SPRING CLEANING PART II: SHELVING THE EMPIRE

By Francesca Fiorentini
May, 2011

Month in Review #73 (Español)

May 2011

By Francesca Fiorentini

Last month, I wrote that Washington needed some “ideological Spring cleaning” to get with the current shifts in geopolitical reality, specifically in regard to the tide of democracy washing over the Middle East. But the past month's combination of well-crafted words with same-old, same-old actions indicates that the U.S. has taken out its broom only to wave it around a little without actually sweeping.

On the one hand, President Obama’s speech on democratic movements in the Middle East and peace between Israel and Palestine moved U.S. rhetoric further away from a “War on Terror” framework, purporting values of self-determination and acknowledging Washington's diminishing role. Unfortunately the facts on the ground aren’t nearly as pretty as the President’s prose. Rather they reveal the government's continued hypocrisy and self-interest when dealing with changing political terrain.   

Whether it’s repackaging the same “plan of inaction” around Israel/Palestine, applying a double standard to aggression by (unmentioned) regional buddy Saudi Arabia, or moving at a glacial pace to end military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington is not quitting its playground bully tactics. Right-wingers still fumed at Obama and rattled their plastic light sabers. But the elite centrists and “realists” are far from "throwing Israel under the bus" or anything of the kind. True, this current non-Neocon administration is trying to get Israel and other U.S.-backed regimes to be less belligerent in hopes it can streamline the Arab revolt into "safer" (U.S. friendly) channels. But it is too little, too late: no one in the Middle East is buying it.

The President was therefore correct about one thing: change is coming with or without U.S. approval or directive. Between a revitalized Palestinian nonviolent resistance, Yemenis entering into their fifth month of brave protest, Pakistan unilaterally closing down U.S. intelligence cells, Egypt staking out a more independent foreign policy, people are taking matters into their own hands. However much dust Washington throws up to disguise its true policies, in the eyes of the region Washington is increasingly seen as - to borrow a schoolyard phrase – the cheese that stand alone.

DOG-AND-PONYING PALESTINE

Attempting to derail the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood in the September U.N. General Assembly, Washington and Tel Aviv have filled this month with speeches, meetings, and zero serious proposals.  

The spectacle began with Obama’s declaration that a Palestinian state should be established along 1967 borders with “land swaps." The New York Times eagerly termed this a “new starting point” but in fact it is a simple re-branding of what has been U.S. policy for decades. The President confirmed his lack of diplomatic originality when speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) going out of his way to insist his 1967 border comments were misconstrued as groundbreaking. He also assured AIPAC that his administration was opposed to the Palestinian Authority's plan to seek statehood recognition from the U.N., and that he would work to get European nations to vote against such a resolution.

Even so, Obama's remarks were not enough for the Israeli government and its hard-line U.S. supporters. Driven to near-panic by the Arab Spring's democratic momentum and its embrace by a new generation of Palestinians – and also by Israel's increasing global isolation - they believe the slightest acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Palestinian grievances will unleash a dynamic they cannot control. They want to keep huge swaths of the West Bank forever and keep Palestinians within a few Bantustans without control of their water, air space or borders. Knowing this "Greater Israel/Keep the Settlements" project conflicts with the desire of U.S. foreign policy realists to "improve U.S. standing" in the Arab and Muslim world, AIPAC and its Neocon and Israeli backers are determined to cleanse Washington of any "softness." Only with even more U.S. backing than Obama has offered, they believe, can Israel consolidate its land grab and "end the conflict" with the Palestinian people on Israeli terms.

DID BIBI OVER-REACH?

This was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's goal for his recent trip to Washington.  He stuck to it throughout, using every demagogic trick in his arsenal. His address to Congress is worth a read to fully appreciate the unapologetic racism used to justify Israeli policy. And at his White House meeting with Obama he bluntly told the President to tell the Palestinians to forget refugees ever being able to return to their homeland: “Everyone knows it’s not going to happen” he pontificated. It was classic Netanyahu, as Juan Cole explains here.

Congress stood up and applauded – in Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery's terms like a bunch of yo-yos. And numerous right-wingers both in Israel and the U.S. made it clear they backed Netanyahu over Obama with great enthusiasm.

But except for rallying the faithful, Netanyahu's trip failed. The flip side of dressing down Obama was making it clear to the entire world that the Israeli leadership has no interest in Palestinians’ concerns, no interest in serious negotiations, no interest in any kind of compromise and even no interest in considering the long-range interests of its main international backer. Netanyahu offered nothing to get Palestinians to return to a sham "peace process", leaving them to rely on mass resistance and diplomacy at the U.N. And while Obama went along with him, the President’s backward posture was in place even before Netanyahu arrived. So the Prime Minister went home with no gains.    

In Israel itself, Netanyahu’s trip was branded a failure across the political spectrum. And the lack of diplomatic initiative shown by both Netanyahu and Obama has left U.S. liberal Zionists in particular frustrated and angry– and for a change directing more verbal fire at Netanyahu than at the Palestinians. They know that with Tel Aviv intransigent and Washington refusing to pressure Tel Aviv, the future holds only more polarization. Israeli violence on the scale of its 2007 assault on Gaza is a growing danger.   

Israel's "realist" backers also note the steady shift of economic power globally away from North America and Europe. Obama himself made reference to this change in his speech to AIPAC, essentially saying that – though the U.S. is willing to continue blind support of Israel – it might not be calling the shots in a decade or two. Policy analysts Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett laid it out in this article, pointing out that “America’s ability to continuing shielding Israel from the consequences of its own benighted choices will shrink,” and that “the extent to which that unwavering commitment actually translates into incremental security for Israel will almost certainly decline in the future.”

Palestinians in Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon stream towards the fence marking the border with Israel. Nakba Day, 2011 saw similar massive, non-violent challenges to Israeli occupation in Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza.

PALESTINIAN SPRING

The most active bloc for peace and change is the Palestinians themselves. To remember the Nakba or “catastrophe” on May 15th, the day that Israel was founded, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, came together in a peaceful show of force. In what were perhaps the most moving scenes of the day, hundreds of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Syria and Lebanon dared to cross borders into Israel. For their nonviolence, they were met with live rounds from the Israeli Defense Forces who claimed ten lives and wounded hundreds more.

Politically, Palestinians are also reconstituting. While the Palestine Papers revealed Fatah’s history of capitulation to Israel, their unity agreement with Hamas is a giant step toward creating a credible and representative Palestinian Authority that Palestinians sorely need. Then Egypt re-opened its Rafah border with the Gaza Strip for the first time in four years of Israeli blockade. It was in an act that demonstrates the regional cooperation possible when democracy is present in the Middle East. And there is a good chance many European countries will vote with the overwhelming majority of nations in the global South to recognize an independent Palestinian State based on the 1967 borders in September. When that happens, not just the "diplomatic tsunami" Ehud Barak fears but a grassroots tsunami may change the balance in the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

NEITHER KINGS, NOR EMPIRE

The continued protests throughout the Arab world are teaching the region and the world an important lesson in democracy: you don’t need kings or a self-interested foreign empire to be free. These movements are in fact rendering both irrelevant.

With respect to monarchy, the popular protests in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain have got kings clinging desperately to their thrones and unleashing their machineries of repression. The U.S.-protected monarchy Saudi Arabia is therefore struggling to workdamage control and stave off the coming tide of democracy. Beyond sending troops to repress protesters in Bahrain, it has also committed billions of dollars to the government of the island country and to neighboring Oman. It is sending billions to Egypt to support its "friends" in the military leadership, and trying to shape the outcome of the crisis in Yemen. While the U.S. media stresses Saudi Arabia’s fear of Iran’s influence, the greater threat is from the people of the region themselves, who represent a challenge to the Saudis’ oil-export-royal profit model.

U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, as for Israel, undermines U.S. credibility among these movements for democracy. Obama authorized war on Qaddafi, sanctions against Syria, and condemned the violence in Bahrain, but Saudi Arabia is not only immune from critique, it is directly supported in its counter-democratic efforts. As the Times reports, the country is currently negotiating to buy $60 billion in weapons from the U.S.

How matters unfold in Egypt, meanwhile, will determine a great deal about the next stage of the region's democratic awakening. On May 27, Egyptians once again swarmed Tahrir Square to demand an end to military prosecution of protesters, an expedited trial for Mubarak, and a civilian governing council, calling it the Revolution Part II. Indicating the complex new alignments in Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood – which is developing a tactic alliance with key sections of the military - was noticeably absent. The Brotherhood's youth section, whose members are closer to the non-Brotherhood youth who drove forward Egyptian Revolution I, did come out into the streets. Political fissures like this show that these democratic transitions have given rise to a plurality of voices and politics that won’t necessarily be consolidated into conservative Islamist parties. Still, what will happen in the upcoming fall election, and how much Egyptian democracy and economic/social change will proceed beyond ousting Mubarak and his top cronies, remain to be seen.

"DEMOCRACY BORN IN CHAINS“?

If there is one area to watch out for, it would be the specter of international finance, hungry to cash in on the political volatility of the Arab Spring by handing out a lot of money debt. The G-8 has already set the ball in motion by coordinating the lending of over $20 billion in aid Tunisia and Egypt to “assist” with their transitions. Coming out of its meeting this month, the G-8 with the partnership of the World Bank, IMF ($35 billion), European Investment Bank, and African Development Bank will lend billions provided that certain economic reforms are met. Given the track record of these institutions, we can bet these will the same neoliberal economic reforms – privatization, cuts to social spending, foreign investment, and reliance on exports— that have tanked economies around the world.

Before strapping countries with more debt, these Western powers must first cancel (not reschedule) existing debt, which was accumulated under the autocratic regimes of Mubarak ($155 billion) and Ben Ali of Tunisia ($40 billion). As it is, Egyptians and Tunisians are being made to unjustly pay for the practices of former dictators, precisely to the powers that had been propping them up. If the G-8 and multilateral banks succeed in strong-arming the political economies of the new governments in the region, we may see what journalist Naomi Klein has detailed and in her book Shock Doctrine, a “democracy born in chains.”

DONE WITH WAR

With the wind at the region’s back, U.S. military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya is becoming all the more untenable.

NATO’s assault on Qaddafi’s forces has been more “successful” this month in that more of the General’s soldiers and compounds have been blown up. But despite U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon calling for a “real ceasefire” and the African Union’s offers to negotiate, discussions of ceasefire have ping-ponged and stalled. One blow against a drawn-out military presence was the House’s vote to prohibit ground troops in Libya, which passed nearly unanimously. There is hope yet…

While the assassination of Osama bin Laden won Obama points with the right-wing (that then took an opportunity to glorify torture), it embarrassed the Pakistani Army and is helping nail the coffin on Pakistan-U.S. relations. This might be a good thing. Standing up to the U.S. and answering the pleas of its people, Pakistan has begun to shut down American intelligence cells used to track insurgents in Northern Waziristan. It’s a sign that the Pakistani government is acting on what its citizens have long understood: drone strikes and U.S. Special Operations running amok in your country will only bolster, not combat, extremism.

Which brings us to Iraq, a nation preparing for the complete U.S. troop withdrawal by December 31 as stipulated in the Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. Prime Minister al-Maliki is currently consulting with various members of the coalition government to see about extending this deadline, but chances of support are slim. On May 26, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr mobilized thousands to the streets of Baghdad in protest of any attempt at extending the withdrawal of the 47,000 remaining troops. Al-Sadr insisted the demonstrators march unarmed, though he warned of the possibility of re-activating the Madhi militia if the deadline isn’t met. Juan Cole points out that al-Sadr’s “political clout is more important than any such prospect of renewed paramilitary activity” because of his critical role in forming the coalition government. 

On Afghanistan, the deadline is approaching for the Obama Administration to announce how many US troops will be in the first drawdown set to begin in July. The extent to which the public is fed up with the Afghanistan war was indicated by the vote in Congress this month on the McGovern-Amash amendment to shorten the timeline of withdrawal; it fell only 12 votes short of passing. Tom Hayden takes a close look at the wheelings and dealings of Obama’s exit strategy here.  

As media attention to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq declines, it is up to the antiwar movement to keep these wars – and opposition to them – in the public eye. That task remains, even as peace activists adjust to changed political terrain by linking with the economic-justice movements that are now center-stage and infusing them with our message of cutting "bringing the war money home" and shifting national priorities.  And a key aspect of this effort is reminding the country of those who have suffered most from these wars: Iraqis, Afghans, and U.S. soldiers. One group that has maintained this solid three-stage focus of withdrawal, reparations to civilians, and care for returning soldiers has been Iraq Veterans Against the War. Their demands to rebuild the human and physical infrastructure of Iraq, veteran care campaigns like Operation Recovery, and "True Costs of War" campaigns by Military Families Speak Out, need support and solidarity. Though heavy with their experiences of war, they have managed translate their outrage and pain into action, something the anti-war majority of this country can learn from.

BIG BROTHER STILL WATCHING

Finally, as a thank you for making your way to the end of this subversive column, the FBI would like to remind you that you are still on its list of people to monitor in the grand violation of civil liberties known as the Patriot Act, extended by President Obama on May 26 for another four years with zero modification. Funny we didn’t hear about it from the liberal media. In fact the only senator who mounted any substantial resistance was a freshman Republican Rand Paul. Surprise! Still, provided that your home doesn’t get raided, you should be proud that you are one of the FBI’s peace-loving “lone wolves”. What they don’t know is that the pack is millions strong. I guess it is just two steps forward and one step back, until we get there…

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Francesca Fiorentini is an independent journalist and comedian based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Before working with War Times she was an editor with Left Turn magazine andWIN: Through Revolutionary Nonviolence, the magazine of the War Resisters League. She writes, produces, and directs the comedy video blog Laugh to Not Cry.  Follow her @franifio

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