A “Progressive Hero?” Time to Think Outside of the Boxer

The failure of progressives to make major inroads in electoral politics in the United States today could not be better illustrated than a recent decision by Democracy for America, a million-member political action committee founded by former Vermont governor Howard Dean which claims leadership in the support for progressive candidates for office, regarding a veteran U.S. senator facing reelection in November.

The senator has strongly defended Israeli attacks on civilian population centers in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Lebanon and has categorically rejected calls for linking the billions of dollars in U.S. aid to human rights considerations. The senator has attacked reputable human rights organizations and leading international jurists for daring to document war crimes committed by Israeli forces (in addition to those committed by militant Islamists.) The senator has openly challenged the International Court of Justice on the universality of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, co-sponsoring a Senate resolution attacking the World Court’s landmark 2004 decision. The senator has led the effort in the Senate to undermine President Obama’s efforts to halt the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, insisting that Obama refrain from openly challenging Israel’s right-wing government to suspend its illegal colonization drive. The senator has attacked supporters of nuclear nonproliferation for calling on Israel to join virtually every other country in the world in signing the NPT. The senator has endorsed Israel’s illegal annexation of greater East Jerusalem and expansion of settlements in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, as well as Israel’s construction of a separation barrier deep inside the occupied West Bank to facilitate their annexation into Israel and virtually eliminate the possibility of the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. The senator defended Israel’s illegal attack in international waters of a humanitarian aid flotilla, even after a United Nations investigation revealed that five people on board, including a 19-year old U.S. citizen, were murdered execution-style. Indeed, this senator has consistently sided with Israel’s right wing government against those in both the United States and Israel working for peace and human rights.

How did Democracy for America respond to the senator’s reelection campaign? Not only did they give her their enthusiastic endorsement, they gave her the coveted honor of “Progressive Hero of 2010.” The senator, Barbara Boxer of California, has for years angered progressives here by her strident position in support of some of the most militaristic tendencies in Israel.

There was a time — such as during the Vietnam War or during U.S. military intervention in Central America in the 1980s and the Vietnam War earlier — that such callous disregard for human rights and international law would have exempted a member of Congress from ever getting an endorsement from a major progressive organization, much less such an exemplary designation, however progressive their domestic agenda may have been. For example, during their long Senate careers, Democratic senators like Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson took leadership on such progressive causes as civil rights, labor, and the environment, but they were widely despised among grassroots Democrats for their outspoken support for the Vietnam War.

Indeed, imagine if, during the 1980s, Barbara Boxer had taken positions on Central America comparable to her current positions in the Middle East: supporting billions of dollars worth of unconditional military aid to the rightist Salvadoran junta and the Nicaraguan Contras; attacking Amnesty International and the United Nations for documenting human rights abuses by these U.S. allies; attacking the World Court for its ruling against the U.S. war on Nicaragua; or, defending the murder of humanitarian aid workers by U.S.-backed force. Democrats who did support the Reagan administration’s policies — who became known as “Death Squad Democrats” — were subjected to widespread protests by their constituents and were challenged by progressives in the primaries and by progressive third party opponents in general elections.

Nowadays, however, so-called “progressive” organizations like Democracy for America seem to care little about the fate of people of color in faraway lands. There simply isn’t much concern if an influential senator on the foreign relations committee defends those who use white phosphorous, cluster munitions and other illegal weapons against civilian neighborhoods and defames conscientious supporters of human rights who speak up for the rights of non-combatants. For groups like Democracy for America, support for the international legal conventions which arose from the ashes of World War II are apparently not that important.

U.S. policy toward Israel and its neighbors has traditionally been a weak spot for many otherwise liberal senators. Indeed, Russ Feingold, Patty Murray, Harry Reid, and a number of other Democrats facing tough reelection fights this year have, like Boxer, alienated many in the peace and human rights community by their support for the militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. According to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli occupation and other groups opposing U.S. support for Israel’s rightist government, however, Boxer is tied with lame duck Senator Evan Bayh as having the most right-wing record of any Democrat in the Senate. Even more significantly, only about a half dozen Republicans are as bad as Boxer; none are worse.

And she does not embrace such a hard-line militarist position due to pressure from her ethnically diverse and relatively liberal California constituency. While an overwhelming majority of Democrats still strongly support Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, there is growing unease at unconditional support for Israeli policies which have violated international legal norms, jeopardized the peace process and resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of innocent civilians. Polls show most Democrats — including Jewish Democrats — oppose the hard-line Netanyahu government’s policies (a trend particularly strong among younger voters), while most Americans who support the current right-wing Israeli leadership are voting Republican anyway.

Indeed, just as the Iraq War made it easier for Democratic voters to recognize that one can be a patriotic American and still oppose the United States invading and occupying an Arab nation, it is also increasingly clear that one can oppose similar Israeli policies and still support the state of Israel. There is also a growing awareness that just as such militaristic U.S. policies have hurt our strategic interests in the region, similar Israeli policies are threatening that country’s legitimate security needs as well.

Unfortunately, California’s senior senator has a hard time recognizing this. And Democracy for America — along with MoveOn and number of other supposedly progressive organizations — doesn’t seem to have a problem with backing those who support the self-destructive policies of Netanyahu, though they would refuse to support those who backed the same kinds of policies under Bush.

Indeed, Democracy for America, MoveOn, and others who are so enthusiastic about Boxer, Feingold, Murray and other Democratic hawks are not unlike Bush supporters: They are so enamored with their candidate that they ignore the reality of their policies. Their candidate supports illegal invasions of Muslim nations at the cost of thousands of lives? No problem. Their candidate attacks the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and other international bodies which try to enforce international humanitarian law? No problem. Their candidate repeatedly makes demonstrably false claims in order to justify illegal military operations? No problem. Their candidate tries to discredit Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, and leading international jurists for publishing empirical studies which counter the lies she spews out in trying to justify the war crimes of foreign right-wing governments? No problem.

This does not mean that, with so much at stake this election year, that progressive organizations should necessarily endorse third party candidates and allow Republicans to win critical races. Indeed, it is important to recognize that the Republican nominee challenging Senator Boxer is no better regarding Middle East peace. For example, at a recent event in Los Angeles, Carly Fiorina declared, “We must stand up unequivocally and declare that Israel is our most important friend and ally in the Middle East and that we will stand with her always no matter what” the right-wing government might do. Like Boxer, she criticized the administration for joining the rest of the international community in calling for a moratorium on the expansion of Israel’s illegal colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank.

The problem is that one of the most right-wing members of the Senate on one of the most critical foreign policy issues of the day is labeled a “progressive hero” rather than the lesser evil that she is.

Yes, “evil” is a strong word. But what else can you call defending the mass murder of Lebanese and Palestinian children? Or allocating unconditionally billions of our tax dollars every year to provide the weapons and ordinance for the murderers? Or opposing restrictions on the export of cluster bombs to countries which use them against heavily populated areas? Or criticizing the UN and other international bodies simply for trying to fulfill their mandates to enforce international law? Or attacking prominent jurists and human rights workers for documenting war crimes she denies ever took place? Or claiming that the murder and beatings of humanitarian aid volunteers in international waters constitutes legitimate self-defense?

Indeed, when it comes to this critical issue in foreign affairs, Boxer is closer to her right-wing Senate colleague Jim DeMint (R-SC) than she is to the liberal Pat Leahy (D-VT), closer to the fundamentalist Christians United for Israel than the liberal Churches for Middle East Peace, closer to the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation than the liberal Institute for Policy Studies, and closer to the rightist American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) than the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now.

This is not about the supposed power of “the Israel Lobby.” Any right-wing lobby will appear all-powerful if there is no progressive counter-lobby. Boxer takes the positions she does not because AIPAC forces here to do so against her will, but because she can get progressives to campaign for her, donate money to her, and vote for her anyway regardless of her contempt for human rights and international law. She and other right-wing Democrats will not change unless and until liberal groups stop labeling them “progressive heroes.” Peace and human rights activists in the 1980s ended US support for the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadoran junta by refusing to support Democrats who, like Boxer, defended war crimes by right-wing allies and trashed human rights activists who exposed them. As a result, a number of them lost their re-election campaign and were replaced in the subsequent election by progressives, while others, fearing the same fate, changed their positions.

Progressives routinely find themselves having to support candidates who are less than perfect. Indeed, no one can support perfection under the current system. However, it is profoundly disappointing that, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, there are still prominent Democrats who do refuse to respect the Fourth Geneva Convention and other basic tenets of international law, such as the UN Charter’s recognition of the inadmissibility of any country expanding its territory through military force. You can’t get more fundamental than that. Indeed, that principle is the foundation of the post-WWII international legal system, which Boxer appears to be doing her damndest to undermine. In short, progressives here in California who refuse to back Boxer are not “single-issue” voters, for this is not about a single issue: these are fundamental principles at the heart of international law and human rights.

And, however one may choose to vote in the California Senate race come November, to label Barbara Boxer as the “progressive hero of 2010” is just plain wrong.