Bush administration on the skids in Iraq, Palestine, at home

Tuesday 22 November 2005, by Phyllis BENNIS

The recent escalation in Bush administration attacks on anti-war critics reflects the escalation of anti-war sentiment across the country. The deepening and consolidation of the anti-war movement has led to much wider public demands for bringing home the troops now. Those demands are increasingly being answered, albeit cautiously and nervously, by congressional and other official voices calling for timetables, scaling down, and "redeployment" of U.S. troops. That language, increasingly popular in Washington policy circles and the media, is something of a weasel term; it allows the user to avoid the direct call for troop withdrawal. But sometimes it does appear to refer to real withdrawal - centrist Congressman John Murtha today called on the Bush administration "to immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces" and ended his speech with the unequivocal statement "it is time to bring them home." Murtha added the crucial language that "the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice that the United States will immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free. Free from United States occupation." (The remarks led President Bush to compare the hawkish Vietnam veteran congressman to Michael Moore.)

The Senate vote, approved after the defeat of a stronger Democratic-led amendment, calls on the White House to provide explanations of its strategy and tri-monthly reports on the "progress" of the war to Congress, and endorses the vague concept of "phased redeployment" of U.S. troops from Iraq. But the vote’s importance lies far more in its symbolism than in its narrow implementation: as the New York Times editorialized today, "no matter how the White House chooses to spin it, the United States Senate cast a vote of no confidence this week on the war in Iraq." It represents the first public acknowledgement by the Senate of the rising public opposition to the Iraq war, and indicates that endorsing the war and embracing George W. Bush is no longer perceived as an unmitigated political plus for many senators of both parties. The amendment does not come close to matching the levels of public opposition (63% disapprove of how Bush is handling the war, 54% believe it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq, 60% believe it was not worth going to war in Iraq), senators are still not prepared to get out and lead an anti-war movement. But it does indicate that senators, including a majority of Republicans, recognize they can no longer ignore the rising opposition. With the lessons of their November 2005 defeats still bitter, Republicans are increasingly worried about major losses in 2006, and many Democrats are at least starting to recognize they will have to stake out some kind of anti-war position if they hope to get elected or reelected.

In Iraq, the war’s toll continues to mount. Recent revelations of torture and mistreatment of Sunni prisoners by Shi’a Iraqi prison guards are deepening the occupation-fueled sectarian divide. What the NY Times editorializes as "the ultimate Iraqi nightmare" does not just, as the Times claims, "seem to be drawing closer." Rather, the realities of "civil war, the persecution of minority populations in the new states, an alliance between the Shiites and Iran, and a complete breakdown of American moral and military influence in the Middle East" are very much in existence today in Iraq. And, with the exception of "military influence" which is still very much a power in the region, not only American moral influence but credibility, respect, political influence have long ago broken down. The expansion of terrorist attacks on civilians to Amman, long a quiescent capital, is only the most recent example of how the U.S. occupation is bringing more violence, not peace or democracy, not only to Iraq itself but to Iraq’s neighbors and indeed the entire region.

As domestic opposition rises, regional and international support for the war and for Bush policies in general is collapsing. The steadfast opposition of the five MERCOSUR countries, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez who made a point of linking his role with that of global civil society, defeated Bush’s efforts to create the NAFTA-on-steroids Free Trade Area of the Americas two weeks ago in Argentina. Staunch Bush-backer and war-defender Tony Blair faces a crisis within his own Labor Party and is anticipated to face a possible defeat as party leader; more significantly, calls for withdrawing British troops from Iraq within the next year have shaken the White House. Latvia’s fanfare proclamation that it would extend its tiny symbolic Iraq deployment (135 soldiers) through next year was dwarfed by Ukraine’s announcement that it is withdrawing its 1500 troops within the next six weeks. Even more significantly, key war ally South Korea, whose Iraq deployment is largest after the U.S. and UK, signaled their intention to withdraw large numbers of their troops next year - with the South Korean president announcing the plan while Bush was visiting his capital for the Asian summit.

However, in the United Nations the U.S. ratcheted up pressure on the Security Council, resulting in a unanimous vote to extend the UN mandate authorizing the so-called "multi-national force" (the U.S.-controlled occupation army) for another year. The U.S. claimed it was to spare the new Iraqi parliament, which will be elected December 15, the "embarrassment" of having to request that the occupation troops remain. In fact, the vote was designed to spare the Bush administration the real embarrassment of a new Iraqi parliament, "elected" under conditions of U.S. occupation, calling for an immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. Indeed, while the election will not be fully legitimate since it will take place under foreign military occupation, if the results reflect anything close to real public opinion in Iraq (82% want occupation troops out, less than 1% believe occupation troops make them safer) the new parliament will likely make the demand for U.S. withdrawal a priority. The UN resolution allows the new government to make such a request, but places a much greater burden on them to affirmatively ask for withdrawal, rather than leaving in place the existing arrangement under which the UN mandate would have expired automatically unless the new Iraqi government requested an extension of the occupation.

Iraq-related international and regional pressures were also at play behind the decision for Condoleezza Rice to reengage directly in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. With Bush administration credibility still dropping because of Iraq, Rice was under increasing pressure to move directly regarding Gaza. The situation in still-besieged Gaza has deteriorated significantly since the September withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers. Aside from the wall completely encircling Gaza, Israel continues to control all entry and exit of people and goods into and out of the Strip, controls the airspace, the seas, and reserves the right to re-invade at any moment. Pressures from U.S. ally Egypt, as well as the European Union, Washington’s "partner" in the so-called "Quartet" escalated further with fears, shared in Washington, of potential problems in the Palestinian elections scheduled for late January. With Palestinian leader Abu Mazen unable to provide his people with any means of seriously alleviating the growing social crisis, fears were rising that his mainstream Fatah party would lose to the Islamist Hamas movement in the parliamentary elections. Besides the political challenge of a Hamas-dominated parliament democratically elected in the Palestinian territories, such an outcome would further undermine Bush’s claim that it is his version of "democracy" that is spreading across the Middle East, providing justification for war in Iraq. Uncertainties also remain high regarding political shifts inside Israel, where long-time Labor Party chairman and Sharon ally Shimon Peres was defeated by a new Labor leader committed to taking the Labor Party out of Sharon’s coalition government, thus leading to new Israeli elections likely early in 2006. That set of fears led to Rice’s potentially risky engagement last week, culminating in a new agreement.

The agreement includes plans for future West Bank-Gaza travel, but focuses primarily on re-opening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. It might, if fully implemented, provide some relief to the economic crisis and isolation now deepening in Gazan society. But it does not mean an end to Israeli control or create anything remotely resembling sovereignty in Gaza. The agreement essentially outsources Israeli control of the Palestinian-Egyptian crossing to the European Union, who will provide "monitors" at the border. Israeli troops will not be physically present, but they will receive real-time video feeds from the EU officials monitoring the crossing; Israel will have six hours to raise objections to people attempting to enter or exit Gaza. While the Palestinian Authority will officially have the final decision, EU opinions will clearly be a powerful force since the agreement authorizes the EU to essentially shut down the operation if it finds the Palestinians are not operating according to what it defines as international standards. Between Gaza and Israel, agricultural goods will still have to be transferred from Palestinian to Israeli trucks, risking the same long delays and spoilage of agricultural goods that have long characterized the export of Palestinian goods into Israel.

At the end of the day U.S. claims of "democratization" are becoming obsolete even as pretexts for war. Even the NY Times acknowledged the recent Egyptian elections were undemocratic. As the Iraq quagmire deepens and human and financial costs continue to rise, as the crisis in Palestine continues despite small and uncertain efforts towards alleviating some of the misery, the reality becomes ever sharper that occupation - not democratization - is the hallmark of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy. Like the false claims regarding WMDs, nuclear weapons programs, uranium yellowcake, aluminum tubes, links with al Qaeda - "democratization" as an excuse for war is failing. The emperor’s nakedness is ever more exposed.

But the work of the peace and justice movement remains all the more urgent. While the administration is weaker than ever on the war front, the right is still pushing hard on much of their agenda. Congress is voting to make most of the Patriot Act permanent, Bush is backtracking from earlier negotiating positions on North Korea’s nuclear program, new disclosures regarding contractor fraud indicate that support for Katrina survivors remains illusory and that lack of serious support means that many Black survivors now in the Katrina diaspora have no means to come home. We have no time for complacency.

17 November 2005

by Phyllis Bennis

Institute for Policy Studies

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