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The Democratic and Republican Party
Platforms and the Middle East

By Stephen Zunes

This election year, the national party platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties placed particularly emphasis on the Middle East.  What follows is a brief analysis of the two:

The Republicans on Iraq

The Republican platform calls for nothing less than an outright "military victory" in Iraq, something which has eluded the United States for over five years despite its overwhelming military might. As the Bush administration has claimed every year since the 2003 U.S. invasion, "A stable, unified, and democratic Iraqi nation is within reach." Yet, despite the relative lull in violence in recent months, such a scenario appears to be as far from reality as ever. The platform rejects any timetables for a U.S. withdrawal. Despite the ruling Iraqi coalition's domination by sectarian fundamentalist Shia parties and their militias, the platform argues that continuing to sacrifice American lives and dollars to keep that regime in power would somehow "give us a strategic ally in the struggle against extremism."

Using language remarkable similar to that of the Nixon administration in its defense of policies that needlessly and tragically prolonged the war in Vietnam, the platform insists that "To those who have sacrificed so much, we owe the commitment that American forces will leave that country in victory and with honor."

The Republican platform claims that a military victory in Iraq is necessary in order to "deny al-Qaeda a safe haven" and "limit Iranian influence in the Middle East." But al-Qaeda had no safe haven in Iraq and Iran had virtually no influence in Iraq until the Republican administration invaded Iraq and overthrew its government, which had until then successfully suppressed both pro-Iranian elements as well radical Sunnis who could potentially align with al-Qaeda.

By claiming that victory is in reach, however, the platform prepares the ground for blaming all subsequent terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates and ongoing Iranian influence in the Middle East on the Democrats for not "finishing the job" in Iraq should they win in November.

Despite ongoing reversals in Afghanistan in the face of a resurgent Taliban, the Republican platform claims that "there has been great progress" in that country. By rejecting "the Democratic Party's idea that America can succeed in Afghanistan only by failure in Iraq," the platform equates the redeployment of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan as surrender.

The Republicans on Other Middle Eastern Issues

The Republican platform singles out the Kingdom of Morocco for its "cooperation and social and economic development" even though Morocco continues its illegal occupation of Western Sahara and brutal suppression of nonviolent pro-independence activists. The family dictatorships of the Arabian peninsula are given similar praise and, despite their ongoing oppression of women, are validated for their progress "especially with regard to the rights of women." The platform claims that these monarchies, despite their recent ties to the Taliban and other Islamic extremists, "deserve our appreciation and assistance" for their supposed support in "the war on terror."

In contrast to those suffering under repressive U.S-backed regimes in the Gulf region, the Republican platform expresses its support for "the people of Iran who seek peace and aspire to freedom" and "have a right to choose their own government." Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans killed in Iraq have died at the hands of Baathist, Salafi Sunni, and other anti-Iranian guerrillas, the platform claims that it is Iran that "provides weapons that are killing our troops in Iraq." Though the United States has, in recent years, invaded two countries bordering Iran, the platform claims that it is Iran which "threatens its neighbors." And, despite a lack of opposition to the nuclear weapons arsenals of India, Israel, and Pakistan, the platform declares that the United States "will not allow the current regime in Tehran to develop nuclear weapons."

The platform rejects Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's proposals to negotiate with the Iranians and calls for stricter sanctions against that country. The Republicans also call for stricter sanctions against foreign companies doing business with Iran, even though such restrictions against private third-party entities directly violates provisions of the World Trade Organization that the United States insists on upholding in other contexts. More ominously, using hyperbolic language similar to that of the current Republican administration in justifying the invasion of Iraq six years ago, the Republican platform insists that "the U.S. must retain all options in dealing with a situation that gravely threatens our security, our interests, and the safety of our friends."

Despite the withdrawal of Syrian forces and the end of Syria's de facto control of the Lebanese government as a result of the nonviolent Cedar Revolution of 2004, the platform insists that Lebanon is neither independent nor sovereign. This language serves as a possible justification for future Israeli incursions into that country. Despite the Republicans' support of Israel's 1978-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon in violation of no less than 10 UN Security Council resolutions as well as its renunciation of the UN's authority to uphold international law elsewhere in the document, the platform calls for "the full implementation of all UN resolutions concerning that country," presumably in reference to those calling for the disarmament of militia which had fought off previous U.S.-backed Israeli assaults on Lebanon.

The Republican platform goes on record defending Israeli attacks against populated Lebanese and Palestinian areas as legitimate acts of self-defense; insists that Jerusalem be the undivided capital of Israel (but not of Palestine) and that the United States break with other nations by moving its embassy there; that there be no timetables or pressure on Israel to find a resolution in negotiations with the Palestinians; and that a final peace agreement be based upon "changes that reflect today's realities," presumably meaning Palestinian acceptance of the large-scale Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank.

The Democrats on Iraq

In 2004, the Democratic Party platform supported the ongoing Iraq War and occupation. Its only criticism of Bush policy was that the administration did not send enough troops or adequately equip them. With the defeat in the primaries and caucuses of Hillary Clinton and others who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion, the Democratic Party – with a standard-bearer who had forcefully opposed the invasion at the outset – might be expected to have adopted a strong antiwar plank. And, indeed, this year's platform calls for the redeployment of U.S. combat brigades by the middle of 2010.

Still, however, the 2008 platform endorses an ongoing U.S. military role in that violent oil-rich nation. It calls for an unspecified number of U.S. troops to remain as a "residual force" for such "specific missions" as "targeting terrorists; protecting our embassy and civil personnel; and advising and supporting Iraq's Security Forces, provided the Iraqis make political progress."

A troubling aspect to these exceptions is the vagueness of the language. Given that the Bush administration has referred to all Iraqi insurgents fighting U.S. forces as "terrorists," it raises questions as to what degree U.S. military operations and the number of troops to sustain them will actually be reduced. In addition, the U.S. "embassy" – the largest complex of its kind in the world, taking up a bigger area than Vatican City and situated in the heart of Baghdad – requires a substantial military force to adequately defend. And the number of "civil personnel" in the country is in the tens of thousands and would presumably require many thousands of troops to protect them. It is also unclear what kind of "support" is required for Iraqi Security Forces, which have thus far shown little ability to engage in major military operations without substantial U.S. personnel involved.

The platform also fails to mention that the invasion was an illegal war of aggression in violation of the UN Charter, the U.S. constitution and the most fundamental principles of international law, raising concerns as to whether the Democratic Party is willing to renounce the Bush Doctrine of "preventative war." Indeed, the platform insists that the United States "must also be willing to consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense."

Another concern is that rather than calling for bringing the troops home to their families following their withdrawal from Iraq, the platform insists that they will instead be redeployed on unspecified "urgent missions." Given that, despite the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Iraq, the Democratic Party platform also calls for increasing the armed forces by nearly 100,000 troops and dramatically increasing the already-bloated military budget, it is quite troubling to consider what future battlefronts the Democrats will deem as "urgent."

On a positive note, the platform recognizes the humanitarian crisis created by the U.S. invasion and occupation. It calls for the United States to provide "generous assistance to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons." In addition, recognizing that diplomacy is "the only path to a sustainable peace," the platform declares that the United States should "launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic surge to help broker a lasting political settlement in Iraq," though there are some questions as to whether, even under a Democratic administration, the United States still has the credibility to lead such an effort. Importantly, the platform also declares that "we seek no permanent bases in Iraq."

The Democrats on Other Middle Eastern Issues

While warning that there must be "no safe haven for those who plot to kill Americans," the platform also calls for a "comprehensive strategy to defeat global terrorists" that "draws on the full range of American power, including but not limited to our military might." In an implied rejection of the unilateral approach of the Republican administration, the Democratic platform calls for "a more effective global response to terrorism" [emphasis added] and enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation with countries around the world.

Recognizing the need to empower the vast majority of Muslims who "believe in a future of peace, tolerance, development, and democratization," the platform recognizes how "America must live up to our values, respect civil liberties, reject torture, and lead by example." The platform calls for the United States "to export hope and opportunity – access to education that opens minds to tolerance, not extremism; secure food and water supplies; and health care, trade, capital, and investment." The platform also pledges the Democratic Party will "provide steady support for political reformers, democratic institutions, and civil society that is necessary to uphold human rights and build respect for the rule of law." However, given the extreme anti-Americanism that has grown in Islamic countries in recent years, overt backing of opposition elements could in some cases backfire and be used to discredit indigenous movements for human rights and democracy.

Though scores of countries currently possess nuclear power plants and nuclear reprocessing facilities, the Democratic Party platform singles out Iran by insisting that it alone be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. Though calling for "aggressive, principled, and direct high-level diplomacy, without preconditions" with the Islamic republic, the platform also calls for tougher sanctions against that country. Curiously, the platform demands that Iran abandon its "nuclear weapons program" even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the most recent U.S. National Security Estimate recognize that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program. Nor does the platform mention the already-existing nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems of India, Israel or Pakistan. It fails to even mention proposals for a nuclear weapons-free zone for the region – such as those already in effect for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America. As such, the platform is in apparent agreement with the Bush administration's position that the United States, not international treaties based on principles of universality and reciprocity, should determine which countries can and cannot have nuclear weapons.

The platform also demands that Iran end its "threats to Israel," but does not call on Israel to end its even more explicit threats against Iran. Failure to accept such demands, according to the platform, will result in "sustained action to isolate the Iranian regime." Furthermore, despite years of U.S. refusal to even negotiate with Iranian officials, the Democrats insist that "it is Iran, not the United States, choosing isolation over cooperation."

Though the Middle East is awash in arms, the Democratic Party platform endorses President Bush's memorandum pledging an additional unconditional $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel. The platform thereby rejects calls by human rights activists that military assistance to foreign governments be made conditional on their compliance with international humanitarian law and outstanding UN Security Council resolutions. U.S.-supplied Israeli weapons and ordnance have killed thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in recent decades, and Israel continues to violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions regarding its illegal settlements, its nuclear program, its annexation of greater East Jerusalem, and other policies.

Though strategic parity has long been considered the most peaceful and secure relationship between traditional antagonists, the Democrats instead call upon the United States "to ensure that Israel retains a qualitative edge" in military capabilities. As such, the platform implies that the principal U.S. concern isn’t Israeli security but the expansion of the U.S. ally's hegemonic role in the region. Indeed, the platform doesn't call for a reduction in the large-scale U.S. arms transfers to Arab governments historically hostile to Israel, a logical step if the Democrats actually were concerned about that country's security.

The Democratic Party platform does support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which reverses the categorical rejection of Palestinian statehood that the party maintained as recently as 16 years ago. Yet the platform calls only for compromises from the Palestinian side in order to make such a two-state solution possible. Even though the Palestinians have already unilaterally recognized Israeli sovereignty over 78% of historic Palestine and are demanding statehood only on the remaining 22%, the Democratic platform dismisses as "unrealistic" any obligation for Israel to completely withdraw from lands seized in its 1967 conquests. It also denies the right of return to Palestinian refugees, insisting that they should instead only be permitted to relocate to a truncated Palestinian state that Israel might allow to be created some time in the future. While the Palestinians may indeed be open to minor and reciprocal adjustments of the pre-1967 borders and would likely offer a concession on the right of return, the Democratic platform unfortunately demands specific compromises by those under occupation while making no specific demands for compromises by the occupier.

Similarly, the Democratic platform appears to endorse the Bush administration's racist double standards regarding Israel and Palestine. It pledges to "continue to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel's right to exist, and abides by past agreements" while failing to call for isolating Likud and other extremist Israeli parties that similarly fail to renounce attacks against civilians, recognize Palestine's right to exist, and abide by past agreements. Similarly, the platform insists that "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel" without mentioning the possibility of it becoming the capital of an independent Palestine.

Still, this one-sided party platform – which is quite similar to the Republicans and appears to be more closely aligned with Israel's center-right than more progressive Israelis – seems at odds with the increasingly balanced perspective of Democratic voters. Party supporters are beginning to recognize the interrelatedness of Israeli security and Palestinian rights as well as the platform's stated goal for the United States "to lead the effort to build the road to a secure and lasting peace."

Conclusion

Neither the Republican nor Democratic platforms appear to adequately address the underlying need for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy in the region away from the disastrous policies of the Bush administration and previous administrations which have led the United States into two ongoing wars, the continued irresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the standoff with Iran, and the ongoing threat of mega-terrorism.  The Democrats appear to finally be backing away from their support for the Bush administration policies they largely embraced earlier in the decade and, should they emerge victorious in November, will more likely improve America’s standing in the region.  Whoever wins, however, it is imperative that concerned citizens continue to press for the needed changes in U.S. policy that will better the chance of peace and stability both in the Middle East as well as here in the United States.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco of San Francisco.  Segments of this article originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus www.fpif.org   Additional articles my Professor Zunes can be found at www.stephenzunes.org