Once again, the U.S. is presiding over a major global human rights catastrophe, although one wouldn’t know this by following American media or political commentary. As the U.S. announces plans for increasing military aid to despotic allies in the Middle East, media elites have resorted to some of the worst manipulation and misinformation in justifying funding.
In a July 31 story, the New York Times announced the Bush administration’s plans to allocate as much as $30 billion in aid to major Middle Eastern allies such as Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The aid plan includes technological subsidies in the form of satellite-guided bombs, missiles, and upgraded naval ships. The proposal would include a 25% increase in aid to Israel over the next decade; total subsidies would increase from $24 billion to a projected $30 billion. Egypt is set to receive an estimated $13 billion.
The aid initiative has been billed in the media as a major effort to stem terrorism, promote stability, and further cement American power in the region. The New York Times claims that the aid proposal is intended “to serve as a bulwark against Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East,” as “the new weaponry [sent to allies] would counterbalance Iran’s regional ambitions.” Other claims uncritically transmitted by the New York Times include Democratic Representative Tom Lantos and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burn’s claims that the package subsidies are exclusively for “defensive,” rather than offensive military purposes, as well as Condoleeza Rice’s disingenuous statement that such aid is intended to promote “moderation and reform” within the Egyptian and Saudi governments.
An Associated Press/CBS story from July 30 quoted Bush administration officials’ hopes that the subsidies will aide in “promoting stability…in a Middle East threatened by terrorism” from groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. All this, CBS reports, is being pursued in the name of “bolster[ing] forces of moderation” and aiding regimes in “their ability to secure peace and stability in the Gulf region.”
Cable news coverage was similar in its framing of the aid package. On CNN Newswroom, co-host Don Lemon claimed that the main goals of U.S. include: “boosting civility, fighting terror and undercutting the likes of al Qaeda.” Newsroom guest Richard Haasss of the Council on Foreign Relations spoke sympathetically of U.S. goals in regards to the aid package, claiming that “Iran has emerged as the biggest threat, not simply to U.S. interests in the region, but the Saudi, Egyptian, and other moderate Arab interests. So partially, this is to give them confidence and capacity against Iran.”
It is fair to conclude that some of the media commentary mentioned above does accurately describe the motivations of American leaders. It is true, for example, that U.S. leaders are attempting to strengthen client regimes in an attempt to counterbalance regional “enemies” such as Iran and Syria, and Hamas and Hezbollah. This is where the truth of the media’s claims end, however. Contrary to media propaganda, there is no available evidence suggesting that states like Iran or Syria have plans to attack any American allies in the region. And even those groups that are verbally or militarily hostile to Israel pose only a marginal threat (relatively speaking) to Israeli national security. There is no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, nor is there any evidence of an Iranian plan to attack Israel with conventional or unconventional weapons. Quite the contrary, it is the U.S. and Iran that have publicly threatened to undertake preventive strikes on the Iranian regime. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s talk of wiping Israel off the map is just that – talk. Such loud pronouncements bear little resemblance to the reality that it is Israel, not Iran, which has the power and desire to strike first.
Whatever one thinks of the Islamist ideologies of Hamas and Hezbollah, these groups do not pose threats to Israel’s existence. Hamas has openly advocated negotiated peace settlements with Israel, despite the refusal of the U.S. and Israel to engage in such offers. Even Hezbollah, which has recently engaged in terrorists attacks against Israel, does not pose a threat to the extent typically portrayed by Israeli and American leaders. In the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon war, Hezbollah fired over 4,000 Katyusha rockets into Israeli cities, killing a total of 43 Israeli civilians. By contrast, Israeli bombing of Lebanon killed an estimated 1,100-1,200 Lebanese civilians. Israel reportedly used white phosphorus chemical weapons against civilians with impunity, and in light of strong international protest.
Human Rights Watch condemned Hezbollah and Israel for killing civilians, which raises serious questions about how increased military aid to Israel can prohibit future terrorism in light of Israel’s terrorist attacks on civilians. If Hezbollah’s terrorist acts killing over 40 Israelis are deplorable, surely Israel’s killing of 28 times as many civilians should not be rewarded either. But one shouldn’t look to the mainstream press to raise such a crucial point, or to ask why the U.S. should even be considering an increase in aid to Israel in light of the public’s strong opposition to such an increase.
Robert Haass of the Council of Foreign Relations complains to Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Situation Room that increased military aid to Egypt and Saudi Arabia is “irrelevant” because “The Iranian threat is Hamas, [and] Hezbollah militias. It’s not the Iranian Air Force. There’s a mismatch between what the United States is doing [in allocating this aid package] and the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia.”
Haass is mistaken in assuming that increased U.S. aid is intended to assist allies in defending from external “threats” such as Hezbollah and Hamas. While the mainstream press is right in claiming that the aid packages to U.S. allies are for defensive purposes, the real enemy such aid is aimed at is domestic, not foreign. Corrupt authoritarian rulers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt require U.S. aid in order to defend their regimes from the increasing threats of their own populations, rather than from phantom outside “threats” discussed in American political and media propaganda.
Despite Bush’s and preceding administration’s hollow claims about supporting democracy in Iraq, U.S. leaders have cynically propped up murderous, unpopular dictatorships that side with American foreign policy interests over domestic ones. While media reports dogmatically repeat official statements about the need to prop up “moderate” governments in the Middle East, the aim of U.S. policy is really the opposite. Far from reinforcing democracy, the only thing that U.S. aid is “stabilizing” in Egypt and Saudi Arabia is continued government repression and terror. A brief review of the human rights records of these countries in recent years drives this fact home clearly.
In Egypt, human rights organizations regularly condemn the government for a laundry list of offenses committed against its people. Human Rights Watch has documented the following abuses:
– The use of “arbitrary detention and trials [of suspects] before military and state security courts”; an estimated 10,000 people “remain in prolonged detention without charge under the terms of law.”
– Reliance on false confessions, extracted through torture, to be used against suspected “enemies” of the state. The Egyptian government has been attacked for serving as one of numerous states that conducts secret interrogations of U.S. and allied detainees in the “War on Terror.” Egypt’s brutality in its interrogation practices makes it a popular choice for American leaders looking to circumvent the protections provided to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
– “Regular police brutality against demonstrators.” In just one of many documented human rights violations, Egyptian human rights workers reported that activists were beaten for protesting a government decision to punish senior judges who had “publicly criticized election irregularities and campaigned for greater judicial independence.”
– The government’s continued reliance on a national press law that allows for the detainment of reporters who criticize President Hosni Mubarak or friendly foreign leaders. Punishable offenses include any actions that are deemed to “cause harm or damage to the national interest” however that may be defined.
– Continued government attacks on the homeless and street children. While such individuals have committed no crimes, they are often arbitrarily detained under the charge of “being vulnerable to delinquency.” They face “beatings, sexual abuse, and extortion by police and adult suspects, and police at times deny them access to food, bedding, and medical care.”
– Routine repression of labor. The Egyptian government has closed the offices of numerous trade union services dedicated to advising workers over their rights to organize and protest in support of increased wages and benefits. Such attacks against labor have been labeled “a serious blow to Egyptian civil society and workers’ rights” by human rights advocates.
Saudi Arabia’s record is also deplorable. The regime is notorious for its repression of women, who have long been viewed as second class citizens. The country’s human rights record has been deteriorating even further in recent years. As Human Rights Watch reports, violations include “Abitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, and [reliance on] the death penalty.” Rabbah al-Quwa’i was one of those arbitrarily arrested for “harboring destructive thoughts” in writings he posted that were critical of al Qaeda. Extreme religiously-inspired punishments are common under the medieval Saudi monarchy. In another example of blatant contempt for the populace, Saudi religious police broke into the home of Salman al-Huraisi (without a warrant) and beat him to death. Huraisi was suspected of possessing alcohol, which is designated a crime in the Wahhabi Kingdom under the rule of Sharia (Islamic law).
The Saudi dictatorship has been attacked for infringing upon individual legal guarantees, curtailing freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and for forbidding any religious practices outside of Wahhabist interpretations of Islam. Saudi religious police break into private homes and gatherings to arrest and deport non-Muslims conducting religious services.
Such deplorable human rights records make a mockery of U.S. media promises to promote stability and moderation, and fight terrorism in the Middle East. To the contrary, the U.S. has acquired a well deserved reputation for enabling terrorism by actively supporting the dictatorships discussed above. As the largest provider of aid, the U.S. Congress struck down a 2006 proposal to cut military and economic support to Egypt by $100 million, in response to efforts aimed at punishing Egyptian leaders for human rights violations. U.S. plans to increase aid to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel reveal American political leaders’ contempt for democracy abroad. In 2006, the Bush administration declined to pressure the Egyptian government toward human rights reforms, as Condoleeza Rice claimed that democratic change must be pursued by the Egyptian people, rather than by the United States.
One might be inclined to forgive those who are incensed by such hypocritical comments, in light of enthusiastic U.S. economic and military support for Egyptian and Saudi terrorism, cynically pursued alongside pronouncements of the Bush administration’s “vision” of imposing democracy and human rights in Iraq and throughout the region.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt do not receive massive foreign aid from the U.S. because they are bastions of freedom, justice, and democracy. These regimes are supported by leaders concerned primarily with gaining control over the regions’ major oil reserves, an inconvenient fact quietly conceded in declassified government records and official policy statements. It is this obsession with the strategic power conferred by oil that we must consider if we are to understand overarching U.S. policy in the region.
A unified Shia front transcending colonial borders imposed in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia would pose a major challenge to U.S. dominance in the region. U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia should be understood in this light as an effort to prevent Shia unification across these three states – so as to preserve dominance of the oil rich regions in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and neighboring states. U.S. assaults on Islamist resistance movements (whether they are against Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, the Iranian clergy, or other groups) should also be understood within this general framework as an attempt to prevent this valuable natural resource from falling into the hands of those who are antagonistic to U.S. imperial interests.
On a more optimistic note, we should recognize that U.S. dominance of Middle East oil and support for terrorist, authoritarian regimes is hardly inevitable. The final aid package to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt will not be considered for Congressional approval until September of this year. This leaves a lot of time to mobilize in opposition to the current U.S. plan.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the forthcoming book – Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” (December 2007). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org