I was surprised to hear on Obama’s first working day that he’d appointed George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East. I thought he’d chosen Dennis Ross for that post–a very grim sign, I’d thought, of things to come. But in the last few days it’s become clear that there will be a specific division of labor: Mitchell will handle the Israel/Palestine portfolio, with broad powers to negotiate, reporting to the president directly as well as to Hillary Clinton; Ross will handle Iran with yet unknown latitude; and Richard Holbrooke will “coordinate” policy towards Afghanistan-Pakistan under “his immediate boss” Clinton.
By appointing Mitchell, Obama may be signaling Israel that he’s going to get tough on the settlements issue.
As a former senator from Maine, Mitchell was chosen by President Clinton in 2001 to head an international committee to investigate the causes of the Second Intifada. It did not mention Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Dome of the Rock in September 2000 following the breakdown of talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Camp David; the status of East Jerusalem (occupied by Israelis in 1967) had been discussed at the talks and Sharon wanted to make a point about Israel’s eternal sovereignty over an extremely holy Muslim site. The report did however note:
“For the Palestinian side, “Madrid” and “Oslo” heralded the prospect of a State, and guaranteed an end to the occupation and a resolution of outstanding matters within an agreed time. Palestinians are genuinely angry at the continued growth of settlements and at their daily experiences of humiliation and disruption as a result of Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians see settlers and settlements in their midst not only as violating the spirit of the Oslo process, but also as application of force in the form of Israel’s overwhelming military superiority.”
It stated: “A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the GOI freezes all settlement construction activity. Settlement activities must not be allowed to undermine the restoration of calm and the resumption of negotiations.”
That recommendation might seem to be a matter of common sense, since Israel illegally occupies territories it captured in the “preemptive” 1967 war. The United Nations General Assembly, whose Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine in 1947 helped give rise to and legitimate the Jewish state, has repeatedly demanded that Israel withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza and Syria’s Golan Heights. But Israel, protected by the U.S., ignores these resolutions.
The West Bank settler population grew from about 200,000, at the time of the Mitchell report to about 280,000 today while the Bush administration muted its criticism. Jewish population growth on the West Bank is increasing by about 5% per year as opposed to less than 2% in Israel.
Mitchell’s appointment may mean a new U.S. attitude. Mitchell’s mother was a Lebanese immigrant, while his father was an Irish-American orphan raised by a Lebanese immigrant family. NPR reports that as a boy Mitchell served as an altar boy in an Arabic-speaking Maronite Catholic church.(It’s hard to say what all that might mean; Lebanon’s Maronites have been prone towards anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian flirtations with Israel to say nothing of the fascist ideology of the Phalange party.) Anyway, Mitchell (unlike Ross) is not a neocon, and he’s acquired a reputation for even-handedness, in his diplomatic work involving Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
So some Lobby leaders became immediately anxious. The ADL’s Abraham Foxman observed: “Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed. But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support. So I’m concerned. I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.” Mitchell’s appointment just might indicate the administration’s desire to finally place U.S. clout behind the creation of some kind of Palestinian state. Maybe the Obama team sees making some progress on the “roadmap” the prerequisite for obtaining other goals in Southwest Asia (more vital to the Empire than those of the Israel Lobby).
By appointing Dennis Ross, Obama is sending the Iranian leaders a clear message. He is associating himself with the most extreme alarmist positions currently articulated, including those of Norman Podhoretz. Ross wants to bomb Iran, and soon, unless the Iranians cease their uranium enrichment program. See the op-ed piece co-authored by Dennis Ross, Richard Holbrooke, R. James Woolsey, and Mark D. Wallace in the Wall Street Journal Sept. 22, 2008. It’s entitled, “Everybody Needs to Worry About Iran” and its authors state: “Iran is now edging closer to being armed with nuclear weapons, and it continues to develop a ballistic-missile capability.”
This contradicts the conclusion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies (Central Intelligence Agency, Army Military Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Security Agency, etc.) as of November 2007. Those authors reported: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” In other words, in the world of empirical methods, critical thinking and analysis–the world of hundreds of trained professionals who’ve actually researched Iran’s nuclear program, with access to spy satellite data, reports from agents in the field, electronic surveillance–Iran has no nuclear program. Mohamed ElBaradei and IAEA staffers on the ground have consistently said that Iran has been thoroughly cooperative and that there are no signs of any diversion for a military program But in the world of this Chicken Little group Iran is edging ever nearer to nukes.
The editorial describes the nuclear program as “destabilizing” (while noting that Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel all have nuclear weapons) and repeats the old Cheneyism that since Iran has so much oil it can’t have any possible real need for a civilian program. (The Iranian nuclear program was encouraged by the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations when the Shah was in power and supported by General Electric and other U.S. firms.) It repeats the old charge that Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the map (adding that he’s said it could be done with one nuke) and generally assembles all the Bush-era anti-Iran talking-points: Iran sponsors Hizbollah and Hama terrorism, the regime’s repressive towards women and homosexuals, Iran could shut off the Strait of Hormuz, etc.
In conclusion the authors announce their establishment “along with other policy advocates from across the political spectrum” of the nonpartisan group United Against Nuclear Iran. The message, at the height of the presidential campaign, was: this isn’t a McCain vs. Obama, or more importantly a Bush era vs. Obama era thing. We should all of us–the former CIA director Woolsey (big-time purveyor of disinformation leading up to the Iraq invasion), alongside the two future Obama officials and the Bush-Cheney 2004 deputy campaign manager–unite in our worry about what the NIE says with “high confidence” doesn’t exist, just like Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist!
In April 2008, according to the Canadian Jewish News, Ross told Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation that Iran will have “crossed the threshold of stockpiling fissionable material” within a year (reminder: it’s late January 2009 now). He sounds perilously like Norman Podhoretz, appealing to Bush to “bomb Iran!” in his June 2007 Commentary editorial.
Ross is known to favor the recommendations of a September 2008 report by something called the Bipartisan Policy Center. These include forcing Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and meet other demands by imposing blockades on Iranian gas imports and oil exports (acts of war) as well as striking “not only Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response.”
So it looks like the official Obama line towards Iran, at least for the beginning, will be the Cheney-neocon line. And that is worrisome.
What does Obama have in mind for Afghanistan? Puppet president (or ought one say, “once-puppet president?”) Hamid Karzai had become increasingly critical of the U.S. over the last year, lashing out at the air strikes that have killed so many civilians, and even demanding (last November) a deadline for a pull-out of foreign forces. He’s clashed with Washington on the issue of inviting Mullah Omar to Kabul or another venue under safe conduct take part in talks, and proposed bringing the Taliban into the government. The Bush State Department had come to increasingly ignore him.
Last Wednesday during a United Nations Security Council debate on the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts” Afghan ambassador Zahir Tanin raised the issue of the killing of civilians, proposing that the U.S.-led forces avoid air strikes, cease conducting operations without consulting the Afghan government, and stop its heavy-handed and culturally insensitive tactics. That the statement was made in this public forum, rather than to the U.S. or NATO through private channels, suggests a high degree of friction between Karzai and Washington.
When Joe Biden visited Afghanistan a week and a half before the inauguration, he spent a few hours with Karzai, reportedly talking about Afghanistan’s efforts to rebuild, strengthening the Afghan army, the problem of drug trafficking, and the “war on terror.” The talks, according to Biden’s spokesperson, were “fruitful and productive.” But quite likely Karzai was questioning the wisdom of Obama’s planned “surge” in Afghanistan. (After all, British officers involved in the NATO effort are dispassionately concluding, “We’re not going to win this war.”) Perhaps signaling the new administration’s displeasure with Karzai, Hillary Clinton during her confirmation hearing referred to Afghanistan in passing as a “narco-state” reviving memories of the charges that surfaced last October of Karzai’s own brother’s involvement in opium trafficking. The Afghan foreign minister protested the characterization.
The London Independent reported last week: “Obama ready to cut Karzai adrift.” It seems the new administration is considering alternative candidates, including the articulate English-speaking Abdullah Abdullah, to back in the upcoming presidential election. Afghan-American and well-certified neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, deeply interested in pipeline construction, is also said to be interested in the post of president. Meanwhile Karzai cultivates warm ties with India, blaming India’s arch-rival Pakistan for doing to little to prevent attacks from the border area.
What will Holbrooke’s appointment as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan mean? Holbrooke has been in the State Department most of his life, from the time he graduated Brown, learned Vietnamese and worked for Agency for International Development in the Rural Pacification Program. Mentored in part by Dean Rusk, he has held numerous posts including assistant secretary of state for both Europe and Asia and ambassador to the UN. He’s seen as a highly experienced professional, credited with crafting the Dayton Agreement of 1995 which created Bosnia-Herzegovina. He’s also credited with helping to maintain the flow of U.S. arms to Suharto’s Indonesia during the brutal suppression of the revolt in East Timor and discouraging Congressional inquiry into Jakarta’s human rights abuses.
Holbrooke is going to argue, as Obama did throughout his campaign, that Afghanistan is the center of the “war on terror.” (It looks like they’re going to stick with that concept.) He’ll say Afghanistan was the source of the 9-11 attacks, the base of al-Qaeda which has not been completely defeated. The Taliban allies of al-Qaeda are gaining control of many villages in the south, and are in many places meting out justice according to the Sharia. New groups calling themselves Taliban are also flourishing on the Pakistani side of the border and offering hospitality to militants among their visiting Pashtun kin. So a much larger force than the 30,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan alongside as many international allied troops and ever-expanding Afghan army is urgently needed.
Actually, as I see it, at this point the numbers of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan are unknown, but quite likely small. The Arabs who constituted bin Laden’s circle seem to have scattered; most of the al-Qaeda in the region now seem members of a particular Uzbek organization. Al-Qaeda has always been a loose network and it’s by no means clear it’s headquartered in some cave in South Waziristan or village in Bajaur. It’s not clear what relationship the resurgent Taliban currently has to al-Qaeda; it wouldn’t seem to really need the latter for its own purposes, which are to expel the invaders and apply strict religious law.
The period between the overthrow of the last secular leader of Afghanistan, Najibullah, in 1992 and the Taliban’s seizure of power in 1996 was one of chaos under the warlords who had united as the Northern Alliance. Mullah Omar arose as the moral alternative to Hekmatyar, Massood, and other warlords. Aided by Pakistan’s ISI, he was able to built a successful however horrible movement. Recall how Sharbat Gula, the famous Afghan woman featured on the cover of National Geographic, told her interviewers in 2002: “life under the Taliban was better. At least there was peace and order.” The perception of the Taliban as honest and selfless and a respect for the Sharia as a source of order may weaken resistance to Taliban rule, while resentment of corruption and injustice and failure to provide peace and order weaken support for the Karzai regime and local authority in Afghanistan. On the other hand there is much resentment of elements of the Taliban program, including their opposition to girls’ education and prohibitions on music and dance. But none of this has much to do with international terror, U.S. security or al-Qaeda. At present the U.S. war on the Taliban in Afghanistan is a counter-insurgency war on behalf of a weak government that has actually requested a deadline for U.S. and international troops’ withdrawal.
A pipeline from the Dauletabad gas field of Turkmenistan through to Herat and Qandahar then Multan in Pakistan and on to the Indian Ocean remains a strategic goal for Washington. Caspian Sea oil and gas are the near-equivalent in potential value to the Persian Gulf resources, but surrounded by Iran and Russia. A pipeline from Azerbaijan reaches through Georgia to end on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, but in a time of crisis Russia could easily seal it off. The international contract for pipeline construction was signed shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but work has not been feasible because the construction site is largely under Taliban control. The desire the area around Qandahar for this purpose is probably a factor in the troop increase.
Holbrooke will argue that more needs to be done to stop attacks on Afghanistan from Pakistan, and will justify the continuing U.S. policy of violating Pakistan’s sovereignty with missile attacks. Two more U.S. missiles struck targets in North and South Waziristan Friday, killing 20 people. According to AP, “Pakistan’s leaders had expressed hope Obama might halt the strikes.” Apparently not.
So, Mitchell will pressure a heedless Israel to stop the settlements just as Netanyahu is elected Prime Minister. Ross will give Iran an ultimatum it cannot accept.
Holbrooke will engineer Karzai’s ouster, work with Gen. David McKiernan to make Afghanistan the center of the “war on terror,” try to pacify the country enough to build a pipeline. Meanwhile, he’ll keep the pressure on Pakistan to go after the Taliban, even as the Taliban and their supporters and imitators proliferate, while the U.S. continues to bomb Pakistan, insulting its national pride, violating international law, outraging its legislators, provoking official protests and mass demonstrations.
It’s not looking like change or hope.
It’s not looking good.