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The Middle East in Turmoil Once Again: And It’s Not All About Us


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color:#333333″>When are we going to learn that it's not all about us?

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color:#333333″>Certainly a lot of the current turmoil in the Middle East has something to do with the consequences of U.S. policy there. But still. The front page article in Sunday’s New York Times led with concern that the current turmoil will test “President Obama’s ability to shape the forces of change in the Middle East.” Yikes. This is a disaster in the making. 

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color:#333333″>Trying to renew U.S. control of a region finally claiming its 21st century independence from mainly U.S.-backed governments, is completely wrong-headed. After two or three generations of U.S. support for brutal military dictatorships and absolute monarchies because they were willing to toe the line on Israel, oil, and military bases, do we really want to put Washington back in charge of "shaping" the change that people across the region are fighting for?

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color:#333333″>The whole range of changes in the Middle East, who's "shaping" those changes, what's the fight over Iran red lines between the United States and Israel and between Obama and Romney, what about U.S. military aid to Israel, were all on the agenda of  mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;
color:#333333″>Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking of the killings of the U.S. officials in Benghazi, asked "how could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" The answer that will probably never occur to her is that not everyone in Libya, not even everyone in Benghazi, saw the U.S./NATO air war as liberation — even some of those who celebrated the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime didn't want it to come via foreign air forces.

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color:#333333″>Let's all take a deep breath and remember that it's not always about us. The U.S./NATO air war against Libya did overthrow a dictatorship — but it led to rising sectarianism and division, a country awash in weapons, uncontrolled militias arresting and torturing dark-skinned Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans, imposing their will on terrified people without any accountability to the elected government, and so on. And all those consequences were happening way before the tragic killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, the death of the other U.S. diplomat and two U.S. security contractors in Benghazi.

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color:#333333″>Somehow it took the deaths of U.S. officials to get people in this country to pay attention again to Libya. I was part of a panel discussing exactly that on National Public Radio's 
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color:#333333″>The protests that have spread across the Middle East and the broader Muslim world (which includes places like London these days) were sparked by the offensive Islamophobic film clip produced by a shadowy group in California and endorsed and promoted by Quran-burning preacher Terry Jones in Florida. But as 
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color:#333333″>The mainstream media tried to answer the question. 
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color:#333333″>Engel reminds us that "maybe moderates will win over time," though he admits that "they're not winning now. And that could not have been the hope when the Arab Spring began." He doesn't want to acknowledge that just maybe the victory of pro-U.S., Western-defined "moderates" wasn't exactly the goal of all the Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Syrians, Libyans, and others who actually fought the battles of the Arab Spring.

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color:#044270″>SYRIA

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color:#333333″>Perhaps the most optimistic result of the current U.S. examination of the region is that the consequences of militarizing non-violent struggles and of outside military intervention are suddenly meriting greater consideration. Like, perhaps, in Syria. Conditions inside the country continue to deteriorate for ordinary Syrians, and some opposition forces continue to call for outside governments — the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, NATO — to establish a "no-fly zone" in Syria. But as we learned in Libya, a "no-fly zone" begins with the bombing of the country — and can quickly morph into full-scale air war. The example of Libya should give serious pause to those still hoping a "no-fly zone" would help supporters of the democratic non-violent uprising in Syria. You can watch a debate I participated in, on why we shouldn’t be sending arms to Syria, on Huffington Post’s new 
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National Catholic Reporter
 a couple of weeks ago. The United States is reportedly planning to send surveillance drones to Libya to search for "jihadi camps." That kind of escalation is certain to ratchet up internal tensions even further.

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color:#333333″>Some version of that may be the goal of the latest diplomatic initiative, the call by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for new four-party talks on Syria involving Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the key supporters of both sides in the civil war. By bringing in Middle East regional powers, hopefully with the support of new UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, this group could bring new possibilities for diplomatic solutions, particularly if bolstered by participation of the economic powerhouses of the global South, the IBSA countries — India, Brazil, and South Africa. The initiative was weakened a few days ago by Saudi Arabia’s refusal to participate in the first meeting, but the trajectory remains on track, and still provides the most hopeful possibility for a ceasefire and the potential for negotiations.  mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;
color:#044270″>AND ON THE "IRANIAN RED LINE" FRONT…

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, I spoke with Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, along with NIAC president Trita Parsi, about the escalating dangers of an Israeli military strike on Iran. The rhetoric seemed to cool slightly in the last couple of weeks of August. But by early September it was sky-high again, shaped by Bibi Netanyahu’s attack on the White House, whose officials, he said, "don't have the moral right to place a red light before Israel." He was responding to a significant hardening of the Obama administration's rejection of Netanyahu's demand for Washington to set a war deadline against Iran.

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color:#333333″>That rejection included Hillary Clinton's rebuff of the "deadline" idea, and continued with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey's statement that he "did not want to be complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran. It finished up with the White House rejecting Netanyahu's request for a face-to-face meeting with President Obama during the UN General Assembly session next week. (Or, Netanyahu begged, he would come to Washington to see the president there… anywhere, anytime, just let me get the face time). No dice, the White House said, the president doesn't have time.

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color:#333333″>Netanyahu is feeling the heat more than ever, not least because his one ally in the Israeli cabinet, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, finally ended his we-want-war-with-Iran partnership with Netanyahu. Now isolated both domestically and internationally, the prime minister is lashing out with a dangerous desperation. The stakes for Netanyahu are sky-high, given his investment of political capital in the notion that only a military strike can protect Israel. But Barak's defection from the pro-war camp, combined with the new U.S. firmness against an attack, will make it far more difficult for Netanyahu to win sufficient support for a unilateral military strike from his security cabinet, let alone from the Knesset as a whole.

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color:#333333″>So as of this week the threat of an Israeli military strike on Iran, with all the consequences for the people of Iran, for the country and the environment, for the likely victims in the surrounding neighborhood, for the world oil markets, and so on, has been somewhat reduced. A strike is very unlikely — though still not impossible. After all, it isn't only about the immediate crisis. This has been going on a long time. A quote in Trita Parsi's great book Treacherous Alliance, from the director of the Begin-Sadat Center in Israel, sums it up:

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color:#333333″>"There was a feeling in Israel that because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling and we needed some new glue for the alliance," Efraim Inbar said, "and the new glue… was radical Islam. And Iran was radical Islam." mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;
color:#333333″>The threat of war isn't over. Congress is still trying to prevent the administration from engaging in any real negotiations, just in case it wanted to move in that direction. With sanctions ratcheted up higher than ever, the latest effort is a House vote ( mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;
color:#044270″>AFGHANISTAN

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color:#333333″>Meanwhile, the war continues. And the failure of the U.S. strategy (currently defined as helping the Afghan Army "stand up" to opposing militias) is becoming more apparent every day. The latest official acknowledgement of that failure is in the form of the September 18 announcement that the U.S.-led coalition forces are cancelling almost all joint operations with Afghan troops. Too many U.S. and other NATO troops being killed by their Afghan "partners." And while the U.S. admits only about 25% of those are killed by "Taliban infiltrators," they claim they have no idea why the other Afghan soldiers and police turn on their U.S./NATO trainers. Apparently they still can't wrap their collective heads around the notion that Afghans — even those who join the military or police for the same reason young Americans do, because they need a job — might actually hate the foreign occupation of their country and might seek a chance to undermine it. (If you missed it last month, check out 
, with General Gunter Katz, spokesman for NATO in Afghanistan on exactly this question).

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color:#333333″>What's getting far less attention than these "green on blue" attacks killing young U.S./NATO soldiers, is what we might call "blue on blue" attacks — suicide. Far more U.S. troops are dying at their own hands than are killed in green-on-blue attacks. And even less attention is paid to the Afghan civilians who continue to be killed in huge numbers. In one of Sunday's NATO airstrikes eight women and girls were killed before dawn as they searched for wood to cook breakfast.

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color:#333333″>Afghan President Karzai condemned the airstrikes, and also condemned the U.S. refusal to turn over to Afghan responsibility the more than 600 prisoners still held at the U.S.-controlled Bagram prison. Washington agreed to turn prison authority over to the Afghan government by September 9th, but so far has refused because Kabul won’t agree to keep the prisoners in custody indefinitely. Karzai said Afghan law doesn't provide for indefinite detention. Funny, U.S. law didn’t use to either. Funny how things change…

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color:#044270″>PALESTINE – 30 YEARS AFTER SABRA-SHATILA

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color:#333333″>And finally, while the eyes of so much of the world are on the Middle East as a whole, on protests in Cairo and Benghazi, on the deaths of ambassadors, and anger over an offensive film, few are paying attention to Palestine. Conditions on the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem continue to deteriorate, with settlement construction escalating and economic conditions continuing to decline. The siege of Gaza continues unabated, with economic life stifled and people still trapped, imprisoned within the confines of the Israeli-controlled Strip. Moves to fully open the crossing from Gaza to Egypt have been reported, but so far it remains difficult for Palestinians to get out.