Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Arab-American Teach-in Explores U.S. Policy in Middle East

U.S. Media Systematically Mislead American People, Speakers Say


photo by GERARD RAMIREZ (L to R: Babak Rahimi, Michael Provence, Nasser Barghouti)

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Any resemblance between what the mainstream U.S. media say about American involvement in the Middle East and reality is, if not purely coincidental, at least far-fetched, said three speakers at a teach-in on Middle East issues May 31 at the Four Points Sheraton on Aero Drive. Sponsored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Alternate Focus public-access cable-TV program on Middle Eastern issues, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice and the San Diego chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild, the event showcased UCSD Iranian studies professor Babak Rahimi, UCSD history professor Michael Provence, and San Diego ADC president Nasser Barghouti, all of whom built their presentations around the contrast between what our media tell us about the Middle East and what’s really going on there.

“The ‘popular’ image of Iran and Iraq in the U.S. media deals with two countries that are ultimately ‘threatening’ to U.S. ‘interests’ — actually the U.S.’s military ventures,” Rahimi explained. “In Iran, we get images of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and how he will have the power to destroy the Middle East in general and Israel in particular once he gets nuclear weapons. The message is that the only way to stop him is to destroy the current Iranian government and overthrow it.” Rahimi quoted Richard Perle, well-known neoconservative and one of the intellectual architects of the U.S. war on Iraq, as saying the current Iranian regime is “irreformable.”

“In the case of Iraq, we get a different picture” in the U.S. media, Rahimi added. “There’s an immediate emotional sympathy because of the American military presence, and there’s a confusing picture being painted of Sunnis killing Shi’ites, Shi’ites killing Sunnis and everything nice and rosy in Kurdistan.” Rahimi pointed out that Kirkuk, the largest city in Iraq’s Kurdish region, has its own set of clashes between Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, “and there’s a real ethnic tension that will possibly destabilize Kurdistan,” but we don’t get much inkling of that in the U.S. media.

“The U.S. media picture is partially true,” Rahimi conceded. “We are seeing radical transformations in both Iran and Iraq. We’re seeing the increasing radicalization of the hard-liners in Iran, while Iraq is fragmenting in ways that could destabilize the entire region.” According to Rahimi, Iran was actually moving in a more moderate direction between 1997, when reformist Muhammad Khatami won the presidency and “there was an explosion of Iranian civil society, women’s rights, movements, different organizations and print media,” and 2002, when the hard-liners regained control.

“The hard-liners decided that the reformers were not only a domestic threat to their power, but could be used by the U.S. as agents to take over,” Rahimi explained. “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a major threat to Iran, and in 2002 they fought back by kicking the reform candidates off the ballot in the parliamentary elections. In 2005 they elected their own man as president.” Since then, Rahimi said, the elite Revolutionary Guards have increased their power so much that they now not only dominate the civilian government but are even challenging Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to Khomeini as Supreme Leader under Iran’s Islamist constitution, which gives him and the council of clerics he heads veto power over all candidates for office and all laws passed by Iran’s government.

“Iran and Iraq are historically linked,” Rahimi said. “They’re both majority Shi’a and there’s a religious identity and tradition by which Shi’a Islam has its roots in Iraq. Instead of the consolidation of one party in power in Iraq, we’re seeing the fragmentation of all the groups and parties that made their name in the 2005 election.” According to Rahimi, that election — the first of a series the U.S. sponsored in Iraq, which chose an assembly to write a new Iraqi constitution and which was dominated by Shi’ites and, to a lesser degree, by Kurds because most Sunnis chose not to participate — was set up so that people voted for parties, not individual candidates.

“That enabled the rise of sectarian politics,” he explained. “Many Shi’as voted for the United Iraqi Alliance” — which, despite its name, was almost exclusively a Shi’ite coalition — “and were able to win the January 2005 elections and being the most dominant political party. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to create a unity government with Sunni and Kurd factions, but it’s highly fragmented and the parties are moving away from the unity government to find their own niches.” Meanwhile, he said, the Sunni community itself fragmented, and the Salafist sub-sect of Iraqi Sunnis formed a resistance that targeted, not Americans, but Shi’a Iraqis. “In 2006, after the Golden Shrine bombing, the Shi’a factions united against the anti-Shi’a Sunni groups,” Rahimi said.

The result has been an Iraqi central government that is not only fragmenting but is far out of touch with the needs of the Iraqi people. “The Iraqi government is based inside a bubble in Baghdad known as the Green Zone,” Rahimi said. “It isn’t green; it’s literally grey. The whole place is surrounded by guard troops from Eastern Europe, including Georgia. You go in and pass through two security checks, and then you see Iraqi ministers debating. Many of them don’t ever leave the National Assembly building. The only ones who do leave are the ones who are based in Baghdad, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s people. But that’s the extent of the Iraqi government: the extent to which each party’s militia has support among the Iraqi people. The parties without militias won’t leave the Green Zone at all.”

The debacles in Iraq and especially Iran largely stem from U.S. foreign policy mistakes, Rahimi said — including the true beginning of modern Iranian history: the overthrow of Muhammad Mossadegh’s democratically elected government in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 and the restoration of the Shah’s monarchy. This coup, which also had the backing of Great Britain, was justified on the ground that Mossadegh had nationalized Iran’s oil industry and was “supposedly flirting with the Soviet Union,” Rahimi explained. The overthrow of Iran’s fledgling democracy and the authoritarian methods by which the Shah kept power — including a CIA-trained domestic spying operation called SAVAK — “had their unintended consequences in the 1979 Iranian revolution,” in which the Shah was finally overthrown and Khomeini was able to set up his theocratic system.

“The politically correct position in the U.S. media is we can’t blame any of this on U.S. foreign policy,” Rahimi said. “I can’t stand the Iranian government, but I can see why they would want to radicalize and I can see why they would want nuclear weapons when there are U.S. troops in virtually every country on their borders, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. government’s official position is that ‘regime change’ is the only policy we have towards Iran.” What’s more, Rahimi added, he thinks the U.S. wants the Iranian government to become more radical and more repressive — the better to justify either a general attack on Iran or, more likely, targeted bombing raids aimed at Iran’s fledgling nuclear industry.

“Will the U.S. attack Iran? I don’t think so,” Rahimi said. “Will the U.S. stay in Iraq? Bush’s administration just said they’d stay long-term like they have in South Korea. The U.S. has built the world’s largest embassy and some of its largest military bases in Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani, the most moderate Shi’a leader in Iraq, has said the U.S. can stay for a while but has to leave eventually — and if Sistani says that, you can imagine what al-Sadr would say. If the U.S. stays in Iraq it will see increasing threats from Iran and more Iranian influence over Iraq’s Shi’as. The solution is a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy.”

Precedents for Palestine

Nasser Barghouti, of Palestinian ancestry and most known locally for impassioned speeches at peace rallies stressing his support for the so-called “right of return” — the re-admission of Palestinian families thrown out of what is now Israel in 1948, which virtually every party in Israel fiercely opposes because it would likely cost the state its Jewish majority — began his speech talking about a country in another part of the world altogether. He cited U.S. and British media reports from the early 1990’s that predicted post-apartheid South Africa would erupt in civil war because the various Black tribes in the country would never be able to settle their differences peacefully and come together to govern.

“The Western media had hundreds of articles about impending civil war in South Africa,” Barghouti recalled. “Today South Africa has become a stable society. So don’t take the Western media coverage about Palestine too seriously, not because there aren’t bad things happening, but because the Western media sees things in terms of neo-colonialism.” According to Barghouti, Western media coverage of the conflicts in Palestine reflects a hidden racism — a belief that people of color can’t get together peacefully and form a workable state — and a fulfillment of the divide-and-conquer agenda Britain and France followed when they colonized the region after World War I, creating phony “states” whose borders heightened tribal conflicts and then using the resulting civil wars as excuses for new imperialism.

Barghouti called this process “the white man’s burden,” using Rudyard Kipling’s famous phrase, and defined it as “the belief that whites are doing this for humanity and progress, and ignoring that they made it that way in the first place.” He ridiculed Democratic Senator and Presidential candidate Joseph Biden’s insistence that the only way to end the war in Iraq is to partition the country into separate Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish nations, and then returned to his main subject, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. While acknowledging differences between South Africa and Palestine, he stressed their similarities,

“Israel, a colonial power, has devastated Gaza and the West Bank,” Barghouti said. “It destroyed the infrastructure of Gaza and seeded it with police agents and even drugs. Israel has completely closed Gaza, like a pressure cooker. They have prevented any economy from existing by keeping anyone and anything from coming in or out. Israel has even blocked supplies of flour and water from Gaza for weeks at a time. Then, as part of their policy of so-called ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders, they have bombed whole city blocks without any concern for how many civilians they kill.” According to Barghouti, no people on earth could survive the pressure the Israelis have put on the Palestinians without either dying out as a people or fighting back — but, when the Palestinians fight back, he said, “Western media analysts say the Palestinians are savages and Israel did everything they could to help them.”

Barghouti listed four “crucial facts” about the situation of the Palestinians. “First,” he said, “there is a military occupation — and there has been for four decades, the longest in recent history anywhere in the world. Israel has built Jewish-only settlements and Jewish-only roads throughout Palestine, and enforced them with machine guns. Most of the settlers are there for economic reasons” — real estate prices in pre-1967 Israel have soared so high many working-class and lower middle-class Israelis see living on the West Bank as their only alternative — “but some are religious fanatics determined to annex the land to Israel. The Israeli occupation has systematically violated every part of the Geneva conventions.”

According to Barghouti, the second “crucial fact” about Israel and Palestine is “a failed political process. The 1993 Oslo Accords created a ‘Palestinian Authority,’ but without real sovereignty. The military occupation continued, and as part of the so-called “Palestinian Authority’ the Palestinian militias took over some of the oppressive roles from the Israelis. This is factionalism.”

Barghouti’s third “crucial fact” was the “poverty and desperation” imposed on the Palestinian people by Israel’s occupation, and in particular by the economic restrictions imposed on the Palestinians: they’re forbidden to hold jobs in Israel itself, forbidden to travel freely within occupied Palestine, walled off by barriers and huge “access roads” reserved for Jews only, and frequently their houses and farms are demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Because of this treatment, Barghouti said, “Palestinian living standards plummeted between 1993 and 2003 while Israeli settlements doubled. Israelis live at the living standards of Italians or Spaniards, while Palestinians are poorer than Bangladeshis.”

The fourth “crucial fact” Barghouti cited was the corruption within the Palestinian Authority itself — which he described as the inevitable result of being given authority and money without the responsibility of real sovereignty. “The Palestinian Authority started acting like a ruling class,” he said, “with villas, expensive cars and mass corruption. It’s happened in every decolonized country.” Barghouti added that because of his great charisma and reputation as Palestine’s founder and liberator, Yasir Arafat was able to get away with this — but when Arafat died in 2006 Palestinian voters, angry with the corruption of Arafat’s Fatah movement, replaced it with the more radical but also more honest Hamas party.

This only made the Palestinians’ situation even worse, Barghouti explained — because Fatah refused to accept the election results, and neither did Israel, the U.S. or Europe. The result was “crippling sanctions” that made the Palestinians’ already desperate economic situation even worse. Not only was the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority not allowed to collect any taxes to support the government — instead, Israel simply impounded the tax money Palestinians were paying — but the U.S. and Europe immediately ended all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. What’s more, Israel also resumed assassinations of Palestinian leaders and started a targeted campaign of arresting most of the Hamas leaders in the Palestinian government.

“The end result,” Barghouti explained, “is a chaotic situation in which the armed militias created by the 1993 Oslo agreements have refused to disband. These militias contain paid provocateurs who deliberately start violent incidents, and we have to wonder who pays them. Though Hamas is not as well armed as Fatah, they do have weapons, possibly from Iran, and it’s become a complete disaster.” Barghouti described the Palestinians’ situation over the last year and a half as “a roller-coaster,” in which hopes that a unity government will be formed are dashed by someone from one faction killing someone from another on the street and thereby disrupting the negotiations.

At least part of the problem, Barghouti said, is the fervency of the support the current U.S. government has given Israel. According to Barghouti, when Saudi Arabia hosted meetings between Hamas and Fatah for negotiations that actually produced a potential Palestinian unity government, “there was a bit of a break in the Western alliance. Norway said they would resume aid and other European countries announced they would consider following suit.” Then the boom was lowered: Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, announced that Israel was rejecting the Saudi-brokered unity government — and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice showed up in Israel and “said the same words Olmert did” in denouncing the unity government and snapping the Western alliance back into line to keep the Palestinians broke and starving.

“I think that break in the sanctions upset Israel,” Barghouti said. “Within a few days, violence erupted and today it’s warfare in the streets again. Tens of people are killed every day. Israel has resumed bombardment and has been bombing for two weeks straight and raiding West Bank cities. It’s a miracle that so far the fighting between Hamas and Fatah has been contained in Gaza.” Once again, Barghouti faulted the Western media for reporting the Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence without acknowledging the root causes: “occupation, sanctions, and poverty.”

For Barghouti, the only solution to the Palestinians’ problems is an end to the Israeli occupation. “Let them breathe, and they will solve their own problems, just as South Africa, India and China did,” he said. “Can the Palestinian government deliver the Palestinian people? Unlikely, because the Mecca accords have flaws and the Palestinian ‘government’ is only an entity with no control over their sovereignty, resources or militias. Without lifting the occupation at least back to the 1967 borders, there’s no chance of a peaceful solution — and Israel will never lift the occupation unless they’re forced to do so. … This means boycotts against Israel and pressure against the U.S. to stop supporting the occupation.”

History Lesson on Lebanon and Syria

As befit a history professor, Michael Provence began his part of the program with a quick history lesson. He pointed to the map of the Middle East included in the flyer advertising the teach-in, and explained its origins: it was the map prepared by Britain and France in 1916 in a secret conference on how to divide the properties of the failing Ottoman Empire, which they were fighting against in World War I. Anticipating that the Ottoman Empire would collapse after the war, which it did (though its home base was reorganized into the modern state of Turkey), the colonial powers planned to grab as much as possible of the Middle East for themselves — and, as Provence pointed out, the lines they drew on their secret map in 1916, with zero input from the people who actually lived in the region, are almost identical to the modern boundaries.

“Every border in the Middle East was decided by the European powers against the wishes of the people in the region, and now the Americans think that they can reshape it even better without regard to the history,” Provence said. “The people responded, then and now, with resistance — political, intellectual and military. The response to occupation, partition and foreign forces is predictable. … Every war and conflict in the region traces back to the colonial settlement of 1920 [when the secret 1916 map was implemented], and even four-year-olds in the region know the basic facts.”

The trouble began, Provence said, when France set up so-called “Greater Lebanon” in 1920 under a League of Nations mandate, directly ruling Lebanon and Syria while Britain took control of Iraq (where they set up a puppet king), Jordan and what is now Israel and Palestine. Even the rhetoric the French and British used during the period when they directly ruled most of the Middle East has an awfully familiar sound; as Provence noted, “in the 1920’s and 1930’s they called their local opponents ‘terrorists,’ ‘bandits’ and even ‘Bolsheviks,’ and ignored the fact that all the people in those countries wanted them to leave.”

According to Provence, France’s rule over Lebanon and their playing different Lebanese racial, religious and ethnic communities against each other sowed the seeds for civil war in 1958 and again in 1975-80. In 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon and stayed there until 2000, and when the U.S. invaded Iraq Left-wing Israeli journalists said the Iraq invasion would play out the same way. In 1982 the Israelis said they went into Lebanon to destroy the ‘terrorists’ and create a client state. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush allowed Syria to invade Lebanon in return for Syrian support in the first Gulf War against Iraq. The Syrians overstayed their welcome in Lebanon for a very long time.”

According to Provence, Syria opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 but soft-pedaled their opposition so as “not to antagonize Bush.” Instead, the Iraq invasion gave the Syrian dictatorship the same opportunity as it did the Iranian regime: “to crack down on liberal movements at home.” He said that initially the U.S. didn’t target Iran and Syria until the Iraqi invasion turned into the current debacle; then the Bush administration started blaming Iran and Syria for supporting the Iraqi “insurgents” and making it difficult for the U.S. to keep control over newly conquered and occupied Iraq.

The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 gave Bush “a lever … to pressure Syria,” Provence said. “In February 2006 Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora visited Bush on a state visit, and we’re pretty sure he asked Bush, ‘Please stop Israeli provocations on the southern border and Israeli overflights, and allow us to make the case to Hezbollah to be incorporated into the Lebanese government and military.’” Instead, in July Israel launched a war against Lebanon that lasted for 34 days — and what’s more, unlike in previous Arab-Israeli conflicts, instead of using its influence over Israel to broker a cease-fire the U.S. actually encouraged Israel’s attacks.

“The U.S. told Israel, ‘Make it longer. Keep bombing,’” Provence said. “Previously the U.S. and the Soviet Union would call for a cease-fire in Arab-Israeli conflicts. This time, the cease-fire was repeatedly torpedoed by the U.S. government. Not even Kissinger or Reagan ever did this. The U.S. government seems in thrall to Israel’s loony Right.” Like Barghouti, Provence pointed out that virtually the entire U.S. mainstream media reports conflicts involving Israel almost exclusively from Israel’s perspective; not even Israel’s own media are as relentlessly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian as ours.

“The situation across the region is tremendously depressing, but the capacity for another U.S.-led war is curtailed by domestic opposition and logistical problems,” Provence said. “Olmert’s and Sinoria’s governments are hanging by threads. Hezbollah is not interested in provoking Israel at this time, but Olmert or Israel’s next prime minister could well do something violent to re-establish Israeli authority in the region. The Syrians aren’t interested in making war against Israel, but certain people in this country are saying that to create a ‘buzz’ for intervention the way they did about Iraq. Still, I believe the people of the region will prevail in the long run.”