Democracy’s role in preventing the neo-con artists’ dangerous sleight-of-hand

I know you’ve heard it’s over now
And war must surely come.
The cities, they are broke in half
And the middlemen are gone.
But let me ask you one more time
O children of the dust:
These hunters who are shrieking now,
Do they speak for us?

—Leonard Cohen “Stories of the Street” (Copyright, Stranger Music, Inc., 1967)

Ironically, the neo-conservatives and Likudniks of George W. Bush’s regime who want to bring “democracy” to the Arab-Islamic world — by force if necessary — can realize their plans only by first dismantling democracy in the United States of America. They can’t pull off their neo-con artist sleight-of-hand unless they successfully shut down public debate and strangle participatory grassroots politics at home and abroad.

Reports from inside-the-beltway indicate that the neo-cons and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media are working overtime to disable critical thought, derail historical consciousness, fragment opposition, and deflect any questions that might expose what they are really up to, and what they have been planning for over two decades in the brightly lit and elegantly appointed offices of some of Washington DC’s wealthiest think-tanks. It is evident that they are pulling out all the stops when US Secretary of State Colin Powell, possibly the most circumspect and sensible member of the Bush Administration, is forced to fib in public. Despite CIA claims to the contrary, Powell asserted during a press conference in Davos last weekend that there are clear links between Saddam and Al-Qa’ida.

With demagoguery, knee-jerk patriotism, and pusillanimous punditry reaching levels unseen in the US capital since the McCarthy era, few journalists, analysts, policy makers, or elected representatives are willing to speak publicly about the dangerous repercussions — let alone the troubling antecedents — of the Bush Administration’s unilateralist designs in the Middle East. (A stellar exception is an alarming analysis by a DC-insider, Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which bluntly describes the neo-cons’ Middle East plans as “wicked”.) (1)

Many Washingtonians are, however, willing to speak “off the record” about the disturbing ideological links between the Bush Administration’s guiding neo-cons (dubbed “chicken-hawks,” as very few of them have experienced the horrors of combat) and Israel’s Likud government, currently headed by a super-hawk and certified war criminal: Ariel Sharon. Savvy to the fact that voicing such observations publicly will call forth immediate, loud, and vicious accusations of anti-Semitism, career-conscious Washingtonians speak sotto voce of such matters, if at all, for fear of halting their upward trajectory to the loftier reaches of DC officialdom or American journalism.

When last the Evangelical Christian right-wing of the US Republican Party and Israel’s Likud were dancing cheek-to-cheek in the geo-strategic ballroom back in the early 1980s, there were still some honest officials in Washington brave enough to say, loudly and on the record, that unconditional US support for maximalist Likud policies was dangerous and foolish. Here, for example, is the late George Ball analyzing the US role in Israel’s disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. This flash-from-the-past will have a chilling ring of familiarity to anyone who has been paying close attention to discourse trends in Washington and Tel Aviv lately:

“In spite of Prime Minister Begin’s repeated assurance to President Reagan, Sharon was not leading Israeli forces into Lebanon merely to insure ‘Peace in Galilee’ or even to destroy the headquarters of the PLO; he had in mind a Grand Design. Sharon’s realpolitik plan was to try to secure the election of a friendly Maronite, Bashir Gemayel, who would, on taking office, sign a peace treaty with the Begin government and thus neutralize Lebanon, just as the Camp David Accords had already neutralized Egypt. But to assure that required Israel’s forces to reach Beirut prior to the presidential election scheduled for August 23rd. Only thus could Sharon bully the Lebanese parliament into electing Bashir Gemayel, with whom the Israelis had long been conspiring.

“Did [then-US Secretary of State Alexander] Haig know what Sharon was scheming? The evidence is clear that while visiting Washington in May 1982 Sharon told Haig and his staff of his intentions, including the plan to attack Beirut and even confront the Syrians. But Haig did not greet this demarche with vigorous protests; he merely repeated his stylized comment about the need for ‘a recognized provocation,’ and he later repeated those same words in a letter to Prime Minister Begin on May 28, 1982 — a letter which, in the view of knowledgeable Israelis, Tel Aviv interpreted as a ‘green light.’

“In any event, Haig could hardly have been unaware that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were preparing a project for a geopolitical adventure. On April 8th, two months prior to the invasion, John Chancellor had described on NBC News what, according to the distinguished Israeli defense correspondent Ze’ev Schiff, ‘amounted to a virtual exposure of the Israeli war plans,’ including plans for attacking Beirut and confronting the Syrian forces in the Beka’a Valley. Thus, Schiff concludes, Washington was ‘duly informed’ about Sharon’s plans ‘that went beyond southern Lebanon.’

“Why Secretary Haig did not react more forcefully can now be clearly seen: He was basically in favor of Sharon’s scheme — provided it could be quickly executed and would not involve the United States too deeply. As Haig himself wrote in his memoirs, he held roughly the same goals as Sharon; he wished the PLO purged from Lebanon; he wanted Syria’s influence destroyed; and he hoped to have Syria’s protege, President Sarkis, replaced by a Maronite strongman who could impose law and order.” (2)

Ball’s comments highlight some disturbing realities that we should keep in mind as we gear-up to oppose the erosion of democracy in the US and wars without end in the Middle East:

1. Regime change by military means is not a new idea in the Middle East, nor does it seem to be an entirely made-in-America project. Ariel Sharon was obviously tinkering with it, and had Alexander Haig’s assistance in realizing its early stages, more than twenty years ago. Whereas Israel was undertaking regime change not only to advance its own interests, but also to suit US geostrategic needs in the Cold War atmosphere of 1982, the reverse may well be the case today, as Israel approaches several crucial decisions concerning its future viability, domestically as well as regionally: Will Israel be a democratic or a Jewish state? How can Israel secure maximum territory and guarantee its continued access to crucial water reserves (many of them in the West Bank)? Will this require eliminating, neutralizing, or cooperating with Palestinians who have clear rights to these same territories and resources? Will Israel integrate, economically and politically, into the Middle East, or continue to pursue a militarily aggressive stance in the region? How will Israel manage the rapidly growing gap between its Jewish fundamentalist and secular political camps? Examining the emerging answers to these pressing questions, it is clear that American neo-cons are more in tune with Israel’s far-right political thinkers and have decided to defend and support Israel’s maximal territorial ambitions, regardless of how many international laws this may violate. Maintaining Israel’s ethnic purity and military dominance at all costs — even if those costs include gutting democratic values and violating international humanitarian law and a raft of UN resolutions — is an aim that Israel’s Likud and Washington’s neo-cons share. Israel has always viewed Iraq as a major threat to its long-term regional interests, not only because the current Iraqi leadership is indeed violent, dangerous, and unpredictable, but even more so because Iraq enjoys a combination of blessings and strengths that few other countries in the region can match: immense oil reserves coupled with arable land and water, and a well-educated and highly-skilled (though currently demoralized and impoverished) population. If any country in the Arab world could pose an economic, technological, industrial, and cultural counterweight to Israel, Iraq is it.

2. Some of the same people who inhabited the upper echelons of the Reagan administration in 1982 when Sharon was launching a regime change in Lebanon are back in action in the current Bush administration: Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, John D. Negroponte, Dick Cheney, Doug Feith, John Bolton, and Donald Rumsfeld, to name just a few. Most of these men have long-standing, intimate, and mutually supportive ties with Israel’s Likud Party. Indeed, Perle and Feith were key authors of a 1996 policy paper which aimed to help Likud candidate Binyamin Netanyahu formulate an anti-Oslo, militarized policy towards the Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries four years before the outbreak of the second Intifada and the subsequent advent of weekly suicide bombings.(3) US neo-cons, just like their Likud doppelgangers in Israel, have no regard for due process, international humanitarian law, the United Nations, or human rights. Their one-size-fits-all solution to any problem is overwhelming military force, exercised with extreme self-righteousness. A good example of this perspective can be found in the political career of Elliott Abrams, who is now, surreally, in charge of overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Mr. Abrams was indicted for some pretty serious crimes following the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s. W’s Daddy bailed him out in the eleventh hour, and with the help of several well-paid positions in Washington, Abrams has survived political trials that would have crushed a less well-connected ideologue. Now he is back in the executive branch of government, eager to do more damage to human rights, UN resolutions, and the Geneva Conventions in the new Millennium. It’s a safe bet Abrams will be pursuing policies more in line with far-right Israeli views than with the mainstream perspectives of informed American citizens.

3. Just as the actual target and the intended audience of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, the actual target and the intended audience of the Bush Administration’s planned invasion of Iraq is again the Palestinians—along with all other groups, states, organizations, and entities in the region that have political, moral, or ideological qualms about the consolidation of a highly militarized US oil monopoly in the Middle East and America’s continued support for and empowerment of Ariel Sharon’s oppressive policies. Both Israel and the US aim to crush the hope, will, and spirit of anyone who might oppose their increasingly shared ambitions and aims in the region. First and foremost in practical terms, this means the Palestinians, who now voice growing and well-founded fears that a US-led war on Iraq could easily provide the cover Sharon has long coveted to implement the final stages of the 1948 war: the transfer of remaining Palestinians out of the West Bank, Gaza, and perhaps even out of the State of Israel itself.

4. Apparently, Israeli Likudniks and American neocons are either very slow learners, arrogant, stubborn, or all of the above. Israel’s 1982 attempt at regime change in an unstable Lebanon turned into a bloody fiasco for Sharon, and, as Anatol Lieven warns in his aforementioned hard-hitting essay, the neo-cons’ plans for an Iraqi regime change are more likely to deteriorate into a regional, if not a global, conflagration than they are to usher in the golden age of peace, democracy and civil society in the Arab world that Paul Wolfowitz and Fouad Ajami bizarrely envision.

There is a precedent for what Bush and Co. want to do in Iraq: the IDF’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a geostrategic adventure that ended in massacres, the rise of a much more tenacious and deadly Israeli nemesis than the PLO ever managed to be — Hizbullah — and last but not least, a decade of hostage takings, airplane hijackings and embassy bombings that targeted Americans. We can expect similar results — to the third power — in the wake of US-engineered regime change in Baghdad.

The Real Issue Remains: Democracy

US neo-cons and Israeli Likudniks do, alas, have one central point with which it is impossible to argue: there really are no viable democracies in the Arab world. (Let us bracket for a moment the extent to which Israel can claim to be a bona fide democracy — which unfortunately is shrinking by the minute.) There is indeed rampant corruption, oppression, torture, murderous intelligence agencies, and closely controlled media in nearly every Arab state in the region. This is cause for alarm, concern, and coordinated international political and legal — but not military — action. The Middle East’s lack of broad-based democratic movements and its domination by tyrannical rulers has definitely hindered the development of progressive political alliances within the region while preventing solidarity with popular social justice movements abroad. This, however, does not and must not empower the US to launch a full-scale, “pre-emptive” military attack on a devastated Iraqi population in order to install a dubious democracy in Baghdad.

Anyone eager to expand the horizons of democracy and advance the growing international campaign for human rights, the rule of law, and participatory politics must indeed be horrified by Saddam Hussein’s long reign of terror. The re-energized grassroots political action and democratic debate so crucial for halting the neo-cons’ dangerous adventures in the region will not have gone far enough until we all grapple seriously and responsibly with the denial of democracy to the peoples of the entire region, not just Iraq. And the more we focus on this issue, the clearer it becomes that the US has never been a friend to democratic forces in the Arab-Islamic world. The oppressive and unsavory leaders we find throughout the region today are there, by and large, thanks to tacit US diplomatic, military, and economic support.

Seasoned observers of Iraq know full well that Saddam is a threat only to his own people. The US knew all there was to know about Saddam’s cruel and dictatorial tendencies for years, turning a blind eye to the Iraqi government’s Anfal campaign, which exterminated 100,000 Kurds by conventional and WMD means in the late 1980s. When the regime gassed its own citizens at Halabja in 1988, probably with toxic materiel purchased from American defense contractors, some US officials even tried to spin the story that an Iranian, not an Iraqi, gas attack was the cause of death, knowing full well that this was a lie.

The buckets of crocodile tears that DC’s neo-cons are shedding over Iraqi citizens’ suffering (caused as much by a punishing US-led sanctions regime as by Saddam’s sadistic misrule) could flood the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Yet their cynicism and dishonesty do not absolve democrats in the US, Canada, Europe and elsewhere from fulfilling their duty to speak truth to power, whether that power is the global hegemon or a regional tyrant. Human rights are indivisible, regardless of who is violating them. It is to be hoped that the hundreds of thousands of North American and European activists now protesting against a US-led war on Iraq will remain involved and help forge solidarity movements to support emerging democratic forces in the Arab world in their grassroots struggles against oppressive regimes.

The US neo-cons and the Israeli Likudniks now shrieking for war do not speak for us, the growing democratic forces opposed to their questionable and dangerous hegemonic ambitions. We must actively reclaim our rights to engage in open debate, free inquiry, critical thought, mass solidarity, and responsible decision-making, unencumbered by deadening fears of appearing to be “anti-American” or “anti-Semitic,” in order to forge a global political movement capable of halting the neo-cons’ illegal geostrategic adventures in the Middle East and beyond.

But we must also stand up and speak out, if we wish to be worthy of the title “democrats,” in defense of the rights, freedom, and dignity of the tormented Iraqi people, as well as for the rights of Palestinians suffering under a brutal US-sponsored occupation. And we must work tirelessly for the freedom of the legions of imprisoned and tortured Bahraini, Egyptian, Libyan, Algerian, Moroccan, Jordanian, Syrian, Iranian, Tunisian, Sudanese, Palestinian, Israeli, and Saudi dissidents, all these Arab, Kurdish, Jewish, Berber, Mizrahi, and Iranian brothers and sisters we do not yet know, but whose hands we must grasp, along with the hands of democratic forces in Israel, to derail the destruction of our shared world. In the final analysis, this could well be the most radically American and democratic thing to do.

Laurie King-Irani, former editor of Middle East Report, is one of the four founders of the Electronic Intifada and is North American Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra & Shatila. She currently teaches Social Anthropology in British Columbia.


(1) See Lieven’s eye-opening and courageous essay, “The Push for War,” in the 3 October 2002 issue of the London Review of Books (Vol. 24, No. 19), on-line at

(2) An address delivered by George W. Ball on 5 September 1985 at the National Convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, DC, reprinted in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs in October 1985.

(3) “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” A report prepared by The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies’ “Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000.” The main substantive ideas in this paper emerged from a discussion in which prominent opinion makers, including Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas Feith, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser participated. The report, which advised the Israeli government to practice the principle of pre-emption in dealing with states that threaten its interests, can be accessed at