MIDDLE EAST STILL AT WAR: THE U.S. IS LOSING BUT THE WINNERS ARE
By Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies, 28 May 2008
This is a period of rapid and dramatic decline of American economic
power around the world, and that, along with massive anger directed
at U.S. policies around the world, has resulted in a precipitous
drop in U.S. diplomatic and political influence. As a result, for
those committed to maintaining Washington's superpower status, choosing
military force to assert U.S. global reach becomes more, not less
likely. Forcing a real end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq is more
difficult than ever. U.S. military support to Israel is higher than
ever. And the danger of a U.S. military strike on Iran remains as
high as ever.
Despite and because of its huge military presence and the continuing
horror of the occupation and war in Iraq, there is no question that
Washington has lost significant influence in the Middle East. U.S.
efforts to dominate and control the region's governments, resources,
and people are failing. U.S.-backed governments and movements across
the Middle East are rejecting the Bush administration's demand that
they isolate, sanction, and threaten the other governments and movements
that Washington deems the bad guys - those linked to Iran. Instead
the U.S.-backed governments are themselves launching new bi-, tri-,
and multi-lateral negotiations with "the bad guys" outside
of U.S. control, and often in direct contradiction to U.S. wishes.
The Bush administration is making rosy-eyed claims that the Arab
world is unified behind its anti-Iran campaign. One of the White
House spin shops last week bragged about "growing agreement
among regional leaders regarding Iran's challenge to peace and security."
But in fact, the Middle East is far from unified behind White House
positions, and the U.S. is losing. U.S. allies are refusing to toe
Washington's dangerous line of "no negotiations with anyone
we say is a bad guy."
From Baghdad to Beirut, from Ramallah to Ankara and Cairo to Tel
Aviv, U.S.-backed governments are talking to, even signing agreements
with those Washington loves to hate - those allied with Iran. The
occupation-backed Iraqi government is rebuffing the Bush administration's
anti-Iran crusade. The Gulf Cooperation Council - the Saudi-led
union of pro-U.S. Arab petro-states - welcomed Iran as a neighboring
participant and potential trading partner at their annual meeting
last month. The pro-U.S. Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is engaged
in backroom unity talks with Hamas, and Israel is quietly negotiating
a ceasefire with Hamas, with both processes led by the U.S.-backed
government of Egypt. The U.S.-backed government in Beirut just signed
a formal agreement with the elected Hezbollah-led parliamentary
opposition, giving Hezbollah significant new power and allowing
the election of a new president not known for pro-U.S. views. Bush's
high-profile "talking equals appeasement" speech in the
Israeli Knesset failed to persuade Tel Aviv not to talk to Syria,
and Turkey announced it has been hosting Syrian-Israeli negotiations.
One unnamed Bush administration official called the new peace talks
"a slap in the face."
The impact of all these developments remains uncertain. Some of
these new initiatives may fail, and some (particularly the current
version of an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement) may create serious dangers
even if they succeed. But what is clear is that it hasn't been a
good season for the war buffs of the Bush administration. Perhaps
in response to this increasingly public Middle East repudiation
of the U.S. "isolate Iran" strategy, some key Bush administration
officials are for the moment backpedaling away from some of their
earlier rhetoric. Even as Hillary Clinton speaks of "obliterating"
Iran (presumably including its 70 million people), Bush's favorite
general David Petraeus now claims that in dealing with Iran, he
favors diplomacy as a first choice. At least for the moment.
So we have to figure out how to build on the changing discourse,
understand the still-rising dangers, and turn the work of the anti-war
movement to the strategic task of transforming anti-war public opinion
into real anti-war policy.
** On Iran - softening the rhetoric - for the moment
Largely because of last December's publication of the national Intelligence
Estimate stating that Iran did not have a nuclear weapon or a nuclear
weapons program and was not even necessarily interested in building
one, anti-Iran rhetoric has been rapidly shifting from Iran-is-building-a-nuclear-bomb
to Iran-is-killing-U.S.-troops-in-Iraq-by-arming-militias. Weeks
ago the Pentagon claimed it was about to go public to show stashes
of weapons allegedly captured in Karbala and from Moqtada al Sadr's
forces in Basra earlier this year. Those weapons were supposedly
produced in Iran, thus allegedly "proving" Iranian support
for Iraqi militias - but instead the whole propaganda effort collapsed
when U.S. inspectors said none of the weapons or ammunition could
actually be traced to Iran. As Gareth Porter described it, the effort
was aimed at "breaking down Congressional and public resistance
to the idea that Iranian bases supporting the meddling would have
to be attacked." But the effort failed. The Baghdad press briefing
was cancelled. At around the same time, the U.S.-backed Iraqi prime
minister Nuri al Maliki sent his own delegation to Iran to discuss
"evidence" provided to the Iraqi government by the U.S.
about Iranian "meddling" in Iraq. The delegation returned
to Baghdad, quietly, and the Iraqi government announced it was creating
its own investigation. Furious with the Maliki government's refusal
to join its anti-Iran crusade, one U.S. official told the Los Angeles
Times, "we were blindsided by this."
And now two influential 'realist' figures - Zbigniew Brzezinsky
and General William Odom, writing in the Washington Post havecalled
for an end to the current Bush policy of small carrots and heavy
sticks which, they say "may work with donkeys but not with
serious countries." The U.S., they say, would do better "if
the White House abandoned its threats of military action and its
calls for regime change."
** But changing discourse and winning broad public opposition to
the Bush strategy of endless war in the Middle East, does not yet
mean an end to the danger.
As we have seen with the Iraq war, even massive shifts in public
opinion do not inevitably change policy: even 70% U.S. public opposition
to the war has not translated into a shift in policy to actually
end the war and occupation.
** On Iraq - the discourse and the Congress
The House of Representatives' recent "no" vote on the
supplemental war bill, defeating Bush's request for $168 billion
for funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for more than another
year, clearly reflected the anti-war movement's success (along with
the effect of continuing U.S. military casualties and continued
U.S. failure) in transforming public discourse on the war. Aside
from partisan posturing, there is no way that 149 Democrats would
risk actually voting against the war funding unless they could count
on public opinion being against the war and in favor of Congress
refusing to pay for it. We have created a new reality - in which
the political price for supporting the war is higher than for opposing
the war. And now even the majority of Democrats aren't willing to
pay that higher price.
Whatever the intentions of war-mongering Republicans or the opportunistic
Democratic leadership, and even if the decision is overturned later,
the vote simultaneously reflected and enhanced the political legitimacy
of a clear anti-war position. For the anti-war movement, it was
a huge victory, bringing to fruition - even if only temporarily
- at least half of the goal articulated by AFSC's slogan "not
one more death, not one more dollar."
** Israel Talks - to isolate Iran? But occupations continue
The new Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and Israel's unofficial talks
with Hamas stand in direct defiance of Bush's Knesset speech less
than two weeks ago in which he equated "negotiations with the
terrorists and radicals" and World War II-era appeasement of
Hitler. As the New York Times described it, Israel has become "the
latest example of a country that has decided it is better to deal
with its foes than to ignore them."
Certainly talking is better than not talking. But not all talking
is serious, and motivations must be considered as well. Prime Minister
Olmert is under investigation for bribery, and may soon be indicted.
He has pledged to step down from his position if he is charged,
but in the meantime he is opening and announcing new "diplomatic
initiatives" at a furious pace, presumably at least partly
to pressure prosecutors not to risk Israel's claimed national interests
by forcing him to resign.
IRAQ - on the ground
The fighting in Sadr City between the Mahdi Army militia led by
Moqtada al-Sadr, and the U.S. occupation-backed Iraqi Army, has
at least temporarily subsided. But the relative calm is likely to
be short-lived, as neither military force was militarily defeated
and the issues of occupation and disparities of power remain unresolved.
The Mahdi fighters simply stopped fighting at a certain point, and
whether they remain in the city, or have regrouped somewhere else,
remains uncertain. Sadr City, like much of the rest of Baghdad,
is now characterized by high cement walls newly built by U.S. and
Iraqi Army troops that divide the city into tiny enclaves. As one
NPR reporter described Baghdad today, the city remains perhaps the
most militarized city in the world, where one cannot move more than
100 yards before encountering a military checkpoint.
In Iraq, this is what democracy looks like.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies
and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her latest books include
the just-published Iran in the Crosshairs: How to Prevent Washington's
Next War available from IPS - email@example.com or 202-234-9382. Also
available on line at www.ips-dc.org.