The Middle East in Turmoil Once Again: And It's Not All About Us

When are we going to learn that it's not all about us?

Certainly a lot of the current turmoil in the Middle East has something to do with the consequences of U.S. policy there. But still. The front page article in last Sunday's New York Times led with concern that the current turmoil will test "President Obama's ability to shape the forces of change in the Middle East." Yikes. This is a disaster in the making.

Trying to renew U.S. control of a region finally claiming its 21st century independence from mainly U.S.-backed governments, is completely wrong-headed. After two or three generations of U.S. support for brutal military dictatorships and absolute monarchies because they were willing to toe the line on Israel, oil, and military bases, do we really want to put Washington back in charge of "shaping" the change that people across the region are fighting for?

The whole range of changes in the Middle East, who's "shaping" those changes, what's the fight over Iran red lines between the United States and Israel and between Obama and Romney, what about U.S. military aid to Israel, were all on the agenda of Saturday's "Up With Chris Hayes" show on MSNBC. I was part of the panel, with a mostly interesting and diverse set of progressive voices. (Take a look here -- the link lists all the separate segments of the two-hour show on the left side.)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking of the killings of the U.S. officials in Benghazi, asked "how could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" The answer that will probably never occur to her is that not everyone in Libya, not even everyone in Benghazi, saw the U.S./NATO air war as liberation -- even some of those who celebrated the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime didn't want it to come via foreign air forces.

Let's all take a deep breath and remember that it's not always about us. The U.S./NATO air war against Libya did overthrow a dictatorship -- but it led to rising sectarianism and division, a country awash in weapons, uncontrolled militias arresting and torturing dark-skinned Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans, imposing their will on terrified people without any accountability to the elected government, and so on. And all those consequences were happening way before the tragic killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, the death of the other U.S. diplomat and two U.S. security contractors in Benghazi.

Somehow it took the deaths of U.S. officials to get people in this country to pay attention again to Libya. I was part of a panel discussing exactly that on National Public Radio's KQED "Forum" program in San Francisco.

The protests that have spread across the Middle East and the broader Muslim world (which includes places like London these days) were sparked by the offensive Islamophobic film clip produced by a shadowy group in California and endorsed and promoted by Quran-burning preacher Terry Jones in Florida. But as Bob Wright wrote in The Atlantic, "as the Muslim protests subside, more and more people have come to realize that what seems to have sparked them - one of the worst YouTube videos ever, which is saying something - isn't what they were mainly about. But what were they about? ...Part of the answer is that the video itself did offend people. But, as when a single offensive remark from someone you've long disliked can make you go ballistic, the explanation for this explosion goes deeper than the precipitating event. What are the sources of simmering hostility toward America that helped fuel these protests?"

The mainstream media tried to answer the question. NBC's Richard Engel had it all sorted out for us: the problem is "this consistent mindset driven into people that the West is against Islam, and everything is a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy to bring down the Middle East." That makes everything easy, of course. There's no real Israeli occupation of the West Bank or Israeli siege of Gaza that might make a few people in the Middle East angry. The U.S. isn't really sending Israel $4.1 billion in military aid this year. Nuclear-armed Israel isn't really threatening an attack on Iran that could set the entire region ablaze with war. It's all just a silly conspiracy theory.

Engel reminds us that "maybe moderates will win over time," though he admits that "they're not winning now. And that could not have been the hope when the Arab Spring began." He doesn't want to acknowledge that just maybe the victory of pro-U.S., Western-defined "moderates" wasn't exactly the goal of all the Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Syrians, Libyans, and others who actually fought the battles of the Arab Spring.


Perhaps the most optimistic result of the current U.S. examination of the region is that the consequences of militarizing non-violent struggles and of outside military intervention are suddenly meriting greater consideration. Like, perhaps, in Syria. Conditions inside the country continue to deteriorate for ordinary Syrians, and some opposition forces continue to call for outside governments -- the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, NATO -- to establish a "no-fly zone" in Syria. But as we learned in Libya, a "no-fly zone" begins with the bombing of the country -- and can quickly morph into full-scale air war. The example of Libya should give serious pause to those still hoping a "no-fly zone" would help supporters of the democratic non-violent uprising in Syria. You can watch a debate I participated in, on why we shouldn't be sending arms to Syria, on Huffington Post's new "HuffPost Live" video debates.

We still don't know what the actual circumstances were in which Amb. Stevens and the others were killed in Benghazi. We don't know if they were killed in a pre-planned action by RPG-armed teams, perhaps avenging the drone killing in of the Libyan who was second in command of al Qaeda. Or whether they were killed by the fire that was set in the consulate.

What we do know is that some of the conditions endemic in post-Qaddafi Libya are now on the rise in Syria as well. In response to brutal regime crackdowns, militias emerge that are powerfully armed but not accountable to any central authority. The presence of foreign Salafis, adherents of the most extremist forms of Islamist practice, is increasing in Syria, much as they emerged in Libya during the anti-Qaddafi fighting. It still is clear to me that more outside military support to the anti-Assad forces in Syria, let alone direct military intervention by the United States, NATO, Saudi Arabia or others will be disastrous. It will result in far more people dying, far more damage to the country, and a much greater threat of long-term national and regional division, sectarianism, and instability. The dangers of that kind of outside military intervention, though in Syria, was very much the theme of an interview I did for the National Catholic Reporter a couple of weeks ago. The United States is reportedly planning to send surveillance drones to Libya to search for "jihadi camps." That kind of escalation is certain to ratchet up internal tensions even further.

The immediate necessity is a ceasefire in Syria, an end to the provision of new and repaired weapons to all sides. To have real impact it would have to specifically include a cut-off of Iranian arms shipments and Russian "repair and replace" assistance to the regime, and an end to all U.S., Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and other military support to the rebels. While this would not leave the two sides militarily "equal," it would prevent the greater increase in civilian deaths that would result from increasing the military capacity of either or both sides.

Some version of that may be the goal of the latest diplomatic initiative, the call by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for new four-party talks on Syria involving Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the key supporters of both sides in the civil war. By bringing in Middle East regional powers, hopefully with the support of new UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, this group could bring new possibilities for diplomatic solutions, particularly if bolstered by participation of the economic powerhouses of the global South, the IBSA countries -- India, Brazil, and South Africa. The initiative was weakened a few days ago by Saudi Arabia's refusal to participate in the first meeting, but the trajectory remains on track, and still provides the most hopeful possibility for a ceasefire and the potential for negotiations. You can watch my analysis of the most recent developments on this front on al Jazeera yesterday.


On Democracy Now! last month,I spoke with Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, along with NIAC president Trita Parsi, about the escalating dangers of an Israeli military strike on Iran. The rhetoric seemed to cool slightly in the last couple of weeks of August. But by early September it was sky-high again, shaped by Bibi Netanyahu's attack on the White House, whose officials, he said, "don't have the moral right to place a red light before Israel." He was responding to a significant hardening of the Obama administration's rejection of Netanyahu's demand for Washington to set a war deadline against Iran.

That rejection included Hillary Clinton's rebuff of the "deadline" idea, and continued with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey's statement that he "did not want to be complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran. It finished up with the White House rejecting Netanyahu's request for a face-to-face meeting with President Obama during the UN General Assembly session next week. (Or, Netanyahu begged, he would come to Washington to see the president there... anywhere, anytime, just let me get the face time). No dice, the White House said, the president doesn't have time.

Netanyahu is feeling the heat more than ever, not least because his one ally in the Israeli cabinet, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, finally ended his we-want-war-with-Iran partnership with Netanyahu. Now isolated both domestically and internationally, the prime minister is lashing out with a dangerous desperation. The stakes for Netanyahu are sky-high, given his investment of political capital in the notion that only a military strike can protect Israel. But Barak's defection from the pro-war camp, combined with the new U.S. firmness against an attack, will make it far more difficult for Netanyahu to win sufficient support for a unilateral military strike from his security cabinet, let alone from the Knesset as a whole.

So as of this week the threat of an Israeli military strike on Iran, with all the consequences for the people of Iran, for the country and the environment, for the likely victims in the surrounding neighborhood, for the world oil markets, and so on, has been somewhat reduced. A strike is very unlikely -- though still not impossible. After all, it isn't only about the immediate crisis. This has been going on a long time. A quote in Trita Parsi's great book Treacherous Alliance, from the director of the Begin-Sadat Center in Israel, sums it up:

"There was a feeling in Israel that because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling and we needed some new glue for the alliance," Efraim Inbar said, "and the new glue... was radical Islam. And Iran was radical Islam."

The threat of war isn't over. Congress is still trying to prevent the administration from engaging in any real negotiations, just in case it wanted to move in that direction. With sanctions ratcheted up higher than ever, the latest effort is a House vote (H.R. 3783) this week requiring the Secretary of State to create "a comprehensive strategy to counter Iran's growing presence and hostile activity in the Western Hemisphere" -- essentially demanding a report created to scare Americans into believing that Iranian commandos are invading their backyards. (Anyone remember the Cold War-era "Red Dawn" action movie about a Cuban invasion of Denver?) In case anyone wonders, what Iran is actually accused of doing in the Western Hemisphere is "pursuing cooperation with Latin American countries by signing economic and security agreements in order to create a network of diplomatic and economic relationships to lessen the blow of international sanctions." What we need is real diplomacy, not more threats.


Meanwhile, the war continues. And the failure of the U.S. strategy (currently defined as helping the Afghan Army "stand up" to opposing militias) is becoming more apparent every day. The latest official acknowledgement of that failure is in the form of the September 18 announcement that the U.S.-led coalition forces are cancelling almost all joint operations with Afghan troops. Too many U.S. and other NATO troops being killed by their Afghan "partners." And while the U.S. admits only about 25% of those are killed by "Taliban infiltrators," they claim they have no idea why the other Afghan soldiers and police turn on their U.S./NATO trainers. Apparently they still can't wrap their collective heads around the notion that Afghans -- even those who join the military or police for the same reason young Americans do, because they need a job -- might actually hate the foreign occupation of their country and might seek a chance to undermine it. (If you missed it last month, check out my "Inside Story" debate on al Jazeera, with General Gunter Katz, spokesman for NATO in Afghanistan on exactly this question).

What's getting far less attention than these "green on blue" attacks killing young U.S./NATO soldiers, is what we might call "blue on blue" attacks -- suicide. Far more U.S. troops are dying at their own hands than are killed in green-on-blue attacks. And even less attention is paid to the Afghan civilians who continue to be killed in huge numbers. In one of Sunday's NATO airstrikes eight women and girls were killed before dawn as they searched for wood to cook breakfast.

Afghan President Karzai condemned the airstrikes, and also condemned the U.S. refusal to turn over to Afghan responsibility the more than 600 prisoners still held at the U.S.-controlled Bagram prison. Washington agreed to turn prison authority over to the Afghan government by September 9th, but so far has refused because Kabul won't agree to keep the prisoners in custody indefinitely. Karzai said Afghan law doesn't provide for indefinite detention. Funny, U.S. law didn't use to either. Funny how things change...


And finally, while the eyes of so much of the world are on the Middle East as a whole, on protests in Cairo and Benghazi, on the deaths of ambassadors, and anger over an offensive film, few are paying attention to Palestine. Conditions on the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem continue to deteriorate, with settlement construction escalating and economic conditions continuing to decline. The siege of Gaza continues unabated, with economic life stifled and people still trapped, imprisoned within the confines of the Israeli-controlled Strip. Moves to fully open the crossing from Gaza to Egypt have been reported, but so far it remains difficult for Palestinians to get out.

Romney's statement about Israeli-Palestinian peace being impossible is, ironically, pretty much true -- if one accepts the U.S. position that only Washington's version of "peace talks" can work. That version -- U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian talks based on the pretense that the two sides were equal -- has failed for 21 years now. On the other hand, giving up on any possibility of new diplomatic efforts, "kicking the ball down the field" as Romney recommended, means a whole new level of endorsing the current status quo of Israeli apartheid.

Early next monththe Russell Tribunal on Palestine will be meeting in New York, across the street from the United Nations, to investigate "U.S. Complicity and UN failings in Dealing with Israel's Violations of International Law Towards the Palestinian People." Based on the Russell Tribunal on Viet Nam, the tribunal brings legal scholars, academics, activists, and Middle East experts together to examine different aspects of Israeli violations. The jury will include the poet Alice Walker, scholar Angela Davis, French Holocaust survivor and Palestinian rights activist Stephane Hessel, former South African Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories John Dugard, and more.I will be speaking on the second day, on the ways forward for global civil society collaboration with the United Nations in support of Palestinian rights.

And finally, last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila massacre. After months of bombing and occupation of Beirut in the summer of 1982, the Israeli military turned loose the fascist militia of the Lebanese Phalange to attack the two refugee camps. More than 2,000 people, the vast majority women, children, old men, were slaughtered. Thirty years ago I was a commentator on Pacifica's KPFK in Los Angeles. Two days after the massacre I wrote of "these two days, of a thousand krystallnachts, days of darkness and madness and barbarism." Some things I wrote about haven't changed, even with the Israeli government's long delayed finding that indeed Israel bore responsibility for enabling the massacre. But one thing was sadly different. Immediately after the 1982 massacre, more than 400,000 Israelis, most of them Jewish, filled the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the slaughter. It was the beginning of a whole new peace movement inside Israel. When Israeli aircraft and bombs attacked Gaza in 2008 and 2009, there were a few brave voices mobilizing in protest, but the most popular Israeli response was to flock to nearby hillsides overlooking the border to watch the shelling of the densely populated Gaza Strip. They brought picnics. It wasn't a peace movement any longer.

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