Kerry’s "Unwavering Commitment" to Securing a Middle East Realm

Kofi Annan, who replaced Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali as UN Secretary-General in 1996 (due solely to a U.S. veto of a second Boutros-Ghali term, probably resulting from the secretary-general’s support for Palestine) has for the last eight years avoided antagonizing the sole remaining superpower. But even the soft-spoken, controversy-shy, aristocratic Ghanaian recently told the BBC that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was “illegal.”

This was immediately treated by the U.S. corporate press as somehow controversial, while the U.S., U.K. and Australia indignantly sought clarification. But leading war advocate and neocon Richard Perle had informed a London audience last November that “international law” (if observed) would in fact have prevented the U.S. invasion. Most of the world already knew the Iraq attack was criminal, as did at least some of the proud criminals themselves. So one might expect that, here in das Heimatland, the presidential candidate from the Democratic Party (the rank-and-file of which oppose the war), would duly mention this in his campaign homilies. But no; instead we get from John Kerry the (accurate) accusation that “Bush misled this nation into war,” along with the (dubious) assertion that the Massachusetts senator has a “plan to end the war” in Iraq “within four years,” i.e., sometime during his presidency, having made sure it is not “a haven for terrorists.”

It seems Kerry wants to ensure that the whole Middle East is free of “terrorists” (as the State Department selectively and idiosyncratically defines them) as a result of “reforms” he wishes to undertake during the presidency he so ineptly seeks. In an article published in Forward (“legendary name in American journalism and a revered institution in American Jewish life”) August 27 entitled, “An Unwavering Commitment To Reforming the Middle East,” the power-aspirant definitively set down his thoughts on the region, making it clear that he is committed to precisely the same world-transforming agenda as that of his rival. He begins with the statement, “Across the Middle East, the United States and Israel are facing a range of crucial security challenges.”

[Comment.] This is true, of course, and since Kerry is here addressing a largely Jewish audience, he can justifiably focus on common U.S.-Israel goals as he sees them. But he might have added that all the countries in the Middle East are facing security challenges. Citizens of any nation who happen to live or travel in, for example, insecure war-ravaged Iraq, discontented Saudi Arabia, or insurrection-challenged Turkey are insecure. Syria and Iran face the ultimate security challenge: U.S. or U.S.-Israeli attack. Palestinians face numerous, daily security challenges, even the prospect of the “ethnic cleansing” of the West Bank. Kerry’s piece means to say, and were thus better titled, “An Unwavering Commitment To Reforming the Middle East to Meet Security Challenges to the U.S. and Israel in that Region So Hostile to Us Both.”

Kerry immediately refers to Saudi Arabia, which (notwithstanding the July 2002 Defense Policy Board briefing sponsored by Richard Perle, which proposed regime change in the kingdom and called it both “the strategic pivot” of the Middle East and an “enemy of the USA”), has been on the margins of the Bush world-transforming program. (This is not, as Michael Moore hints in Fahrenheit 9-11, because of some conspiracy involving the Bush family and House of Saud, but because the administration—having embraced the neocons’ approach to Iraq, Iran, Syria and Palestine–sees little advantage in demonizing the Saudi kingdom at this time.) But perhaps because the Bushites haven’t adequately claimed the cause of Saudi change, Saudi Arabia has emerged as Kerry’s pet target. “We are not secure,” he declares, “while Saudi donors fund terror”

[Comment.] Of course the Saudi regime, probably the main target of al-Qaeda, wants very badly to eradicate terror cells on Saudi soil, and seems to be bending over backwards to meet U.S. demands for specific measures against Saudi organizations, citizens, and religious and financial institutions that support “terrorism.” This is to protect itself, and also to deflect the heat Riyadh has felt unremittingly since 9-11. U.S. officials routinely express thanks, adding, “But still not enough!” To really be enough, Saudi efforts would have to include a termination for support of Palestinian organizations which Washington (but not Arab opinion) see as “terrorist” in relation, not to the U.S., but towards Israel (which it must be emphasized remains, technically speaking, a separate country). But the latter two are conflated in Kerry-thought as surely as they are in Bush-thought.

Nor are we secure, the Massachusetts senator continues, “while Iran pursues a nuclear weapons program”

[Comment.] Not that we (Americans) would be secure if it didn’t, or if it (like at least eight other nations) did actually have one. Security is of course a relative concept, and as such rhetorically manipulable. But the U.S. itself would be little more at risk if Iran had nukes than it has become since Pakistan acquired them. (When was the last time you lost sleep worrying about Pakistani nukes?) The above “we,” in any case, is not the U.S. but “the United States and Israel” and it is fair to say that Iranian nukes would indeed make Israel less secure militarily, especially if in future it does something particularly offensive to the whole world, such as re-invade Lebanon, or Syria, or expel Palestinians from the West Bank. Israel would at least be obliged to factor into policy the nuclear status of a rival power. But that’s what many nations, including all of nuclear Israel’s neighbors, have had to do for some years now.

Nor are we secure, declares Kerry, “while Syria sponsors terrorist operations.”

[Comment.] This refers to Syria’s hospitality towards Palestinian militant groups and Lebanon’s Hizbollah. Hizbollah attacked U.S. forces during Reagan’s ill-fated intervention in Lebanon in the early 1980s, viewing the U.S. presence as an extension of the Israeli invasion, which produced an international outcry and was widely condemned in Israel itself. If one wants to stoke American security fears about Syria, one only has to conflate Hizbollah with Syria (even though its ties have been more with Iran), and (having labeled any resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq as “terrorist”), with the Iraqi and “foreign” resistance fighters in the neighboring country. The fact is, Syria does not want to be invaded, and fearing invasion, is inclined to cooperate with the U.S. (President Assad’s aide Mohammed Nassif actually met with Richard Perle and Wolfowitz aide Jaymie Durnan in January 2002 to try to negotiate a rapprochement; the neocons were not interested in these, or Iraqi peace overtures.) Syria has cooperated in the fight against al-Qaeda. But Washington, having pronounced Damascus “on the wrong side of history,” and applauded Israeli attacks on the country, wants nothing other than regime change. Kerry wants it too.

“We are not secure,” adds Kerry, “while Iraq is at risk of becoming a haven for terrorists.”

[Comment.] At risk? Any competent analyst knows that Iraq has long since, in the wake of invasion, become such a haven. Even if stories of “foreign” (Arab) fighters, such as al-Zarqawi’s group, are exaggerated, and even if many described as “terrorists” are really legitimate Iraqi resistance fighters, surely in its very disorder, occasioned by unpopular occupation, Iraq attracts or produces “terrorists” as it never did under Saddam’s brutal rule. 30,000 civilian deaths can generate a lot of enraged relatives inclined to wreak vengeance, with what some would call “terrorism,” on American troops, their allies and Iraqi collaborators. The longer the U.S. remains in Iraq, the less secure and more terror-targeted American troops will be. And the longer the war lasts, the more hatred it will generate globally towards the U.S. government, if not the American people, although some people don’t distinguish between the two. Indeed we are not secure, because George Bush’s policies are churning out terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.

“And,” Kerry continues: “we are not secure while Israel, the one true democracy in the region, remains the victim of an unrelenting campaign of terror.”

[Comment.] This is a democracy premised on a Jewish majority and Jewish privilege, which must not be threatened by the return of Palestinian refugees, or even by natural demographic trends that will inevitably produce a (voting) Israeli Arab majority population within decades, unless the situation is carefully engineered to sustain the Zionist project. Like Athenian democracy, it may allow for the passionate airing of alternate views. But it excludes from participation several million affected by its decisions. Is a “true democracy?” I suppose it’s as true as the Athenian, or that of the early U.S.A., the latter of course excluding the female, the African, the propertyless, and the populations subject to “Indian removal.” There is a connection between the nature of this “democracy” and the terror it confronts.

“If we continue without a more effective strategy [to deal with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and Palestine] we are not supporting our ally as best we can.”

[Comment.] Kerry is saying: I can better implement the basic Bush plan than he can.

“For too long,” he thunders, “America has not led, and Iran’s program has advanced. Let me say it plainly: a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. I believe we must work with our allies to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program and be ready to work with them to implement a range of tougher measures, if needed.”

[Comment.] Totally on board John Bolton’s program! Kerry boasts that he co-sponsored in the Senate the “Syria Accountability Act” pushed for by Bolton, and unlike Bush will not delay in imposing further sanctions against Syria.

Further, he will lessen U.S. dependence of Middle East oil, presumably so that his administration’s policies won’t be hobbled by the need to cooperate with some of the above-named regimes. He will “use bold diplomacy to get governments to recognize the growing crisis of resurgent anti-Semitism, and take action to deal with it —not hide it.” I don’t know whom he refers to here as hiding this problem, but he declares “I will support the creation of an office within the State Department dedicated to combating anti-Semitism, as well as adding reporting on acts of anti-Semitism around the world to the State Department’s annual human rights reporting.”

[Comment.] Sounds fine in principle, although he’s talking about tax dollars, and about a concept often misapplied and debated. (Should the State Department take a stand on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? Or on the media’s handling of the Israeli spying investigation?) One might wonder whether an office to combat Islamophobia around the world (and especially in this country) might be just as needed and valuable at this time. Or why not a State Department office dedicated to fighting homophobia globally?

Kerry supports Ariel Sharon’s announced withdrawal from Gaza. But: “The success of the withdrawal,” he states, “also requires a real Palestinian effort to establish security—to ensure Gaza does not remain a haven for terrorists to launch attacks on Israel. Experience has made very clear that for the Palestinians to meet this key test, new Palestinian leadership is required, as Yasser Arafat has proven himself not to be a partner for peace.”

[Comment.] Plainly, should the withdrawal not occur, Kerry will blame the Palestinians and their democratically elected leader. Since the intifada will likely continue (the Palestinian Authority police apparatus, vitiated as it has been by Israeli attack, is probably unable to suppress it even if it wanted to), a President Kerry will be content to have the illegal settlers stay.

Kerry embraces the wall the world condemns, specifically joining the neocon unilateralists and declaring that the International Court of Justice should not discuss the matter. “I believe that we must stand with Israel, supporting our ally’s right to build a security fence and to allow its own Supreme Court—not the International Court of Justice—to address the issue of the route of the fence.” Kerry will work with “the Palestinian community” to “empower new, responsible Palestinian leadership committed to a permanent end to terror and promotion of democracy.” He agrees with Bush that the current leadership is not so committed, and that new, “responsible” leaders wait in the wings for help from the Americans (who’ve been so helpful and evenhanded all these years).

Kerry says he “will never compromise America’s special relationship with our ally Israel,” and will “as Presidentnever pressure Israel to make concessions that will compromise its security.”

[Comment.] Kerry (who once strutted and fretted his antiwar hour on the stage, that message heard no more when it became useful to depict his Vietnam war record as “heroism”) is in effect telling his supporters:

I, reporting for duty as your Commander in Chief, will pursue the same objectives as my predecessor. I, like him, offer unwavering, unconditional support to Israel in its confrontation with Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians and anybody else, recognizing the political expediency of this stance, and understanding that a contrary position would mean political suicide. I will depict Arab nations not firmly aligned with the U.S., and even some that are, as enemies or threats. I will do the same with Iran. I will unite with my supporters in criticizing Bush’s “handling” of the war, but I will not challenge the assumption that the U.S. should now remake Iraq so that its government is friendly to both the U.S. and Israel. Not to do so—to suggest that we merely withdraw and leave Iraqis to local emerging leadership that might continue to dispute the very legitimacy of the Israeli state, and/or insist on a role of Islam in official life that might encourage anti-Zionism—would hurt my candidacy.

Kerry’s campaign is obviously responsive to the enormously influential pro-Israel lobby, that draws primarily on Southern Christian fundamentalist voters. But I don’t think his (or the Bush administration’s) stance on Iraq is actually determined by that lobby, and the Israeli question. The issue, rather, is this: In the aftermath of the Cold War, and the U.S. emergence as the sole (military) superpower declining vis-à-vis Europe and East Asia as an economic power, how should the U.S. deal with complicated, politically divided and vulnerable, oil-rich Southwest Asia? Washington could leave the region to its own leaders’ devices (as international law suggests it do), or it can impose “regime change” such as it has already achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush policy has been to damn the world, the United Nations, the Vatican and all who noted the obvious (that the invasion of Iraq was illegal), and to bully a handful of allies into significant cooperation in the Iraq occupation, while aspiring to acquire the lion’s share of contracts for reconstructing what it has destroyed and punishing war-foes by threatening to cancel the Saddam regime’s contractual obligations to them. The Kerry policy is to reconcile Europe (Russia, Germany, France) by promising to split the Iraqi pie in exchange for “peace-keeping” troops who will share the cost of ongoing, “globalized” occupation, and to treat Syria and Iran as problems to be confronted through consultation with allies. This is the nuanced difference between the two candidates running for president on the ticket of U.S. imperialism, who while appealing to all politically powerful constituencies interested in the Middle East, represent rival factions of an ideologically unified, ruling “two party system” that they’d like to export (under the brand name “Democracy”) to the complicated and resistant outside world.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: