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America: What to Do Next?

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The Nov. 7 elections took the wind out of the blowhard sails that had been driving the United States toward the shoals of endless war abroad and authoritarianism at home. But the ship of state still finds itself buffeted in very stormy seas, with a safe harbor far beyond the horizon. The question now is what to do next? How does the nation maneuver out of the dangerous predicament in the Middle East? And what will it take to ensure that the country is not so easily commandeered again and piloted back toward disaster? First, it's important to recognize some of the key reasons why the American voters were able to wrest at least some control of the nation's helm from the motley crew of neoconservative ideologues, political operatives and war profiteers who have dominated George W. Bush's administration. For five years, the Bush crew had exploited the fear and anger from 9/11 to overwhelm public doubts about Bush's grim vision of an interminable "war on terror" and its complementary notion of an all-powerful President deep-sixing the Founders' concept of checks and balances in government and "unalienable rights" for the American people. But - in one of the most encouraging examples of grassroots democracy in decades - citizen-run Internet sites led the way along with non-traditional TV and radio, from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" to Air America and other progressive radio shows, to pull back the veils of propaganda. This mix of start-ups, iconoclasts and unconventional media got enough information to the people so a majority finally could see through the deceptions. Meanwhile, the bellicose right-wing media voices - from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News - were exposed as little more than water carriers for Bush. The day after the elections, Limbaugh admitted as much. He said he felt "liberated," adding: "I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried." Many mainstream media personalities were unmasked, too, as frauds and cowards. They had stood meekly aside as Bush's Iraq War parade passed by, or they jumped into line themselves, all the better to protect and advance their careers. Still, this match-up - pitting the well-funded right-wing propaganda machine and the giant mainstream media against the tiny information outlets that dared question Bush's policies - must rank as one of the most imbalanced contests in modern history. Internet sites, bloggers, progressive radio stations and Comedy Central's "fake-news" programs lacked both the resources and the audiences of the big-time media outlets, but amazingly still prevailed. Importance of Truth So, one of the lessons from Election 2006 should be that investment in a "counter-media" is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. Contrary to the long-held opinion of many on the Left, media can be both cost-effective and crucial to the emergence of a coherent popular movement of concerned citizens. It follows that these independent and progressive news sites could do much more to put the United States back on the right course if they were better funded. Despite their success in setting the stage for the Nov. 7 elections, many of these outlets survive hand-to-mouth, and Air America has sought bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. A strategy is needed to make these news and opinion outlets financially sustainable. That would require a combination of individual donations, ad buys and foundation grants targeted at the news outlets that stood up to Bush's propaganda while many others were standing down. Along with building honest media must come a new national commitment to valuing truthful information, honest history and straightforward reality. One of the dangerous lessons from this recent political era is that the Right - and especially the neoconservatives - learned that they could manipulate public perceptions through their vast propaganda network. Bluster and tough-guy talk replaced reason and nuanced thinking. In effect, the United States ended up with a foreign policy that amounted to a distillation of the macho harangues from Limbaugh and his many copycat talk-show hosts. While Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush made use of this right-wing media infrastructure, they also understood its risks. But George W. Bush lacked the larger life lessons of his two Republican predecessors; he simply saw these perception management techniques as a means to unlimited power. So, Bush rushed the nation into a war in Iraq, exploiting both the hard-nosed right-wing propaganda apparatus and the weak-kneed mainstream media. But what the younger George Bush didn't appreciate was that a manipulated reality or even an ardently wished-for reality is not the same as real reality. One of the lessons of the Iraq War should be that silencing responsible dissent and shutting out cautionary advice may help achieve short-term goals but can lead to long-term disaster. Israeli Danger In that sense, what happened in the United States is interconnected to a similar dilemma that now confronts - and endangers - Israel. During the 1970s, the Israeli government grew frustrated with U.S. pressure pushing the Israeli government to reach peace agreements with its Arab neighbors and to resolve the issue of Palestinian statehood. Infuriated by acts of Palestinian terrorism, the Israeli Likud Party rose to power with the goal of putting Jewish settlers on occupied Palestinian territory and generally hitting back whenever Arab threats arose, not granting concessions or making peace. Likud's hostility was especially intense toward President Jimmy Carter because he had pressed Israel into a negotiated settlement with Egypt that involved returning the Sinai. Carter also demanded progress toward creating a Palestinian homeland. The Likud view was expressed bluntly by Israeli intelligence officer David Kimche in his book, The Last Option. Kimche bitterly described how Carter had pressured Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to surrender territory to the Arabs in exchange for peace. "Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington, while Israel was being taken to the cleaners by the experts of the National Security Council and the Middle East specialists of the State Department," Kimche wrote. "They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state," Kimche wrote. In that time frame - late in the Carter administration - Likud opted for a different course. It began collaborating with Christian fundamentalists on the American Right (the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) and worked with a rising group of political intellectuals known as the neoconservatives, many of whom were Jewish with strong affections for Israel. Israeli leaders also encouraged friendly lobbying groups, such as the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC], to punish U.S. lawmakers who were viewed as insufficiently supportive of Israel. As these allied forces amassed greater clout within the U.S. government and inside the American news media, the pressure on Israel to seek a lasting peace with its neighbors mostly dissipated. Reagan and Bush I peace initiatives were half-hearted, and President Bill Clinton's last-minute stab at an Israeli-Palestinian deal fell short. Then, when George W. Bush became President in 2001, he abandoned any notion of pushing Israel toward a peace agreement. Bush, who as Texas governor once had been the guest of Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on a helicopter tour over the cramped Palestinian city of Gaza, made clear he was ready to remove all restraints on what Israel could do to break the will of the Palestinians. Ten days after the Inauguration, at the first meeting of the National Security Council, Bush signalled a "hands-off" policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill who later gave an insider account to author Ron Suskind for the book, The Price of Loyalty. "We're going to correct the imbalances of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict," Bush was quoted as saying. "We're going to tilt it back toward Israel. And we're going to be consistent." Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed strong misgivings, predicting that U.S. disengagement would lead to "dire consequences." But Bush shrugged off the concerns, saying "Maybe that's the best way to get things back in balance." Bush added, "Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things." The Long War So, years of U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict abruptly ended. The Likud-led government soon launched some of the deadliest attacks ever seen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Palestinians countered with suicide bombings that killed Israeli civilians. The cycle of violence spiralled out of control. Meanwhile, the political clout of the Christian Right/neocons/AIPAC alliance, combined with the intimidating style of the right-wing news media, silenced any meaningful debate within the United States about the Middle East. The 9/11 attacks added explosive fuel to the fire, with Bush and the neocons suddenly empowered to target all cases of Muslim militancy as part of a broad "war on terror," which would give no quarter and make no concession to Islamic radicalism, whether tied to 9/11 or not. In effect, Likud's enemies had become America's enemies. So, after a brief war against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, Bush turned his attention to one of Israel's most hated adversaries, Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Bush's neoconservative advisers promoted a strategy that, in effect, aimed at resolving the security threat to Israel by projecting American military power into the heart of the Arab world, Iraq, and then using that strategic foothold to intimidate neighboring Muslim nations with the goal of eventually forcing the Palestinians to submit to Israel's terms. This theory held that the solution to the problems faced in Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. The neocons also joked that after Iraq, they would have the choice of either taking Damascus in Syria or Tehran in Iran. "Real men go to Tehran," they quipped. But the conquest of Iraq did not go exactly as planned. A stubborn insurgency, complicated by jihadist terrorism and sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, threw Iraq into bloody chaos. Though leading U.S. neocons complained about the incompetence of Bush's execution of the Iraq War, their solution to the overall problem was mostly to up the ante, expanding the "long war" to take on other enemies of Israel, such as Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a longtime Likud politician who had switched to the new Kadima party, entered the fray in summer 2006. He responded to a round of tit-for-tat violence in Gaza and along the Lebanese border with major military escalations against the Palestinians in Gaza and against Hezbollah-related targets in Lebanon. According to press accounts, the Bush administration even encouraged Israel to widen its military campaign to include Syria, a recommendation that the Olmert government rejected. Still, the Israeli offensive against Lebanon degenerated into a fiasco. [For details, see's "Israeli Leaders Fault Bush on War."] Election 2006 A Republican victory on Nov. 7 would have given Bush what he surely would have viewed as a new mandate to continue and broaden his tough-guy strategies in the Middle East. But it was becoming increasingly apparent to millions of Americans that Bush's approach represented a dead end that was quickly filling with a staggering number of bodies, both of U.S. soldiers and Middle Easterners. To a large degree, the fallacy of Bush's neocon strategy was the belief that force almost alone could defeat Islamic militancy. By essentially ruling out any meaningful concessions to legitimate Muslim grievances, such as the plight of the Palestinians, Bush and the neocons set a course for a bloodbath in the Middle East. Beyond the inhumanity of the neocon strategy, it also carried a virtual certainty of failure. Nearly six years into the Bush administration, CIA Director Michael Hayden explained one of its unintended consequences, the resurgent power of Iran's Islamic government. "The Iranian hand appears to be powerful and I would offer the view: It appears to be growing and Iranian ambitions in Iraq seem to be expanding," Hayden, a four-star Air Force general, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15. "I would suggest to you, right now [Iran] seems to be conducting a foreign policy with a feeling of almost dangerous triumphalism." Bush, the neocons and the hardline Israelis had become victims of their success in shouting down or discrediting critics who favored a less violent course. The peace advocates were routinely smeared as "soft on terror" or "anti-Israel." To this day, neocons still rant and rave against Jimmy Carter. However, from the perspective of more than a quarter century later, Carter's advice about resolving the Palestinian dispute and reaching peace accords with Israel's Arab neighbors does not look like such a bad idea. So, another lesson from the Nov. 7 elections is that manipulating perceptions and creating false one-sided realities - like those that have guided U.S. policy in the Middle East - can be dangerous even for those doing the manipulating. Slim Hope The Republican defeat in Election 2006 opens the door slightly for a reexamination of the overall U.S. strategy toward the Middle East. But it's hard to envision a serious rethinking of the policy without a substantial growth in the fledgling independent news media and a stiffening of spines among American politicians. Fearful of losing Jewish-American votes to Republicans, Democrats have shown little interest in reasserting the traditional U.S. role as Israel's concerned friend, offering both military protection and sage advice, whether always welcomed or not. If such a broader debate were possible, it might make sense to suggest that U.S. forces now caught in Iraq's sectarian strife could serve the cause of regional peace much more if they helped Israel remove its settlements from the Golan Heights and the West Bank, clearing the way for peace treaties with Syria and the Palestinians. The United States also could achieve substantial goodwill in the Muslim world by shifting some U.S. reconstruction money from Iraq to improving the economic infrastructure of the Palestinians. That way, there might be some attractive life alternatives to young people otherwise tempted to join the ranks of suicide bombers. But these options have little hope as long as the American political/media structure remains closed to fresh ideas. In that sense, the Nov. 7 elections represented less a decisive victory against Bush's grim vision than a hopeful opportunity to turn the American Republic back toward its great traditions and forward into a rational future. Originally posted at ######
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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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