After the disaster of the Presidency of George W Bush, the world breathed a deep sigh of relief when Barack Hussein Obama was elected President of the USA in November 2008. Almost anyone would be better than Bush, but Obama was not just anyone. He was intelligent, liberal and articulate. He was the child of a Kenyan father of Muslim origin and a white American mother. His father and mother separated when he was a baby and Obama was brought up by his mother and grandmother whom he loved very dearly. The enthusiasm of America at his inauguration made us all hopeful again.
Perhaps this black American of Muslim origin who had known racism and some hardship could bring out new and better qualities in America. For the people of the United States, it could mean less inequality, less racism and the establishment of a health service that cared for its entire people. For the rest of the world, it could mean an end to the “unipolar moment”.
The neo-conservatives who had surrounded Bush had seen the end of the Cold War as their victory. They saw themselves as the great power that could dominate the world. They were obsessively supportive of Israel and determined to invade Iraq and establish a pro-American regime. This would enable them to dominate the Persian Gulf from which most of the world’s oil was exported, and also to develop the rich oil resources that remained untapped in Iraq. All this they laid out clearly in their Project for the American Century long before the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001.
There is no doubt that the attack on the Twin Towers was a great crime. Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty two innocent civilians were killed. In international law and in both Christian and Muslim teaching on just war, such a targeting of civilians is not permitted. The people of America and the world were outraged, but instead of working with this international goodwill to prevent any further attacks, the neo-cons saw it as an opportunity to attack Iraq as they had long planned.
It is worth standing back from the anger and outrage that most people feel over the terrible suffering and loss of life inflicted on the people of Iraq and asking whatever US policymakers thought they were doing. What is their long term thinking about the Middle East? President Bush The neo-conservatives who had surrounded Bush had seen the end of the Cold War as their victory. They saw themselves as the great power that could dominate the world. They were obsessively supportive of Israel and determined to invade Iraq and establish a pro-American regime. This would enable them to dominate the Persian Gulf from which most of the world’s oil was exported, and also to develop the rich oil resources that remained untapped in Iraq. was widely seen as inarticulate and lacking in intelligence. But America is the wealthiest country in the world. It controls more than half the world’s military resources. It has great universities and endless think tanks. The overwhelming bulk of Members of Congress supported Bush’s Iraq policy. The highly influential AIPAC lobby (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobbied strongly for this policy. Some have concluded that the Israeli tail wags the American dog. The pro-Israeli lobby is so strong that almost no one in politics in America dares to criticise.
In addition, the Bush administration was strongly supported by Christian fundamentalists who take a very strange view on Israel. They look forward to the end of the world when people like them, who have been “born again” in the belief in Jesus Christ, will ascend straight to heaven whilst all the rest of us will be damned. But they think this day will not come until the Messiah returns and that this will not happen until there is a Jewish state throughout historical Palestine. They therefore send money to the Israeli settlements and support an expansionist Israel, which continues to take over more and more Palestinian land. These people believe, however, that when the end of the world comes, the Jews of Israel will be damned because they have not accepted Christ and been born again. But in the meantime, they are the Israelis’ staunchest allies!
When we put these religious views alongside those of Osama bin Laden, we are entitled to ask whether unbalanced religious fanatics have taken over the world. But whenever Al Qaeda is mentioned, we should remember that bin Laden was a creation of US foreign policy. During the days of the Reagan administration (1981-89), when many of Bush’s neo-cons were in positions of power, America had worked with Saudi Arabia to send money and fighters to Afghanistan to encourage an Islamic uprising against the Soviet backed regime. They provided money and weapons in large quantities. Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan in support of this policy. Having, as he saw it, achieved the overthrow of one great power and become increasingly critical of the US, he decided to launch a holy war against the US. Al Qaeda is a blowback from US policy. This does not excuse their constant targeting of innocent civilians. But as has been wisely said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.
If we try to examine the forces lined up behind US policy in the Middle East, it does look as though unbalanced fanaticism has taken over. But beneath this there is some realpolitik. The Middle East is crucial to America because it produces 63 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and the whole way of life of the OECD countries is dependent on the plentiful availability of oil. Unconditional support for Israel has divided and balkanised the Middle East. Western policy has propped up cruel dictatorial regimes throughout the region, which keep in check their people’s natural sympathy for the terrible suffering of their Palestinian cousins. Any regime that fails to follow western policy is ostracised, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Baathist Syria or the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unattractive as it is, this policy of divide and rule has worked in its own cruel way for the last 60 years. The Bush administration included Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the axis of evil and plotted to overthrow all of these regimes. But they came unstuck in Iraq. They learned that the greatest military power in the world cannot defeat irregular forces that resist occupation. The same lesson was learned by Israel, the great military power of the Middle East when it attacked Lebanon in 2006. The lesson is also being taught to NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is important not to romanticise this point. The suffering and loss of life in Iraq and Lebanon was very great. The current loss of life and suffering on all sides in Afghanistan is also terrible. But this resistance to occupation – which is typical of humanity throughout time – has shown that the neo-conservative approach to the Middle East is not just ugly and unjust, it also does not work.
We should also be clear that this resistance is not led by Al Qaeda. They did become active in Iraq following the invasion and were responsible for most of the terrible sectarian attacks on Shia shrines and market places. They consider such attacks as legitimate because they see the Shia as heretics. Hezbollah, who are the resistance in Lebanon are a Shia movement that have no time for If we try to examine the forces lined up behind US policy in the Middle East, it does look as though unbalanced fanaticism has taken over. But beneath this there is realpolitik.Al Qaeda. They denounced the attack on the Twin Towers and criticise their policy of attacking civilians. But they are determined to resist Israel occupation and support the Palestinians’ right to resist oppression and demand justice and self government. The Taliban in Afghanistan are not one monolithic movement and they are not Al Qaeda either. They are a loose alliance of local forces resisting occupation, amongst which what remains of Al Qaeda is hiding, probably on the Pakistan side of the unnatural border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The question now is how the Obama administration will move and what we should be doing to try to bring to an end the terrible suffering and injustice. Obama of course voted against the invasion of Iraq and has promised withdrawal. There is already a draw down of American forces and a confinement of them to barracks. I am sure that the administration still hopes to leave a pro-American regime in place. This is complicated by the hostility of the US to Iran and the fact that the predominant community in Iraq is Shia with strong links to Iran. This story will unfold over the next few years and will be influenced by the overall situation in the Middle East.
Obama made the point during his election campaign that Al Qaeda had been based in Afghanistan and not Iraq, and insisted that that was the main battle. He has already increased US forces in Iraq and is calling on other NATO powers to do likewise. But all serious commentators are aware that the present NATO strategy is failing and the Taliban insurgency getting stronger. Wise voices are advising a negotiated cease fire over a three year period, a commitment to bring development to the people of Afghanistan and the promise of an organised withdrawal. It is said that Saudi Arabia is organising the talks with the Taliban. We must work to support such a change of policy.
But it is the terrible suffering of the Palestinian people and the constant rounds of warfare and bloodshed that is at the root of the anger of the Middle East and the Muslim world more widely. During the election campaign, Obama promised that he would take action to make peace from the beginning of his presidency. He has appointed George Mitchell, who has a fine record in contributing to the All serious commentators are aware that the present NATO strategy is failing and the Taliban insurgency getting stronger. Wise voices are advising a negotiated cease fire over a three year period, a commitment to bring development to the people of Afghanistan and the promise of an organised withdrawal.peace process in Northern Ireland, as his Special Envoy. He made a speech in Cairo in June 2009 which reached out to the Muslim world and showed proper respect for Islam. It was in many ways a fine speech, but he is American and it was not fairly balanced on Israel/Palestine. For example, he called for the Palestinians to cease to use violence and made no criticism of Israel over the Gaza war. We are promised announcements soon on how the peace process is to be taken forward, but currently the argument between the US and the extremist Israeli government of Netanyahu is on whether expansion of the settlements should halt. This creates little hope of the two state solution that the Arab League has said all the Arab powers would recognise, that Fatah calls for and that Hamas says it would declare a long term cease fire in support of.
The two state solution requires Israel to withdraw from all the lands it occupied in 1967 so that the Palestinians can establish their state on the lands that belong to them according to international law. It is clear that no major Israeli party supports such an agreement, instead successive governments have confined the Palestinians to a series of Bantustans in the West Bank, with the wall and closures preventing Palestinians from moving about or working their land. In Gaza, one and a half million people live hungry and traumatised amongst the rubble of the bombardment of the Israeli attack in January. The borders are still closed. The people are suffering cruelly and unforgivably. Israel’s behaviour is a gross breach of international law, cruel and unjust. Their strategy ever since Israel was established in 1948 is to constantly push out the Palestinians and take over their land. South Africans, such as Archbishop Tutu have said it is a crueller version of apartheid. It is hard to believe that President Obama will turn American policy on its head and insist that Israel hands back the lands it has stolen. It is to our shame that no major UK party is insisting on this. If Europe was more forward on this agenda, it would make it easier for Obama to do more. But the EU, and particularly the UK government, is quietly colluding in Israel’s illegality.
So what is to be done? We must all campaign, argue and hope that Obama has enough strength and courage to be able to break out of the stranglehold of American prejudice and insist on two states. There are signs that give some hope. Most American Jews opposed the Iraq war. American Jews have established a new In Gaza, one and a half million people live hungry and traumatised amongst the rubble of the bombardment of the Israeli attack in January. The borders are still closed. The people are suffering cruelly and unforgivably. Israel’s behaviour is a gross breach of international law, cruel and unjust.lobby group called J Street which supports a two state solution and is opposed to the policies of AIPAC. But it is hard to believe that Obama will succeed and if this is so, the trouble will continue and the likely solution will be one state for all its people rather than separate Israeli and Palestinian states. The Palestinians will suffer and resist in every way they can. The people of the Middle East will become ever angrier until one of the dictatorships falls, just as happened in Iran when the Shah was overthrown. But all of us who understand the depth of this injustice must do more. We must build a stronger movement of Muslims and non-Muslims standing together demanding justice and respect for international law. We must build a movement as strong as the antiapartheid movement that supports the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions and stand alongside the Palestinian resistance for as long as it takes.
There will be an end to Palestinian oppression, but it could take a very long time and mean even more bloodshed and suffering. We owe it to a commitment to justice to build a stronger international movement committed to solidarity and justice.