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Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

10 Things to Know about U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Stephen Zunes, AlterNet
September 26, 2001

1. The United States has played a major role in the militarization of the 

The Middle East is the destination of the majority of American arms 
exports, creating enormous profits for weapons manufacturers and 
contributing greatly to the militarization of this already 
overly-militarized region. Despite promises of restraint, U.S. arms 
transfers to the region have topped $60 billion since the Gulf War. Arms 
sales are an important component of building political alliances between 
the U.S. and Middle Eastern countries, particularly with the military 
leadership of recipient countries. There is a strategic benefit for the 
U.S. in having U.S.-manufactured systems on the ground in the event of a 
direct U.S. military intervention. Arms sales are also a means of 
supporting military industries faced with declining demand in Western 

To link arms transfers with a given country's human rights record would 
lead to the probable loss of tens of billions of dollars in annual sales 
for American weapons manufacturers, which are among the most powerful 
special interest groups in Washington. This may help explain why the 
United States has ignored the fact that UN Security Council resolution 687,
which the U.S. has cited as justification for its military responses to 
IraqÕs possible rearmament, also calls for region-wide disarmament efforts,
something the United States has rejected.

The U.S. justifies the nearly $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel 
on the grounds of protecting that country from its Arab neighbors, even 
though the United States supplies 80 percent of the arms to these Arab 
states. The 1978 Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt was in many 
ways more like a tripartite military pact than a peace agreement in that 
it has resulted in more than $5 billion is annual U.S. arms transfers to 
those two countries. U.S. weapons have been used repeatedly in attacks 
against civilians by Israel, Turkey and other countries. It is not 
surprising that terrorist movements have arisen in a region where so many 
states maintain their power influence through force of arms.

2. The U.S. maintains an ongoing military presence in the Middle East.

The United States maintains an ongoing military presence in the Middle 
East, including longstanding military bases in Turkey, a strong naval 
presence in the eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Sea, as well as large 
numbers of troops on the Arabian Peninsula since the Gulf War. Most 
Persian Gulf Arabs and their leaders felt threatened after IraqÕs seizure 
of Kuwait and were grateful for the strong U.S. leadership in the 1991 war
against Saddam Hussein's regime and for UN resolutions designed to curb 
Iraq's capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. At the same time,
there is an enormous amount of cynicism regarding U.S. motives in waging
that war. Gulf Arabs, and even some of their rulers, cannot shake the sense
that the war was not fought for international law, self-determination and 
human rights, as the senior Bush administration claimed, but rather to 
protect U.S. access to oil and to enable the U.S. to gain a strategic 
toehold in the region.

The ongoing U.S. air strikes against Iraq have not garnered much support 
from the international community, including Iraq's neighbors, who would 
presumably be most threatened by an Iraqi capability of producing weapons 
of mass destruction. In light of WashingtonÕs tolerance - and even quiet 
support - of IraqÕs powerful military machine in the 1980s, the United 
States' exaggerated claims of an imminent Iraqi military threat in 1998, 
after IraqÕs military infrastructure was largely destroyed in the Gulf War,
simply lack credibility. Nor have such recent air strikes eliminated or 
reduced the countryÕs capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, 
particularly the most plausible threat of biological weapons.

Furthermore, only the United Nations Security Council has the prerogative 
to authorize military responses to violations of its resolutions; no 
single member state can do so unilaterally without explicit permission. 
Many Arabs object to the U.S. policy of opposing efforts by Arabs states 
to produce weapons of mass destruction, while tolerating IsraelÕs sizable 
nuclear arsenal and bringing U.S. nuclear weapons into Middle Eastern 
waters as well as rejecting calls for the creation of a nuclear-free zone 
in the region.

In a part of the world which has been repeatedly conquered by outside 
powers of the centuries, this ongoing U.S. military presence has created 
an increasing amount of resentment. Indeed, the stronger the U.S. military
role has become in the region in recent decades, the less safe U.S. 
interests have become.

3. There has been an enormous humanitarian toll resulting from U.S. policy
toward Iraq.

Iraq still has not recovered from the 1991 war, during which it was on the
receiving end of the heaviest bombing in world history, destroying much of 
the countryÕs civilian infrastructure. The U.S. has insisted on 
maintaining strict sanctions against Iraq to force compliance with 
international demands to dismantle any capability of producing weapons of 
mass destruction. In addition, the U.S. hopes that such sanctions will 
lead to the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. However, WashingtonÕs 
policy of enforcing strict sanctions against Iraq appears to have had the 
ironic effect of strengthening SaddamÕs regime. With as many as 5,000 
people, mostly children, dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases 
every month as a result of the sanctions, the humanitarian crisis has led 
to worldwide demands - even from some of IraqÕs historic enemies - to 
relax the sanctions. Furthermore, as they are now more dependent than ever
on the government for their survival, the Iraqi people are even less likely
to risk open defiance.

Unlike the reaction to sanctions imposed prior to the war, Iraqi popular 
resentment over their suffering lays the blame squarely on the United 
States, not the totalitarian regime, whose ill-fated conquest of Kuwait 
led to the economic collapse of this once-prosperous country. In addition,
Iraq's middle class, which would most likely have formed the political 
force capable of overthrowing SaddamÕs regime, has been reduced to penury.
It is not surprising that most of IraqÕs opposition movements oppose the 
U.S. policy of ongoing punitive sanctions and air strikes.

In addition, U.S. officials have stated that sanctions would remain even 
if Iraq complied with United Nations inspectors, giving the Iraqi regime 
virtually no incentive to comply. For sanctions to work, there needs to be
a promise of relief to counterbalance the suffering; that is, a carrot as 
well as a stick. Indeed, it was the failure of both the United States and 
the United Nations to explicitly spell out what was needed in order for 
sanctions to be lifted that led to Iraq suspending its cooperation with UN
weapons inspectors in December 1998.

4. The United States has not been a fair mediator in the 
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For over two decades, the international consensus for peace in the Middle 
East has involved the withdrawal of Israeli forces to within 
internationally recognized boundaries in return for security guarantees 
from Israel's neighbors, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 
West Bank and Gaza and some special status for a shared Jerusalem. Over 
the past 30 years, the Palestine Liberation Organization, under the 
leadership of Yasir Arafat, has evolved from frequent acts of terrorism 
and the open call for Israel's destruction to supporting the international
consensus for a two-state solution. Most Arab states have made a similar 
evolution toward favoring just such a peace settlement.

However, the U.S. has traditionally rejected the international consensus 
and currently takes a position more closely resembling that of Israel's 
right-wing government: supporting a Jerusalem under largely Israeli 
sovereignty, encouraging only partial withdrawal from the occupied 
territories, allowing for the confiscation of Palestinian land and the 
construction of Jewish-only settlements and rejecting an independent state
Palestine outside of Israeli strictures.

The interpretation of autonomy by Israel and the United States has thus 
far led to only limited Palestinian control of a bare one-fourth of the 
West Bank in a patchwork arrangement that more resembles American Indian 
reservations or the infamous Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa than
anything like statehood. The U.S. has repeatedly blamed the Palestinians 
for the violence of the past year, even though Amnesty International, 
Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights group have noted that 
the bulk of the violence has come from Israeli occupation forces and 

Throughout the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the U.S. has insisted on
the two parties working out a peace agreement among themselves, even though
there has always been a gross asymmetry in power between the Palestinians 
and their Israeli occupiers. The U.S. has blamed the Palestinians for not 
compromising further, even though they already ceded 78 percent of 
historic Palestine to the Israelis in the Oslo Accords; the Palestinians 
now simply demand that the Israelis withdraw their troops and colonists 
only from lands seized in the 1967, which Israel is required to do under 
international law.

The U.S.-backed peace proposal by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak
at the 2000 talks at Camp David would have allowed Israel to annex large 
swaths of land in the West Bank, control of most of Arab East Jerusalem 
and its environs, maintain most of the illegal settlements in a pattern 
that would have divided the West Bank into non-contiguous cantons, and 
deny Palestinian refugees the right of return. With the U.S. playing the 
dual role of the chief mediator of the conflict as well as the chief 
diplomatic, financial and military backer of Israeli occupation forces, 
the U.S. goal seems to be more that of Pax Americana than that of a true 

5. U.S. support for Israel occupation forces has created enormous 
resentment throughout the Middle East.

The vast majority of Middle Eastern states and their people have belatedly
acknowledged that Israel will continue to exist as part of the region as an
independent Jewish state. However, there is enormous resentment at ongoing 
U.S. diplomatic, financial and military support for Israeli occupation 
forces and their policies.

The U.S. relationship with Israel is singular. Israel represents only one 
one-thousandth of the worldÕs population and has the 16th highest per 
capita income in the world, yet it receives nearly 40 percent of all U.S. 
foreign aid. Direct aid to Israel in recent years has exceeded $3.5 
billion annually, with an additional $1 billion through other sources, and
has been supported almost unanimously in Congress, even by liberal 
Democrats who normally insist on linking aid to human rights and 
international law. Although the American public appears to strongly 
support IsraelÕs right to exist and wants the U.S. to be a guarantor of 
that right, there is growing skepticism regarding the excessive level and 
unconditional nature of U.S. aid to Israel. Among elected officials, 
however, there are virtually no calls for a reduction of current aid 
levels in the foreseeable future, particularly as nearly all U.S. aid to 
Israel returns to the United States either via purchases of American 
armaments or as interest payments to U.S. banks for previous loans.

Despite closer American strategic cooperation with the Persian Gulf 
monarchies since the Gulf War, these governments clearly lack Israel's 
advantages in terms of political stability, a well-trained military, 
technological sophistication and the ability to quickly mobilize human and
material resources.

Despite serious reservations about IsraelÕs treatment of the Palestinians,
most individual Americans have a longstanding moral commitment to Israel's 
survival. Official U.S. government policy supporting successive Israeli 
governments in recent years, however, appears to be crafted more from a 
recognition of how Israel supports American strategic interests in the 
Middle East and beyond. Indeed, 99 percent of all U.S. aid to Israel has 
been granted since the 1967 war, when Israel proved itself more powerful 
than any combination of its neighbors and occupied the territories of 
hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and other Arabs. Many Israelis 
supportive of that country's peace movement believe the United States has 
repeatedly undermined their efforts to moderate their government's 
policies, arguing that Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not 
mutually-exclusive, as the U.S. seems to believe, but mutually dependent 
on the other.

As long as U.S. military, diplomatic and economic support of the Israeli 
government remains unconditional despite Israel's ongoing violation of 
human rights, international law and previous agreements with the 
Palestinians, there is no incentive for the Israeli government to change 
its policies. The growing Arab resentment that results can only threaten 
the long-term security interests of both Israel and the United States.

6. The United States has been inconsistent in its enforcement of 
international law and UN Security Council resolutions.

The U.S. has justified its strict sanctions and ongoing air strikes 
against Iraq on the grounds of enforcing United Nations Security Council 
resolutions. In addition, in recent years the United States has 
successfully pushed the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions 
against Libya, Afghanistan and Sudan over extradition disputes, an 
unprecedented use of the UNÕs authority. However, the U.S. has blocked 
sanctions against such Middle East allies as Turkey, Israel and Morocco 
for their ongoing occupation of neighboring countries, far more egregious 
violations of international law that directly counter the UN Charter. In 
recent years, for example, the U.S. has helped block the Security Council 
from moving forward with a UN-sponsored resolution on the fate of the 
Moroccan-occupied country of Western Sahara because of the likelihood that
the people would vote for independence from Morocco, which invaded the 
former Spanish colony with U.S. backing in 1975.

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has used its veto power to protect its 
ally Israel from censure more than all other members of the Security 
Council have used their veto power on all other issues combined. This past
spring, for example, the U.S. vetoed an otherwise-unanimous resolution 
which would have dispatched unarmed human rights monitors to the 
Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, the U.S. has 
launched a vigorous campaign to rescind all previous UN resolutions 
critical of Israel. Washington has labeled them "anachronistic," even 
though many of the issues addressed in these resolutions - human rights 
violations, illegal settlements, expulsion of dissidents, development of 
nuclear weapons, the status of Jerusalem, and ongoing military occupation
- are still germane. The White House contends that the 1993 Oslo Accords 
render these earlier UN resolutions obsolete. However, such resolutions 
cannot be reversed without the approval of the UN body in question; the 
U.S. cannot unilaterally discount their relevance. Furthermore, no 
bilateral agreement (like Oslo) can supersede the authority of the UN 
Security Council, particularly if one of the two parties (the Palestinians)
believe that these resolutions are still binding.

Most observers recognize that one of the major obstacles to 
Israeli-Palestinian peace is the expansion of Israeli settlements in the 
occupied territories. However, the U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN 
Security Council resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw its 
settlements from Palestinian land. These settlements were established in 
violation of international law, which forbids the colonization of 
territories seized by military force. In addition, the U.S. has not 
opposed the expansion of existing settlements and has shown ambivalence 
regarding the large-scale construction of exclusively Jewish housing 
developments in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. Furthermore, the U.S. has
secured additional aid for Israel to construct highways connecting these 
settlements and to provide additional security, thereby reinforcing their 
permanence. This places the United States in direct violation of UN 
Security Council resolution 465, which "calls upon all states not to 
provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection 
with settlements in the occupied territories."

7. The United States has supported autocratic regimes in the Middle East.

The growing movement favoring democracy and human rights in the Middle 
East has not shared the remarkable successes of its counterparts in 
Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. Most Middle 
Eastern governments remain autocratic. Despite occasional rhetorical 
support for greater individual freedoms, the United States has generally 
not supported tentative Middle Eastern steps toward democratization. 
Indeed, the United States has reduced - or maintained at low levels - 
its economic, military and diplomatic support to Arab countries that have 
experienced substantial political liberalization in recent years while 
increasing support for autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, 
Egypt and Morocco. Jordan, for example, received large-scale U.S. support 
in the 1970s and 1980s despite widespread repression and authoritarian 
rule; when it opened up its political system in the early 1990s, the U.S. 
substantially reduced - and, for a time, suspended - foreign aid. Aid to
Yemen was cut off within months of the newly unified countryÕs first 
democratic election in 1990.

Despite its laudable rhetoric, Washington's real policy regarding human 
rights in the Middle East is not difficult to infer. It is undeniable that
democracy and universally recognized human rights have never been common in
the Arab-Islamic world. Yet the tendency in the U.S. to emphasize cultural 
or religious explanations for this fact serves to minimize other factors 
that are arguably more salient - including the legacy of colonialism, 
high levels of militarization and uneven economic development - most of 
which can be linked in part to the policies of Western governments, 
including the United States. There is a circuitous irony in a U.S. policy 
that sells arms, and often sends direct military aid, to repressive Middle
Eastern regimes that suppress their own people and crush incipient human 
rights movements, only to then claim that the resulting lack of democracy 
and human rights is evidence that the people do not want such rights. In 
reality, these arms transfers and diplomatic and economic support systems 
play an important role in keeping autocratic Arab regimes in power by 
strengthening the hand of the state and supporting internal repression. 
The U.S. then justifies its large-scale military aid to Israel on the 
grounds that it is "the sole democracy in the Middle East," even though 
these weapons are used less to defend Israeli democracy than to suppress 
the PalestiniansÕ struggle for self-determination.

8. U.S. policy has contributed to the rise of radical Islamic governments 
and movements.

The United States has been greatly concerned in recent years over the rise
of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East. Islam, like other 
religions, can be quite diverse regarding its interpretation of the 
faith's teachings as they apply to contemporary political issues. There 
are a number of Islamic-identified parties and movements that seek 
peaceful coexistence and cooperation with the West and are moderate on 
economic and social policy. Many Islamist movements and parties have come 
to represent mainstream pro-democracy and pro-economic justice currents, 
replacing the discredited Arab socialism and Arab nationalist movements.

There are also some Islamic movements in the Middle East today that are 
indeed reactionary, violent, misogynist and include a virulently 
anti-American perspective that is antithetical to perceived American 
interests. Still others may be more amenable to traditional U.S. interests
but reactionary in their approach to social and economic policies, or vice 

Such movements have risen to the forefront primarily in countries where 
there has been a dramatic physical dislocation of the population as a 
result of war or uneven economic development. Ironically, the United 
States has often supported policies that have helped spawn such movements,
including giving military, diplomatic and economic aid to augment decades 
of Israeli attacks and occupation policies, which have torn apart 
Palestinian and Lebanese society, and provoked extremist movements that 
were unheard of as recently as 20 years ago. The U.S.-led overthrow of the
constitutional government in Iran in 1953 and subsequent support for the 
Shah's brutal dictatorship succeeded in crushing that countryÕs democratic
opposition, resulting in a 1979 revolution led by hard-line Islamic clerics.
The United States actually backed extremist Islamic groups in 
Afghanistan when they were challenging the Soviet Union in the 1980s, 
including Osama bin Laden and many of his followers. To this day, the 
United States maintains very close ties with Saudi Arabia, which Š despite
being labeled a "moderate" Arab regime - adheres to an extremely rigid 
interpretation of Islam and is among the most repressive regimes in the 

9. The U.S. promotion of a neo-liberal economic model in the Middle East 
has not benefitted most people of the region.

Like much of the Third World, the United States has been pushing a 
neo-liberal economic model of development in the Middle East through such 
international financial institutions as the International Monetary Fund, 
the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. These have included 
cutbacks in social services, encouragement of foreign investment, lower 
tariffs, reduced taxes, the elimination of subsidies for farmers and basic
foodstuffs as well as ending protection for domestic industry.

While in many cases, this has led to an increase in the overall Gross 
National Product, it has dramatically increased inequality, with only a 
minority of the population benefitting. Given the strong social justice 
ethic in Islam, this growing disparity between the rich and the poor has 
been particularly offensive to Muslims, whose exposure to Western economic
influence has been primarily through witnessing some of the crassest 
materialism and consumerism from U.S. imports enjoyed by the local elites.

The failure of state-centric socialist experiments in the Arab world have 
left an ideological vacuum among the poor seeking economic justice which 
has been filled by certain radical Islamic movements. Neo-liberal economic
policies have destroyed traditional economies and turned millions of rural 
peasants into a new urban underclass populating the teeming slums of such 
cities as Cairo, Tunis, Casablanca and Teheran. Though policies of free 
trade and privatization have resulted in increased prosperity for some, 
far more people have been left behind, providing easy recruits for Islamic
activists rallying against corruption, materialism and economic injustice.

10. The U.S. response to Middle Eastern terrorism has thus far been 

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States has highlighted 
the threat of terrorism from the Middle East, which has become the 
country's major national security concern in the post-cold war world. In 
addition to Osama bin LadenÕs underground Al-Qaeda movement, which 
receives virtually no direct support from any government, Washington 
considers Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Libya to be the primary sources of 
state-sponsored terrorism and has embarked on an ambitious policy to 
isolate these regimes in the international community. Syria's status as a 
supporter of terrorism has ebbed and flowed not so much from an objective 
measure of its links to terrorist groups as from an assessment of their 
willingness to cooperate with U.S. policy interests, indicating just how 
politicized "terrorist" designations can be.

Responding to terrorist threats through large-scale military action has 
been counter-productive. In 1998, the U.S. bombed a civilian 
pharmaceutical plant in Sudan under the apparently mistaken belief that it
was developing chemical weapons that could be used by these terrorist 
networks, which led to a wave of anti-Americanism and strengthened that 
countryÕs fundamentalist dictatorship. The 1986 bombing of two Libyan 
cities in response to Libyan support for terrorist attacks against U.S. 
interests in Europe not only killed scores of civilians, but - rather 
than curb Libyan-backed terrorism - resulted in Libyan agents blowing up 
a Pan Am airliner over Scotland in retaliation. Military responses 
generally perpetuate a cycle of violence and revenge. Furthermore, failure
to recognize the underlying grievances against U.S. Middle East policy will
make it difficult to stop terrorism. While very few Muslims support 
terrorism - recognizing it as contrary to the values of Islam - the 
concerns articulated by bin Laden and others about the U.S. role in the 
region have widespread resonance and will likely result in new recruits 
for terrorist networks unless and until the U.S. changes its policies.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace
& Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as 
a senior policy analyst and Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in 
Focus Project.