Effects of past U.S. Policy remain to haunt Obama

"To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how we communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate."

— Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen in a critique of administration efforts at “strategic communication,” The New York Times, August 27, 2009.

Two successive wars in Iraq demonstrated America’s unparallelled power to destroy, and its willingness to use that power. Uncritical support for Israel exposed the limits of America’s commitment to human rights. In order to repair the damage done by these actions President Barack Obama will have to make hard choices and take bold actions.

Reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan indicate that the people of those countries see the Americans as arrogant oppressors who heedlessly kill civilians. In a remarkably candid assessment of Pentagon efforts to change this image, Adm. Mike Mullen wrote that strategic communication problems are not problems of public relations but of policy and execution. The essence of good communication, he said, is “having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.”

The damage done by past U.S. actions will be difficult to fix. If American forces leave Iraq next August as promised, they will leave behind a country seething with ethnic tensions fostered in the early days of the U.S. occupation. Bombings and other violence continue to kill civilians and police, especially in the north, where the Kurds and the government are in bitter contention over control of Kirkuk Province. Iraq’s war-ravaged infrastructure is yet to be repaired, and millions of Iraqi refugees are afraid to return home.

In Afghanistan, the infusion of 20,000 more U.S. soldiers last July has failed to weaken the Taliban. Admiral Mullen described the situation in late summer as “serious and deteriorating,” and the senior adviser to the U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, predicted that heavy fighting would be necessary for the next two years, followed by an American-NATO military presence for the next eight years. That estimate may be too optimistic, considering Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, its infinite number of places to hide, and an enemy fighting on its own territory.

A number of analysts say the war is unwinnable no matter how many more troops are sent. According to Afghan scholar Tamim Ansary, the insurgency is “fueled more by rural resentment, tribal nationalism and Afghan xenophobia than by any global ideology.” As a result, Ansary says, “The Americans now find themselves fighting not extremists in Afghanistan but Afghans in Afghanistan.”

With McChrystal expected to ask for several thousand more troops, Obama must make his decision in the face of growing opposition to the war at home. A Washington Post-ABC poll in late August showed that more than half of those polled said the Afghanistan war was no longer worth fighting. People are asking why Americans should go on dying in a country where they are not wanted, and in support of a government despised by its own citizens.

Compounding Obama’s problems was Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election, which exposed a system riddled with corruption. On Sept. 8 the Afghan election commission declared President Hamid Karzai the winner over Abdullah Abdullah with 54 percent of the vote. But almost simultaneously a U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission that investigated over 700 cases of vote tampering reported “clear and convincing evidence of fraud” and ordered a recount in at least three provinces.

The vote rigging was less than subtle. In the Shorrabak district of Kandahar province, tribal leaders accused Karzai’s brother Ahmed of shutting down the district’s 45 polling places. Police then stuffed the ballot boxes with 23,000 votes for Karzai. In Karzai’s home province of Kandahar 350,000 ballots were turned in, even though Western officials said only about 25,000 people had voted.

President Karzai had already undermined the government’s credibility by gaining the support of criminal war lords with offers of protection from prosecution, cabinet ministries, provincial governorships, and other favors. His chosen vice president, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, has a long history of drug trafficking and as defense minister regularly used a military cargo plane to transport drugs abroad and bring back cash.

Washington’s new war-winning strategy, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is to convince the Afghans that the troops are “there for the interests of the Afghan people.” But that message may not be clear to the Afghans when the friendly soldiers who stroll through marketplaces during the day return at night to search their homes.

In a recent pre-dawn raid in a town near Kabul, American and Afghan soldiers applied the new strategy by knocking on doors rather than kicking them in. They ordered the inhabitants outside while they searched their houses, then forced the men to kneel on the ground shivering with cold. After several hours the men were taken away for questioning. One woman said that, unlike Afghan soldiers, at least the Americans didn’t steal.

Warfare tends to take on a life of its own despite the best intentions of generals, so it was almost inevitable that McChrystal’s plan to reduce civilian casualties by limiting air strikes quickly went awry. In early September a NATO bombing attack aimed at Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan killed at least 70 people, many of them civilians. The Taliban had hijacked two oil tankers, and when the trucks became stuck trying to cross a river scores of villagers came hoping to collect free fuel. The commander who ordered the strike had received reports that only insurgents were on the scene.

The plan to win the confidence of the Afghan people took another blow on the night of Sept. 2, when American soldiers stormed through a Swedish-run charity hospital near Kabul kicking in doors and forcing patients from their beds while they searched for a suspected militant. The soldiers also barged into women’s wards, which is considered an insult to Muslim culture. Anders Fang, director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, called the action “a clear violation of humanitarian principles about the sanctity of health facilities.”

No Need for Pretense

The Israelis for their part show no concern for winning over hearts and minds as they put down Palestinian resistance and take over more land for settlements. Pre-dawn raids and arrests have become nightly occurrences in Bil’in, where nonviolent protests against the separation wall take place weekly. The village has lost half its land to the barrier and to the adjacent settlement of Modin Illit. “We need our land,” Abdullah Abu Rahma, a local schoolteacher, said. “It is how we make our living…this wall is destroying our lives.”

Soldiers routinely fire tear gas, water jets, and a foul-smelling oil spray at the peaceful gatherings, and often live bullets as well. At least four protesters have been killed in Bil’in since the protests began. The Israelis held their fire, however, on the last Friday in August, when a group called The Elders joined the demonstrators. Founded by Nelson Mandela two years ago, the organization includes among others former President Jimmy Carter, Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and winner of this year’s U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Archbishop Tutu praised the weekly vigils as “a nonviolent struggle that will bring Palestinians their freedom.” But so far Israel has been no more willing to respond to a nonviolent plea for justice than it is to abide by international law. In July 2004 the Israelis, with U.S. support, ignored a decision by the International Court of Justice that declared construction of the wall inside the West Bank a breach of humanitarian law that “cannot be justified by military exigencies or by the requirements of national security.” The ruling was endorsed by all 15 judges except the American member.

The government similarly ignores the rulings of its own courts. When construction of the wall began in 2002 Israel claimed it was a defense against suicide bombers. But as the barrier followed a course deep inside the West Bank it swallowed up more and more Palestinian land, dividing families and cutting off thousands of farmers from their crops. The people of Bil’in took their case to Israel’s Supreme Court, which two years ago ordered the government to move the barrier closer to Israel. Israel has taken no action to do so.

The Israelis are equally defiant of the law when it comes to settlement construction, all of which is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention forbidding the colonization of occupied territory. Obama’s call for a settlement freeze has elicited only slippery responses from Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at first hinted that the government might agree to a limited freeze until 2010. When right-wing Israelis raised a howl, however, his office issued a statement saying, “There is not and never was such an agreement.”

Caught between the Obama administration and a Likud party that opposes any limits on settlements, the government made a move that satisfied neither side. Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced on Sept. 4 that, in addition to the 2,500 housing units currently under construction, Israel will build 455 more, including 80 new houses in Modin Illit, the settlement built on land taken from Bil’in. Israel will then freeze construction for six to nine months with the expectation that the Palestinians will resume peace talks and the Arab nations make “supportive gestures” such as establishing trade relations.

The White House immediately responded that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion, and we urge that it stop.” Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud called the plan “not acceptable.” The Yesha Council, which represents the settlers, rejected the idea of a freeze and said the additional housing was “too meager.”

The fact that a serious attempt by the Israeli government to halt settlement expansion would meet with fierce and possibly violent opposition is due largely to past U.S. policy. Washington’s tolerance for Israel’s illegal settlement activity, and its generous financial support, has enabled the rise of an extremist settler movement that Peace Now calls “a state within a state.” With the third largest party in the Knesset, ultra-nationalist settlers who insist that all of Palestine belongs to the Jews have grown sufficiently powerful to defy government rulings and resist Israeli police who try to enforce them. Largely unhindered by the army, the heavily armed settlers also attack Palestinian farmers, destroy their crops, poison their livestock, and periodically rampage through Palestinian villages.

Israeli extremists would pose a threat to any prime minister who made substantial concessions to the Palestinians, but Israel also has a powerful economic incentive to maintain the occupation. In addition to being a vital source of water and providing a dumping ground for Israeli goods, the West Bank is a place where Israelis can freely pollute the environment while turning a profit. Israeli companies operate the huge quarries near Bethlehem and a dozen other West Bank towns that provide the sand and gravel used for construction in Israel and the settlements. Because of the noise and dust they create, quarries are subject to environmental restrictions in Israel but not in Palestine, so the West Bank sites are highly valuable.

The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din recently brought suit against the quarry owners before Israel’s Supreme Court. charging that “Israel is transferring natural resources from the West Bank for Israeli benefit and this is absolutely prohibited not only under international law but according to Israeli Supreme Court rulings. This is an illegal transfer of land in the most literal sense.”

Hassan Abu-Libdeh, an adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, called the quarries “another example of Israeli businesses thriving at the cost of the Palestinian economy.” He might also have pointed out that Israel is illegally expropriating building materials from the West Bank while refusing to allow them into Gaza, where they are desperately needed to repair the damage done by Israel’s air and ground assault last winter.

Israel is also making sure there will be no competition from Palestinian businesses by forbidding anyone with a foreign passport from moving freely between Israel and the West Bank. Consequently Palestinians and others with U.S. or European citizenship who open a West Bank business cannot buy or sell goods in Jerusalem, and similarly those in Jerusalem cannot do business in the West Bank. U.N. aid workers in the occupied territories may no longer land at Ben-Gurion airport. The law does not apply to American or European Jews.

Undaunted by Israel’s opposition to Palestinian independence, the Palestinian Authority led by Prime Minister Fayyad has laid the groundwork for an independent state that Fayyad says “can and must happen within two years.” The plan, released in late August, calls for a democratic state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem, and declares that “shelter, education and health insurance are basic rights which will be preserved and protected by the state.” Hamas has accepted the notion of a two-state solution and is likely to support such a statement.

Israeli officials, however, reacted with indignation. “This is no place for unilateralism,” said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz the day after Israeli soldiers unilaterally killed five Palestinians in Gaza, including two boys who had wandered too close to the border fence. Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said Palestinian proposals such as Fayyad’s “caused only damage and would not work now.”

The Fatah party’s election this summer of a new and younger leadership seems likely to strengthen Palestinian unity and resolve. At its week-long conference in August Fatah adopted a program calling for a two-state solution, a complete halt to Israel’s settlement construction, and a timetable for completing negotiations. The conference stipulated that no peace talks could take place until settlement building stopped.

Barak called the statement “grave and unacceptable,” a reaction that validated an Israeli journalist’s observation that Israel had lost interest in any peace agreement that entailed compromises. “Israelis want peace and quiet,” Aluf Benn wrote in Haaretz, “and that’s what they have–and without negotiations or peace accord.”

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have a vision of freedom and independence that is supported throughout the Arab world. If Obama were to endorse a comprehensive peace restoring the pre-1967 border between Israel and Palestine, and follow up with concrete actions such as reducing our annual subsidy to Israel or denying Israel the protection of an American veto in the U.N. Security Council, he would undo much of the damage done by his predecessors–and, as Admiral Mullen urged, let our actions speak for themselves.