The Coastal Post - February 2000

The U.S. Role In The Middle East Must Change

By Stephen Zunes

After the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, President Clinton charged that Middle Eastern terrorists were motivated by a hatred of American values of freedom and justice. From all indications, however, the United States becomes a target not when it upholds such values but when it strays from these values. It is through reclaiming these values, not military force and discriminatory diplomacy, that the United States can increase its influence and promote its strategic and economic interests in this important region.

The U.S. must end its support for repressive and corrupt monarchies, regulate the exploitative practices by American oil companies and other multinational corporations, cease its highly prejudicial use of the UN Security Council, end the unconditional arming and bankrolling of foreign occupation forces and find non-military solutions to disputes with Middle Eastern countries.

Support for the U.S. in the Middle East was highest in late 1956 when the Eisenhower Administration forced Israel, Great Britain, and France to end their invasion of Egypt. Though ultimately motivated by fear of a pro-Soviet backlash in the Arab world, this seemingly principled stand in support of international law against three of America's closest allies won the U.S. great respect throughout the region. This trust can be restored, but only if the U.S. shifts its policies to become more consistent with support for human rights and international law.

The ongoing U.S. air strikes against Iraq are illegal and counter-productive and must end. The U.S. should continue to support an arms embargo on Iraq, but should join the growing number of countries in the Middle East and around the world calling for a significant liberalization of economic sanctions that have brought so much suffering to Iraqi civilians and have had the ironic effect of strengthening Saddam Hussein's rule. At minimum, the U.S. should promise to lift the economic sanctions once the U.N. Secretary General recognizes that the government is in effective compliance with Security Council resolutions.

However, the United States must recognize that all countries-including U.S. allies-must be in compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions. This includes insisting that Morocco withdraw its occupation forces from Western Sahara and Turkey withdraw its occupation forces from northern Cyprus. This also requires insisting that Israel end its policy of illegal settlements on occupied Arab lands, renounce its annexation of greater East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, withdraw from Lebanon, and withdraw from remaining Arab lands in return for security guarantees, all of which it is required to do under UN Security Council mandates. The United States cannot hope for compliance by Iraq or any other adversary if it does not insist that its allies also live up to their international obligations.

Similarly, the rights of Iraq's oppressed Kurdish minority must be defended, but so must the rights of Turkey's Kurdish minority, which has also been severely oppressed and denied its basic cultural and political rights.

The United States should support efforts to make the entire region free of weapons of mass destruction as called for by the United Nations, not just single out Iraq and Iran. This would require that the United States no longer bring nuclear weapons into the region on U.S. planes and ships and formally renounce the first use of any part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It may also require that the U.S. apply the necessary economic pressure to ensure that all countries in the region--including U.S. allies like Israel-have dismantled their nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and that credible international monitoring systems have been established to ensure that no country develops such weapons in the future.

The United States needs to recognize the diversity of Islamic movements in the Middle East, cognizant of the dangerous reactionary currents within some movements yet fully aware that hostility toward the West is not inherent within Islamic politics. Americans need to learn more about Islam and challenge the popular misconceptions that have tainted attitudes and policies in the past. Encouraging political pluralism in Islamic countries, supporting the Palestinians' right to statehood, and supporting economic policies that result in sustainable and broad-based development will go a long way in limiting the appeal of both religious and secular anti-American extremists.

Terrorism should be challenged through effective intelligence and preventative measures, utilizing-whenever possible-international agencies and area governments. The U.S. must end its policy of utilizing air strikes to fight terrorism, since such military force usually results in civilian casualties and perpetuates the cycle of violence and retaliation. In addition, the United States cannot be a leader in the fight against terrorism until it ends its support of government and irregular forces that attack civilians and renounces attacks against civilians by its own armed forces.

The United States must stop encouraging large-scale arms transfers to the region. All arms transfers must be made conditional on a government's respect of internationally recognized human rights, political pluralism, compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions and withdrawal from militarily-occupied territories outside their internationally-recognized borders. The U.S. should support the creation of a regional security regime in the Gulf, which would lead to arms control and confidence-building measures as well as assist in the creation of a broader security regime for the entire region comparable to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as has been proposed by Jordan and other Middle Eastern states.

Foreign aid should be directed toward poorer countries and in support of grassroots development initiatives and away from military aid and support for wealthier countries and corrupt and autocratic governments.

The United States should lessen its dependence on Middle Eastern sources of oil through conservation and conversion to safe, renewable forms of energy. This could be done at just a fraction of the cost to maintain the large U.S. military presence in the Gulf designed to protect oil supplies.

The U.S. must recognize that Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent on each other. The U.S. government should end its opposition to Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. The U.S. should maintain its moral and strategic commitment to Israel to ensure its survival and its legitimate interests, but also be willing to apply pressure--some "tough love"--whenever the Israeli government refuses to make the necessary compromises for peace, which requires withdrawal from the occupied territories, sharing Jerusalem, and allowing the return of refugees.

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From the New Global Affairs Agenda, being prepared by Foreign Policy In Focus, available at .)

Stephen Zunes is Associate Professor at the University of San Francisco, and an expert on Middle Eastern history and politics.

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