Tags: east timor, egypt, foreign policy, gaza, history, imperialism, indonesia, Iran, iran oil, israel, israel lobby, Middle East, middle east history, middle eastern oil, Noam Chomsky, Palestine, roger hollander, saudi arabia oil, six days war, stephen majer, suharto, U.S. imperialism, west bank
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Tuesday 27 April 2010
Many of Israel’s critics blame an “Israel lobby” for the near-total complicity of the US in Israeli annexation, colonization and cleansing programs in the occupied West Bank. This complicity continues to the present, despite the “row” that erupted after the Israeli government humiliated US Vice President Joe Biden by announcing the construction of 1,600 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem while he was visiting the country. Indeed, despite the apparent outrage expressed by top White House officials, the administration has made clear that its criticism of Israel will remain purely symbolic. However, as we shall see, the lobby thesis does little to explain US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Years after Noam Chomsky, Stephen Zunes, Walter Russell Mead and many others published their critiques of the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer “Israel lobby” thesis, many of the sharpest critics of Israel continue to attribute US foreign policy in the Middle East to the influence of the lobby. Given the prevalence of the Israel lobby argument, and the latest diplomatic confrontation between the US and Israel, it is important to revisit the flaws in the thesis, and properly attribute US behavior to the large concentrations of domestic political and economic power that truly drive US policy.
US foreign policy in the Middle East is similar to that which is carried out elsewhere in the world, in regions free of “the lobby’s” proclaimed corrupting effects. The inflated level of support that the US lends Israel is a rational response to the particular strategic importance of the Middle East, the chief energy-producing region of the world. By building Israel into what Noam Chomsky refers to as an “offshore US military base,” it is able to protect its dominance over much of the world’s remaining energy resources, a major lever of global power. As we shall see, those blaming the lobby for US policy once again misunderstand US’s strategic interests in the Middle East, and Israel’s central role in advancing them.
Geopolitics and the US-Israeli Relationship
A central claim of the “Israel lobby” thesis is that the “lobby,” however defined, overwhelmingly shapes US policy towards the Middle East. Thus, if the argument were true, its proponents would have to demonstrate that there is something qualitatively unique about US policy towards the Middle East compared with that in other regions of the world. Yet upon careful analysis, we find little difference between the purported distortions caused by the lobby and what is frequently referred to as the “national interest,” governed by the same concentrations of domestic power that drive US foreign policy elsewhere.
There are states all around the world that perform similar services to Washington as Israel, projecting US power in their respective regions, whose crimes in advancing Washington’s goals are overtly supported and shielded from international condemnation. Take for instance the 30 years of US support for the horrors of the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor. In addition to the use of rape and starvation as weapons, and a gruesome torture regime, Indonesian president Suharto slaughtered 150,000 persons out of a population of 650,000. These atrocities were fully supported by the US, including supplying the napalm and chemical weapons indiscriminately used by the Indonesian army, which was fully armed and trained by the US. As Bill Clinton said, Suharto was “our kind of guy.”
Daniel Patrick Moynahan, US ambassador to the UN at the time of the Indonesian invasion, later wrote that “the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook” to end the butchering of the East Timorese, a goal he carried out with “no inconsiderable success.” Yet this support was not due to the influence of an “Indonesia lobby.” Rather, planners had identified Indonesia as one of the three most strategically important regions in the world in 1958, as a result of its oil wealth and important role as a link between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
In some regions, as in Latin America where US clients like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and terrorist armies like the Nicaraguan contras spent years murdering defenseless peasants demanding basic human rights, the threat is mostly one of “successful defiance;” that is, a country defying US orders and getting away with it. Should the US tolerate one such case, the logic goes, it will embolden resistance to its dictates elsewhere. The danger underlying such defiance — referred to as “the threat of a good example” by Oxfam — is that a country will implement a successful model for independent development, refusing US dictates and seeking to direct much-needed resources to serve the needs of the domestic population instead of wealthy foreign investors.
Such thinking is deeply institutionalized and exhibited by US policy worldwide, going back to the very beginnings of the modern imperial era after World War II. It was clear from early in the war that the US would emerge as the dominant world power in its aftermath, and so the State Department and Council on Foreign Relations began planning to create a post-war international order in which the US would “hold unquestioned power.” One way it planned to do so was gaining control of global energy resources, primarily those of Saudi Arabia, which were referred to at the time as “the greatest material prize in history” by the US State Department.
As Franklin Roosevelt’s “oil czar” Harold Ickes advised, control of oil was the “key to postwar political arrangements” since a large supply of cheap energy is essential to fuel the world’s industrial capitalist economies. This meant that with control of Middle Eastern oil, particularly the vast Saudi reserves, the US could keep its hand on the spigot that would fuel the economies of Europe, Japan and much of the rest of the world. As US planner George Kennan put it, this would give the United States “veto power” over the actions of others. Zbigniew Brzezinski has also more recently discussed the “critical leverage” the US enjoys as a result of its stranglehold on energy supplies.
Thus in the Middle East it is not simply “successful defiance” that the US fears, nor merely independent development. These worries are present as well, but there is an added dimension: should opposition threaten US control of oil resources, a major source of US global power is placed at risk. Under the Nixon Administration, with the US military tied down in Vietnam and direct intervention in the Middle East to defend vital strategic interests unlikely, military aid to pre-revolution Iran (acting as an American regional enforcer) skyrocketed. Amnesty International’s conclusion in 1976 that “no country has a worse human rights record than Iran” was ignored, and US support increased, not because of an “Iran lobby” in the US, but rather because such support was advancing US interests.
Strategic concerns also led the US to support other oppressive, reactionary regimes, including Saddam Hussein’s worst atrocities. During the Anfal genocide against the Kurds, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons provided by the US against Kurdish civilians, killed perhaps 100,000 persons, and destroyed roughly 80 percent of the villages in Iraqi Kurdistan, while the US moved to block international condemnation of these atrocities. Again, supporting crimes that serve the “national interest” set by large corporations and ruling elites, and shielding them from international criticism is the rule, not the exception.
It is no coincidence that the US-Israel relationship crystallized after Israel destroyed the independent nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in a preemptive attack in 1967, permanently ending the role of Egypt as a center of opposition to US imperialism. Since before World War II, Saudi Arabia had happily served as an “Arab facade,” veiling the hand of the true ruling power on the Arabian peninsula, to borrow British colonial terminology. With Nasser’s Arab nationalist rhetoric “turning the whole region against the House of Saud,” the threat he posed to US power was serious. In response, the State Department concluded that the “logical corollary” to US opposition to Arab nationalism was “support for Israel” as the only reliable pro-US force in the region. Israel’s destruction and humiliation of Nasser’s regime was thus a major boon for the US, and proved to Washington the value of a strong alliance with a powerful Israel.
This unique regional importance is one reason for the tremendous level of aid Israel receives, including more advanced weaponry than that provided to other US clients. Providing Israel with the ability to use overwhelming force against any adversary to the established order has been a pivotal aspect of US regional strategy. Importantly, Israel is also a reliable ally — there is little chance that the Israeli government will be overthrown, and the weapons end up in the hands of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists or independent nationalists as happened in Iran in 1979.
Today, with the increased independence of Europe, and the hungry economies of India and China growing at breakneck speed along with their demand for dwindling energy resources, control over what is left is more crucial than ever. In the September 2009 issue of the Asia-Africa Review, China’s former Special Envoy to the Middle East Sun Bigan wrote that “the US has always sought to control the faucet of global oil supplies,” and suggested that since Washington would doubtless work to ensure that Iraqi oil remained under its control, China should look elsewhere in the region for an independent energy source. “Iran has bountiful energy resources,” Bigan wrote, “and its oil gas reserves are the second biggest in the world, and all are basically under its own control” (emphasis added).
It is partially as a result of this independence that Israel’s strategic importance to the US has increased significantly in recent times, particularly since the Shah’s cruel, US-supported dictatorship in Iran was overthrown in 1979. With the Shah gone, Israel alone had to terrorize the region into complying with US orders, and ensure that Saudi Arabia’s vast oil resources remain under US control. The increased importance of Israel to US policy was illustrated clearly as its regional strategy shifted to “dual containment” during the Clinton years, with Israel countering both Iraq and Iran.
With Iran developing technology that could eventually allow it to produce what are referred to in the February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as “anti-access weapons,” or weapons of mass destruction that prevent the US from being able to freely use force in any region of the world, this is a crucial moment in Washington’s struggle to seize control of Iran. This confrontation, stemming from the desire of the US to control its oil and destroy a base of independent nationalism, makes US support for Israel strategically crucial.
The “Israel Lobby” and US Pressure
If we adopt “the lobby” hypothesis, we would predict that the US would bend to Israel’s will when the interests of the two states diverge, acting against its “national interest.” Yet if US policies in the Middle East were damaging its “national interest,” as proponents of the lobby argument claim, that must mean that such policies have been a failure. This leads one to ask: a failure for whom? Not for US elites, who have secured control of the major global energy resources while successfully crushing opposition movements, nor for the defense establishment, and most certainly not for the energy corporations. In fact, not only is US policy towards the Middle East similar to that towards other regions of the world, but it has been a profitable, strategic success.
Indeed, the US’s policy towards Israel and the Palestinians is not to achieve an end to the occupation, nor to bring about respect for Palestinian rights — in fact, it is the actor primarily responsible for preventing these outcomes. To the US, Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002 had sufficiently punished the Palestinians and their compliant US-backed leadership for their intransigence at Camp David. While the Palestinian Authority was already acting as Israel’s “subcontractor” and “collaborator” in suppressing resistance to Israeli occupation, in the paraphrased words of former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s deliberate destruction of Palestinian institutions provided the opportunity to rebuild them, and ensure an even greater degree of US control.
The settlement and annexation programs help guarantee Israeli control over the most valuable Palestinian land and water resources, ensuring Israel will remain a dominant society not easily pressured by its neighbors. To help achieve these goals, the US shields Israeli expansion behind a “peace process” in hopes that given enough time the Palestinians will concede more and more of what was once theirs. The primary concern is to present the appearance that the US and Israel are ardently crusading for peace, battling against those who oppose this noble objective. Though it is true that people across the region are appalled and outraged by Israeli crimes, such anger is a small consideration next to the strategic gain of maintaining a strong, dependent ally in the heart of the Middle East.
The reconstitution of an even more tightly-controlled Palestinian Authority, with General Keith Dayton directly supervising the Palestinian security forces, enabled the US to meet these goals while more effectively suppressing resistance to the occupation. Likewise, redeploying Israeli soldiers outside of Gaza allowed Sharon a free hand to continue the annexation of the West Bank while being heralded internationally as a “great man of peace.”
The treatment of Israel by the mainstream US media is also standard for all US allies. Coverage in the corporate press is predictably skewed in favor of official US allies and against official enemies, a well-documented phenomenon. Thus, proponents of the lobby thesis are missing the forest for the trees. What they see as the special treatment of Israel by the mainstream press is actually just the normal functioning of the US media and intellectual establishment, apologizing for and defending crimes of official allies while demonizing official enemies.
Of course, this is not to argue that there are not organizations in the US, like the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC, that seek to marginalize dissent from Israeli policy in every forum possible. Rather, I am pointing out that the power of these groups pales in comparison to other, far more powerful, interests and concerns. While the AJC or ADL may mobilize for the firing of a professor critical of Israel, for example, that argument is amplified by the elite-owned and controlled press because doing so serves their interests. Likewise, AIPAC can urge unwavering support for Israel on the part of the US government, but without the assent of other far more powerful interests, like the energy corporations and defense establishment, AIPAC’s efforts would amount to little. US policy, like that of other states, is rationally planned to serve the interests of the ruling class.
Israel could not sustain its aggressive, expansionist policies without US military aid and diplomatic support. If the Obama Administration wanted to, it could pressure Israel to comply with international law and resolutions, join the international consensus, and enact a two-state solution. While the “Israel lobby” thesis conveniently explains his failure to do so and absolves US policy-makers of responsibility for their ongoing support of Israeli apartheid, violence and annexation, it simply does not stand up under closer scrutiny.
Stephen Maher is an MA candidate at American University School of International Service who has lived in the West Bank, and is currently writing his masters’ thesis, “The New Nakba: Oslo and the End of Palestine,” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His work has appeared in Extra!, The Electronic Intifada, ZNet and other publications. His blog is www.rationalmanifesto.blogspot.com.
Obama Gathering a Flock of Hawks to Oversee U.S. Foreign Policy January 31, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Foreign Policy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Peace, War.
Tags: Afghanistan War, cia, Colin Powell, Dennis Blair, east timor, east timor massacre, foreign policy, foreign policy appointments, gaza, General Wiranto, george mitchell, hawks, hillary clinton, human rights, indonesian death squads, internatinal treaties, International law, Iran-Contra, Iraq invasion, israel, janet napolitano, jim jones, joe biden, leon panetta, Middle East, nicaragua, obama administration, obama commander-in-chief, pakistan, Palestine, Pentagon, Rahm Emanuel, reagan administation, richard holbrooke, Robert Gates, roger hollander, saddam hussein, sandinistas, scott ritter, self-determination, special envoy, stephen zunes, susan rice, u.s. hegemony, united nations charter, wmds
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Most of Obama’s key foreign policy appointments seem more committed to military dominance than international law.
In disc golf, there’s a shot known as “an Obama” — it’s a drive that you expect to veer to the left but keeps hooking right.
In no other area has this metaphor been truer than Barack Obama’s foreign policy and national security appointments. For a man who was elected in part on the promise to not just end the war in Iraq but to “end the mindset that got us into war in the first place,” it’s profoundly disappointing that a majority of his key appointments — Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Blair, Janet Napolitano, Richard Holbrooke and Jim Jones, among others — have been among those who represent that very mindset.
As president, Obama is ultimately the one in charge, so judgment should not be based upon his appointments alone. Indeed, some of his early decisions regarding foreign policy and national security – such as ordering the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, initiating the necessary steps for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, and ending the “global gag rule” on funding for international family-planning programs – have been quite positive.
But it’s still significant that the majority of people appointed to key foreign policy positions, like those in comparable positions in the Bush administration, appear to be more committed to U.S. hegemony than the right of self-determination, human rights and international law.
Supporters of Wars of Conquest
Though far from the only issue of concern, it is the fact that the majority of Obama’s appointees to these key positions were supporters of the invasion of Iraq that is perhaps the most alarming.
Obama’s defenders claim that what is most important in these appointments is not their positions on a particular issue, but their overall competence. Unfortunately, this argument ignores the reality that anybody who actually believed that invading Iraq was a good idea amply demonstrated that they’re unqualified to hold any post dealing with foreign and military policy.
It was not simply a matter of misjudgment. Those who supported the war demonstrated a dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law, and disdain for the United Nations Charter and international treaties which prohibit aggressive war. They demonstrated a willingness to either fabricate a non-existent threat or naively believe transparently false and manipulated intelligence claiming such a threat existed, ignoring a plethora of evidence from weapons inspectors and independent arms control analysts who said that Iraq had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Perhaps worst of all, they demonstrated an incredible level of hubris and stupidity in imagining that the United States could get away with an indefinite occupation of a heavily populated Arab country with a strong history of nationalism and resistance to foreign domination.
Nor does it appear that they were simply fooled by the Bush administration’s manufactured claims of an Iraqi threat. For example, Napolitano, after acknowledging that there were not really WMDs in Iraq as she had claimed prior to the invasion, argued that “In my view, there were lots of reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein.” Similarly, Clinton insisted months after the Bush administration acknowledged the absence of WMDs that her vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion “was the right vote” and was one that, she said, “I stand by.”
Clearly, then, despite their much-touted “experience,” these nominees have demonstrated, through their support for the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, a profound ignorance of the reality of the Middle East and an arrogant assumption that peace, stability and democratic governance can be created through the application of U.S. military force.
Given that the majority of Democrats in Congress, a larger majority of registered Democrats nationally, and an even larger percentage of those who voted for Obama opposed the decision to invade Iraq, it is particularly disappointing that Obama would choose his vice-president, chief of staff, secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security and special envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq from the right-wing minority who supported the war.
But the Iraq War isn’t the only foreign policy issue where these Obama nominees have demonstrated hawkish proclivities. In previous articles, I have raised concerns regarding the positions of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Below is a list of some additional foreign policy appointees who are troubling …
A Friend of Death Squads Heading Intelligence
One of the most problematic Obama appointees is Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence. Blair served as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command from February 1999 to May 2002 as East Timor was finally freeing itself from a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation. As the highest ranking U.S. military official in the region, he worked to undermine the Clinton administration’s belated efforts to end the repression, promote human rights and support the territory’s right to self-determination. He also fought against Congressional efforts to condition support for the Indonesian military on improving their poor human rights record.
In April 1999, two days after a well-publicized massacre in which dozens of East Timorese civilians seeking refuge in a Catholic church in Liquica were hacked to death by Indonesian-backed death squads, Blair met in Jakarta with General Wiranto, the Indonesian Defense minister and military commander. Instead of pressuring Wiranto to end his support for the death squads, he pledged additional U.S. military assistance, which, according to The Nation magazine, the Indonesian military “took as a green light to proceed with the militia operation.” Two weeks later, and one day after another massacre, Blair phoned Wiranto and, rather than condemn the killings he “told the armed forces chief that he looks forward to the time when [the army will] resume its proper role as a leader in the region.”
Blair’s role in all this is well-known. The Washington Post, for example, reported several months later that “Blair and other U.S. military officials took a forgiving view of the violence surrounding the referendum in East Timor.” I was interviewed on NBC Nightly News at the time and spoke directly to Blair’s meetings earlier that year.
Combined with Obama’s selection of supporters of Morocco’s occupation and repression in Western Sahara and Israel’s occupation and repression in Palestine to other key foreign policy and national security posts, perhaps it is not surprising that he would pick someone who supported Indonesia’s occupation and repression in East Timor. That his pick for DNI would have acquiesced to massacres facilitated by U.S.-backed forces, however, is particularly disturbing.
A Super Hawk at the Pentagon
Obama’s decision to Bush appointee Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was a shock and a betrayal to his supporters who believed that there would be a change in the Pentagon under an Obama administration.
Gates’ record of militarism and deceit includes his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, where he apparently took part in the cover-up of the Reagan administration’s crimes. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh expressed frustration that Gates – well-known for his “eidetic memory” – curiously could not recall information his subordinates, under oath, had sworn they had told him. The special prosecutor’s final report noted, “The statements of Gates often seemed scripted and less than candid.” Indeed, the best the final report could say was that “a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies.”
In addition, Howard Teicher, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration, submitted a sworn affidavit that Gates engaged in secret arms transfers to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1980s in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. During this same period, according to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who served as Gates’ branch chief, Gates was personally involved in the apparent manipulation of intelligence regarding Iran and the Soviet Union in order to back up questionable policies of the Reagan administration.
The quintessential hawk, Gates advocated a U.S. bombing campaign against Nicaragua in 1984, according to the Los Angeles Times, in order to “bring down” that country’s leftist government, arguing that “the only way that we can prevent disaster in Central America” is for the United States to “do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.” Given there are today a number of Latin American countries under leftist governments more strategically significant than the tiny impoverished Nicaragua with which Gates was once so obsessed, one wonders how, as Obama’s Secretary of Defense, he will advise the new president to deal with these countries.
As he has for most of his career, Gates has been far to the right not only of the American public, but even that of the foreign policy establishment, most of which recognized that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was of no threat to U.S. national security and that a bombing campaign would be a blatant violation of international law.
Unable to convince his superiors to bomb Nicaragua, Gates became a major supporter of the illegal supplying of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, a notorious terrorist group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguan civilians. In choosing Gates to head the Defense Department, Obama appears to be giving a signal that his opposition to international terrorism is limited to those who target Americans and their allies, not to terrorism overall.
Another Super-Hawk at NSC
Recently-retired Marine General Jim Jones -– who, like Gates, is a Republican and was a supporter of Senator John McCain in the November election –– has been named as Obama’s National Security Advisor. A pragmatic leader who reportedly opposed the decision to invade Iraq and has questioned the unconditional U.S. support for some of Israel’s more aggressive policies, Jones’ appointment is nonetheless troubling.
As NATO commander earlier this decade, Jones pushed for an expanded NATO role in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Perhaps not coincidentally, he joined the board of directors of Chevron soon after his retirement from the military as well becoming president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, which has called on the U.S. government to engage NATO “on energy security challenges and encourage member countries to support the expansion of its mandate to address energy security.”
Jones opposed any deadline for a withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, which sits on top of the second largest oil reserves in the world, declaring that “I think deadlines can work against us, And I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest.” A passionate supporter of the Vietnam War who apparently supported a U.S. invasion of Laos and Cambodia as well, Jones considered the war’s opponents to essentially be traitors. More recently, he has used rhetoric remarkably similar to that of defenders of that war to call for a dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan on the grounds that American “credibility” would be at stake if the United States withdrew.
The Nation’s contributing editor Robert Dreyfus, who refers to Jones as Obama’s “most hawkish advisor,” quotes a prominent Washington military analyst noting that “He’s not a strategic thinker,” but he will certainly join other Obama appointees in pushing the administration’s foreign policy to the right.
A Dangerous Pick for Special Envoy
Obama’s choice for special envoy to perhaps the most critical area of U.S. foreign policy – Afghanistan and Pakistan – has gone to a man with perhaps the most sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign policy and national security appointments.
Richard Holbrooke got his start in the Foreign Service during the 1960s in the notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. In the late 1970s, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In this position, he played a major role in formulating the Carter administration’s support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and the bloody counter-insurgency campaign responsible for the deaths of up to a quarter million civilians. In a particularly notorious episode while heading the State Department’s East Asia division, Holbrooke convinced Carter to release South Korean troops under U.S. command in order to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju against the Chun dictatorship, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. He also convinced President Jimmy Carter to continue its military and economic support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.
In the former Yugoslavia, he epitomized the failed U.S. policy toward autocratic rulers that swings between the extremes of appeasement and war. He brokered a peace agreement in Bosnia which allowed the Serbs to hold on to virtually all of the land they had seized and ethnically cleansed in the course of that bloody conflict and imposed a political system based upon sectarian divisions over secular national citizenship. During the 1996 pro-democracy uprising in Serbia, Holbrooke successfully argued that the Clinton administration should back the Milosevic regime in suppressing the movement so to not risk the instability that might result from a victory by Serb democrats. In response to increased Serbian oppression in Kosovo just a couple years later, however, Holbrooke became a vociferous advocate of the 1999 U.S.-led bombing campaign, creating a nationalist reaction that set back the reconstituted pro-democracy movement once again. The young leaders of the pro-democracy movement, which finally succeeded in the nonviolent overthrow of the regime, remain bitterly angry at Holbrooke to this day.
Scott Ritter, the former chief UNSCOM inspector who correctly predicted the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a disastrous outcome for the U.S. invasion, observes that “not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan), Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the finesse of diplomacy.” Noting how the Dayton Accords were built on the assumption of a major and indefinite NATO military presence, which would obviously be far more problematic in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Europe, Ritter adds, “This does not bode well for the Obama administration.”
The Mixed Record of Susan Rice
The post of U.S. representative to the United Nations, which is being treated as a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration, is now held by Susan Rice, a protégé of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Perhaps the most impressive intellectual on Obama’s foreign policy team, she was a Rhodes Scholar who studied under Oxford professors Adam Roberts and Benedict Kingsbury at Oxford, strong supporters of international law and the United Nations.
Serving under President Clinton in the National Security Council and later as assistant Secretary of State for Africa, she helped reverse the decades-old policy of support for Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, she received praise from civil society groups in Africa for her support for human rights but also criticism for her strident support for economic liberalization and free trade initiatives.
Though seen by many as one of the most moderate of Obama’s foreign policy team, she – like some of the more hawkish Obama appointees – is also handicapped by her tendency to allow her ideological preconceptions to interfere with her analysis.
Though, unlike most of Obama’s other top foreign policy appointees, she has serious reservations about invading Iraq, she naively bought into many of the myths used to justify it. For example, back in 2002 – years after Iraq had disarmed itself of its chemical and biological weapons and eliminated its nuclear program – she declared, “It’s clear that Iraq poses a major threat” and, despite the success of the UN’s disarmament program, she insisted “It’s clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that’s the path we’re on.”
In February 2003, Colin Powell testified before the United Nations that Iraq had somehow reconstituted its biological and chemical weapons arsenal and its nuclear weapons program and had somehow hidden all this from the hundreds of United Nations inspectors then in Iraq engaged in unfettered inspections. None of this was true and his transparently false claims were immediately challenged by UN officials, arms control specialists, and much of the press and political leadership in Europe and elsewhere. (See my article written in response to his testimony: Mr. Powell, You’re No Adlai Stevenson.)
Rice, however, insisted that Powell had “proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them and I don’t think many informed people doubted that.” In light of such widespread and public skepticism from knowledgeable sources, Rice’s dismissal of all the well-founded criticism was positively Orwellian: those who blindly accepted Powell’s transparently false claims were “well-informed,” while the UN officials, arms control specialists, and others knowledgeable of the reality of the situation were presumably otherwise.
What this means is that Rice will have a serious credibility problem at the United Nations, whose remarkable success at disarming Iraq she summarily dismissed. When Rice speaks out in important debates about international peace and security in the UN Security Council, including possible genuine threats, there will inevitably be some questions as to whether she should be believed. This raises the questions as to why Obama would choose someone with a potentially serious credibility in such a sensitive position just as the United States is trying to restore its influence in the world body.
Some Bright Spots?
There have been some somewhat hopeful appointments as well. One is that of Leon Panetta, former Congressman and the first chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, to direct the CIA. He has been praised for his principled opposition to the abuse of detainees under the Bush administration and his forced resignation from the Nixon Justice Department for opposing the administration’s opposition to school desegregation.
The major concern is that Panetta – a former Republican known as a centrist who tends to seek compromise more than he is one to shake things up – will likely find himself as simply another part of the center-right national team Obama is putting together, especially since he will be serving under DNI director Blair. As The Nation‘s Dreyfus put it, “He’s no match for the hardheaded spooks who run the place, and he’s no match for the military brass who are elbowing their way to more and more control of intelligence spending and priorities.”
On the one hand, when the best that can be said of a nominee for an important national security position is that he opposes school segregation and believes that the U.S. government should not be engaging in torture, it is indicative of just how for down the bar has been lowered. At the same time, Panetta’s appointment is a clear signal that the Obama administration will not tolerate the kind of abuses that occurred under its predecessor.
Another potentially positive appointment is that of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy. Though a hawkish supporter of right-wing Israeli governments during his days in the Senate, the report of his 2000-2001 commission on Israeli-Palestinian violence was surprisingly balanced and reasonable. Its failures rested in the limitations imposed upon it by the Clinton Administration and the failure of the Bush administration to follow through on its recommendations. The question now is whether Mitchell and President Obama will be willing to effectively challenge Israel’s refusal to withdraw the bulk of its illegal settlements from the occupied West Bank to make a viable Palestinian state possible. (See my article: Is Mitchell Up to the Task?)
Obama as Commander-in-Chief
Even though many of Obama’s key foreign policy appointments are not that different than previous administration, it is important to remember that Barack Obama will be a very different commander-in-chief than George W. Bush.
For one thing, unlike the outgoing president, Obama is non-ideological, very knowledgeable and highly-intelligent. He was quite prescient about the irrationality of invading Iraq, even speaking at an anti-war rally at a time when most Americans supported going to war and – prior to becoming a national figure – he espoused a number of progressive positions ranging on issues ranging from human rights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In other words, even if Gates does call for bombing Venezuela, Obama is not going to do that. Even if Napolitano comes to him claiming that invading Iran is necessary to defend the homeland, Obama will recognize the folly of such a recommendation. Even if Clinton renews her attacks on the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, Obama is unlikely to go along with them. Even if Jones argues for sending in the Marines to capture Saudi oil fields, Obama will not take such a recommendation seriously.
It is also quite possible that all this is a shrewd political move on Obama’s part of placing center-right appointees is visible positions to better enable him to pursue a more progressive foreign policy, not unlike Bush using the moderate Colin Powell to sell the Iraq war. Had George McGovern won the 1972 presidential election, he would have likely appointed a number of prominent figures from the hawkish Democratic foreign policy establishment to key positions to assuage skeptics as well, but that does not mean he would have abandoned the core principles which had been the basis of his campaign and his entire political career.
Another reason that an Obama administration will not likely be as far to the right as these appointments may imply is that his electoral base – energized by popular opposition to the Iraq War – is perhaps the most progressive in history when it comes to foreign policy. It is also the most engaged and organized base the party has ever seen. Once the relief of Bush’s departure and the glow of Obama’s inauguration has worn off, he will have to face the millions of people responsible for his election who will expect him to keep his word regarding “change you can believe in.”
Indeed, with a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led in terms of a more progressive foreign policy. They have generally abandoned hawkish policies only after being forced to do so by popular mobilizations. From Vietnam to Central America to the nuclear arms race to South Africa to Iraq, Democratic leaders initially allied with the Republicans until they recognized their political futures were at stake unless they listened to the rank-and-file Democrats for whom they were dependent for their re-election. Then, and only then, were they willing to change course.
As a result, what may be most important will not be the people that Obama appoints, but the choices we give them.