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Election-Watchers May Miss Chances for Peace

Ira Chernus

Now that the Academy Awards have been presented, we can all turn our attention back to the one competition that really matters, the world's greatest spectator sport: the choosing of an American president. For us political junkies, who have been obsessed by the greatest race of all for over a year now, we are more than halfway home. Until November, don't ask us to pay much attention to anything else.

Maybe we'll take a short break in August to notice a few other sports at the Olympics, just enough to recharge our batteries before heading into the conventions and the long exhausting sprint down the home stretch to Election Day. The day after Election Day, and for many days thereafter, we'll be obsessed with the postmortems, scrutinizing the exit polls so we can pursue the endless arguments about why the winners won.

The funny thing is that the winner and his (or her) staff won't have that post-election luxury. The day after Election Day they will have to swing into action, figuring out how they'll govern the country and deal constructively with the rest of the world. Even now, when it seems like nothing matters but winning the election, someone on each of those staffs is carefully tracking events in each hot spot around the globe. While some staffers figure out what the candidate should say about China, the Middle East, and everywhere else -- what words will get the most votes -- others think about what the candidate's actual policy should be after the electoral victory is won.

Those staffers who worry about what's really going on set a good example for those of us who can't get enthusiastic about any major party candidate, at least when it comes to foreign policy. While we sit in our front-row seats watching the great contest unfold, we should also be paying attention to what's happening in the rest of the world. Because the day after Election Day we, too, should be ready to swing into action. If McCain wins, we will immediately have to go back into 24/7 resistance mode.

If the Democrat wins, we will immediately have to go into a different kind of resistance mode, not against the president-elect but against the Democratic centrists, who will be pushing the new administration to the right from day one. They'll be well-armed with arguments generated in think tanks and elite graduate schools, all leading to one conclusion: Our new leader must take a tough stand against "terrorists," "jihadists," "Islamofascists," and all the other enemies who purportedly threaten to destroy America. In fact, they'll be pressuring the Democratic victor to take a foreign policy line not much different from McCain's.

It will be up to progressives to push back in the other, more sane, direction. We'll have to explain over and over why a pugnaciously imperialist foreign policy -- the kind we've been plagued with since 9/11 -- is bad for America as well as the world; why those of us who favor a more cooperative, conciliatory approach are the true patriots, promoting our own nation's best interests; and why there are real possibilities for peace emerging that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore.

We can argue from principle that negotiated peace always serves everyone better than confrontation. For this view we can cite, among others, no less a conservative than Winston Churchill, who said that "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war." (Too bad Churchill did not take his own advice earlier and more often.) But whenever we try to apply our principle to a specific situation, the Democratic hawks will be ready to pounce upon us with fists full of facts to "prove" that our pacific principle simply won't work in this particular case. We'll need just as many facts in hand to rebut their arguments.

So let's start preparing now by looking at a couple of places that will be vital to the next president: Gaza and Pakistan. In both places, there is intense political conflict that sometimes breaks out in military violence. In both places, some people on each side want to call a truce and give the conflicting sides a chance to talk, while others on each side refuse to talk and instead pursue military dominance. In both places, military dominance is an unattainable illusion; talking about peace is the only policy that makes sense. Yet in both places the U.S. government backs a side that would rather "war, war" than "jaw, jaw."

"In Israel, Some See No Option But War," a recent headline in the Washington Post informs us. "As Rockets Continue to Torment Sderot, Support Broadens for Ground Assault on Gaza." It's the usual hawkish line of the U.S. mainstream media, the one so often mislabeled "pro-Israel." In fact, anyone who cares about the welfare of Israelis in Sderot and everywhere else in that beleaguered country will see, and insist on, the other option: a truce and the opening of talks with the Hamas government in Gaza.

That is a very real alternative according to the WaPo article, which could just as easily have been headlined, "In Israel and Gaza, Some See Obvious Option to War." The article quotes a "former top Israeli military intelligence official" saying that the Qassam rocket fire coming from Gaza into Sderot "is not a strategic threat." Even a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry admits that there's no way to foresee an attack on Gaza reaping any benefit for Israel: "You start this operation, and I don't know how you can end it."

Matti Steinberg, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs to Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, adds that an invasion would only strengthen support for Hamas and undercut Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Steinberg, echoing the views of many Israeli analysts, "said there is a far less costly way to stop the attacks: a cease-fire. Without one, Steinberg said, Israel is on a path toward war, which could have disastrous consequences for the U.S.-backed peace process."

That's not to mention the disastrous consequences for the people of Gaza, who are already suffering miseries that are quite literally untold in the U.S. mainstream media, though they are reported in the progressive alternative media. But even the WaPo, while it dwells one-sidedly on the risks to Israel, points out that the rocket fire into Sderot -- the proposed justification for an Israeli invasion of Gaza -- does little actual harm. On the other side, in the past two months at least 126 Palestinians have died, and countless more have been injured, from Israeli military violence.

Watching the suffering, and unable to stop it militarily, the Hamas leadership has repeatedly called for a truce and a chance to talk over differences with the Israelis. In a recent interview, a Hamas leader said: "I can quote [assassinated Hamas leader] Sheikh Yassin: Hamas rules out recognising Israel but accepts a long-term truce." Hamas would stop firing rockets into Israel "if the missiles from [Israeli] Apaches and F-16s stop and the borders are opened."

A truce is so obviously the right step that even the mayor of Sderot, a member of the right-wing Likud party, has publicly called for the Israeli government to accept the Hamas offer. Yet the truce option is studiously ignored in government circles in Jerusalem and Washington, and therefore in the U.S. mainstream media.

A similar pattern is now unfolding in Pakistan. Leaders of the winning parties in the recent elections are calling for talks with Islamist groups, which the government of Pervez Musharraf now addresses only with guns and bombs. Some leaders among those Islamist groups are now responding positively to the idea of truce talks. Sadly but predictably, the Bush administration is leaning on Musharraf to ignore these growing peace moves and continue his "war, war" approach. "U.S. officials fear a dialogue-based strategy may end up giving al-Qaida and other hardline Islamists a sanctuary in Pakistan."

That's a foolish argument, because continuing violence is much more likely to give the "hardline" Islamists a stronger sanctuary in Pakistan. If a Democrat wins November's election, our next president will have at least some advisors who understand that. Those advisors will equally understand that Israel can enhance its security only through negotiation and compromise with Hamas, not instransigent violence. But they will be under immense political pressure to keep those thoughts to themselves.

It will be up to progressives to create the political space for those advisors -- the voice of reason in a Democratic White House -- to speak up forcefully, urging the new president to shift U.S. policy in more constructive directions. We need to prepare for that possibility by keeping ourselves well informed on emerging possibilities for peace around the world. It may not be as much fun as watching the great sport of electioneering. But if we don't prepare well for the post-election policy battles, the outcome of the election won't matter much one way or the other.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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