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Talking Points

Excerpts from:

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 - info@ips-dc.org or 202-234-9382. Also available on line at www.ips-dc.org.