Gaza, Petraeus, Benghazi: US’ foreign policy fantasy continues unbroken

Regarding the Israeli/Palestinian situation, Americans are repeatedly told that “the Palestinians don’t want peace”.

Petraeus file
Petraeus was a "highly media-savvy insider super-celeb", whose judgment no insiders ever seriously questioned, "even though we know now that his judgment was deeply flawed" [EPA]

In the waning days of the election campaign, the suppressed topic of climate change was dramatically thrust front-and-centre by Hurricane Sandy. Since the election, the under-discussed subject of US foreign policy has had its turn. Not surprisingly, it has done so in the style of a fun-house mirror, hiding what is essential, while magnifying the superficial, even the imaginary, as overlapping wild-eyed distortions produce pure phantom imagery in the place of substance. 

We can summarise the topics involved as Gaza, Petraeus and Benghazi. In Gaza, Israel is engaged in an eerily familiar echoing of its attacks four years ago just before Obama took office. As with that earlier attack, virtually nothing of the actual substance gets through to the American public – the Palestinians remain a faceless un-people, while only right-wing talking points are deemed acceptable.  

As for General David Petraeus, he has been forced to resign as CIA chief because of a sex scandal, while the real scandal – the neo-con’s “long war” strategy that he has helped Obama embrace in a more technocratic style – remains quietly ignored, despite bipartisan majorities who now oppose even the current US presence in Afghanistan.  

Finally, there’s Benghazi, the terrorist attack on the embassy which has become the focal point for neo-con yahoos and conspiracists to aim their fire at America’s real enemies: the President, his advisers and appointees.  

US invasion of Iraq

Despite all the distortions involved, this fun-house mirror can bring some things into very sharp focus – most notably, the profound continuity of American foreign policy, its profound insularity and its profound disconnect from the real world. 

With regard to the Israeli/Palestinian situation, Americans are repeatedly told that the Palestinians – and Arabs more generally – don’t want peace. This is the enduring foundational lie on which every manner of additional lie can readily be constructed. 

The “fact” that they don’t want peace means they are animals, they are implacable, all they understand is violence, there is no point in trying to reason with them, etc, etc, etc. Keeping this foundational lie in place requires erasing one particularly inconvenient piece of history – the Arab League peace initiative, first proposed in 2002 and reaffirmed several times since then, which offers Israel the explicit promise of peace with its Arab neighbours. 

The Saudi-crafted initiative was unanimously approved by 22 members of the Arab League at a summit in Beirut on March 28, 2002. The “Beirut Declaration”, as it came to be known, had the appearance of a dramatic gesture, promising to explicitly recognise Israel’s right to exist, in exchange for a return of the Occupied Territories.  

Most Americans have never heard of the Arab League peace initiative – and for good reason: Despite initial support from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-President Bush virtually ignored it, along with another resolution passed unanimously at that meeting, opposing the proposed US invasion of Iraq. 

Although it was secret at the time, the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq – as was later confirmed by the Downing Street memos – and had no interest in getting side-tracked, even if the “side-track” would actually do far more to combat terrorism than the chosen course of action, since it would remove the most widespread grievance of the Arab world, which terrorists have long exploited.  

Powell, ever the good soldier, went along with Bush’s leadership. Eventually, this would lead to the most public blunder of his career, fronting the Bush administrations lies about Iraq to the world in a presentation before the UN’s General Assembly. 

But Powell’s man on the ground at the time, special envoy Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general, was much more outspoken. By late August, as the Bush administration’s public push for war got under way, Zinni gave a speech to Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee that was widely reported in which he argued against the invasion, running down a long list of higher priorities that he said would suffer as a result. According to the Tampa Tribune, which first reported the speech: 

“Zinni said a war to bring down Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein would have numerous undesirable side effects and should be low on the nation’s list of foreign policy objectives. 

“I can give you many more [priorities] before I get to that,” Zinni said when asked if the United States should move to remove Saddam.

Zinni said the country should instead concentrate on negotiating a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and on eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda terrorist network that launched the September 11 terror attacks.

“We need to make sure the Taliban and al-Qaeda can’t come back,” he said…

“We need to quit making enemies that we don’t need to make enemies out of.”

Immune to any sort of criticism

There were, in short, a whole parade of reasons why invading Iraq was a really bad idea for the United States. But for the people of Israel and Palestine – whose suffering continues to this day – the failure to follow up on the Arab League initiative towered over everything else. 


 Petraeus testifies in Benghazi attack inquiry

Two months later, a relatively obscure state senator from Illinois also gave a speech against the coming war. His name was Barack Obama, and when he became President six years after that, many of his supporters hoped that it would signal a dramatic change in direction. Perhaps even the taking up of the Arab League initiative, those who knew about it might have dreamed.

That, of course, was not to be. Even before he took office, Israel launched a savage attack on Gaza, claiming, as always, that it was the real victim. Obama, characteristically, fell in line with all the tired tropes of Washington, rather than challenging them and thinking outside the box, as his most passionate supporters had hoped that he would do. 

Six months later, when he gave his unprecedented speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, hopes were rekindled briefly, but as far as the Palestinian question is concerned, nothing significant has changed at all, as underscored by the most recent attacks on Gaza. The Arab League initiative remains ignored, in effect, a deliberate choice to make it seem to the American people as if only Israel and America have any interest in peace, and only the Palestinians terrorise their adversaries.

Although Zinni was hardly a professional contrarian – he later came to support Bush’s surge in Iraq, for example – at least he had the virtue of having been right about one of the major blunders of the Bush era, as well as having direct knowledge about the Arab Peace initiative.

He is just the sort of figure – a top military man who supported George W Bush in 2000, but didn’t drink the kool aid – who seemed a perfect fit for candidate Obama. But, despite brief talk about him becoming ambassador to Iraq, it was not to be, any more than Obama gave any real power to anyone who saw the financial crisis coming. 

Instead, Obama turned primarily to those who were already in place, including General Patraeus, who up until the last few weeks seemed utterly immune to any sort of criticism – even though he’d always been a policy chameleon, promising positive outcomes with whatever the policy du jure happened to be that never actually materialised as originally promised. 

He’d been dead wrong in his optimistic 2004 pre-election Washington Post op-ed about Iraq, supporting the policy at the time. His great claim to fame, the Iraq “surge”, largely “succeeded” for external reasons – most notably the Sunni Awakening, and the fact that hyper-violent ethnic cleansing had finally run its course – while solidifying Iranian influence, rather than securing US strategic goals.

What’s more, it was justified in terms of a philosophy (counter-insurgency – “winning hearts and minds”) strikingly at odds with the counter-terrorist drone-strike strategy he took over at the CIA. 

The striking inconsistencies between the doctrines he embraced at different times should have been obvious to anyone. But Petraeus himself clearly understood the primacy of appearances over reality. “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular situation is more important than what actually occurred,” he wrote in his 1987 Princeton dissertation.

As Wired’s Seth Ackerman ruefully admits (“How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus”), Petraeus was a highly media-savvy insider super-celeb, whose judgment no insiders ever seriously questioned, even though we know now that his judgment was deeply flawed – a point that still seems lost on most of the legions of insiders who still seemingly adore him.

Multi-generation long war 

But author Laila Lalami took a more realistic view. “The Petraeus scandal: from James Bond to Austin Powers to Real Housewives to Jersey Shore in 72 hours,” she tweeted. 

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell also sees things more clearly. “The judgment issue is the only one worth examining here, and what we see at every stage of this story is David Petraeus’ judgment is terrible,” O’Donnell said on his November 16 show.

His emails about sex were just begging to be discovered, O’Donnell went on to argue, and the military groupies he palled around with (the Jersey Shore part of the scandal) were textbook examples of why groupies should be avoided at all costs.

One good thing about the affair, O’Donnell noted, was that “he is finally getting some balanced coverage in the news media,” quoting an edited passage from a Time magazine story:

“Petraeus is a remarkable piece of fiction created and promoted by neocons in government, the media and academia,” argues Douglas Macgregor, a retired and outspoken Army colonel…. “How does an officer with no personal experience of direct fire combat in Panama or Desert Storm become a division commander?”

The full passage is even more damning, as Macgregor refers to Petraeus as a “man who for 35 years shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation, a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide-de-camp, military assistant and executive officer to four stars” – an assessment in keeping with his dramatic about faces noted above.

Which brings us, finally to Benghazi, which Obama’s hyper-ventilating congressional critics have histrionically called out as worse than Watergate. Before the election, John McCain went ballistic. On CBS’s Face the Nation, he called it, “The worst cover-up or incompetence I have ever observed in my life.”

Apparently 9/11 was a walk in the park, so far as McCain was concerned. “Somebody the other day said to me, ‘This is as bad as Watergate’,” McCain said. “Nobody died in Watergate.” Or on 9/11 either, apparently, in John McCain’s world.

One might have expected such hyperbole to die off after the election results came in. But if anything, McCain grew increasingly adamant in the last two weeks, while California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher – who proudly hung out with the Taliban back in the 1980s – eagerly took up his “worse than Watergate” line.

On November 14, McCain was so busy telling the media how outrageous it was that Obama administration was hiding the truth about Benghazi that he didn’t have time to attend a Senate committee hearing, where the administration answered senator’s questions on precisely that very subject.

The sad fact is that there is very little purposive difference between Obama’s foreign policy and George Bush’s. There’s a great deal of difference in effectiveness, perhaps, as well as in reducing the bluster and improving the PR. The façade has been totally revamped. No flight suits, no codpieces on deck! But the US is still committed to fighting a multi-generation long war in dozens upon dozens of different countries around the world, with the barest minimum of public discussion or debate, and a maximum of secrecy. 

One cannot help but think that what’s really got John McCain and his neo-con buddies so steamed is not how alien Obama is to them, but how much of a doppelganger he is. That, and just how much better he is than they are at pulling it off.

Eat your heart out, John McCain. And, for that matter, David Petraeus, too.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.