Towards a New Middle East Policy

excerpted from the book


U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism

by Stephen Zunes

Common Courage Press, 2003, paper


Towards a New Middle East Policy

The United States faces a stark choice between continuing with its strategy of Pax Americana and building real peace and security. The first option requires the continued oppression of large populations, from stateless peoples like the Palestinians, Sahrawis and Kurds; to those victimized by repressive allied regimes, like the Saudis and the Egyptians; to those suffering as a result of American antipathy towards their governments, like the Iraqis and the Iranians. This will continue to breed an inevitable hatred by these peoples against those who they believe are responsible for their suffering. When outlets for redress are systematically sealed off, whether by occupation armies or dictatorial regimes, some portion of the oppressed population will almost certainly respond with terrorism. Acts of terrorism by oppressed Middle Eastern peoples have been going on for years, long before the United States became the target in the attacks of September 2001, striking such countries as Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Algeria, among others. The propensity for targeted populations to engage in acts of terror is particularly high when the oppression they face is itself a form of terrorism, in terms of the large-scale killings of civilians. Americans cannot expect that those on the receiving end of state violence will refrain from treating Americans in a manner similar to how they see themselves as being treated, particularly as the United States, directly or through allied governments, brings destruction to their countries and death to their people.

On the day of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, CNN decided to repeatedly show video clips of a small number of Palestinians celebrating. Though their sentiments represented only a small minority of Palestinians and other Arabs, these West Bank residents were probably not alone in the Third World in feeling a perverse sense of satisfaction: Finally, the United States knows what it is like to lose thousands of civilians in an act of political violence, getting a taste of what it has been like for those who have been the victims of U.S. foreign policy. For such massive loss of civilian lives is not new to the Palestinians, nor is it to the people of Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, East Timor, Iraq or Lebanon, who know the feeling all too well, not in small part due to the policies of the United States. The heart-rending scenes in the days following the tragedy of anguished New Yorkers holding up pictures of their missing loved ones bore a striking resemblance to similar scenes in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s of the relatives of los desaparecidos, the thousands of "disappeared," victims kidnapped and murdered by military regimes backed by the U.S. government.

While the United States has been responsible, both directly and indirectly, for inflicting enormous violence throughout the globe, that can never justify violence against American civilians. The unfortunate reality, however, is that such violence is likely to continue unless there is a change in U.S. policy. In addition to the strong moral imperatives that have led peace and human rights activists to challenge U.S. policy over the decades, there is now the additional incentive of self-interest: bringing about a more enlightened foreign policy is necessary for national security.

Addressing the Root Causes of Terrorism

Arab nationalism, Marxism, and other ideologies that have come to the fore in recent decades have failed to free Islamic countries from unjust political, social and economic systems or from domination by Western powers. In many respects, political Islam has filled the resulting vacuum. The embrace of reprehensible tactics and ideologies by some radical Islamic movements does not negate the validity of some of the popular concerns that have given rise to such movements. One need not justify the reasons to understand them, yet these are concerns that the United States ignores at its own peril.

"The Arabs," observed Marine General Anthony Zinni, former head of the U.S. Central Command, "are a people obsessed with injustice." Only by addressing the legitimate grievances will there be any hope of stopping the often-illegitimate methods and extremist ideologies of anti-American Islamic groups. Otherwise, the United States may find itself dealing with a series of conflicts that could eclipse the bloody surrogate Cold War battles that ravaged the Third World in previous decades.

From Afghanistan to Algeria and beyond, out of great social dislocation caused by war and misguided economic policies, radical Islamic movements have grown to prominence. Policies designed to minimize such traumatic dislocation will be far more successful than military threats if the goal is to encourage political moderation in Islamic countries. To effectively challenge the threat from radical Islamic movements, the United States must shift its focus from simply trying to crush such movements to pursuing policies that discourage their emergence.

Simply addressing the security aspects of terrorism, then, as U.S. policy currently does, confronts the symptoms rather than the cause. The struggle against terrorism cannot be won until the United States also ceases its pursuit of policies that have alienated such large segments of the international community, particularly in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Third World. The United States is a target of terrorists in large part due to its perceived arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed. Becoming a more responsible member of the international community will go a long way toward making the United States safer and ultimately stronger. George Semaan, editor of the London-based Arabic publication Al Hayatt, observed that the United States cannot root out terrorism "unless it changes its attitude as to how to develop and defend its interests by building a network of relations based on respect of the interests of others, particularly the weak and those whose rights have been denied." The tactics of terrorists can never be justified, whatever their grievances. Yet it is crucial to recognize that the most effective weapon in the war against terrorism would be to take measures that would lessen the likelihood for the United States and its citizens to become targets. This means changing policies that victimize vulnerable populations in ways that currently result in them holding the United States responsible for their suffering and thus becoming easy recruits for anti-American terrorists. For example, bin Laden's key grievances-U.S. support for the Israeli occupation, the ongoing U.S. military presence on the Arabian peninsula, the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions against Iraq, and support for corrupt Arab dictatorships-have resonance among the majority of the world's Muslims. Very few Muslims support terrorism of any kind, yet as long as there is such widespread hostility to U.S. Middle East policy, it will not be difficult for terrorists to find willing recruits.

Changing U.S. policy will not satisfy bin Laden and other extremists, nor should it. The United States should never change any policy for the sake of appeasing terrorists. However, changing policies that are already questionable on moral or legal grounds becomes all the more crucial when doing so could also reduce the threat from terrorism, since it will substantially reduce their potential following and-by extension-their ability to do damage.

The popularity of the United States in the Middle East is directly related to the perceived fairness of its policies towards the region. Support for the United States was highest in late 1956 when the Eisenhower Administration forced Israel, Great Britain, and France to halt their invasion of Egypt. Though ultimately motivated by fear of a pro-Soviet backlash in the Arab world if the United States did otherwise, this seemingly principled stand in support of international law and the right of self-determination against the wishes of America's closest allies won the United States enormous respect throughout the region. However, in more recent years, as the United States has tried to enforce its will on the region through militarization and support for what is widely perceived as repression and injustice, support for the United States has declined dramatically. This trust can be restored, but only if the United States shifts its policies to become more consistent with support for human rights, international law, sustainable economic development and demilitarization.

Changing U.S. Foreign Policy

It will be hard to change the policies of the current administration as \ long as the majority of even such liberal Capitol Hill bastions as the Progressive Caucus and the Human Rights Caucus support the status quo, as is currently the case. A widespread assumption is that the key to changing U.S. government policies is to replace these and other politicians by electing those interested in change. Supporting candidates with more enlightened views towards the U.S. role in the world certainly has its merits. The Green Party-that has a strong platform in support of peace and human rights in the Middle East-has been attracting large numbers of disaffected Democrats upset at their party's right-wing stance. Yet not only is the record of third parties mixed in terms of changing policies, but history has shown that it is ultimately less important whom the American electorate chooses as its political leaders as it is the choices that a well-mobilized citizenry give them once in office.

For example, the history of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades has been shaped markedly as a result of popular demands by large numbers of people putting pressure on elected officials through Congressional lobbying, legal protests, civil disobedience, and public education campaigns. For example, the Democratic Party in 1968 had a platform supporting the Vietnam War with the incumbent Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, a strong proponent of the war, as its nominee. By the next presidential election in 1972, the Democratic Party had a strong anti-war platform and an outspoken anti-war nominee in Senator George McGovern, which helped force the Nixon Administration to sign a peace treaty by January of the following year. There was much more than organizing people to vote responsible for this change. The four years in between saw massive anti-war mobilizations with hundreds of thousands of people protesting in Washington, DC and elsewhere, as well as large~scale civil disobedience campaigns, widespread draft resistance, and other forms of opposition.

There are many other examples: In 1980, Vice-President Walter Mondale and others in the Carter Administration strongly opposed the call for a freeze in the research, testing, and development of new nuclear weapons and delivery systems. By the time he ran for president in 1984, however, Mondale was an outspoken supporter of the proposed nuclear freeze. In the intervening four years, the Nuclear Freeze Campaign and disarmament activists had mobilized grassroots initiatives across the country, including the massive 1982 protest in New York City. Major arms control treaties were signed in the ensuing years.

In 1977, Andrew Young-the African-American clergyman and former aide to Martin Luther King who then served as President Carter's ambassador to the United Nations-vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions against South Africa. By 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate joined the Democratic-led House of Representatives in overriding a presidential veto to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime. This dramatic shift came as a result of the divestment campaigns and other actions of the anti-apartheid movement that sprung up on college campuses and elsewhere throughout the country. The imposition of sanctions proved to be instrumental in the downfall of white minority rule.

In the 1980s, massive protests against the U.S. military role in Central America forced the United States to accept the Arias peace plan, which brought an end to the bloody civil wars and resulted in the establishment of democratic governance in a region then dominated by repressive military-led regimes.

In the l990s, a popular movement supporting self-determination for East Timor forced a reluctant Clinton Administration to cut off military aid to Indonesia, which in turn led to the withdrawal of Indonesian occupation forces and eventual independence.

The key to changing U.S. Middle East policy, then, is in building a popular movement comparable to these successful precedents. So far, the movement has been relatively small compared to these others. Given what is at stake, this is particularly tragic.

As with other movements, there are elements of the far left and others that sometimes fall into rigid ideological models based upon little empirical information about the conflict in question, often greatly simplifying complex historical dynamics and sometimes even buying into bizarre conspiracy theories. In addition, certain elements from the far right can infect movements critical of U.S. policy regarding Israel with anti-Semitic ideas. However, the biggest problem has been the timidity of the peace and human rights community to become more involved. For example, it is very unlikely that the scores of liberal members of Congress who support the bombing of Iraq or military aid to Israeli occupation forces would continue to do so if faced with the kind of mobilization that took place opposing U.S. policy in Central America.

Public opinion polls indicating popular support for President Bush's Middle East policy does not mean that most Americans actually support the policy. It merely means that they support what the policy is presented as being. Most Americans actually believe their government's rhetoric that the United States supports democracy, international taw, demilitarization, economic development, and Israeli-Palestinian peace and that U.S. military involvement is focused solely upon defending the United States. One of the first challenges for those wishing to change U.S. policy, then, is to expose the real nature of that policy. Once that is revealed, support for a new foreign policy can be mobilized into the kind of popular movement that has forced changes in foreign policy in the past.


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