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“Reformulating U.S. Foreign Policy Toward The Middle East”

By Kevin Zeese

20 september, 2006

Transcript of Remarks by Kevin Zeese at The Palestine Center
Washington, DC

Thank you all very much for coming and thank you for inviting me to talk about this important topic of Middle East policy. Today is an interesting day to have this talk. It's the thirteenth anniversary of the 1993 agreement between President [William J.] Clinton, Mr. [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat and Mr. [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin, the handshake for peace. Remember that picture of the three of them standing together in 1993? That was the signing of the declaration of peace where Israel agreed to get out of the West Bank and Gaza by 1994 and to resolve all the differences between the countries, Palestine and Israel, by 1999. Of course, we're here and those problems are still not resolved. Of course, the assassination of Rabin, other changes and the move to the Sharon government made that hard to solve.

It's interesting to look at the Middle East and try to be optimistic. There are a few things that have happened in recent months that have given me some hope that things can happen in a positive way. Most recently I was very pleased to see the [George W.] Bush administration, after a lot of debate inside the administration according to the press reports, allowing the former president of Iran, [Mohammad] Khatami, to come visit the country and make a series of speeches around the country, do a number of press reviews and give a different perspective of Iran. I think that was a positive sign. I'm curious as to why they made that decision and what that may foretell. Hopefully, it's good news and a sign of a new direction away from the threatening approach that we've been taking with Iran.

A second hopeful sign is, such a clear evidence, that I think the Bush administration and the hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and even the Department of Defense generals may even be able to see it, that brute force cannot win the day against local resistance efforts. Lebanon and Hizballah, surviving Iraq and the resistance continuing against military might that is so dominating, the United States spending as much as the whole world combined on military activity and Israel being the most sophisticated military in the region, still the resistance in Iraq and Hizballah survived and it seems actually got stronger. My hope is that some of the hubris of the administration in our government may change, and we may start to recognize that we can't win this by shock and awe but need to focus on diplomacy and negotiation. So I think it's also a hopeful sign.

The third hopeful sign for me is the coming out of the closet and into political discussion the reality of the Israeli lobby. Something that anyone in Washington, DC has known about for years but was one of those kinds of elephants in the living room that nobody discusses and thanks to [John] Mearsheimer and [Stephen] Walt, two mainstream realist foreign policy analysts, bringing that issue out to the front, there's actually a discussion about the Israeli lobby and whether or not we sometimes put Israel's interests before U.S. interests. I think that discussion is a hopeful sign as well.

I was also pleased to see to some degree, a [former U.S. Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger article today in the Washington Post. It's lengthy, they gave him a lot of space, a lengthy analysis, but what it basically comes down to is recognizing that things are changing in the Middle East [and] that these non-state actors like Hizballah and Hamas are people we have to recognize exist and deal with. I don't think he quite gets into it, but I think the reality is these actors are, he describes it as a state within a state because they are not just military groups, they are employers, they're social service providers, cultural groups, they provide much more than that and they're very much intertwined and ingrained in the culture. I think that recognizing that they exist and how to face up to that reality is an important step as well and I'm glad to see Kissinger discussing that.

The topic we're talking about today, "Reformulating Policy in the Middle East," is one that is critical to get right. We need to get Middle East policy right. If we don't get it right, it's become clear that we can't have security in the United States. So it's important for U.S. citizens to get it right. Our allies need us to get it right because they can't have security, and the people of the region need us to get it right because the destruction that we saw in Lebanon, the destruction that we're seeing in Iraq, we don't want to see that continue to expand to other countries in the region. So, this is a critical moment to really look at this issue of reformulating policy in the Middle East. It's important that we begin to have a very honest and frank discussion about it.

One thing that struck me recently was with the fifth anniversary of 9/11. The analysis in the media, the discussion among the television actors, the discussion among political elected leaders, they still can't come to grips with the question of "Why they hate us." It's amazing to me after these five years that President Bush's line of "they hate us because of our freedoms" is still one that people actually believe and political leaders actually say in their own way. Not quite as simply as he does, but [they] come to the same kind of conclusion as he does. I think that really is a symptom of a problem in our political discourse because to grapple with that question really means for us to look in the mirror honestly at our self and look in the mirror honestly at our policy in the region. If we do that, then we see there's very good reason for people in the Middle East not to like the activities of our government and the policies of our government. It's not just the recent Iraq war. That may be a current issue that's obviously highlighting things, but it's bigger than that. It can go back really the whole century.

If you look just as recently I think from the 1950s on our policies in Iran of removing an elected leader because of his nationalizing the oil and putting in place the Shah, the Shah who was a brutal dictator, repressed his people, repressed religion, pushed Western values faster than the people wanted them leading to the 1979 revolution in Iran. That's one example of why they hate us. Another example, of course, is our relationship with some of the other regimes in the Arab world that are repressive to their people. At the root of all this, of course, is the question of oil. And the question of do we trade oil for human rights, do we support regimes that are allied with us on oil even if they're not good regimes, if they're dictators, if they're repressive, and we have chosen to do that. And so I think that is another reason.

Of course than the other big issue that affects why they hate us is Israel. Our one-sided relationship with Israel is one that we don't discuss very much in politics. I know that the people I'm running against in the Maryland race, in the three-way race with Ben Cardin and Michael Steele, they are totally typical of American politicians in that they will not say a bad word about Israel. I think we need to have an honest discussion about that as well if we're going to understand and move away from the mistaken policy we've had for the last few decades.

And because we don't discuss these issues, because we don't look at this analysis, we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. The Iraq war, taking the approach of a military invasion based on false information, false intelligence and occupation, claiming that we're working for democracy when everything we're doing there is actually making things worse. Our inability [to learn from] history leads us to repeat the mistakes of history. We see also with the saber-rattling against Iran. The threats of economic or military force against Iran as a solution to the Iranian problem is once again making the same mistake we've been making for more than 50 years in the region. And then of course the reaction we had in Lebanon rushing to the aid of Israel, to the support of Israel, no matter how extreme and how brutal their attack on Lebanese civilians and Lebanese civilian infrastructure was, we are making the same mistake over and over again. We need to have a more honest discussion. We need to recognize that what we do with this use of force is often counterproductive. For every action there is a reaction, I guess the CIA would call it "blowback." What we're doing in the region is strengthening the most extreme elements and weakening the moderate elements. We're working against our own self-interest.

On Iran, I think the emphasis of the big stick rather than the carrots, the emphasis on we're going to force you to accept our approach rather than negotiate with you to come to a conclusion, I think is a great example of the failed Middle East strategy. Look at Iran. After 9/11 in Tehran, there were a million people in the streets supportive of the United States and expressing concern about our country. You look at when we went to Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban, Iran helped us to create a new government there. When we invaded Iraq initially, Iran reached out through European contacts to try to have negotiations with us, not just on Iraq, but on a whole range of issues. There [was] even some indication that included recognizing Israel. And yet rather than opening up and talking with them, we took the approach of turning down negotiations. That to me is exactly what's wrong with Middle East policy.

I hope that the recent Hizballah activities in Lebanon and the failure of the occupation of Iraq will maybe start to change that and Khatami's visit may be a sign that that might be changing. Now Iran, of course, is in the situation of being surrounded by the United States. They have on their eastern border our military troops in Afghanistan and on their western border our military troops in Iraq and our military in the Persian Gulf. They're rewarded for their offer of assistance by being part of the axis of evil and essentially being told "take a number, you're next." We're actually heightening the conflict and heightening the likelihood of instability. In fact, some say that may be part of the strategy of the Bush administration is targeted instability may be a good thing. We keep on making the same mistake and making the situation worse because we have not learned from history and so we keep repeating the mistakes of history.

The most recent situation in Lebanon I think certainly highlighted the mistake in policy with Israel. What seems so clear now to be a pre-planned invasion and destruction of civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, based on the capture of two [Israeli] soldiers and then the U.S. rushing more military aid to Israel so they continued the bombardment, allowing the bombardment to go on longer than necessary and longer than fruitful by preventing a ceasefire. It just shows that Israel still remains what [former U.S. Secretary of State] Alexander Hague described it as, our unsinkable battleship in the Middle East. That description I think is one we need to really keep in mind as we look at Israel and recognize that the United States provides 20 percent of the Israeli military budget. Over the years of providing that kind of support, Israel has created one of the most powerful military forces in the world, and therefore the U.S. has to start to recognize that when Israel acts that way, that we are complicit, that we are also responsible.

Therefore, we need to have a discussion about this. We can't let fear of the Israeli lobby, or the oil interests, or the military-industrial complex stop a discussion on these issues. They need to be discussed openly and responsibly. And you see the conflict with Israel and our funding of Israel in a couple different ways. If you look at our foreign policy budget, we provide as much foreign aid to Israel as we do to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean combined. Israel, the size of New Jersey, gets as much money as two continents and the Caribbean.

If you look at when Israeli aid requests come into the United States, and I'm sure there will be some as a result of this Lebanon conflict, to rebuild their infrastructure, they'll ask for billions of dollars from the United States. What do the members of the Congressional Black Caucus say when they look at their inner city neighborhoods that are like third world countries? Instead, they're approving billions of dollars to Israel. There's a conflict there, and the needs of the world, the needs of our own people are put aside for the needs of Israel. I think that that needs to be discussed. Is it rational, does it make sense? It's hard to have that kind of discussion when you see the Lebanon attack. The response of Congress is to endorse it with only eight members of Congress saying no to it. Rather than debating these actions, we are silent about these actions. I think that's starting to change. I think it's the right time for change. I think American voters now recognize that our tie to Israel is making them less secure. They recognize that the Israeli lobby helping to push us into Iraq and now trying to push us into Iran, are getting us into quagmires that we can't afford. We don't want to lose our own soldiers to it. We don't want to lose hundreds of billions of dollars to it. So this is the right time for change in the Middle East.

So how do we make a more sensible Middle East policy? I think when you start to look at the Middle East you have to start with the obvious. Once again that elephant in the living room that the Bush administration denies exists, but the issue is oil. There's no question that controlling the oil and the profits from oil is a top priority in the Middle East, particularly as we are competing with China and India for that resource. As it gets more precious and more expensive, that becomes a higher priority. So if you want to talk about reformulating policy in the Middle East, it starts with reformulating our energy policy at home and by becoming a leader in the world for a more sensible energy policy. We have the technology to change our energy policy away from the dirty, nineteenth-twentieth century fossil fuel economy toward a twenty-first century clean, sustainable energy economy. A review of the wind resources, for example, in the United States by the federal government found that three states alone could provide enough energy through wind to satisfy all of our electricity needs. Three states alone. One of those is Texas. Even oil-rich Texas can profit and continue to profit from the wind resources. That's just one source.

In my community in Takoma Park, [Maryland] there's a house that's owned by a guy named Mike Tidwell who runs a Chesapeake Action Center, which is concerned about climate change, he has a house that the energy meter runs backwards on. He gives energy back to the grid. Rather than the house being a user of energy, it becomes a producer of energy. It is done by essentially two broad things. First it's done by efficiency, having efficient refrigerators, washing machines, electrical equipment and even light bulbs makes a gigantic difference. Secondly, it's done by solar. They get enough solar out of the sky for no charge that they're able to produce enough energy that the meter runs backwards. Why can't we have a million solar houses in Maryland? Why can't we transition? The technology exists. If you take that situation and you apply it to transit, particularly automobiles, we're in a situation where with current technology we could have most people in the United States everyday traveling in cars that produce no pollution, use no oil. We have that technology. Hybrid technology with a plug in into your house for electricity, electricity provided by wind and by solar out of the environment, and the car gets plugged in at night, the first hundred miles will be all on electricity. That is real, and Toyota's coming out with an upgraded Prius that will be able to do that and all the cars. The technology exists.

So I think the missed opportunity of 9/11, a lesson we should have taken from 9/11, particularly with an oil President, an oil Vice President and a Secretary of State from Chevron who has an oil tanker named after her, we had the opportunity for a Nixon goes to China moment. Where the red baiter from the fifties became the opening doors to Communist China in the seventies, we could have had the oil executives who got to office through oil money and who are drenched and marinated in oil their whole lives saying, "Enough oil! We need to break our addiction to this fossil fuel based economy." We have the technology and we have the need.

What's great about the moment that we're in right now is that we're reaching a tipping point where the public is ready for this. The public is ready for this transition. They know it's needed. It's needed for a variety of reasons. People come up with different sources. I've mentioned the security reason, to get out of the Middle East and not to make oil the dominant factor in the Middle East. There'll always be a need for some oil. So, the Middle East will still be an issue, but it won't become a national security issue if we can break our addiction to oil the way I'm talking about. It's also an environmental urgency. People are being educated on that issue thanks to the work of Al Gore's movie. He is such a great private citizen, so much better than as a public official. He did a great job in that movie, a great public service to educate the public. If you haven't seen his movie you should see it. It's a very strong, factual rebuttal to anyone who claims that climate change is not real. Once you see it, you know it exists and your view on it will change forever. So a tipping point is being reached on the issue of climate change and the chaotic weather that it creates.

In my state of Maryland, it's a very serious issue because the Chesapeake Bay has a shoreline that's equivalent to one-third of the whole eastern coast. So we have a lot of water to deal with and so as water rises, Maryland will be greatly affected by that. I think now the climate change issue is being reached, and I think also the economic realities are making the tipping point also reached, as the price of gas goes up the price of heating oil goes up as the scarcity of those resources goes up.

So we have a combination of economic and environment and national security coming together with the same conclusion. It's time to break our addiction to fossil fuels. It's urgent. There's no time to waste on it. The missed opportunity of 9/11 for our oil-based presidency was to say, "We need to get all these old, dirty fossil fuel cars off the streets within ten years. We could do it." Imagine the Midwest with the explosion in new automobile sales and new automobile production. The Midwest would have been growing. He would have won a landslide reelection with that kind of an economic policy. We'd also change the way our buildings operate, both personal, commercial and government buildings, because there's a lot of waste there as well. The United States wastes half the energy that it has, and so we can have a lot of room in there for that change. I think once we break our oil addiction, which I think is very doable and essential, then we can really look at the Middle East in a much more sensible way.

Right now we are confused. I come out of the drug policy reform movement so I've dealt a lot with addicts, and we're addicted to oil. You know how an addict is, when they need their substance, they can't think clearly. And that's how we are as a nation. When it comes to oil, we need it, and we can't imagine living without it. Because of that urgent need, we can't be sensible. We can't think clearly. Breaking that addiction is key. Once we break that addiction we can look at the Middle East more sensibly. We can recognize that the policies that we put in place are not consistent with the ideals of a human rights liberal democracy that we are trying to be. If we get this right and start to recognize the need to emphasize those kinds of values in the Middle East then we can begin to come up with a more sensible policy and we can look at Israel also in a more balanced way.

The Israel lobby is powerful in part not just because of its own power, but it's powerful because it also is combined with the need for oil, and as a result the need for military bases. And the military-industrial complex, the big oil lobbying power and the Israeli lobbying power combined create a powerful threesome. Once we take out the issue of oil, the national security issue weakens, the defense issue weakens, and we're stuck then back down to the question of Israel. The question of Israel then becomes when we can really deal with a more sensible way, what is right, what is wrong, how do we make it so that Israel can have a secure and viable country at the same time that Palestinians' rights are respected and they can have a secure and viable country. And viable means that they have access to water and that unilateral lines aren't drawn in such a way to make sure that 70 percent of the water goes to Israel.

So I think the lynchpin of all this is really coming to grips with the question of oil. Sadly, I don't think until we do that, we're not going to really be able to face the Middle East correctly. We're always going to be confused. That confusion is what's leading to bad policy. It's a combination of that confusion plus the pain of looking at ourselves honestly and what we've done in that region for the last half a century. That even applies to what we've done in Iraq. When I talk about getting out of Iraq responsibly, what I mean by responsibly is facing up to our mistakes. Just as South Africa went through a Truth and Reconciliation process when white rule ended and apartheid ended, the Truth and Reconciliation process looked at what really happened. We need to do the same thing with Iraq, what really happened. We went in under false information, we got caught on tape torturing Iraqi prisoners, we bombed indiscriminately cities like Falluja which is the size of Baltimore, St. Louis, we got caught in the Haditha situation and on and on. A whole series of war crimes are now coming to light. We need to face that reality we need to face the reality of what our intentions were. Our intentions are obvious when we look at what's going on now not only the long-term military bases being put in place throughout Iraq but also the largest U.S. embassy in the world being put into Baghdad. The one construction project that's on time in Baghdad is our U.S. Embassy. It's ten times the size of the typical U.S. embassy. It is a walled compound that is self-sufficient with electricity etc., and it dominates the skyline of Baghdad. That is the direction that we're going and that is the direction we need to change. But the only way we can change that direction is we face up at home first to the question of oil.

As I said, this is an interesting time for this. I've been talking around the state of Maryland on these kinds of issues and I tell you, I've been to Republican parts of the state, I've been to Democratic parts of the state, and I get the same kind of reaction from both types of audiences. They are ready for this change. I see in Hartford County, which is north of Baltimore [and] is a Republican dominating area, their community college is being redone as an environmental and sustainable energy run college. In Eastern Shores, also a Republican area, biodiesel plants [are] being built and local governments [are] talking about making sure that their fleet of cars and school buses runs in part on biodiesel. I see north of Baltimore the same kind of organic farming practices now using oil-based pesticides and herbicides.

So the change is happening, and if we had leadership not just from people in government but people outside of government pushing these issues, it would make a gigantic difference. These changes and problems come at a time when the mentality of the voters, as we can see in yesterday's election, is that the incumbents need to leave. And I see it in both parties these kind of problems that incumbents are losing power and so voters are ready I think for change too if they have options.

So I hope that people hearing this will run for office themselves because we need leadership. We need people to get up and say that we need to change direction because that is the role of us as civic players and we need to start to be civic participants in the government. As civic participants we need to not just run for office, we need to be advocating these issues because I think the time is right for change. The time is right for change. You can see it in the polling. You can see it in the votes we've had around the country. Currently, so far, this election season, people are ready to see a different direction in government, and once we get a different direction in government with an emphasis on breaking away from a fossil fuel-based economy which I think is a lynchpin for so many issues, war and peace issues; Middle East; economic environment, it's [a] lynchpin issue, and once we get that one right, things start to fall in place.

Kevin Zeese is the Director of DemocracyRising.US and a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland (see nominated by the Green, Libertarian and Populist Parties.

The Palestine Center is a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization. It does not endorse political candidates in the U.S. or abroad. This event was for educational purposes only.

This "For the Record" transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker's views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.









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