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WHAT WE THINK
U.S. maneuvers to maintain its grip on the Middle East
Washington's "democracy" double-talk

June 9, 2006 | Page 3

THE BUSH administration's grandiose claims that it was spreading "democracy" through the Middle East have melted away, revealing imperial politics as usual.

The U.S. government is busy in the Middle East--backing Israel in imposing sanctions to strangle Palestinians for electing an Islamist administration, installing a "national unity" puppet regime in Iraq in defiance of election results, and bullying Iran into giving up its civilian nuclear fuel enrichment program.

Last week's U.S. offer to take part in direct negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue was portrayed in the U.S. media as a breakthrough, a sign that realistic State Department professionals and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have triumphed over neoconservative ideologues in setting U.S. policy in the Middle East.

In reality, however, the U.S. had to agree to talks when Russia, France and Germany wouldn't back United Nations sanctions against Iran. What's more, the U.S. is demanding that Iran give it the results it wants--the suspension of its nuclear enrichment program--before it even enters into negotiations.

This high hurdle for direct talks got a frosty response from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--which in turn led U.S. hardliners to say "I told you so." Much more back-and-forth is likely before any substantial talks begin--if they ever do.

Even if talks ensue, there's no ruling out a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran, should Washington calculate that its interests are served by a military strike.

As an anonymous neocon said before the U.S. war on Iraq, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." That didn't happen because of the effectiveness of the Iraqi resistance and the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq to create a viable puppet government.

If the White House still believes it can get away with a more limited attack on Iran even after being discredited over its war on Iraq, it's because Democrats share the aim of keeping U.S. control over the Middle East. It was Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) who said in January, "We cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran--that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons."

The focus on nukes in Iran provides a highly convenient change of subject from the U.S. failure to promote "democratization" of the Middle East.

When the Iraqi elections in December produced a government that wasn't to the liking of the White House, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad engineered the ouster of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who had formed an alliance with the radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moktada al-Sadr. A new prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, finally took over four months after the election, thanks to substantial arm-twisting by Khalilzad.

But the U.S. efforts to broker a "national unity government" to curb Shiite power have foundered. Sectarian violence--a significant part of which is being carried out by death squads organized by the Shiite parties that the U.S. until recently promoted--continues to take a heavy toll. Maliki has been unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqi parliament on who will run the key power ministries of Interior and Defense.

When--and if--this is decided, the U.S. wants to get back to the script for a supposed handover of security to Iraqi government troops. A few thousand U.S. troops may make a highly publicized pullout from Iraq in advance of the November congressional elections.

The reality, however, is that the U.S. plans to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future, to keep control of Iraqi oil and consolidate its grip on the Middle East. The White House's recent request to Congress for "emergency" military spending in Iraq includes hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of bases--with the bulk of the money earmarked for Air Force bases in Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces are engaged in intense military campaigns across Iraq's mostly Sunni Muslim Anbar Province--and the massacre by the U.S. Marines in Haditha is only one of many atrocities committed by occupation forces.

Such overwhelming violence, not democracy, is what Washington relies on to get its way in the Middle East.

That's why the Bush administration has backed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Israeli-occupied West Bank--except, that is, for "strategic" settlements to be included within a wall that will encroach on and divide Palestinian territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

At the same time, Israel refuses to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority's (PA) elected Hamas Party government, a stance backed by the U.S. Democratic elections in the Middle East, it turns out, are fine only if they produce the result the U.S. wants.

Thus, after a visit to Washington last month, Olmert left "a pretty happy man," the New York Times reported. "He was embraced by President Bush and reassured about Iran, and he received 16 standing ovations from a joint meeting of Congress for a speech that was strong on emotion and rhetorically tough on terrorism and Iran."

For his part, Bush called Olmert's plans to pull out of the West Bank--made without any input from Palestinians--"bold ideas" that "could be an important step toward the peace we both support." But even the staunchly pro-Israel New York Times editorial board had to admit that Olmert's scheme is a "recipe for disaster" that makes a viable Palestinian state almost impossible.

That, of course, is exactly the aim of U.S. and Israeli policies. Israel has sharply curtailed transit in and out of the Occupied Territories and has withheld tax revenues from the PA, which has led to a cutoff of wages for PA employees for three months. The situation is especially dire in Gaza, where 80 percent of those employed work for the PA, and where the poverty rate is now 70 percent.

Plus, pressure from the U.S. is making sure that Israel's sanctions--punctuated by regular air strikes and military incursions--inflict the greatest possible suffering. "Fearing U.S. sanctions if they do business with Hamas, local, regional and international banks have stopped making transfers to government accounts," Reuters reported.

At the same time, Israel and the U.S. are using Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drive a wedge deeper into Palestinian politics.

Abbas has endorsed a call by Palestinian political prisoners--led by members of Abbas' Fatah party--for a popular referendum that would recognize Israel's right to exist, which Hamas has refused to do. In the meantime, Fatah-allied security forces have periodically clashed with armed Hamas militias, raising the specter of a Palestinian civil war.

The furor over Iran--with its attendant Islamophobia--is helping the Bush administration maintain the initiative in the Middle East despite the Iraq debacle. And of course, both Republicans and Democrats alike sell the notion that the U.S. must always back Israel, supposedly the only "democracy" in the Middle East.

"Democracy" and diplomacy, invasions and atrocities: All are means to the same end--continued U.S. domination of the Middle East.

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