As open warfare grinds to a slow and bloody halt in Lebanon, the Bush administration’s unconditional support for Israeli attacks on Lebanon is emblematic of the profound tragedy of U.S. policy in the region over the past five years.
The administration has relied largely on force rather than diplomacy. It has shown a willingness to violate international legal norms, a callousness regarding massive civilian casualties, a dismissive attitude toward our closest allies whose security interests we share, and blatant double standards on U.N. Security Council resolutions, nonproliferation issues and human rights.
A broad consensus of moderate Arabs, Middle East scholars, independent security analysts, European leaders, and others have recognized that—even putting important moral and legal issues aside—such policies have been a disaster for the national security interests of the United States and other Western nations. These policies have only further radicalized the region and increased support for Hezbollah and other extremists and supporters of terrorism.
The Democratic Party could have seized upon these tragic miscalculations by the Bush administration to enhance its political standing and help steer America’s foreign policy in a more rational and ethical direction. Sadly, the Democrats instead once again overwhelmingly threw their support behind President George W. Bush. Soon after Israel began its offensive on July 12, House Republican leader John Boehner, along with House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, introduced a resolution unconditionally supporting Israel’s military actions and commending President Bush for fully supporting the Israeli assault. Despite reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. High Commissioner from Human Rights that Israel was committing war crimes in attacking civilians, the resolution praised Israel for its “longstanding commitment to minimize civilian loss” and even welcomed “Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties.” The resolution also claimed that Israel’s actions were “in accordance with international law,” though they flew in the face of longstanding, universally recognized legal standards regarding the use of force and the treatment of noncombatants in wartime.
Despite such a brazen attack against the credibility of reputable human rights groups and the U.N. Charter that limits military action to legitimate self defense, Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee and likely next committee chairman should the Democrats win back the majority in November, signed on as a full cosponsor.
Even more alarmingly, all but 15 of the 201 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted in favor of the resolution.
The Senate endorsed by a voice vote a similar resolution unconditionally supporting Israel’s military offensive. Drafted by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, it was cosponsored by a majority of Democratic senators.
The decision by Democratic members of Congress to take such hard-line positions against international law and human rights stems not from the fear that it would jeopardize their reelection. Public opinion polls show a sizable majority of Americans believe U.S. foreign policy should support these principles and only a minority of Americans, according to a recent New York Times poll, agree that the United States should give unconditional support for Israel in its war on Lebanon and support President Bush’s handling of the situation.
Nor is it a matter of Democratic lawmakers somehow being forced against their will to back Bush’s policy by Jewish voters and campaign contributors. Jewish public opinion is divided over the wisdom and morality of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. More significantly, the vast majority of Democrats who supported the resolution came from very safe districts where a possible reduction in campaign contributions would not have had a negative impact on their reelection.
One reason for such broad Democratic support for the resolution may stem from the fact that the Arms Control Export Act forbids arms transfers to countries that use American weapons for non-defensive purposes, such as attacking civilians. Thus, in order to protect the profits of politically influential American arms merchants, the Democrats joined with Republicans in supporting language in the resolution claiming that Israel’s actions were “legitimate self-defense.”
Perhaps more significant in the Democrats’ decision to support the Bush administration’s backing of the Israeli attacks has been the absence of pressure from such liberal groups as MoveOn.org, which failed to mobilize their email list to contact their representatives and senators to protest. Nor did MoveOn.org call on its supporters to back proposed House resolutions calling for an immediate cease-fire weeks ago, initiatives which attracted little support among Democratic representatives.
This reticence contrasts with other foreign policy issues related to international law and human rights, from U.S. intervention in Central America during the 1980s to Iraq today. In these other cases, liberal groups made it a priority to hold their elected representatives in Washington accountable for backing administration policy. However, it appears that if the victims of such policies are Lebanese or Palestinian civilians, there are—with some notable exceptions—few organized protests heard on Capitol Hill. With so little pressure from progressive groups, elected representatives have little inclination to withdraw support for administration policy toward Israel and its neighbors.
In reality, the Democrats’ support for Israeli attacks against Lebanon is quite consistent with their support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In both cases, they rushed to the defense of right-wing governments that have run roughshod over international legal norms, that have taken military actions which have gone well beyond their legitimate right to self-defense, and that have taken an incredible toll in innocent civilian lives.
In other words, the Democratic Party’s support for Israel’s attacks on Lebanon is consistent with its disdain for international law and human rights elsewhere and its defiance of public opinion on other foreign policy issues. It is not, therefore, something that can simply be blamed on “the Zionist lobby.” Rather, it indicates that the Democrats’ worldview is essentially the same as that of the Republicans.
This ideological congruence calls into the question whether the increasingly likely prospect of the Democrats regaining a majority in Congress in November will make any real difference on the foreign policy front at all.
This is an shorter version of an article that originally appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus. http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/3423