Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

How Not to Support Democracy in the Middle East

June 10, 2009

Stephen Zunes | Foreign Policy In Focus, June 8, 2009

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world marked a welcome departure from the Bush administration’s confrontational approach. Yet many Arabs and Muslims have expressed frustration that he failed to use this opportunity to call on the autocratic Saudi and Egyptian leaders with whom he had visited on his Middle Eastern trip to end their repression and open up their corrupt and tightly controlled political systems.

Imagine the positive reaction Obama would have received throughout the Arab and Islamic world if, instead of simply expressing eloquent but vague words in support of freedom and democracy, he had said something like this:

“Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

Could he have said such a thing?

Yes. In fact, those were his exact words when, as an Illinois state senator, he gave a speech at a major anti-war rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002.

Continued >>

Obama and the Middle East

May 13, 2009

By Gilbert Achcar | ZNet, May 12, 2009

Whether the election and inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States will qualitatively alter U.S. Middle East policy and the regional situation remains to be seen. The fact is that Barack Obama has been much bolder with regard to U.S. relations with Latin America than he has been with regard to the Middle East during the 100 first days of his administration. This is despite the fact that, as a presidential candidate, Obama emphasized much more his difference with the Bush administration on Middle East issues, especially Iraq, than on South American issues.

Beyond the various electoral statements, the truth is that Obama ran as a candidate dedicated to bipartisan consensus in the realm of foreign policy, and singularly with regard to the Middle East. His critique of the Bush administration was restricted to the extent to which it did not fully comply with this consensus as expressed in the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. To put it more precisely, Obama supported the “surge,” which conformed to the recommendations of the report, and announced that he would stick to the exit (from Iraq) strategy that it envisaged. On this, he had nothing very original to say when compared to what the Bush administration was already doing since it implemented the “surge.” Hence, the very symbolic as well as significant fact that he asked Robert Gates to remain at the helm of the Pentagon — thus repeating the kind of bipartisan gesture with regard to “Defense” that Bill Clinton made when he appointed to the same position another Republican, William Cohen, for his second term.

Where Obama differed from Bush in public statements was mainly with regard to Iran: whereas the Bush administration never really agreed to comply with the recommendation of talking to Iran that was expressed in the Baker-Hamilton report, Obama made clearly the point that this was what he would do if elected, and he got attacked for precisely that reason by all the friends of the Israel Lobby. However, since his inauguration, Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have made no real substantive changes in that respect. One explanation for this is that they fear that engaging in talks with Iran at this stage might impact the forthcoming presidential election in that country in a way that would be contrary to what they deem to be U.S. interests. If this explanation is true, it implies that they will continue to “wait and see” until the election in June 2009, that is due to be held five weeks from the time of writing these lines.

After the Iranian presidential election, the Obama administration will probably move to a more serious opening in the direction of Iran, applying a carrot and stick policy — with a big carrot whereas the Bush administration only carried a big stick. They will hope for a deal with the Iranian leadership, a deal whereby Tehran would cooperate with them in stabilizing Iraq and the Middle East, each side acknowledging the interests of the other, in the same way that they are actually doing presently in Iraq, where both sides sponsor the same Maliki government in Baghdad. Such a conciliatory policy has been imposed on the U.S. government by the dire condition in which it found itself in the Middle East as a result of the disastrous policy of the Bush administration. Basically, the Obama administration faced with the Iraqi semi-debacle, at a time when its room for maneuver has been narrowed by the global economic crisis, is contemplating a reaction similar to that of the Nixon administration when it faced the Vietnam debacle. The exit strategy then was: “Vietnamize” the war, get all the troops out of Vietnam, cut a deal with Moscow and Beijing. The strategy now is: “Iraqize” the war (done through the “surge” and its reliance on the buying off of major chunks of what used to be the Sunni “insurgency” in the form of the “Awakening Councils”), get most of the troops out of Iraq (planned until 2011), cut a deal with Tehran. Both policies take place against a backdrop of severe global economic crisis.

In a sense, the new policy, if fully implemented, will require much less boldness than the one implemented by the Nixon-Kissinger team: withdrawing from Vietnam against the background of the ongoing Cold War was much more spectacular than withdrawing from Iraq in the absence of any “peer” global challenger of the United States; talking to “Red China” was much more spectacular than any conciliatory gesture toward Iran could be, all the more that it cannot be expected that Obama-Clinton will go to the same extent of sudden warming up with yesterday’s enemy as Nixon-Kissinger did in their relation with China. One important difference is that the Nixon team could play on the “triangulation” of its relations with Moscow and Beijing in light of the enmity between the two “communist” capitals. There is no situation of this kind with regard to Iran.

But the key difference is, to be sure, the role of Israel. For the Zionist state, Iran is the main enemy in the whole region, and the nuclear issue is a “red line” that would prompt the Israeli state to act militarily if it deemed that the line was crossed. We know from the revelation by The New York Times last January (David Sanger, “U.S. Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site,” NYT, January 10, 2009) that the Olmert government already asked the Bush administration for a green light to attack Iranian nuclear facilities with air strikes flying through Iraqi air space. The Olmert government wanted to take advantage of the remaining time in office of this American administration that was most cooperative with the worst plans and deeds of the Israeli state. The green light was not granted, however, for a variety of reasons related to the highly risky and uncertain character of the operation and its potential consequences in a time of unfolding global economic crisis.

The Obama administration will indeed be clearly less amenable to Israel’s hardliners than the Bush team was. And tensions between the two countries are all the likelier to unfold given that their political evolutions are presently going in opposite directions: whereas the last U.S. presidential election started a pendulum backswing after eight years of the most reactionary administration in U.S. history, the recent Israeli parliamentary election only carried on further the swing to the right that started with the election of Ariel Sharon in February 2001 in the wake of Bush’s presidential inauguration.

These are the main elements of the present picture in the Middle East: to get into other developments — the efforts of Washington’s Arab friends to foster reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas’s “Palestinian Authority,” the forthcoming parliamentary election in Lebanon, etc. — would take longer than the space of this article. However, the whole policy of the Obama administration is a pragmatic and cautious move within the guidelines described above.

Gilbert Achcar is a Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. This article is based on the preface to the Iranian edition of Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy. Dialogues on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice by Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, edited by Stephen R. Shalom. The updated English paperback edition was published in 2008 by Paradigm Publishers.

A new Middle East under Obama?

November 5, 2008
Al Jazeera, Nov 5, 2008

Many in Egypt remain sceptical that change will come to the Middle East [EPA]

Even though Barack Obama has been elected the 44th president of the United States, there are some in the Middle East who believe his policies towards the region will differ little from those of his defeated Republican rival, John McCain.

Al Jazeera asked a number of people in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, whether Obama would bring change to the US presidency.

Omar Kamel, musician

“In terms of actual policy, I do not think there is much difference at all when it comes to Obama or McCain’s Middle Eastern viewpoints.They have both committed themselves publicly and explicitly to the Zionist cause, with Obama promising Aipac an ‘undivided Israeli Jerusalem’ as a goal.

More so, they have both said that ‘nothing is off the table’ when dealing with Iran, which implicitly means they both consider a military attack on Iran a strategic option.

That Obama has implied he would not want to use nuclear weapons is a small consolation when we consider the devastation wrought on Iraq by ‘conventional’ warfare.

Obama has also made it quite clear that he is a subscriber to the whole ‘war on terror’ notion – which to the rest of the world simply means he will continue the march of Empire Amerika.

Unfortunately, there is a geist of optimistic negative-racism that chooses to see Obama as an actual opportunity for change – when in fact he offers absolutely nothing new save for his skin colour and relative eloquence.

Obama reminds me far too much of Clinton. Clinton, quite literally, got away with murder simply because the world found him charismatic and charming.

Clinton helped destroy Iraq with sanctions and was an accomplice to the murder of over 500,000 Iraqi children and yet most people in the Middle East still like the murderer, still believe that, somehow, he was a good man.

That is my fear with Obama, that he will pacify the world as he rapes it.

At least with McCain, like Bush, the world would have been acutely aware of its rape.”

Abdel-Rahman Hussein, journalist

“There is an apathy among Egyptians regarding the US election because many say it makes no difference who wins. The US will always pursue the same policies in the region.

Even with a Democratic win in the White house, it is American – and almost by default Israeli – interests which will always come first.

The fulcrum of American policy in the region is support for Israel above all else, and both parties unequivocally adhere to that.

Additionally, as opposed to Great Britain where the divide between left and right has become less pronounced in recent years, the American political spectrum has always been more centrist.

One position both candidates straddled quite comfortably is their staunch support for Israel.

Obama’s promise to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) that Jerusalem will remain the “undivided” capital of Israel does not bode well for the future of the peace process which is currently proposing East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Nevertheless, Jewish and pro-Israel groups remain sceptical about Obama and feel he is merely paying lip service to secure the election, so again it is difficult to surmise exactly how it will pan out.”

Jen Zaki Hanna, university professor

“Unfortunately, I do not believe that Obama will have significantly different foreign and financial policies.

I considered the one person who could have brought about real change in the Middle East, to be Ralph Nader.

Nader dissected the real problem with America’s financial policies – that being the unfettered control of the transnational corporations and their lack of respect for human rights and environmental rights at home and globally.

Unfortunately, every time Nader tries to enter the presidential race he is called a spoiler for the Democrats. This just goes to shows me, and I believe others around the world and in the Middle East, that the Democrats and Republicans are one and the same.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton was the lesser of the two evils than Obama who has changed his mind multiple times on issues such as Iraqi troop withdrawal.

Both parties will always be loyal first and foremost to Israel as a necessary ingredient to US foreign policy and according to most Middle Easterners it has always meant one thing: there will be no progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There has yet to be a Democratic or Republican party in the US which has demonstrated a real significant move on a two-state solution.

I do not think things will change now.”

Yousef Gamal il Din, broadcast journalist with NileTV

“There is also … a belief that the foreign policies of both candidates do not really vary much.The debates did not highlight key differences that will help regional problems in the Arab World, Afghanistan, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine.

My impression from talking to Egyptians who are well-read in international affairs and business is that they perceive McCain to be hawkish (more so than Obama) and that his policies would have been less-suitable for Arab interests.

Obama appears to be better for our region, but the key word here is appears.

The Middle East would look different under Obama but it will be difficult to judge because the rhetoric during the campaign does not necessarily translate into decisions or policies once the candidate reaches the White House.

Once candidates are confronted with certain realities in the White House or realities that emerge later on, they may have to adapt their policies. The international arena is very dynamic, things change very quickly.

It is difficult to accurately predict US foreign policy.”

Ahmed Samy, marketing analyst

“Israel won’t be that happy that Obama won because they might not trust that he would fully back them, even though he has said before that he would fully support them.

As for the Middle East, not much would change with Obama in office.

The situation in the region might stay the same or get a bit better or put on hold till the following elections.

The American people are the only ones to benefit if Obama wins.

Now Obama being the first black president in America is a history-making event; if he stays in office the full term, that is good. But if he gets assassinated or something like that, then it will be a tragedy.”

Ahmed Kafafi, author

“An Obama win doesn’t mean so much to me because whoever comes to power will never dare to change certain basics in the US foreign policy and assuming there will be any, those will be slight changes that would never reverse the situation in the Middle East.

I do not think Egypt and the Middle East will look any different; there is a fear that things will move from bad to worse. The financial crisis has peaked and the wealth of the Middle East is the only way out for the US.

Egyptians see the US as working for its own interests and is a big supporter of Israel. For them the US is a big power that will never ever work for their interest, so it doesn’t matter if Obama or McCain is in power.”

Robert Fisk: When it comes to Palestine and Israel, the US simply doesn’t get it

October 4, 2008

Biden and Palin hid like rabbits from the centre of the Middle East earthquake

The Independent, Saturday, October 4, 2008

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Palestinians ceased to exist in the United States on Thursday night. Both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin managed to avoid the use of that poisonous word. “Palestine” and “Palestinians” – that most cancerous, slippery, dangerous concept – simply did not exist in the vice-presidential debate. The phrase “Israeli occupation” was mercifully left unused. Neither the words “Jewish colony” nor “Jewish settlement” – not even that cowardly old get-out clause of American journalism, “Jewish neighbourhood” – got a look-in. Nope.

Those bold contenders of the US vice-presidency, so keen to prove their mettle when it comes to “defence”, hid like rabbits from the epicentre of the Middle East earthquake: the existence of a Palestinian people. Sure, there was talk of a “two-state” solution, but it would have mystified anyone who didn’t understand the region.

There was even a Biden jibe at George Bush for pressing on with “elections” – again, the adjective “Palestinian” went missing – that produced a Hamas victory. But Hamas appeared to exist in never-never land, a vast landscape that gradually encompassed all the vast and black deserts that stretch, in the imagination of US politicians, from the Mediterranean to Pakistan.

“Pakistan’s (nuclear) missiles can already hit Israel,” Biden thundered. But what was he talking about? Pakistan has not threatened Israel. It’s supposed to be on our side. Both vice-presidential candidates seemed to think that our ally in the “war on terror” was now turning into an ally of the axis of evil. Even Islam didn’t get a run for its money.

Indeed, one of the funniest reports of the week, yet another investigation of Obama’s education, came from the Associated Press news agency. The would-be president, the Associated Press announced, had attended a Muslim school but hadn’t “practised” Islam.

What on earth did this mean, I asked myself? Would AP have reported, for example, that McCain had attended a Christian school but hadn’t “practised” Christianity? Then I got it. Obama had smoked Islam but he hadn’t inhaled!

Travelling across the US this week – from Seattle to Houston to Washington and then to New York – I kept bumping into the results of America’s White House-induced terror. A well-educated, upper-middle-class lady at a lunch turned to me and expressed her fear that Islam “wanted to take over America”. When I suggested that this was pushing things a bit, she informed me that “the Muslims have already taken over France”.

How does one reply to this? It’s a bit like being informed by a perfectly sane and rational person that Martians have just landed in Tennessee. So I used the old Fisk trick when confronted by ravers of the “admit George Bush did 9/11″ school. I looked at my watch, adopted a shocked expression and shouted: “Gotta go!”

But seriously. There was Biden on Thursday night, telling us that along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan – he was referring, of course, to the old frontier drawn by Sir Mortimer Durrand which most Pushtuns (and thus all Taliban) regard as fictional – “there have been 7,000 madrassas built … and that’s where bin Laden lives and we will go at him if we have actually (sic) intelligence”.

Seven thousand? Where on earth does this figure come from? Yes, there are thousands of religious schools in Pakistan – but they’re not all on the border. In another extraordinary bit of myth-making, Obama’s man told us that “we kicked the Hizbollah out of Lebanon” – which is totally untrue.

And, of course, Israel – a word that must be uttered, repeatedly, by all US candidates – became the compass point of the entire Middle East, this “peace-seeking nation … our strongest and best ally in the Middle East” (quoth Palin) of whom “no one in the United States Senate has been a better friend…than Joe Biden” (quoth Biden).

Israel was “in jeopardy” if America talked to Iran, Palin revealed. “We have got to assure them that we will never allow a second Holocaust.” Thus was the corpse of Hitler dug up yet again – just as McCain resurrected the shadow of the Second World War last week when he blathered on about Eisenhower’s sense of responsibility before D-Day. That Israel can quite adequately defend herself with 264 nuclear warheads went, of course, unmentioned, because acknowledging Israel’s real power undermines the image of a small and vulnerable country relying on America for its defence.

Israelis deserve security. But where were the promises of security for Palestinians? Or the sympathy which Americans would immediately grant any other occupied people? Absent, needless to say. For we must gird ourselves for the next struggle against world evil in Pakistan.

Biden actually demanded a “stable” government in Islamabad, which was a little bit hypocritical only a few days after US troops had crossed its sovereign border to shoot up a Pakistani house allegedly used by the Taliban. As General David Petraeus told The New York Times this week, “The trends in Afghanistan have been in the wrong direction … wresting control of certain areas from the Taliban will be very difficult.”

It’s an odd situation. Obama and Biden want to close down Iraq and re-conquer Afghanistan. The Palin College of Clichés characterised this as “a white flag of surrender in Iraq” while continuing to warn of the dangers of Iran, the name of whose loony president – Ahmadinejad – defeated McCain three times in last week’s pseudo-debate.

But it’s the same old story. All we have learned in America these past two weeks, to quote Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War, is that the war goes on.

The Making of Recent U.S. Middle East Policies

September 22, 2008

A New and Revealing Study of the Influence of the Neocons

By BILL and KATHLEEN CHRISTISON | Counterpunch, Sep 20 / 21, 2008

Stephen J. Sniegoski, The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel, Enigma Editions, Norfolk, Virginia, 2008

Not a few honest political analysts have long recognized the tight relationship between the Israel-U.S. partnership and the disastrous Bush administration adventures throughout the Middle East, including its backing for Israel’s systematic oppression of the Palestinians. Stephen Sniegoski has had the persistence to ferret out mountains of impossible-to-challenge evidence that this Israel-U.S. connection is the driving force behind virtually all Middle East decisionmaking over the last eight years, as well as the political courage to write a book about it.

Sniegoski’s new book demonstrates clearly how U.S. and Israeli policies and actions with respect to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the other Gulf states, and even most recently Georgia are all tied together in a bundle of interrelated linkages, each of which affects all the others. The right wing of Israeli politics, the neoconservatives in the U.S. who strongly support Israel, and the aging Israel lobby in the United States all have worked together, and are still doing so, to bring about more wars, regime changes, and instability, specifically the fragmentation of any Middle Eastern states that might ever conceivably threaten Israel.

In addition, one purpose of such wars and other changes is explicitly to intensify the discouragement of Palestinians as the latter’s potential allies are knocked off one by one, making it easier for Israel, over time, to finish off the Palestinians. That’s the theory. Those who believe it is vital to improve the human rights situation and the political outlook for the Palestinians must not only work to reverse present Israeli policies, but it is probably more important that we in the United States work even harder to reverse U.S. policies.

This is a long but quite splendid book. After a foreword by ex-Congressman Paul Findley and an introduction by Professor of Humanities Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., the text itself has 382 pages covering the entire history of the neoconservatives from the 1960s to 2008. The author has clearly spent untold hours reading all the writings he could find by not only the top few neocons but also numerous others who are far less well known but still important figures in the movement.

The neocons, by the way, are by and large not conspiratorial. They prefer to write voluminously and act openly with respect to their philosophies and actions. The word “transparent” in the title of the book emphasizes this very point. On the other hand, the neocons are also very skilled propagandists and are more than willing to spin “facts” in many situations in ways that often do not leave readers with an honest, unvarnished version of “truth.”

Sniegoski states his own main argument as follows:

“This book has maintained that the origins of the American war on Iraq revolve around the United States’ adoption of a war agenda whose basic format was conceived in Israel to advance Israeli interests and was ardently pushed by the influential pro-Israeli American neoconservatives, both inside and outside the Bush administration. Voluminous evidence, much of it derived from a lengthy neoconservative paper trail, has been marshaled to substantiate these contentions.” [Page 351]

The author then points out that

“… what was an unnecessary, deleterious war from the standpoint of [“realists” in] the United States, did advance many Israeli interests, as those interests were envisioned by the Israeli right. America came to identify more closely with the position of Israel toward the Palestinians as it began to equate resistance to Israeli occupation with ‘terrorism.’ … Israel took advantage of the new American ‘anti-terrorist’ position. The ‘security wall’ built by the Sharon government on Palestinian land isolated the Palestinians and made their existence on the West Bank less viable than ever. For the first time, an American president put the United States on record as supporting Israel’s eventual annexation of parts of the West Bank. Obviously, Israel benefited for the very reason that the United States had become the belligerent enemy of Israel’s enemies. As such, America seriously weakened Israel’s foes at no cost to Israel. The war and occupation basically eliminated Iraq as a potential power. Instead of having a unified democratic government, as the Bush administration had predicted, Iraq was fragmenting into warring sectarian groups, in line with the original Likudnik goal.” [Pages 356-357]

And yet one more quote is in order here:

“Since one is dealing with a topic of utmost sensitivity, it should be reiterated that the reference to Israel and the neoconservatives doesn’t imply that all or even most American Jews supported the war on Iraq and the overall neocon war agenda. … A Gallup poll conducted in February 2007 found that 77 percent of [American] Jews believed that the war on Iraq had been a mistake, while only 21 percent held otherwise. This contrasted with the overall American population in which the war was viewed as a mistake by a 52 percent to 46 percent margin. … [Nevertheless,] evidence for the neoconservative and Israeli connection to the United States war is overwhelming and publicly available. There was no dark, hidden ‘conspiracy,’ a term of derision often used by detractors of the idea of a neocon connection to the war. … It should be hoped that … Americans should not fear to honestly discuss the background and motivation for the war in Iraq and the overall United States policy in the Middle East. Only by understanding the truth can the United States possibly take the proper corrective action in the Middle East; without such an understanding, catastrophe looms.” [Pages 371-372]

The reader will note that the above excerpts all come from near the end of Sniegoski’s book. Before reaching this point in the book, you will be treated to informative and well-written chapters on the origins of the neoconservative movement, the Israeli origins of the United States’ Middle East war agenda, and neocon planning against Iran, as well as chapters entitled “World War IV” (a very important chapter), and “Democracy for the Middle East.” A particularly important chapter on “Oil and Other Arguments for the War” argues that oil was not as important a reason for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as was Israel.

This book is a veritable bible on the neocons — and a frightening one. Anyone who thought that neocon thinking and policymaking had become passé with the political eclipse of the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith will be disquieted to find that these individuals were only the tip of the iceberg and that on all issues having to do with Israel neocon thinking lives on in policymaking councils and is about to be passed on to the next administration, whether it be Democratic or Republican.

Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence officer and as director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis.

Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. They can be reached at


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