedly cited on progressive web sites and list serves, feeding the arrogance of Western leftists who deny the capability of Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans to organize mass actions themselves.

The Real Story

The office of the Albert Einstein Institution – which supposedly plays such a “central role” in American imperialism –is actually a tiny, cluttered space in the downstairs of Gene Sharp’s home, located in a small row house in a working class neighborhood in East Boston. The staff consists of just two employees, Sharp and a young administrator.

Rather than receiving lucrative financial support from the U.S. government or wealthy financiers, the Albert Einstein Institution is almost exclusively funded by individual small donors and foundation grants. It operates on a budget of less than $160,000 annually.

Also contrary to the slew of recent charges posted on the Internet, the Albert Einstein Institution has never funded activist groups to subvert foreign governments, nor would it have had the financial means to do so. Furthermore, AEI does not initiate contact with any individual or organizations; those interested in the group’s educational materials come to them first.

Nor have these critics ever presented any evidence that Sharp or the Albert Einstein Institution has ever been requested, encouraged, advised, or received suggestions by any branch of the US government to do or not do any research, analysis, policy studies, or educational activity, much less engage in active subversion of foreign governments. And, given the lack of respect the U.S. government has traditionally had for nonviolence or for the power of popular movements to create change, it is not surprising that these critics haven’t found any.

The longstanding policy of the Albert Einstein Institution, given its limited funding and the reality of living in an imperfect world, is to be open to accepting funds from organizations that have received some funding from government sources “as long as there is no dictation or control of the purpose of our work, individual projects, or of the dissemination of the gained knowledge.” Well prior to the Bush administration coming to office, AEI received a couple of small grants from the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) to translate some of Gene Sharp’s theoretical writings. Nearly forty years ago (and fifteen years prior to AEI’s founding), Sharp received partial research funding for his doctoral dissertation from Harvard Professor Thomas Schelling, who had received support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense to fund doctoral students.

Though these constitute the only financial support Gene Sharp or the Albert Einstein Institution has ever received, even indirectly, from government sources, critics have jumped on these tenuous links to allege that AEI is “funded by the U.S. government.”

Progressive Connections

A look at the five members of the Albert Einstein Institution’s board shows that none of them is a supporter or apologist for U.S. imperialism. In addition to Sharp himself, the board consists of: human rights lawyer Elizabeth Defeis; disability rights and environmental activist Cornelia Sargent; senior deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA Curt Goering; and, veteran civil rights and anti-war activist Mary King, author of a recent highly acclaimed book that gives a sympathetic portrayal of the first – and largely nonviolent – Palestinian Intifada.

During the 1980s, Gene Sharp’s staff included radical sociologist Bob Irwin and Greg Bates, who went on to become the co-founder and publisher of the progressive Common Courage Press.

Some years ago, when the institute had a larger budget, one of their principal activities was to support research projects in strategic nonviolent action. Recipients included such left-leaning scholars and activists as Palestinian feminist Souad Dajani, Rutgers sociologist Kurt Schock, Israeli human rights activist Edy Kaufman, Kent State Peace Studies professor Patrick Coy, Nigerian human rights activist Uche Ewelukwa, and Paul Routledge of the University of Glasgow, all of whom have been outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy.

For decades, the work of Gene Sharp has influenced such radical U.S. groups as Movement for a New Society, the Clamshell Alliance, the Abalone Alliance, Training for Change and other activist organizations that have promoted nonviolent direct action as a key component of their activism.

Sharp and AEI have also worked closely in recent years with pro-democracy activists battling U.S.-backed dictatorships in such countries as Egypt and Equatorial Guinea as well as with Palestinians resisting the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, hardly “the work of empire” designed “to foster US-friendly regime change” as critics claim.

The Case of Venezuela

As part of an effort to challenge the longstanding stereotype of nonviolent action being the exclusive province of radical pacifists, Dr. Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution have taken a “transpartisan” position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and makes their educational resources available to essentially anyone.

Not surprisingly, a small minority of those who have taken advantage of such resources have been those whose commitment to justice and equality is questionable, including some members of Venezuelan opposition groups.

This ideological indifference on the part of Sharp and his institution has been troubling for many of us on the left, but it certainly does not constitute evidence that they are part of a U.S.-funded conspiracy to overthrow foreign governments around the world to advance U.S. imperialism and capitalist hegemony. Indeed, their consulting policy explicitly prohibits them from taking part in any political action, participating in strategic decision-making with any group, or taking sides in any conflict. None of the institute’s critics has been able to provide evidence of a single violation of this policy.

Nevertheless, in her book Bush vs. Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, author Eva Golinger falsely claims that the Albert Einstein Institution has developed a plan to overthrow that country’s democratically elected government through training right-wing paramilitaries to use “widespread civil disobedience and violence throughout the nation” in order to “provoke repressive reactions by the state that would then justify crises of human right violations and lack of constitutional order.” Similarly, in a recent article, Golinger has gone so far as to claim that Gene Sharp has written “a big destabilization plan aiming to overthrow Chavez government and to pave the way for an international intervention” including sabotage and street violence. Neither Golinger nor anyone else has been able to produce a copy of this supposed plan, instead simply citing Sharp’s book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, written over 35 years ago, in which he outlines close to 200 exclusively nonviolent tactics that have been used historically, but includes no destabilization plan aimed at Venezuela or any other country.

In addition, Meyssan, in an article posted in Venezuela Analysis, insisted that “Gene Sharp and his team led the leaders of [the opposition group] Súmate during the demonstrations of August 2004.” In reality, neither Sharp nor anybody else affiliated with the Albert Einstein Institution even took part in – much less led – those demonstrations. Nor were any of them anywhere near Venezuela during that period. Nor were any of them in contact with the leaders of that demonstration.

In another article, recently posted on the Counterpunch web site, George Cicariello-Miller falsely accuses Sharp of having links with right-wing assassins and terrorists and offering training “toward the formulation of what was called ‘Operation Guarimba,’ a series of often-violent street blockades that resulted in several deaths.” Cicariello-Miller’s only evidence of Sharp’s alleged role in masterminding this operation was that a right-wing Venezuelan opposition leader had once met with Sharp in Boston and that a photo of a stylized clinched fist found in some AEI literature (taken from a student-led protest movement in Serbia eight years ago) matched those on some signs carried by anti-Chavez protesters in Venezuela.

It appears that no one who has written any of these articles or who has made such claims has ever actually attended any of the lectures, workshops, or informal meetings by Gene Sharp or others affiliated with the Albert Einstein Institution or has even bothered to interview anyone who has. If they had done so, they would quickly find that these presentations tend to be rather dry lectures which focus on the nature of power, the dynamics of nonviolent struggle, and examples of tactics used in nonviolent resistance campaigns historically. They do not instruct anybody or give specific advice about what to do in their particular situation other than to encourage activists to avoid all forms of violence.

Finally, even if one were to assume that the Albert Einstein Institution’s underfunded two-person outfit was indeed closely involved in training the Venezuelan opposition in tactics of nonviolent resistance, Chavez would have little to worry about. No government that had the support of the majority of its people has ever been overthrown through a nonviolent civil resistance movement. Every government deposed through a primarily nonviolent struggle – such as in the Philippines, Chile, Bolivia, Madagascar, Nepal, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia, Serbia, Mali, Ukraine, and elsewhere – had already lost popular support. This is not the case with Venezuela. While Chavez’ progressive economic policies have angered the old elites, he still maintains the support of the majority of the population, particularly when compared to the alternative of returning to the old elite-dominated political system.

Unfortunately, Chavez himself was apparently convinced by these conspiracy theorists that Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution really were part of a CIA-backed conspiracy against him, claiming last June that “they are the ideologues of the soft coup and it seems like they’re here [in Venezuela.] They are laying out the slow fuse … they’ll continue laying it out [with] marches, events, trying to create an explosion.” In reality, no one affiliated with AEI was in Venezuela nor were they organizing marches, events, or any other activity, much less trying to create an “explosion.”

In response, Sharp wrote a letter to President Chavez explaining the inaccuracy of the Venezuelan leader’s charges against him and expressing his concern that “for those persons who are familiar with my life and work and that of the Albert Einstein Institution, these inaccuracies, unless corrected, will cast doubts on your credibility.” He also offered Chavez a copy of his book The Anti-Coup, which includes concrete steps on how a threatened government can mobilize the population to prevent a successful coup d’etat, hardly the kind of offer made by someone conspiring with the CIA to overthrow him.

With the U.S. corporate media and members of Congress refusing to challenge the very real efforts by the Bush administration to subvert and undermine Chavez’s government, the credibility of those of us attempting to expose such genuine imperialistic intrigues are being compromised by these bizarre conspiracy theories involving Gene Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institution, and related individuals and NGOs. Golinger’s books and articles, for example, bring to light some very real and very dangerous efforts by the U.S. government and U.S.-funded agencies. It is hard for many people to take her real accusations seriously, however, in the face of her simultaneously putting forward such blatant falsehoods about Gene Sharp and his institute.

Why Such Bizarre Attacks?

There is a long, sordid history of covert U.S. support for foreign political parties, military cliques, and individual leaders, as well as related activities that have resulted in the overthrow of elected governments. And there are the very real ongoing efforts by such U.S. government-funded entities as the NED and IRI which, in the name of “democracy promotion,” provide financial and logistical support for groups working against governments the United States opposes. Given these very real manifestations of U.S. imperialism, why have some people insisted on going after an aging scholar whose worst crime may be that he is not being discriminating enough regarding with whom he shares his research?

One reason is that some critics of Sharp subscribe to the same realpolitik myth that sees local struggles and mass movements as simply manifestations of great power politics, just as the right once tried to portray the popular leftist uprisings in Central America and elsewhere simply as creations of the Soviet Union. Another factor is that many of the originators of the conspiracy theories regarding Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution are Marxist-Leninists who have traditionally downplayed the power of nonviolence and insisted that meaningful political change can only come about through manipulation by powerful external actors or privileged elites.

This is reinforced by the fact that many supporters of U.S. imperialism – particularly the neo-conservatives – share this vanguard mentality with Marxist-Leninists. As a result, the right has given the United States unjustifiable credit for many of the dramatic transitions from dictatorships to democracies which have taken place around the world in recent decades. This, in turn, has led some on the left to see such ahistorical polemics as “proof” of the central U.S. role because the imperialists are “admitting it.”

The attempts to discredit Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution – as well as similar charges against the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) – appear to be part of an effort by both the right and the far left to delegitimize the power of individuals to make change and to portray the United States – for good or for ill – as the only power that can make a difference in the world. (For a detailed analysis of the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and popular democratic movements, see my article on the United States, nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles.)

It is therefore troubling that so many progressive sources of information have transmitted such falsehoods so widely and that so many people have come to believe them, particularly given the transparent lack of any solid evidence to back their accusations. The minority of these articles that actually have citations, for example, simply quote long-discredited sources such as Meyssan and Golinger. In a mirror-image of the right-wing’s blind acceptance of false stories about Barack Obama’s embrace of militant Islam, Michelle Obama’s anti-white rhetoric, and Nancy Pelosi’s punitive tax plan against retirees, some on the left all too easily believe what they read on the Internet. The widespread acceptance of these false charges against Gene Sharp and others raises concerns as to how many other fabricated pseudo-conspiracies are out there that distract progressive activists from challenging all-too-real abuses by the U.S. government and giant corporations.

One consequence of these attacks has been that a number of progressive grass roots organizations in foreign countries have now become hesitant to take advantage of the educational resources on strategic nonviolent action provided by the Albert Einstein Institution and related groups. As a result of fears that they may be linked to the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, important campaigns for human rights, the environment, and economic justice have been denied access to tools that could have strengthened their impact. Furthermore, these disinformation campaigns have damaged the reputation of a number of prominent anti-imperialist activists and scholars who have worked with such groups by wrongly linking them to U.S. interventionism.

Fortunately, there is now an effort underway to fight back. Activists from groups ranging from the Fellowship of Reconciliation to Code Pink to the Brown Berets – as well as such radical scholars as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Paul Ortiz – are signing onto an open letter in support of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.

The United States, Israel, and the Possible Attack on Iran

[August 28, 2006: Download PDF] With even mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post and The New Yorker publishing credible stories that the United States is seriously planning a military attack on Iran, increasing numbers of Americans are expressing concerns about the consequences of the United States launching another war that would once again place the United States in direct contravention of international law. The latest National Security Strategy document published earlier this year labeled Iran as the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country. This should be an indication of just how safe the United States is in the post-Cold War world, where the “most serious challenge” is no longer a rival superpower… [Download Full PDF]

Overview of Self-Determination Issues in the Middle East

As in much of the third world, many of the national boundaries of the Middle East and North Africa are artificial creations of the colonial era. Because most of the region’s inhabitants are Muslim Arabs and thanks to relatively high tolerance levels for minorities in traditional Islamic societies, the denial of self-determination has not been as widespread as in many parts of the world. Still, disputes in the Middle East involving people struggling for the right of self-determination remain some of the most dangerous and intractable conflicts in the world today.

The Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Middle East for nearly five centuries. Religious minorities were granted a high level of self-governance, including their own court systems. In some of the farther reaches of the empire, the Ottoman presence was little more than a customs house, so traditional patterns of self-governance remained, despite nominal Ottoman rule. The decline of the empire resulted more from its own internal weaknesses and from pressures by Western powers than from demands by Arab nationalists and others for self-determination.

Partly as a result, the Middle East has historically experienced less ethnic strife than many parts of the world. For example, for centuries, Jews faced far less overt persecution in the Arab Islamic world than in the European Christian world. Displaced minorities from just beyond the region, suppressed in their struggles for self-determination—such as Armenians and Circassians—often found refuge in the Arab Middle East. Meanwhile, non-Arab or non-Muslim minorities indigenous to the Middle East, such as the Berbers of the Maghreb and the Maronite Christians and Druzes of the Levant, were often able to create their own sanctuaries in mountainous regions.

Arab Self-Determination

Arab nationalism, from its origins in the late 19th century through today, has been based on the ideal that true self-determination can come only through Arab unity. This has been a decidedly secular vision that has included both Muslims and Christians. The individual Arab nation-states were perceived as attempts by Western colonial powers to divide and rule. Several Pan-Arabist endeavors, such as the Baath movement, surfaced during the twentieth century in pursuit of the goal of one united Arab nation-state. Pan-Arabism reached its zenith between the mid-1950s and early 1970s under the leadership of Gamal Abdul-Nasser of Egypt. Nasser created the United Arab Republic, which joined Egypt and Syria into one country in 1957. Perceived Egyptian domination led Syria to withdraw within a few years. Subsequent attempts by Nasser, and later by Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, to unify their countries with various Arab neighbors also failed to materialize.

Many Arabs felt Nasser’s megalomania may have compromised his vision, yet he remains an icon for many in the region who are bitter at the division of what is still widely viewed as the once-unified Arab nation. Israel and the West have been openly fearful of such Arab unity and have been accused of undermining Arab leaders and popular movements that support Pan-Arabism, which many still see as the most authentic form of Arab self-determination. Indeed, Israel and some Western powers have used their influence not just to maintain the division of the Arab world into the current states carved out by the old colonial administrations but also to encourage subnationalist movements—such as the Maronite Christians in Lebanon—to form their own de facto statelets in an effort to subdivide the Arab world still further.

Though strong Arab identity has been promoted as a progressive act of self-determination against colonialism and its agents in the region, Arabism has often run counter to the interests of non-Arab minorities. The Berber peoples of Morocco and Algeria have had to resist the Arabization of their language, culture, and school curricula; occasional violent clashes continue in Algeria to this day. In southern Algeria, the Tuaregs and other non-Arab nomadic tribes have periodically launched armed revolts against overly centralized control by Algiers. The once-tolerant attitude toward the region’s large Jewish community was dramatically reversed in reaction to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 in what was seen as the Arab heartland; the vast majority of Middle Eastern Jews emigrated—under varying degrees of duress—in subsequent years, most ending up in Israel.


The vacuum created by the failure of Pan-Arabism occasioned the rise of Pan-Islamic movements in the Middle East. Though some of these movements have constrained non-Muslim populations, such as the six-million-strong Coptic Christian community in Egypt, their emphasis on religious solidarity over ethnic divisions has actually eased pressure on certain Muslim ethnic minorities. Nonetheless, there have been splits within Islam that have raised serious issues affecting self-determination.

There has been some opposition, for example, by Shi’ite populations in Kuwait, Yemen, and northeastern Saudi Arabia resisting domination by Sunni Muslims. Shiites are actually the majority of the Arab populations of Sunni-ruled Iraq and Bahrain. Their demands for greater autonomy—or even simply greater democracy—have been severely repressed. In Iraq, an armed uprising by Shi’ite Muslims in March 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War succeeded in temporarily forcing out Iraqi government troops, yet the rebellion was soon crushed, with the apparent acquiescence of the victorious Gulf War allies. The United States and Great Britain have imposed a no-fly zone in the south, ostensibly to protect the civilian population from government air strikes, though Western countries strongly oppose any independent Shi’ite state in southern Iraq. Severe repression by the Iraqi government, including the forced dislocation of the “marsh Arabs” by drying up their wetlands, continues.

In Bahrain, the Shi’ite majority has long been restive toward the Sunni monarchy, which has cracked down on demands for a more representative system. In this island sheikdom, as elsewhere in the region, the ruling elites and their American allies fear Iranian interference. Although Iran, particularly in the years immediately following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, did support dissident Shi’ite groups in Bahrain and other countries, U.S. charges of Iranian subversion have often been exaggerated in an effort to distract attention from legitimate internal grievances by the Shi’ite population against Washington’s autocratic Sunni allies.

The Triumph of the Nation-State

Ironically, the nation-state proved surprisingly resilient during the Iran-Iraq War. In the earlier phase of the war, when Iraq occupied parts of western Iran, the invading Iraqis hoped that the region’s ethnic Arabs would side with Iraq’s Arab government. Similarly, later in the war when Iran occupied parts of southeastern Iraq, there were hopes that the Shi’ite Arabs would side with their co-religionists in Teheran. Both peoples, however, tended to remain loyal to their respective governments in the face of foreign invaders.

Another example of nationalist loyalty is seen among the Druzes of the Levant, who practice an offshoot of Islam. The Druzes in Lebanon have been leaders in the nationalist resistance to foreign domination of their country. The Druzes in both Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have strongly identified with Syrians. And the Druzes in Israel have largely remained loyal to the Jewish state and are the only Muslim people allowed in the Israeli armed forces.

As in many parts of the world, popular consciousness and support of a national identity in the Middle East has been surprisingly strong, no matter how recent or artificial the modern nation-state might be. Jordan, for example, was carved out of the Syrian desert by the British to appease an Arabian tribal chief who had sided with the allies in World War I by giving him a country to rule. Yet the Arabs of this colonially imposed entity have embraced their Jordanian identity strongly, in part as a response to the influx of Palestinian refugees expelled during the creation of Israel in 1948, who—along with their descendants—now form the majority of Jordan’s inhabitants. The close family and historical linkages between Jordanians and Palestinians have afforded the refugees far greater incorporation into Jordanian society than has occurred in other Arab states with Palestinian refugee populations, yet the Jordanian monarchy has cracked down quite decisively against Palestinian nationalist aspirations when they were perceived to threaten the throne and its pro-Western orientation. Such repression occurred, for example, during a bloody civil war in 1970-71.

Israeli-occupied Territories

The most contentious area of self-determination in the Middle East involves the Palestinian Arabs, whose denial of national rights came as a direct result of the creation of the state of Israel. Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, grew out of the desire for national self-determination by Jews, who had been living in a diaspora for centuries. However, since the Zionist movement was backed by Western powers and had originally been an almost exclusively European movement, many Arabs viewed Israel not as a legitimate manifestation of self-determination, but as a colonial-settler state.

A 1947 UN plan that would have partitioned Palestine in half, granting both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs their own states, resulted in a war that led to Israeli control of 78% of the country. The remaining Palestinian areas, which became known as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, came under Jordanian and Egyptian control. The majority of the Palestinian population of Israel was expelled and remain refugees to this day, often being used as political pawns by various Arab regimes. Israel seized the remaining Arab areas of Palestine in the 1967 war.

Although long-determined to reclaim all of historical Palestine, in more recent years the Palestinian leadership has simply demanded statehood for the 22% of Palestine outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders. However, Israel—with U.S. approval—has offered the Palestinians only part of that land in a patchwork arrangement amid large Israeli settlements and military outposts. Furthermore, the U.S. and Israel refuse to recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Although international legal conventions and a series of UN Security Council resolutions support Palestinian claims for a full Israeli withdrawal and repatriation of refugees, strong U.S. support of Israel and a corrupt and inept Palestinian leadership have resulted in a violent stalemate. An autonomous Palestinian Authority currently controls many of the urban areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, though Palestinian-Israeli fighting has been ongoing since September 2000, amid severe repression by Israeli occupation forces.

In the Golan Heights, the southwestern corner of Syria occupied by Israel since 1967, most of the Arab population was forcibly expelled at the end of the war. However, the Druzes—many of whom are separated from family members—have engaged in periodic nonviolent resistance against Israeli occupation forces and demand to be reunited with Syria. Neither Israel nor the United States—the principal broker in the Israeli-Syrian peace talks—considers the Druzes’ desire for self-determination to be a relevant factor in the negotiations.


The Kurds are the world’s largest national ethnic group without its own state. More than twenty million Kurds—who constitute the majority of the population in southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, the far northeastern corner of Syria, and the far northwestern corner of Iran—have been denied basic political rights and, in the case of Turkey, even basic cultural rights. The divisions within the Kurdish nationalist movement have been exacerbated by the manipulation of outside powers. In Turkey, which hosts the largest Kurdish population, the U.S.-backed Turkish military—until a recent cease-fire—has engaged in severe repression against Kurdish nationalists. A radical nationalist guerilla group known as the PKK has suspended its armed struggle and has been negotiating a cease-fire and greater cultural and political rights. Despite the desire of many Turkish Kurds for an independent state, most Kurds are now scattered throughout the country to such a degree that carving out a separate Kurdish entity would be highly problematic.

The Kurds of Iraq constitute the largest percentage of the population of any Kurdish-populated country and were subject to severe repression, including widespread massacres and forced relocation by the Iraqi government, particularly in the late 1980s. Over the past ten years, autonomy for part of Iraqi Kurdistan has been preserved through an internationally enforced safe haven, established in response to an Iraqi crackdown on an almost-successful Kurdish uprising in March 1991. Internal divisions, along with efforts by the United States and other countries to use the Kurds in their fight against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, have weakened the Kurdish movement for autonomy or independence.

Other Conflicts

Lebanon’s unique experiment in maintaining the distinct identity of its diverse ethnic and religious communities ended in a disastrous civil war from 1975 to 1990. Rather than encouraging political pluralism and authentic self-determination, the representation system imposed by the departing French colonialists created competing fiefdoms between the elites of each community and with effective domination by the Maronite minority. Foreign powers—including Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, France, and the United States as well as the exiled Palestinian community within Lebanon—manipulated these divisions in an attempt to advance their own interests. Such foreign meddling included full-scale invasions by Syria in 1976 and Israel in 1982 as well as U.S. military intervention on the side of a right-wing Maronite government in 1983-84. Israel maintained a violent occupation of southern Lebanon until 2000. Syrian forces today remain in Lebanon, exerting strong influence on the policies of the Lebanese government, resulting in growing demands for greater self-determination by Lebanese from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Syrians justify their role by explaining that Lebanon was carved out of Syria by the French in an effort to take advantage of the country’s potentially Francophile minorities.

In Iran, the dominant Persians are actually outnumbered by non-Persian peoples, which include Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs. Attempts at the creation of Azeri and Kurdish vassal states by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II were aborted at U.S. insistence. Resentment at Persian domination and theocratic rule from Teheran persists, though—except for the Kurds—there are currently no major movements for self-determination.

The peoples of the country of Western Sahara have been battling for self-determination for over thirty years, initially against Spanish colonialists and, since Morocco’s 1975 invasion, against Moroccan occupation forces. Backed by France and the United States, Morocco has refused to proceed with a UN-mandated referendum on the fate of the territory, fearing the likely vote in favor of independence. The Sahrawis, through the Algerian-supported Polisario Front, engaged in a guerilla war against the Moroccans until a cease-fire was declared in 1991. Most Sahrawis live in Polisario-controlled refugee camps in western Algeria. Meanwhile, Morocco has colonized Western Sahara with tens of thousands of its own citizens. As with Palestine, the right of self-determination has been blocked partly because the occupying power has powerful friends and partly because the occupying power has colonized the territory with its own citizens in violation of international law.

The artificiality of colonial boundaries is particularly pronounced in peripheral areas of the Middle East, as exemplified by the extreme tensions and violence in the states of the Sahel: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and—most tragically—Sudan. In these countries, the Muslim Arab peoples of the north have often fought with the black peoples of the south, many of whom are non-Muslim. In Mauritania and Sudan, incidents of slavery are not uncommon to this day. Discrimination and repression against black Christians and animists in the south by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government have varied in severity during the nearly fifty years of that country’s independence, with civil wars raging periodically for greater southern autonomy or independence. The repression by Khartoum’s extremist Islamic military government in recent years has been particularly severe, and pro-independence rebel groups control much of the southern part of the country. The death toll in Sudan from war and war-related shortages of food and medicine has reached the hundreds of thousands.


Much of the ongoing violence in the Middle East is related to aborted struggles for self-determination and is rooted in the colonial legacy. These conflicts are exacerbated by Western powers taking advantage of ethnic and cultural divisions to maintain their influence in the region. Indeed, the region’s ongoing strategic importance and its role as the world’s largest consumer of Western arms exports magnify even local and regional struggles to international importance.

Even though the Gulf War was fought ostensibly in the name of self-determination—freeing Kuwait from its Iraqi occupiers—few people in the region believe that the United States and its allies actually fought the war primarily for such an ideal. If the United States is truly interested in promoting peace, Washington must suspend military and economic aid to regimes that deny self-determination to captive peoples, and the Bush administration must pursue arms control for the region. The United States should encourage enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions not just regarding adversaries but allies as well. Peace negotiations should be facilitated by the United Nations, or another party without strong strategic and economic interests in the region, based on the recognition that self-determination is a fundamental right. Otherwise, the continued denial of self-determination for Palestinians, Kurds, and others will spark further violence that could engulf the entire region.