John Buell

Democrats and the New Axis of Evil

With the signs of a failed war in Iraq all around them, most Congressional Democrats are strangely eager to join the Bush administration's support of Israel's war of preemption against Hamas, Hezbollah and another "axis of evil" based in Iran and Syria. Terror is wrong, but not a random act. Failure to address the conditions in which it emerges is also wrong -- and self-defeating. Democrats have moved far along that path with the recent passage of a Congressional resolution decrying Hezbollah's "unprovoked" attack and handing a virtual blank check to Israel. A Democratic leadership that seems unwilling to question this logic risks becoming not only complicit in ongoing atrocities but also cedes the entire security debate to the Republicans.

The initial provocation was no more than the sort of border incursion typical of many disputed frontiers. Though wrong, Hezbollah's action was not "completely unprovoked." Israel holds scores of Lebanese citizens seized within Lebanon. As Steven Zunes, author of Tinderbox: US Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism [Common Courage Press, 2003] points out, Israel would have been justified in engaging in a paramilitary operation to rescue its soldiers or to seize Hezbollah soldiers, but a response that seeks to disable any future source of attacks on Israel is more than "disproportionate." Both sides are now engaged in actions that will likely one day be judged war crimes.

Congress's loose talk of Syrian and Iranian control of Hezbollah is equally misguided. Both countries provided initial support for Hezbollah, but Syria has always had a strained relation with Iran. Hezbollah for its part enjoys a considerable degree of independence, and in the uncertainty following Syrian withdrawal has been trying to gain both acceptance and a reason for being. Israeli actions have been counterproductive. Ben Gurion University political scientist Neve Gordon points out: "If before the war there was considerable internal Lebanese criticism of Hezbollah, Israel's ruthless violence, including the erasure of whole neighborhoods in Beirut as well as the forceful evacuation of half-a-million Lebanese citizens from their homes, has managed to sway popular support in favor of the fundamentalist organization."

At the root of much of the turmoil lies the status of the Palestinians. Gordon points out: "Despite its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last August, Israel still controls the means of legitimate movement in the region. And as long as Israel maintains control over the movement of Palestinian inhabitants, labor, goods and money, then -- as any first-year political science student knows -- it continues to be the sovereign power and Gazans remain under occupation. Cutting off 700,000 people from electricity, redeploying troops in the middle of Gaza and causing intense suffering to 1.4 million civilians has not produced the desired results."

Israel has a right to safe borders, but this right cannot be assured by attempting to eradicate all possible sources of future opposition. The US government occasionally acknowledges that democracy and economic development are the keys to reducing support for terrorism. But Hamas, democratically elected, has been frozen out of negotiations with Israel. Both Israel and the United States have taken the position that negotiation with Hamas is contingent on its accepting Israel's right to exist. This is an unfair precondition. Though it is reasonable to demand a cease fire as a precondition for negotiations with an independent Palestinian state, full acceptance of Israel and appropriate arrangements to police its borders must be the outcome rather than the precondition of negotiations. The old saying, as Gordon reminds us, is that one negotiates with enemies, not friends.

The US view of economic development is similarly one-sided. As in Iraq, it has amounted to privatization of state resources in ways that disproportionately benefit economic elites and foreign contractors.

Some on the left blame the current direction of US policy on the "Israeli lobby." But as Zunes points out, the US Middle East policy of backing authoritarian leaders in oil-rich states, engineering coups against nationalist or left-leaning movements and supporting pro-corporate trade and financial policies is indistinguishable from its policy in other parts of the world. Indeed, support for Israel, like support for the Shah or for apartheid South Africa, has been premised on its role in support of the US government's geopolitical agenda.

Destructive, radical fundamentalist currents long predate the US role in the Gulf, but these movements have gained strength and viability in part because impoverished groups have been shut out of domestic and broader diplomatic currents by the US, by Israel, and by the authoritarian Arab nations both support or at least tolerate. Bombs today may decimate the Hezbollah soldiers, but growing civilian casualties also generate more sympathy for their cause throughout the world. When Democrats lend their voice to military solutions, they are both wrong and politically short-sighted. Americans are coming increasingly to recognize that force is not stabilizing the Middle East or providing them with secure and cheap oil.

I do not know what stage this conflict will have reached when this essay is published, but if this vicious and counterproductive war persists, Democrats should appeal to all sides for an immediate end to violence and should demand US participation in multiparty negotiations with no preconditions. As casualties mount on all sides and fear and hatred grow, opportunities to forge lasting peace become ever more difficult.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2006

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