The US in the Mideast: ignorance abroad

One of the frightening lessons one learns from spending time in Washington is that most of the men and women who make, or influence, American policy in the Middle East actually have little or no first-hand experience of the region. They know very little about its people or its political trends at the grassroots level, as the Iraq experience reconfirms so painfully.

American policy-making throughout the Middle East remains defined largely by three principal forces: pro-Israeli interests and lobbies in the United States that pander almost totally to Israeli government positions; an almost genetic, if understandable, need to respond to the 9/11 terror attack against the US by politically and militarily striking against Middle Eastern targets; and a growing determination to confront and contain Iran and its assorted Sunni and Shiite Arab allies.

A significant consequence of Washington’s deep pro-Israeli tilt has been to ignore public sentiments throughout the region, which in turn generates greater criticism of the US. It is not clear if American policymakers ignore Middle Eastern public opinion because of ignorance and diplomatic amateurism, or because of the structural dictates of pro-Israeli compliance.

Editor’s Comment — When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it turns out that Washington is not only ignoring the public sentiments across the Middle East — it is also ignoring public sentiment in America. A new poll indicates that 71% of Americans favor the US government adopting an even-handed approach to help resolve the conflict. That this poll has not been reported by a single American newspaper should be a source of embarrassment to any self-respecting American journalist working in the mainstream media who is aware of the fact. That Americans would express support for an even-handed approach (something that Howard Dean advocated in 2004 until he got jumped on by the Israel lobby), says nothing about any broad understanding of the issues, but simply that Americans — like most people — value fairness. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who hold the levers of power inside government, among lobbyists, and inside the media.

Does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still matter? [PDF]

In 2006, for the first time since we began polling, Arabs were asked what step taken by Washington would most improve their views of the United States. They were asked to choose two steps among the following: Pushing for the spread of democracy in the Middle East even more; providing more economic assistance to the region, stopping economic and military aid to Israel; withdrawing American forces from Iraq; withdrawing American forces from the Arabian peninsula; and brokering comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. More than 60% of respondents chose brokering Arab-Israeli peace as the number one answer, followed by withdrawal from Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula…

In 2008, 50% of the public identified brokering Arab-Israeli peace based on the 1967 border as the single most important step to improving their views of the United States–still the number one issue. Notable was the increase in the number of people who want to see an American withdrawal from Iraq (from 33% in 2006 to 44% in 2008) and the Arabian Peninsula (from 22% in 2006 to 46% in 2008), as more people were expressing less confidence in America’s ability to broker peace.

US Pentagon doubts Israeli intelligence over Iran’s nuclear programme

American commanders worry that Israel will feel compelled to act within the next 12 months with no guarantee that they can do more than slow Iran’s development of a weapon capable of destroying the Jewish state.

Gaps in the intelligence on the precise location and vulnerabilities of Iran’s facilities emerged during recent talks between Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Israeli generals, according to an official familiar with the discussions who has briefed Iran experts in Washington and London.

The assessment emerged as Iran in effect thumbed its nose at proposals by the West to freeze its uranium enrichment programme in exchange for easing economic sanctions. In its reply, sent to the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Iran said it was prepared to negotiate but only from a position of equality – and made no reference to the specific proposals.

The Truth Commission

When a distinguished American military commander accuses the United States of committing war crimes in its handling of detainees, you know that we need a new way forward.

“There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes,” Antonio Taguba, the retired major general who investigated abuses in Iraq, declares in a powerful new report on American torture from Physicians for Human Rights. “The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

The first step of accountability isn’t prosecutions. Rather, we need a national Truth Commission to lead a process of soul searching and national cleansing.

Editor’s Comment — The suggestion (which Kristof applauds) that Guantanamo be turned into a research facility for tropical diseases, sounds like the perfect way of helping America forget its crimes, rather than face them. Better instead to turn the facility into an international monument, preserved to visibly demonstrate how a democratic nation can fail to live up to its ideals when national security is used to subvert the enduring need for political accountability.

American energy policy, asleep at the spigot

Just three years ago, with oil trading at a seemingly frothy $66 a barrel, David J. O’Reilly made what many experts considered a risky bet. Outmaneuvering Chinese bidders and ignoring critics who said he overpaid, Mr. O’Reilly, the chief executive of Chevron, forked over $18 billion to buy Unocal, a giant whose riches date back to oil fields made famous in the film “There Will Be Blood.”

For Chevron, the deal proved to be a movie-worthy gusher, helping its profits to soar. And while he has warned about tightening energy supplies for years and looks prescient for buying Unocal, even Mr. O’Reilly says that he still can’t get his head around current oil prices, which closed above $145 a barrel on Thursday, a record.

“We can see how you can get to $100,” he says. “At $140, I just don’t know how to explain it. We’re surprised.”

For the rest of the country, the feeling is more like shock. As gasoline prices climb beyond $4 a gallon, Americans are rethinking what they drive and how and where they live. Entire industries are reeling — airlines and automakers most prominent among them — and gas prices have emerged as an important issue in the presidential campaign.

Barack at risk

Call him slippery or nuanced, Barack Obama’s core position on Iraq has always been more ambiguous than audacious. Now it is catching up with him, as his latest remarks are questioned by the Republicans, the mainstream media and the antiwar movement. He could put his candidacy at risk if his audacity continues to shrivel.

I first endorsed Obama because of the nature of the movement supporting him, not his particular stands on issues. The excitement among African-Americans and young people, the audacity of their hope, still holds the promise of a new era of social activism. The force of their rising expectations, I believe, could pressure a President Obama in a progressive direction and also energize a new wave of social movements. And of course, there is the need to end the Republican reign that began with a stolen election followed by eight years of war and torture, corporate gouging, environmental decay, domestic spying and right-wing court appointments, just in case we forget whom Obama is running against.

Besides the transforming nature of an African-American President, the issue that matters most to me is achieving a peaceful settlement of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–and preventing American escalations in Iran and Latin America. From the beginning, Obama’s symbolic 2002 position on Iraq has been very promising, reinforced again and again by his campaign pledge to “end the war” in 2009.

But that pledge has also been laced with loopholes all along, caveats that the mainstream media and his opponents (excepting Bill Richardson) have ignored or avoided until now.

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2 thoughts on “NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 6

  1. John Robertson

    Kudos for posting the NYT – Nelson Schwartz piece about US energy policy being “Asleep at the spigot.” It has been indeed, with lots of blame to go around to our short-sighted politicians. They include Newt Gingrich – whose statement to the effect that America’s cultural imperatives trump concern over oil supply should completely disgust all of us – and the late (but not lamented here) Jesse Helms, but also Michigan’s Senator Carl Levin and Rep. John Dingell, who asserts that we Americans simply gotta have our cars big and powerful, trophies in our driveway, or as Gingrich put it, “cultural expressions.”

    But let’s face it, we need to ladle plenty of that blame for our energy policy right into our own laps. There was a time, in the late 1970s, after the 1973 oil embargo, when Jimmy Carter tried to wake us up to the need for a more prudent and rational energy policy. I remember how impressed I was to see the US president actually go on television to ask us to drive less, turn down our thermostats, put on our sweaters. It was an era of 55 mph speed limits on our interstates, lots of VW Beetles and little Toyotas and Datsuns (now Nissan) and our roads; Americans trying to make a difference, to leave a smaller footprint. Sensible stuff. Rational stuff.

    Then came the 80s and 90s. Reagan came in (and, we all said, America could now “stand proud.” The price of oil came down, Detroit revved up the horsepower again, Jeeps and 4-wheel drives were suddenly cool. Then it was minivans for the American family – but they were soon way uncool, so then came the SUVs, then bigger SUVs, then the 1991 Desert Storm war made the humvee cool – so, GM decides, let’s make a Hummer for the standin’-proud US macho-male consumer. And so it went. You tell me the US sucks up 25% of the world’s oil supply? Hey, dude, so what? Besides, it’s our culture! We’re the nation of Richard Petty, and St. Dale of NASCAR! Besides, why should we give a sh*t about what the rest of the world says? C’mon, we saved all their asses in World War II, and then we won the Cold War and kicked the commies’ butts, right? Screw em! They owe us!

    And so it’s gone. And here we are, where we are. Ford and GM are getting knee-capped, and with them thousands of autoworkers and their families, including kids whose families won’t be able to come up with college tuition. (Say, maybe our energy policy has solved the military’s recruitment dilemma!) Meanwhile, the asphalt in our used-car lots is crumbling under the weight of all those unsellable Ford Expeditions and Chevy pickups, sitting there (shall I say it? OK, cue Bob Seger!) “like a rock.”

  2. Louise Lander

    Concerning what to do with the naval base at Guantánamo, Cuba, it is striking that no one is recognizing that this piece of real estate is a spoil of the Spanish-American War. (Cuba itself would have been annexed by the US had it not been for the opposition of the sugar lobby.) In other words, Guantánamo was stolen from Cuba by force. It should be returned to its rightful owner.

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