Gaza, Pakistan and ignoble US legacy

The anti-government protests now raging in Pakistan and the travails of Hamas in Palestine remind me of Nurul Amin, my mentor. He served, at different times, as prime minister of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan.

In February 1972, in Rawalpindi, Amin was telling me about the political intrigues that had led to several military-bureaucratic coups against democratic governments in Pakistan. “Did you notice,” he asked, “that all of those who threw out democratic governments kept promising to give us ‘true democracy’?”

Nevertheless, the elder statesman was hopeful of the eventual triumph of democracy in Pakistan and elsewhere. Like the proverbial cat, he said, “democracy has nine lives.” Pakistanis would take time to cultivate “the art of democracy and guard it” against usurpers, as did most Western countries. Until then “you will see our generals and politicians giving lip service to democracy,” while scrambling to “grab power by any means.”

In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party won the 2013 parliamentary elections, which it probably rigged. Opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, instead of working to insure that the next elections are free and fair, have paralyzed parts of Islamabad, the capital, with crowds agitating for Sharif’s resignation as prime minister. I wonder if they’re playing into the hands of Pakistan’s notoriously power-hungry army generals. In the past, Pakistani generals have used most of the country’s major political crises as excuses for military coups against civilian governments.  I’m especially disappointed by Imran Khan’s role in this anti-democratic drama. I admire his progressive social and political agenda.

Egypt is another stark example of the betrayal of democracy. In 2012 Egyptians had their first-ever free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood won and formed the government. But the Egyptian military and “liberal” groups didn’t like it. They called in the army and got President Mohammed Mursi’s democratic government overthrown, returning to the military-led pseudo-dictatorship with which they’re more familiar.

More ironic is the assaults on Palestinian democracy by the world’s most eloquent advocate of democracy and human rights: the United States. In 2006 the Palestinians, prodded by Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials, held their first-ever free and fair elections. Hamas won the parliamentary vote by a landslide and formed the government. The Americans and Israelis didn’t like it. Instead of congratulating the Palestinians for ushering in democracy in hostile environment, they instigated the losers in those elections, the Fatah, to stage a coup against the Hamas-led government. President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, held on to power in the West Bank, now in the ninth year into his four-year term! Hamas continued to rule the Gaza Strip, as it carried on its armed struggle to liberate Palestinians from the Israeli colonial rule.

That wasn’t the end of the punishment Hamas has suffered for winning the Palestinian elections. With American blessings, Israel collaborated with pro-Israeli Egyptian dictatorships to place the 1.8 million people of Gaza under a most gruesome economic blockade. Americans and Israelis had hoped that the extreme hardships caused by the blockade would turn Gazans against their Hamas regime. They haven’t.

Israel remains undaunted by these setbacks. Early last month the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led Israel into its third war against Hamas, vowing to disarm it and other Islamist groups in Gaza. The war ended with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad standing and valiantly fighting the invading forces. In a charade of truce talks held in Cairo, Israel and Egypt pressured the Islamists relentlessly to achieve what the powerful Israeli armed forces couldn’t: Disarm Hamas. They couldn’t. Hamas and Jihad have resumed their armed struggle for freedom, while Israel rains its U.S.-supplied bombs on the already devastated Gaza.

Sadly, America has set the precedents for the assaults on democracy in non-Western societies. Successive U.S. administrations coddled all five Pakistani dictatorships that had supplanted democratic governments. Besides, America used the CIA to overthrow nearly a dozen democratic governments in South and Central America, the Middle East and Asia, and replaced them with repressive pro-American dictatorships.

All the same, I see the masses in Pakistan and around the world pulsating with democratic fervor. I remember Nurul Amin’s prediction about the eventual success of democratic movements. Britain went through seven turbulent centuries – marked by regicide, religious pogroms, and bloody ethnic and trans-national warfare – to mature as a full-blown democracy.

America needed two centuries to settle down as a real democracy. American women didn’t win their voting rights until 1920 and African Americans didn’t achieve theirs until 1965. As I wrote elsewhere, developing countries should be able to build enduring democratic institutions much faster than did Westerners. Among other things, the dramatic spread of education and modernization will help them to do so.

As an American citizen, however, I’m troubled by the United States’ legacy in man’s epic march toward freedom and fulfillment. When future historians would be recounting democratic movements in non-Western societies, they wouldn’t, I’m afraid, condone America’s continual hostility to those the edifying and heroic human endeavors.

The United States can’t expect to regain its moral stature in the world until it realigns itself with forces of freedom and democracy. A good place to start would be Palestine. The Obama administration should dissociate America from the scandalous anachronism of Israeli colonialism. It should stop shielding Israel against charges of war crimes in Gaza, brought by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Nothing could have been more shameful for Americans than seeing their government casting the solitary vote against opening the U.N. investigation.

This Gaza war is a watershed in Palestinians’ 66-year struggle for freedom and independence from Israeli subjugation. It has shown that Israel, the superpower in the Middle East, could slaughter more than 2,000 Gazans and destroy their homes, economy and infrastructure, but couldn’t dent their resolve to rid themselves of Israeli suppression and oppression. It has shown, too, that the world, with the deplorable exception of the United States, has little patience for Israeli colonialism.

I know that Palestine will jettison, sooner than later, Israel’s colonial tutelage. I don’t know how long it will take America to jettison its ignoble role as the lone defender of the world’s lone colonial power.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ http://beyond-freedom.com.

 

 

Syria: Needed US-Islamist detente

THE UNITED STATES has taken a welcome step to tackle the Syrian crisis. It has joined Russia in arranging a peace conference in Geneva next month, which, unfortunately, would also expose America’s diminished global standing.

The end of Syria’s murderous Bashar al-Assad regime will come, however, from its eventual attrition from the uprising. A main reason the United States has so far failed to offer meaningful material support to the rebellion is that it’s being spearheaded by Islamist militants, America’s ideological nemeses.  American officials are trying to keep Syrian Islamists from participating in the Geneva forum. Yet I welcome the proposed conference in the hope that it would, among other things, find a way to stop the slaughter of Syrian men, women and children. More than 80,000 of them have so far perished in the two-year-old mostly Sunni rebellion to overthrow the minority Alawite dictatorship.

It’s a shame that Russia and Iran have been defending the atrocious Assad regime. But morally indefensible policies are not new in international politics and diplomacy.  Haven’t America and the West been underwriting the brutal Israeli regimes? Israel not only has ethnically cleansed itself of most of its Palestinian population, but also has kept Palestinians under its colonial subjugation.  Nothing justifies the Russians’ or Iranians’ abetment to Assad’s wanton butchery, but their apologists often point to the many precedents that America and the West have created by installing and supporting monstrous tyrants in Asia, Africa and Latin America through the decades and centuries.

All the same, I commend the convening of the Syria conference also because it offers the Obama administration a chance to defuse the pressure from American hawks for U.S. military involvement in Syria.  Given America’s dismal military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t conceive of a different outcome from an intervention in Syria.  Creating no-fly zones, disabling the Syrian air force, giving arms to rebels, etc., which are being proposed would drag America into another Middle Eastern quagmire.  And until Washington finds a way to reconcile with Syria’s Islamists, the mainstay of the rebellion, American intervention there is sure to become messy and self-defeating.

Islamist resistance was a main cause of the United States’ debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has undercut its international clout. The spoken and unspoken Russian terms under which Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to co-sponsor the forum reflect that reality.  Kerry apparently has dropped the persistent U.S. demand for Assad’s removal from power as a precondition for any multi-national talks on the Syrian imbroglio, a key Russian demand.  Besides the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, America’s or the rebels’ inability to dislodge Assad has all but forced the Obama administration to accept the tyrant as a negotiating partner.

A second concession awaiting the United States is the accommodation of Iran’s role or interests in a Syrian settlement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded that Iran formally participate in the Geneva talks. The United States and Arab monarchies will resist that demand tooth and nail. But whether Iran shows up at the table, its interests can’t be ignored while Assad holds on to power in Damascus. Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shia Islamist group from Lebanon, has joined Assad’s forces against the rebels inside Syria. It will remain as an additional lever of Iranian power in the region.

The larger issue here is not so much the future of the Assad regime, or Iran’s role in Syria. It’s Israel’s future and America’s role in the region.  American and Israeli policy makers wanted the Assad regime overthrown mainly because that could undermine Iran’s influence in the Levant and, consequently, the Hezbollah threat to Israel. Assad’s survival, at least for now, would infuse fresh adrenaline to Hezbollah Islamists. And Iran’s clout in Syria and Lebanon would continue to bolster the Islamist Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups fighting to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

In the long run, the United States or Israel would have little to celebrate from the demise of the Assad regime. That would turn up other Islamist forces, fueling anti-Israeli and  anti-American militancy in the region. If – or rather when – Assad goes, the Sunni Islamist groups in Syria are likely to dominate Syrian politics. And they, too, would  support the Sunni Palestinians’ struggle against Israel and perk up the simmering Arab Spring in the Arabian Peninsula, which inevitably would have an anti-Israeli an anti-American edge.

Sunni militancy in Syria would, especially, energize the Islamists-led opposition to the pro-American monarchy in neighboring Jordan.  Since January, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, an ideological ally of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has stepped up its campaign against the King Abdullah II.  The IAF hates the monarchy because of its peace treaty with Israel and subservience to the United States. Palestinian anger over the treaty has been a source of the Islamist organization’s steadily increasing support among Jordanians of Palestinian descent, who make up nearly 60% of the country’s population.

Anti-Americanism in the Muslim Middle East has reached its highest levels ever – 90% and more – under the Obama administration. The only way the United States can dampen the ominous development is through a conceptual policy breakthrough. It has to recognize the legitimacy of the Islamist struggle against Israeli colonialism. It needs to accept the reality of the Muslim rage at its blind support for Israel, and its own hegemony over many Muslim societies.  A detente with the Islamists would be the best safeguard for U.S. interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. But that has to await another American administration.

Meanwhile, the proposed Geneva parleys offer the the United States an opportunity to defuse its hostility to the Islamists, besides helping to alleviate the agony of Syria.

◆ Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog Islam and the West.

 

 

 

 

Abbas to U.S.: Go fly a kite!

The Independent echoed the common Western views of  Salam Fayyad’s resignation. The Palestinian prime minister’s exit had “thro[wn] into doubt the future of the Palestinian Authority and the peace process with Israel,” observed the liberal British newspaper.

Has Fayyad’s parting really caused  – or rather reflected – the crisis facing the Palestinian government and the futility of its peace overtures o Israel?

A former International Monetary Fund economist, Fayyad had never got involved in the Palestinian movement or become a member of Fatah, the ruling faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 2007 Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president, brought him into his administration at the behest of Washington, which has kept his government afloat with considerable financial assistance.  With American support behind him, Fayyad had been throwing his weight around, occasionally in disregard to Abbas’s agenda or wishes. Abbas and the  Fatah old guard had been tolerating his hubris to keep Western aid flowing in and hoping for U.S. support in their quest for statehood.

Things have since changed dramatically.  The peace process, which was meant to create a Palestinian state, is practically dead. President Obama apparently drove the last nail into its coffin during his recent visit to Israel. He abandoned his demand of Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and all but identified with Israel’s positions in its disputes with the Palestinians. Nobody thinks much of Secretary of State John Kerry’s noise about reviving the peace process.

The P.A. was created tin 1994, following up on the Oslo Accords, to establish a Palestinian state through peaceful negotiations with the Israelis. Its utter failure to make progress toward statehood or stop the proliferation of Jewish settlements in  the West Bank has made it almost irrelevant to the Palestinian cause.

On top of it, the P.A. faces a serious financial crisis, about which America and the West have been indifferent. Unemployment in the West Bank has risen to 25 percent and real GDP growth is projected to fall from 11 percent to 5 percent. The simmering feuds between Abbas and Fayyad burst out last month when the prime minister forced Nabil Qassis, an Abbas protege, to quit his finance minister post. An infuriated Abbas overruled Fayyad’s decision, precipitating the premier’s resignation.  I’m told that Kerry and European diplomats were shocked by the Palestinian president’s defiance of their pressure to keep Fayyad aboard his government.

Abbas knew, of course, that America and the West could retaliate by cutting off economic aid, which could cause the collapse of the PA.

Why, then, did he do it?

Palestinian sources had been telling me for some time that Abbas and some other PA leaders were increasingly feeling the sting of accusations that they had been hanging on to power as American “puppets” who had outlived their usefulness for Palestinians.  The PA lost its legal legitimacy three years ago when its term of office as an elected government expired.  The Abbas government has thrice put off presidential and parliamentary elections since they were first scheduled July 17, 2010. The P.A. had disagreements with the Islamist Hamas movement over the electoral process, but it also fears losing the vote to Hamas, which soundly defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Hamas’s popularity among the Palestinians has grown dramatically since last year’s Gaza war, in which it faced down the Israeli military behemoth. The Fatah can’t expect to regain its preeminence as a Palestinian independence movement without making tangible progress toward Palestinian statehood. Only American pressure on Israel, unlikely as it seems, can yield such progress.

By defying Washington’s pressure to keep its man on as prime minister, Abbas is in effect telling  telling America: “Here I stand, I can do no other,” a la Martin Luther.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.