Talking Points: Tensions Rising, Wars Escalating, Occupations Expanding

Phyllis speaking at an AIPAC protest on March 2, 2014

Phyllis speaking at an AIPAC protest on March 2, 2014

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the Chinese proverb — or curse, depending on your perspective. These ancient, nameless Chinese prophets were at least partly right: Living in “interesting times” can be a curse, but not necessarily so. We’re living in challenging times — wars escalating, occupations expanding, U.S.-Russian tensions rising. But changes on our side are rising as well: The discourses of war, peace, and occupation are being transformed — and don’t forget that the Chinese character for “conflict” references both danger and opportunity.

U.S.-Russia Relations: Lessons from Ukraine

A new U.S.-Russia cold war is not yet fully inescapable, but there is growing danger. As is so often the case, Russia’s aggressive posture in the current Ukraine crisis is an unfortunate but not at all surprising response to two decades of U.S. arrogance, hubris, and post-Cold War triumphalism. The U.S. disregard for post-Soviet Russia’s regional (and global) position; its failure (willful or not) to acknowledge Russian history, interests and strategic priorities; and most of all, the U.S. insistence on continuing to expand NATO right up to Russian borders all shape the roots of the Ukraine crisis. It is further complicated by a resurgent Russian nationalism that increasingly authoritarian political culture has exacerbated.

I’m no expert on Ukraine or Russia — I leave to others the close-in analysis of the various popular forces, the relative power and influence of the neo-Nazi and other fascist elements so visible in the new parliament in Kiev, the balance of forces between opponents and supporters of Yanukovych’s decision to reject the U.S./European/IMF bailout in favor of a Russian bailout, the assessment of whether or not the Crimean population is as overwhelming pro-Russian as it appears, the impact of the $5 billion Washington brags of having spent “building democracy” in Ukraine, and more.

But there are a couple of things in this new emergency that aren’t so different from lessons we’ve learned in earlier crises:

  • The U.S. admits to spending at least $5 billion on so-called “democratization” projects in Ukraine over the last decade, and certainly that means destabilization and some version of regime change was high on its agenda. That’s an outrage and something we should have been opposing years ago. But that doesn’t mean everyone protesting Yanukovych’s rampant corruption was somehow a U.S. agent. U.S. spies can’t claim credit for everything that happens. We must be careful to remember that people in Ukraine have agency as well — even with $5 billion, the U.S. couldn’t pull so many people (in at least some areas) into the streets to protest if there were not legitimate grievances.
  • The U.S.’ continuing interference, backed by NATO and parts of Europe, must be challenged, but that opposition doesn’t mean that President Putin, by contrast, is some kind of anti-imperialist good guy. Putin has fostered a plutocracy, enabling crony billionaires to undermine Russian democracy, equity, and environment by controlling Russia’s fossil fuels and minerals. And Putin’s military response to U.S. intervention doesn’t change that.The need to fight against U.S. interventions AND simultaneously be rigorous in our critique of others at the same time, has been a difficult lesson we’ve struggled collectively to learn in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. (It does mean we should have been publicizing and challenging the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and other U.S. agencies’ undermining the Ukrainian regime much earlier.)
  • We must not accept the mainstream media’s drumbeat of “a new Cold War” being inevitable. The current Ukraine crisis certainly could lead to a dangerous escalation between Washington and Moscow, as could the U.S.-Russian clash over naval bases and competing proxies that is one of the six wars being waged in Syria. But that escalation is not inevitable: President Putin has reached out to President Obama and they have agreed to high-level talks to tamp down the tension on Ukraine. Will it work? It’s too soon to say, but the fact that they’re talking at this level is a good thing, and it means that the Cold War-style demonization of Putin and threats against Crimea and all things Russia need to be challenged.

Given the continuing devastations exploding across, at least, the wider Middle East/West Asia/Central Asia/North Africa arc of crisis, the impact of the Ukraine situation is already affecting regions and emergencies far from the Black Sea. Even if not yet a new Cold War, the U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine could threaten the Iran negotiations and/or the currently-stalled Syria talks.

The U.S. needs — and has been counting on — Moscow’s cooperation in both negotiations: How likely is this cooperation to survive escalating U.S.-led sanctions against Russia? Even Kerry’s sham talks, disguised as the Israel-Palestine “peace process,” may be affected. Those talks will fail anyway, but when the failure is official and the U.S. recalibrates its “strategic partnership” with Israel, it’s pretty certain no one in the White House, Congress, or anywhere else in official Washington will have any interest in pressuring Israel while the U.S.-Russian relationship remains tense.

No News is Bad News

Wars sometimes seem to become a permanent part of our global landscape. The long and devastating wars of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the surrounding countries of Africa’s Great Lakes region stopped getting attention in the U.S. press and public long before its victims reached the multi-millions, and these conflicts continue to be largely ignored.

The humanitarian disaster in Syria — whose millions of refugees are close to overtaking Afghans as the largest refugee population in the world — faces a crisis of “donor fatigue” among potential donor governments. Beyond that, it also faces an attention fatigue among ordinary people. We may well be shocked by the reports of barrel bombs, besieged neighborhoods, and children dying for lack of food and medicine, but too many people simply turn away, uneasy and uncertain of what can be done because there are seemingly “only bad guys.” Not to mention, the alternatives proposed are usually limited to escalating dangerous U.S. military involvement.

In Iraq, years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation continues to fuel violent sectarianism, with corruption and civilian casualties approaching the worst years of the war. In Afghanistan, casualties rise as well, with warlords running for office in next week’s elections. Its corrupt government remains incapable of ruling.

The U.S.-imposed sham talks on Israel-Palestine have pretty much already failed, but on the ground, Israel’s occupation forces are escalating their house demolitions, settlement expansion, and constant humiliation of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and the besieged and surrounded Gaza Strip. While the discourse is changing quickly for the better, the day-to-day reality of Israel’s harsh and illegal practices against Palestinians remains largely out-of-sight for most people in the U.S.

Sometimes — and perhaps the harshness of today’s continuing economic disaster is part of the reason why — it seems that with public attention fixated on immediate domestic problems, only one international issue at a time can gain a foothold on public attention. Right now, it’s Ukraine. Other critical ongoing crises — the Syrian civil war, the sectarian violence in Iraq, the drone war in Afghanistan and beyond, the Israeli occupation and apartheid — just don’t make the cut, sometimes.

Cheerleaders for War

There is on-again/off-again talk in Washington about cutting the military budget — a little bit — and reducing the size of the army — a littler bit — but none of it is very serious. Overall, as I wrote in Common Dreams recently, the new Pentagon plan is for a few less troops, but the same old empire.

In Afghanistan, the military wants to keep at least 10,000-12,000 U.S. troops (and presumably a number of convenient military bases) there, on the spurious grounds of not wanting to lose the so-called “accomplishments” of the war so far. Hard to take seriously, given the military’s utter and long-anticipated failure to accomplish any of the claimed goals for the illegal war while they occupied the country with as many as 150,000 troops over the last 13 years.

According to the CIA, Afghanistan today remains the worst country in the world for infant mortality. Warlords responsible for horrific crimes are returning to leadership and running for office in the U.S.-backed elections. And no one is secure. Over the weekend NPR interviewed Bilal Sarwary, Kabul correspondent for the BBC, about an attack last week that killed another Afghan journalist. After describing the horror of the attack, he noted “The people of Afghanistan have been born into war [and] the people of Afghanistan continue to bear the brunt of this conflict.” Signing off, his response to NPR’s anchor, broadcasting from the network’s comfortable secure Washington studios, reflected the terrifying reality of warning when saying good-bye in war-torn Afghanistan: “Be safe,” he told her.

Content to continue in Afghanistan and with the escalating and expanding drone war, the Pentagon leadership is not directly pushing for new wars — but plenty of its friends are. Military contractors and war manufacturers always want to produce ever more tools of war that reap such a killing profit: bombs, rockets, missiles, bullets, guns, tear gas, etc.

Neo-con pundits, most of them former and hoping-for-future-position officials, want to remake the world — and especially the broadly-defined Middle East — as faux-democratic vassal states that will strengthen the U.S. empire around the world. And that means more military bases, more military intervention, more “no-fly zones,” more war.

Israel — along with AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobbies — wants the U.S.’ global power, alongside its regional power, as a partner to police, control, and maintain a nuclear weapons monopoly over the entire Middle East. (The real threat to Israel, if Iran ever decided to try to build a nuclear weapon — something U.S. officials agree Iran has not yet even decided it wants — is not an existential threat to Israel or Israelis, but simply a threat to Israel’s current nuclear weapons monopoly in the region.)

The Decline of AIPAC

As I discussed on the Real News, AIPAC is losing, including in its effort with Israel to push the U.S. — specifically, Congress — towards war instead of diplomacy with Iran. A new round of talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 has concluded, with all sides expressing satisfaction that the technical-level negotiations went as-planned. A new Zogby poll indicates more than 50 percent of Washington insiders believe AIPAC’s influence is declining. Even more significant for those tracking AIPAC’s dwindling legitimacy, 74 percent of those insiders admit they have seen members of Congress take positions not in the public interest partly or fully because of AIPAC’s pressure.

Keynoting the AIPAC convention, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spent a good third of his speech on Iran. However, the call for Congress to impose new sanctions, guaranteed to scuttle the Iran talks, demanded by Netanyahu and thousands of AIPAC lobbyists who descended on Capitol Hill the next day has failed. After such a definitive defeat of its campaign to get the U.S. to bomb Syria last summer, AIPAC is so far losing again on war in Iran.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest round of Israel-Palestine “peace talks” is coming up to its official deadline, and the only question now is: How will that failure be announced? Four possibilities:

  • Admit that the U.S.-brokered talks failed (very unlikely: these talks have too much connection to legacies — Obama’s and Kerry’s among them — for that.)
  • Claim a great victory that the going-nowhere talks are being extended (possible: 23 years of failed U.S. diplomacy are about to become 24.)
  • Announce that a “framework,” but not a just, comprehensive solution, has been agreed to, with the understanding that both sides can “accept” it with reservations — meaning the whole thing can be rejected while still technically “accepting” (not impossible: because it will so diverge from the meaning of an actual agreement, the two leaders might just decide they could get away with signing it.)
  • Announce that there was a framework agreement, but that only one side (more likely the Israeli side) was willing to sign on (also not impossible: the U.S.-defined “peace” is, after all, grounded in continued Israeli occupation, apartheid and domination.)

For more details on what the so-called “framework” might look like, take a look at my earlier blog on this subject. But, regardless of Kerry’s announcement later this month, the response of those of us committed to challenging U.S. support for Israeli domination remains unchanged:

  • We would welcome any agreement that was based on international law, human rights and equality for all. But weighed against that standard, this agreement fails. It is not just, comprehensive, viable, lasting, or in keeping with international law. In a different context, Netanyahu is right: “A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all.”
  • This lack of a serious agreement, highlights the failure of U.S. diplomacy. This is the “Einstein Edition” of peace talks: Negotiating on the same terms over and over again and expecting different results. We need an entirely different kind of global diplomacy, based on international law, human rights, equality for all, and conducted not by the U.S., Israel’s “strategic partner, but by the United Nations.
  • More than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since this round of peace talks began last year. This shows the disparity of power and control in favor of Israel.
  • There is a serious danger that the abandonment of fundamental Palestinian rights (to equality, self-determination, return, freedom) reflected in this agreement will from now on be the official starting point for U.S. policy.
  • There is a danger that if the U.S.-Iran negotiations succeed and lead to a comprehensive deal that normalizes relations between the two countries, that Washington might feel politically pressured to provide Israel with a consolation prize — a gift likely to be paid in the currency of Palestinian rights.

War or Diplomacy?

In these interesting times with the new challenges regarding Russia and Ukraine, as well as the longstanding catastrophes underway in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and beyond, the most important question we face is: What can we do to support diplomacy over war?

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke on this very question. In sum, changing the discourse isn’t enough — our democracy is too flawed for that. But it is a vital first step towards winning the victory for diplomacy over war. The great British fighter for peace and justice, Tony Benn, who passed away last month, knew the right tasks were always the same: Educate, agitate and organize. To have a chance against the well-funded behemoth that is the U.S. war machine, we must:

  • Mobilize to stop every U.S. invasion, occupation, military attack, or escalation in its tracks
  • Show solidarity with international movements like the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel in support of Palestinians.
  • Make a real commitment to responding to humanitarian disasters, like those in Syria.
  • Give voice to those whose voices are too often drowned out by war, including Syria’s brave non-violent activists, Afghan civil society, and more.
  • Include nuance in our understandings — opposing U.S. military threats or strikes doesn’t necessarily mean that the leaders on the other side somehow become “good guys.”
  • Call for real alternatives beyond just saying “no” to U.S. military actions:
    • In Syria, it means demanding new diplomatic efforts alongside an immediate ceasefire, an arms embargo on all sides, and much more humanitarian support for those on the ground.
    • In Israel-Palestine, it means a UN-based solution grounded in international law, human rights, and equality for all

Public discourse on U.S. wars has already shifted massively in recent years: 52 percent of people in the United States now say that the Iraq war failed, and far more than that say it was based on lies. More than 50 percent now say that the war in Afghanistan — remember, the war that 88 percent of people supported when it began? — was not worth fighting.

There are plenty of reasons, of course — the lies, the lives lost and damaged on both sides, the continuing violence in both regions, the wars’ failure to make Iraqis or Afghans (let alone people in the U.S.) any safer or “freer.” But at the core of this shift are the organizers and activists who continue to stand up and speak out against war — and we cannot rest because the war machine certainly does not. As ever, we have more work to do.