Keeping the American Street in Line
A moderate Arab politician (and for "moderate" read "pro-American) engages in a complex dance with both the American government and what is commonly known as "the Arab Street. For the Western media, you talk about "democracy" and "pluralism". Behind closed doors with American power brokers, you give them assurances you won’t threaten the state of Israel and that you’ll continue to keep the supply of oil flowing west. For your own people and for the Arab media, you give fiery speeches denouncing the Israelis and the American imperialists.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, who’s dependent on the American military for his survival and who is, thus, more "moderate" than most Arab politicians, is no exception. On one hand, he’s a founder of the radical Shiite "Dawa" Party, which means he’s basically an Islamic theocrat with views not terribly different from Muqtada al-Sadr Hassan Nasrallah. On the other hand, during an interview with the BBC, he remarked that he was in favor of "a pluralist Iraq whose various ethnic and sectarian groups regarded each other as equals".
Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin all know how the game is played and they rarely object to it. In spite of some window dressing put out by John Kerry, Russ Feingold and Jack Murtha earlier this year, the Democrats fully support the occupation of Iraq and vote with their checkbooks (and our tax dollars). When Kerry and Feingold introduced a bill that would have had all American troops taken out of Iraq by 2007, it went down in flames, 87 votes to 13. On June 23rd of this year a vote to approve a $517.7 billion war budget for fiscal year 2007 (including $50 billion designated to maintain the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan) passed unanimously.
That’s right. All 13 Senate Democrats who voted for the Kerry/Feingold Bill, including Kerry and Feingold, voted to keep the supply of money flowing into the Green Zone and, consequently, to the government of Nouri al-Maliki.
Nevertheless last week the Democrats decided to throw a tantrum. Nouri al-Maliki’s statement condemning the Israeli attack on Lebanon threw them into a spasm of rage. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel called on Maliki to cancel his planned address before Congress. Chuck Schumer, who didn’t show up for the July 26 speech at all, wondered about Maliki’s loyalty to the west. "Which side is he on when it comes to the war on terror." Harry Reid and Dick Durbin demanded that Maliki make some ritualistic statement of support for Israel and against Hizbollah. And Howard Dean turned the volume up to 11, labeling Maliki an "anti-Semite" during a speech in Palm Beach, Florida.
The Republicans, "liberal hawks" like Peter Beinart, and conservative newspapers like the Washington Times, quite understandably, labeled it "pandering". The powerful Senator John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was open about his contempt for Dean. "I dismiss Howard Dean," he told Fox News. "Really, he’s a disappointment, even to Democrats. I don’t care to deal with that." This is strong stuff from a southern aristocrat like Warner, who’s usually the type to likes to respond to his political opponents with a smile. Beinart was even more contemptuous. "The Democratic Party’s single biggest foreign policy liability is not that Americans think Democrats are soft," he wrote in his editorial in the Washington Post, "it is that Americans think Democrats stand for nothing, that they have no principles beyond political expedience. Given the party’s behavior over the past several months, it is not hard to understand why".
That Beinart, who’s basically a paid employee of the pro-Israel lobby, would denounce Dean’s clumsy attempt to pander to Jewish voters isn’t surprising. Jewish voters and the various pro-Israel lobbies in Washington aren’t stupid. They understand the game with "moderate" Arab politicians as well as anyone else, and it’s unlikely that anybody at AIPAC wants Maliki to commit suicide by coming out with a statement in support of Ehud Olmert’s attack on Lebanon. But what Beinart and John Warner don’t quite understand is that the Democratic Party, like Prime Minister Maliki, is facing an insurrection of its own. In spite of his wretched performance in the debate with Joe Lieberman, it now appears that Connecticut millionaire and nominally anti-war politician Ned Lamont is on the verge of knocking Joe Lieberman out of the race altogether. The polls have closed to within the margin of error. In spite of his support by Bill Clinton, the Lieberman campaign is still faltering, and, just yesterday, Lamont picked up the endorsement of the New York Times.
Ned Lamont is safely pro-Israel. The statement on his website leaves no room for doubt. "At this critical time in the Middle East," Lamont says. "I believe that when Israel’s security is threatened, the United States must unambiguously stand with our ally to be sure that it is safe and secure. On this principle, Americans are united." But the Democratic party rank and file that’s behind Lamont’s campaign, the grassroots, or "netroots" as they are popularly known, is not. In fact, they’re exploding with anti-Israel sentiment. For the first time in recent memory, the American people are not united and don’t stand unambiguously with Israel.
With their systematic destruction of the infrastructure of Lebanon, the Israelis have failed to destroy Hezbollah, but have done enormous amounts of collateral damage to their own reputation, and it’s not only the stray leftist diary on the Daily Kos that reflects it. Unlike the American occupation of Iraq, images of the civilian casualties coming out of Lebanon are not being censored. This will change, of course, but, as of now, CNN has over 20 people in Beirut and mainstream journalists like Tucker Carlson seem surprisingly willing to call Israeli propaganda for what it is. Lebanon is a western country and the Lebanese look and act like Europeans. The constant stream of images of dead Lebanese children and oil soaked beaches shock us in a way that similar images coming out of sub Sahara Africa or out of the Gaza strip do not. Carlson, in fact, seemed genuinely taken aback by the thuggish Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to compare the entire country to a host body in the horror movie "Aliens".
In other words, the American street is starting to get restless. We don’t like the idea that those same beautiful Lebanese girls we saw last year protesting the Syrian occupation might now be the targets of Israeli bombs. The hype around the elections in Iraq and in Palestine in 2005 failed to achieve their objective of putting dependable American/Israeli puppets in power, but they did succeed in calling into question Israel’s claim to be "the only Democracy in the Middle East". George Bush had opened the Pandora’s Box that all of those Kissingerite realists and dour, pessimistic Democratic politicians had predicted he would. The configuration of the Middle East is rapidly changing and not in a direction that benefits Israel. Damage control had to be done. A line in the sand drawn for anybody in the rank and file of the Democratic Party who might expect the victory of Ned Lamont to signal a more "even handed" American policy towards the Israelis and Palestinians.
Who better to play the role of taskmaster than Howard Dean, once as much a darling of the Democratic left as Ned Lamont is now? Dean, who famously got into trouble with the pro-Israeli lobby for his "even handedness" remark in 2004 is no ideological soul mate of the pro-Israeli right or the neocons. Instead, he’s an opportunistic politician whose views change with whatever audience he happens to be addressing at the time. In 2003 and 2004 when he was running a grassroots, anti-war campaign and was dependent on the anti-war left for his support, he tilted away from the Israelis and ever so mildly towards the Palestinians. In 2006, as chairman of the DNC and as the Democratic Party’s primary fund-raiser, he’s cranked up the pro-Israel, anti-Arab rhetoric to a deafening level. And yet, Dean is still widely mistrusted on the pro-Israel right (note Beinart’s contempt for his "pandering") and still has a good deal of credibility on the anti-war left. So his statements denouncing Maliki’s utterly reasonable denunciation of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon were bound to have a dampening effect on the debate within the Democratic Party.
Let’s look at what Maliki actually said.
"The Israeli attacks and air strikes are completely destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure. I condemn these aggressions and call on the Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo to take quick action to stop these aggressions. We call on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression."
What’s striking about this statement is not that it’s anti-Semitic but that it’s decidedly not anti-Semitic. If this is the most anti-Semitic thing that the Democratic Party could dig up from the Arab world than the problem of "anti-Semitism" we here about so much in the Middle East is a lie. Indeed, for an Islamic theocrat and Shiite politician, Maliki sounds an awful lot like a secular leftist politician in Western Europe, and that was what so angered Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid and Dick Durbin. Any of them could have easily gone to the Memri (an organization set up by Israeli intelligence to publish the most inflammatory anti-Semitic and anti-American statements coming out of the Arab world) website and picked out something from the platform of the Dawa party about the status of women or gays, or about the Sunni minority in Iraq that would make your hair stand on end. So why pick out a rare statement by an Arab politician which denounces the Israeli government but says nothing about Jews or Zionism or anything else we’d find offensive?
The Democrats weren’t interested in denouncing anti-Semitism but in keeping the American people in line. Maliki’s sin was not in being an anti-Semite (which he may or may not be) but to break the framing that "moderate" Arab politicians are supposed to stay inside. A "moderate" Arab politician is allowed to give blood curdling, anti-Semitic rants about Israel that stay inside the Arab world. He’s not supposed to speak in a way that both the Arab street and the American anti-war left can both understand. He’s not supposed to address the American people. And we’re not supposed to listen. Whether or not we will is still open to question. But if we do, we can expect to have Howard Dean and the Democratic Party’s elites screaming in our ears that we should "la la la la don’t listen" all the way. And it’s doing to get a lot louder and more vehement as Lebanon continues to burn.
STANLEY ROGOUSKI can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org