Nicolas J. S. Davies

Afghan crisis must end America’s empire of war, corruption and poverty

Americans have been shocked by videos of thousands of Afghans risking their lives to flee the Taliban's return to power in their country - and then by an Islamic State suicide bombing and ensuing massacre by U.S. forces that together killed at least 170 people, including 13 U.S. troops.

Even as UN agencies warn of an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the U.S. Treasury has frozen nearly all of the Afghan Central Bank's $9.4 billion in foreign currency reserves, depriving the new government of funds that it will desperately need in the coming months to feed its people and provide basic services.

Under pressure from the Biden administration, the International Monetary Fund decided not to release $450 million in funds that were scheduled to be sent to Afghanistan to help the country cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. and other Western countries have also halted humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. After chairing a G7 summit on Afghanistan on August 24, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that withholding aid and recognition gave them "very considerable leverage - economic, diplomatic and political" over the Taliban.

Western politicians couch this leverage in terms of human rights, but they are clearly trying to ensure that their Afghan allies retain some power in the new government, and that Western influence and interests in Afghanistan do not end with the Taliban's return. This leverage is being exercised in dollars, pounds and euros, but it will be paid for in Afghan lives.

To read or listen to Western analysts, one would think that the United States and its allies' 20-year war was a benign and beneficial effort to modernize the country, liberate Afghan women and provide healthcare, education and good jobs, and that this has all now been swept away by capitulation to the Taliban.

The reality is quite different, and not so hard to understand. The United States spent $2.26 trillion on its war in Afghanistan. Spending that kind of money in any country should have lifted most people out of poverty. But the vast bulk of those funds, about $1.5 trillion, went to absurd, stratospheric military spending to maintain the U.S. military occupation, drop over 80,000 bombs and missiles on Afghans, pay private contractors, and transport troops, weapons and military equipment back and forth around the world for 20 years.

Since the United States fought this war with borrowed money, it has also cost half a trillion dollars in interest payments alone, which will continue far into the future. Medical and disability costs for U.S. soldiers wounded in Afghanistan already amount to over $175 billion, and they will likewise keep mounting as the soldiers age. Medical and disability costs for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could eventually top a trillion dollars.

So what about "rebuilding Afghanistan"? Congress appropriated $144 billion for reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001, but $88 billion of that was spent to recruit, arm, train and pay the Afghan "security forces" that have now disintegrated, with soldiers returning to their villages or joining the Taliban. Another $15.5 billion spent between 2008 and 2017 was documented as "waste, fraud and abuse" by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The crumbs left over, less than 2% of total U.S. spending on Afghanistan, amount to about $40 billion, which should have provided some benefit to the Afghan people in economic development, healthcare, education, infrastructure and humanitarian aid.

But, as in Iraq, the government the U.S. installed in Afghanistan was notoriously corrupt, and its corruption only became more entrenched and systemic over time. Transparency International (TI) has consistently ranked U.S.-occupied Afghanistan as among the most corrupt countries in the world.

Western readers may think that this corruption is a long-standing problem in Afghanistan, as opposed to a particular feature of the U.S. occupation, but this is not the case. TI notes that "it is widely recognized that the scale of corruption in the post-2001 period has increased over previous levels." A 2009 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that "corruption has soared to levels not seen in previous administrations."

Those administrations would include the Taliban government that U.S. invasion forces removed from power in 2001, and the Soviet-allied socialist governments that were overthrown by the U.S.-deployed precursors of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the 1980s, destroying the substantial progress they had made in education, healthcare and women's rights.

A 2010 report by former Reagan Pentagon official Anthony H. Cordesman, entitled "How America Corrupted Afghanistan", chastised the U.S. government for throwing gobs of money into that country with virtually no accountability.

The New York Times reported in 2013 that every month for a decade, the CIA had been dropping off suitcases, backpacks and even plastic shopping bags stuffed with U.S. dollars for the Afghan president to bribe warlords and politicians.

Corruption also undermined the very areas that Western politicians now hold up as the successes of the occupation, like education and healthcare. The education system has been riddled with schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. Afghan pharmacies are stocked with fake, expired or low quality medicines, many smuggled in from neighboring Pakistan. At the personal level, corruption was fueled by civil servants like teachers earning only one-tenth the salaries of better-connected Afghans working for foreign NGOs and contractors.

Rooting out corruption and improving Afghan lives has always been secondary to the primary U.S. goal of fighting the Taliban and maintaining or extending its puppet government's control. As TI reported, "The U.S. has intentionally paid different armed groups and Afghan civil servants to ensure cooperation and/or information, and cooperated with governors regardless of how corrupt they were… Corruption has undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fuelling grievances against the Afghan government and channelling material support to the insurgency."

The endless violence of the U.S. occupation and the corruption of the U.S.-backed government boosted popular support for the Taliban, especially in rural areas where three quarters of Afghans live. The intractable poverty of occupied Afghanistan also contributed to the Taliban victory, as people naturally questioned how their occupation by wealthy countries like the United States and its Western allies could leave them in such abject poverty.

Well before the current crisis, the number of Afghans reporting that they were struggling to live on their current income increased from 60% in 2008 to 90% by 2018. A 2018 Gallup poll found the lowest levels of self-reported "well-being" that Gallup has ever recorded anywhere in the world. Afghans not only reported record levels of misery but also unprecedented hopelessness about their future.

Despite some gains in education for girls, only a third of Afghan girls attended primary school in 2019 and only 37% of adolescent Afghan girls were literate. One reason that so few children go to school in Afghanistan is that more than two million children between the ages of 6 and 14 have to work to support their poverty-stricken families.

Yet instead of atoning for our role in keeping most Afghans mired in poverty, Western leaders are now cutting off desperately needed economic and humanitarian aid that was funding three quarters of Afghanistan's public sector and made up 40% of its total GDP.

In effect, the United States and its allies are responding to losing the war by threatening the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan with a second, economic war. If the new Afghan government does not give in to their "leverage" and meet their demands, our leaders will starve their people and then blame the Taliban for the ensuing famine and humanitarian crisis, just as they demonize and blame other victims of U.S. economic warfare, from Cuba to Iran.

After pouring trillions of dollars into endless war in Afghanistan, America's main duty now is to help the 40 million Afghans who have not fled their country, as they try to recover from the terrible wounds and trauma of the war America inflicted on them, as well as a massive drought that devastated 40% of their crops this year and a crippling third wave of covid-19.

The U.S. should release the $9.4 billion in Afghan funds held in U.S. banks. It should shift the $6 billion allocated for the now defunct Afghan armed forces to humanitarian aid, instead of diverting it to other forms of wasteful military spending. It should encourage European allies and the IMF not to withhold funds. Instead, they should fully fund the UN 2021 appeal for $1.3 billion in emergency aid, which as of late August was less than 40% funded.

Once upon a time, the United States helped its British and Soviet allies to defeat Germany and Japan, and then helped to rebuild them as healthy, peaceful and prosperous countries. For all America's serious faults - its racism, its crimes against humanity in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its neocolonial relations with poorer countries - America held up a promise of prosperity that people in many countries around the world were ready to follow.

If all the United States has to offer other countries today is the war, corruption and poverty it brought to Afghanistan, then the world is wise to be moving on and looking at new models to follow: new experiments in popular and social democracy; renewed emphasis on national sovereignty and international law; alternatives to the use of military force to resolve international problems; and more equitable ways of organizing internationally to tackle global crises like the Covid pandemic and the climate disaster.

The United States can either stumble on in its fruitless attempt to control the world through militarism and coercion, or it can use this opportunity to rethink its place in the world. Americans should be ready to turn the page on our fading role as global hegemon and see how we can make a meaningful, cooperative contribution to a future that we will never again be able to dominate, but which we must help to build.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Will Americans who were right on Afghanistan still be ignored?

America's corporate media are ringing with recriminations over the humiliating U.S. military defeat in Afghanistan. But very little of the criticism goes to the root of the problem, which was the original decision to militarily invade and occupy Afghanistan in the first place.

That decision set in motion a cycle of violence and chaos that no subsequent U.S. policy or military strategy could resolve over the next 20 years, in Afghanistan, Iraq or any of the other countries swept up in America's post-9/11 wars.

While Americans were reeling in shock at the images of airliners crashing into buildings on September 11, 2001, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld held a meeting in an intact part of the Pentagon. Undersecretary Cambone's notes from that meeting spell out how quickly and blindly U.S. officials prepared to plunge our nation into graveyards of empire in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

Cambone wrote that Rumsfeld wanted, "...best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. (Saddam Hussein) at same time - not only UBL (Usama Bin Laden)… Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

So within hours of these horrific crimes in the United States, the central question senior U.S. officials were asking was not how to investigate them and hold the perpetrators accountable, but how to use this "Pearl Harbor" moment to justify wars, regime changes and militarism on a global scale.

Three days later, Congress passed a bill authorizing the president to use military force "…against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons…"

In 2016, the Congressional Research Service reported that this Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) had been cited to justify 37 distinct military operations in 14 different countries and at sea. The vast majority of the people killed, maimed or displaced in these operations had nothing to do with the crimes of September 11. Successive administrations have repeatedly ignored the actual wording of the authorization, which only authorized the use of force against those involved in some way in the 9/11 attacks.

The only member of Congress who had the wisdom and courage to vote against the 2001 AUMF was Barbara Lee of Oakland. Lee compared it to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution and warned her colleagues that it would inevitably be used in the same expansive and illegitimate way. The final words of her floor speech echo presciently through the 20-year-long spiral of violence, chaos and war crimes it unleashed, "As we act, let us not become the evil we deplore."

In a meeting at Camp David that weekend, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz argued forcefully for an attack on Iraq, even before Afghanistan. Bush insisted Afghanistan must come first, but privately promised Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle that Iraq would be their next target.

In the days after September 11, the U.S. corporate media followed the Bush administration's lead, and the public heard only rare, isolated voices questioning whether war was the correct response to the crimes committed.

But former Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor Ben Ferencz spoke to NPR (National Public Radio) a week after 9/11, and he explained that attacking Afghanistan was not only unwise and dangerous, but was not a legitimate response to these crimes. NPR's Katy Clark struggled to understand what he was saying:

"Clark: …do you think that the talk of retaliation is not a legitimate response to the death of 5,000 (sic) people?Ferencz: It is never a legitimate response to punish people who are not responsible for the wrong done.

Clark: No one is saying we're going to punish those who are not responsible.

Ferencz: We must make a distinction between punishing the guilty and punishing others. If you simply retaliate en masse by bombing Afghanistan, let us say, or the Taliban, you will kill many people who don't believe in what has happened, who don't approve of what has happened.

Clark: So you are saying that you see no appropriate role for the military in this.

Ferencz: I wouldn't say there is no appropriate role, but the role should be consistent with our ideals. We shouldn't let them kill our principles at the same time they kill our people. And our principles are respect for the rule of law. Not charging in blindly and killing people because we are blinded by our tears and our rage."

The drumbeat of war pervaded the airwaves, twisting 9/11 into a powerful propaganda narrative to whip up the fear of terrorism and justify the march to war. But many Americans shared the reservations of Rep. Barbara Lee and Ben Ferencz, understanding enough of their country's history to recognize that the 9/11 tragedy was being hijacked by the same military-industrial complex that produced the debacle in Vietnam and keeps reinventing itself generation after generation to support and profit from American wars, coups and militarism.

On September 28, 2001, the Socialist Worker website published statements by 15 writers and activists under the heading, "Why we say no to war and hate." They included Noam Chomsky, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan and me (Medea). Our statements took aim at the Bush administration's attacks on civil liberties at home and abroad, as well as its plans for war on Afghanistan.

The late academic and author Chalmers Johnson wrote that 9/11 was not an attack on the United States but "an attack on U.S. foreign policy." Edward Herman predicted "massive civilian casualties." Matt Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, wrote that, "For every innocent person Bush kills in this war, five or ten terrorists will arise." I (Medea) wrote that "a military response will only create more of the hatred against the U.S. that created this terrorism in the first place."

Our analysis was correct and our predictions were prescient. We humbly submit that the media and politicians should start listening to the voices of peace and sanity instead of lying, delusional warmongers.

What leads to catastrophes like the U.S. war in Afghanistan is not the absence of convincing anti-war voices but that our political and media systems routinely marginalize and ignore voices like those of Barbara Lee, Ben Ferencz and ourselves.

That is not because we are wrong and the belligerent voices they listen to are right. They marginalize us precisely because we are right and they are wrong, and because serious, rational debates over war, peace and military spending would jeopardize some of the most powerful and corrupt vested interests that dominate and control U.S. politics on a bipartisan basis.

In every foreign policy crisis, the very existence of our military's enormous destructive capacity and the myths our leaders promote to justify it converge in an orgy of self-serving interests and political pressures to stoke our fears and pretend that there are military "solutions" for them.

Losing the Vietnam War was a serious reality check on the limits of U.S. military power. As the junior officers who fought in Vietnam rose through the ranks to become America's military leaders, they acted more cautiously and realistically for the next 20 years. But the end of the Cold War opened the door to an ambitious new generation of warmongers who were determined to capitalize on the U.S. post-Cold War "power dividend."

Madeleine Albright spoke for this emerging new breed of war-hawks when she confronted General Colin Powell in 1992 with her question, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

As Secretary of State in Clinton's second term, Albright engineered the first of a series of illegal U.S. invasions to carve out an independent Kosovo from the splintered remains of Yugoslavia. When U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told her his government was "having trouble with our lawyers" over the illegality of the NATO war plan, Albright said they should just "get new lawyers."

In the 1990s, the neocons and liberal interventionists dismissed and marginalized the idea that non-military, non-coercive approaches can more effectively resolve foreign policy problems without the horrors of war or deadly sanctions. This bipartisan war lobby then exploited the 9/11 attacks to consolidate and expand their control of U.S. foreign policy.

But after spending trillions of dollars and killing millions of people, the abysmal record of U.S. war-making since World War II remains a tragic litany of failure and defeat, even on its own terms. The only wars the United States has won since 1945 have been limited wars to recover small neo-colonial outposts in Grenada, Panama and Kuwait.

Every time the United States has expanded its military ambitions to attack or invade larger or more independent countries, the results have been universally catastrophic.

So our country's absurd investment of 66% of discretionary federal spending in destructive weapons, and recruiting and training young Americans to use them, does not make us safer but only encourages our leaders to unleash pointless violence and chaos on our neighbors around the world.

Most of our neighbors have grasped by now that these forces and the dysfunctional U.S. political system that keeps them at its disposal pose a serious threat to peace and to their own aspirations for democracy. Few people in other countries want any part of America's wars, or its revived Cold War against China and Russia, and these trends are most pronounced among America's long-time allies in Europe and in its traditional "backyard" in Canada and Latin America.

On October 19, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld addressed B-2 bomber crews at Whiteman AFB in Missouri as they prepared to take off across the world to inflict misdirected vengeance on the long-suffering people of Afghanistan. He told them, "We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter. And you are the ones who will help achieve that goal."

Now that dropping over 80,000 bombs and missiles on the people of Afghanistan for 20 years has failed to change the way they live, apart from killing hundreds of thousands of them and destroying their homes, we must instead, as Rumsfeld said, change the way we live.

We should start by finally listening to Barbara Lee. First, we should pass her bill to repeal the two post-9/11 AUMFs that launched our 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan and other wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

Then we should pass her bill to redirect $350 billion per year from the U.S. military budget (roughly a 50% cut) to "increase our diplomatic capacity and for domestic programs that will keep our Nation and our people safer."

Finally reining in America's out-of-control militarism would be a wise and appropriate response to its epic defeat in Afghanistan, before the same corrupt interests drag us into even more dangerous wars against more formidable enemies than the Taliban.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

The American empire has no clothes

The world is reeling in horror at the latest Israeli massacre of hundreds of men, women and children in Gaza. Much of the world is also shocked by the role of the United States in this crisis, as it keeps providing Israel with weapons to kill Palestinian civilians, in violation of U.S. and international law, and has repeatedly blocked action by the UN Security Council to impose a ceasefire or hold Israel accountable for its war crimes.

In contrast to U.S. actions, in nearly every speech or interview, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken keeps promising to uphold and defend the "rules-based order." But he has never clarified whether he means the universal rules of the United Nations Charter and international law, or some other set of rules he has yet to define. What rules could possibly legitimize the kind of destruction we just witnessed in Gaza, and who would want to live in a world ruled by them?

We have both spent many years protesting the violence and chaos the United States and its allies inflict on millions of people around the world by violating the UN Charter's prohibition against the threat or use of military force, and we have always insisted that the U.S. government should comply with the rules-based order of international law.

But even as the United States' illegal wars and support for allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia have reduced cities to rubble and left country after country mired in intractable violence and chaos, U.S. leaders have refused to even acknowledge that aggressive and destructive U.S. and allied military operations violate the rules-based order of the United Nations Charter and international law.

President Trump was clear that he was not interested in following any "global rules," only supporting U.S. national interests. His National Security Advisor John Bolton explicitly prohibited National Security Council staff attending the 2018 G20 Summit in Argentina from even uttering the words "rules-based order."

So you might expect us to welcome Blinken's stated commitment to the "rules-based order" as a long-overdue reversal in U.S. policy. But when it comes to a vital principle like this, it is actions that count, and the Biden administration has yet to take any decisive action to bring U.S. foreign policy into compliance with the UN Charter or international law.

For Secretary Blinken, the concept of a "rules-based order" seems to serve mainly as a cudgel with which to attack China and Russia. At a May 7 UN Security Council meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that instead of accepting the already existing rules of international law, the United States and its allies are trying to come up with "other rules developed in closed, non-inclusive formats, and then imposed on everyone else."

The UN Charter and the rules of international law were developed in the 20th century precisely to codify the unwritten and endlessly contested rules of customary international law with explicit, written rules that would be binding on all nations.

The United States played a leading role in this legalist movement in international relations, from the Hague Peace Conferences at the turn of the 20th century to the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945 and the revised Geneva Conventions in 1949, including the new Fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians, like the countless numbers killed by American weapons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Gaza.

As President Franklin Roosevelt described the plan for the United Nations to a joint session of Congress on his return from Yalta in 1945:

"It ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries - and have always failed. We propose to substitute for all these a universal organization in which all peace-loving nations will finally have a chance to join. I am confident that the Congress and the American people will accept the results of this conference as the beginning of a permanent structure of peace."

But America's post-Cold War triumphalism eroded U.S. leaders' already half-hearted commitment to those rules. The neocons argued that they were no longer relevant and that the United States must be ready to impose order on the world by the unilateral threat and use of military force, exactly what the UN Charter prohibits. Madeleine Albright and other Democratic leaders embraced new doctrines of "humanitarian intervention" and a "responsibility to protect" to try to carve out politically persuasive exceptions to the explicit rules of the UN Charter.

America's "endless wars," its revived Cold War on Russia and China, its blank check for the Israeli occupation and the political obstacles to crafting a more peaceful and sustainable future are some of the fruits of these bipartisan efforts to challenge and weaken the rules-based order.

Today, far from being a leader of the international rules-based system, the United States is an outlier. It has failed to sign or ratify about fifty important and widely accepted multilateral treaties on everything from children's rights to arms control. Its unilateral sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and other countries are themselves violations of international law, and the new Biden administration has shamefully failed to lift these illegal sanctions, ignoring UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' request to suspend such unilateral coercive measures during the pandemic.

So is Blinken's "rules-based order" a recommitment to President Roosevelt's "permanent structure of peace," or is it in fact a renunciation of the United Nations Charter and its purpose, which is peace and security for all of humanity?

In the light of Biden's first few months in power, it appears to be the latter. Instead of designing a foreign policy based on the principles and rules of the UN Charter and the goal of a peaceful world, Biden's policy seems to start from the premises of a $753 billion U.S. military budget, 800 overseas military bases, endless U.S. and allied wars and massacres, and massive weapons sales to repressive regimes. Then it works backward to formulate a policy framework to somehow justify all that.

Once a "war on terror" that only fuels terrorism, violence and chaos was no longer politically viable, hawkish U.S. leaders—both Republicans and Democrats—seem to have concluded that a return to the Cold War was the only plausible way to perpetuate America's militarist foreign policy and multi-trillion-dollar war machine.

But that raised a new set of contradictions. For 40 years, the Cold War was justified by the ideological struggle between the capitalist and communist economic systems. But the U.S.S.R. disintegrated and Russia is now a capitalist country. China is still governed by its Communist Party, but has a managed, mixed economy similar to that of Western Europe in the years after the Second World War - an efficient and dynamic economic system that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in both cases.

So how can these U.S. leaders justify their renewed Cold War? They have floated the notion of a struggle between "democracy and authoritarianism." But the United States supports too many horrific dictatorships around the world, especially in the Middle East, to make that a convincing pretext for a Cold War against Russia and China.

A U.S. "global war on authoritarianism" would require confronting repressive U.S. allies like Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, not arming them to the teeth and shielding them from international accountability as the United States is doing.

So, just as American and British leaders settled on non-existent "WMD"s as the pretext they could all agree on to justify their war on Iraq, the U.S. and its allies have settled on defending a vague, undefined "rules-based order" as the justification for their revived Cold War on Russia and China.

But like the emperor's new clothes in the fable and the WMDs in Iraq, the United States' new rules don't really exist. They are just its latest smokescreen for a foreign policy based on illegal threats and uses of force and a doctrine of "might makes right."

We challenge President Biden and Secretary Blinken to prove us wrong by actually joining the rules-based order of the UN Charter and international law. That would require a genuine commitment to a very different and more peaceful future, with appropriate contrition and accountability for the United States' and its allies' systematic violations of the UN Charter and international law, and the countless violent deaths, ruined societies and widespread chaos they have caused.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

How the United States helps to kill Palestinians

The U.S. corporate media usually report on Israeli military assaults in occupied Palestine as if the United States is an innocent neutral party to the conflict. In fact, large majorities of Americans have told pollsters for decades that they want the United States to be neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But U.S. media and politicians betray their own lack of neutrality by blaming Palestinians for nearly all the violence and framing flagrantly disproportionate, indiscriminate and therefore illegal Israeli attacks as a justifiable response to Palestinian actions. The classic formulation from U.S. officials and commentators is that "Israel has the right to defend itself," never "Palestinians have the right to defend themselves," even as the Israelis massacre hundreds of Palestinian civilians, destroy thousands of Palestinian homes and seize ever more Palestinian land.

The disparity in casualties in Israeli assaults on Gaza speaks for itself.

  • At the time of writing, the current Israeli assault on Gaza has killed at least 200 people, including 59 children and 35 women, while rockets fired from Gaza have killed 10 people in Israel, including 2 children.
  • In the 2008-9 assault on Gaza, Israel killed 1,417 Palestinians, while their meagre efforts to defend themselves killed 9 Israelis.
  • In 2014, 2,251 Palestinians and 72 Israelis (mostly soldiers invading Gaza) were killed, as U.S.-built F-16s dropped at least 5,000 bombs and missiles on Gaza and Israeli tanks and artillery fired 49,500 shells, mostly massive 6-inch shells from U.S.-built M-109 howitzers.
  • In response to largely peaceful "March of Return" protests at the Israel-Gaza border in 2018, Israeli snipers killed 183 Palestinians and wounded over 6,100, including 122 that required amputations, 21 paralyzed by spinal cord injuries and 9 permanently blinded.

As with the Saudi-led war on Yemen and other serious foreign policy problems, biased and distorted news coverage by U.S. corporate media leaves many Americans not knowing what to think. Many simply give up trying to sort out the rights and wrongs of what is happening and instead blame both sides, and then focus their attention closer to home, where the problems of society impact them more directly and are easier to understand and do something about.

So how should Americans respond to horrific images of bleeding, dying children and homes reduced to rubble in Gaza? The tragic relevance of this crisis for Americans is that, behind the fog of war, propaganda and commercialized, biased media coverage, the United States bears an overwhelming share of responsibility for the carnage taking place in Palestine.

U.S. policy has perpetuated the crisis and atrocities of the Israeli occupation by unconditionally supporting Israel in three distinct ways: militarily, diplomatically and politically.

On the military front, since the creation of the Israeli state, the United States has provided $146 billion in foreign aid, nearly all of it military-related. It currently provides $3.8 billion per year in military aid to Israel.

In addition, the United States is the largest seller of weapons to Israel, whose military arsenal now includes 362 U.S.-built F-16 warplanes and 100 other U.S. military aircraft, including a growing fleet of the new F-35s; at least 45 Apache attack helicopters; 600 M-109 howitzers and 64 M270 rocket-launchers. At this very moment, Israel is using many of these U.S.-supplied weapons in its devastating bombardment of Gaza.

The U.S. military alliance with Israel also involves joint military exercises and joint production of Arrow missiles and other weapons systems. The U.S. and Israeli militaries have collaborated on drone technologies tested by the Israelis in Gaza. In 2004, the United States called on Israeli forces with experience in the Occupied Territories to give tactical training to U.S. Special Operations Forces as they confronted popular resistance to the United States' hostile military occupation of Iraq.

The U.S. military also maintains a $1.8 billion stockpile of weapons at six locations in Israel, pre-positioned for use in future U.S. wars in the Middle East. During the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014, even as the U.S. Congress suspended some weapons deliveries to Israel, it approved handing over stocks of 120mm mortar shells and 40mm grenade launcher ammunition from the U.S. stockpile for Israel to use against Palestinians in Gaza.

Diplomatically, the United States has exercised its veto in the UN Security Council 82 times, and 44 of those vetoes have been to shield Israel from accountability for war crimes or human rights violations. In every single case, the United States has been the lone vote against the resolution, although a few other countries have occasionally abstained.

It is only the United States' privileged position as a veto-wielding Permanent Member of the Security Council, and its willingness to abuse that privilege to shield its ally Israel, that gives it this unique power to stymie international efforts to hold the Israeli government accountable for its actions under international law.

The result of this unconditional U.S. diplomatic shielding of Israel has been to encourage increasingly barbaric Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. With the United States blocking any accountability in the Security Council, Israel has seized ever more Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, uprooted more and more Palestinians from their homes and responded to the resistance of largely unarmed people with ever-increasing violence, detentions and restrictions on day-to-day life.

Thirdly, on the political front, despite most Americans supporting neutrality in the conflict, AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups have exercised an extraordinary role in bribing and intimidating U.S. politicians to provide unconditional support for Israel.

The roles of campaign contributors and lobbyists in the corrupt U.S. political system make the United States uniquely vulnerable to this kind of influence peddling and intimidation, whether it is by monopolistic corporations and industry groups like the Military-Industrial Complex and Big Pharma, or well-funded interest groups like the NRA, AIPAC and, in recent years, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

On April 22, just weeks before this latest assault on Gaza, the overwhelming majority of congresspeople, 330 out of 435, signed a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee opposing any reduction or conditioning of US monies to Israel. The letter represented a show of force from AIPAC and a repudiation of calls from some progressives in the Democratic Party to condition or otherwise restrict aid to Israel.

President Joe Biden, who has a long history of supporting Israeli crimes, responded to the latest massacre by insisting on Israel's "right to defend itself" and inanely hoping that "this will be closing down sooner than later." His UN ambassador also shamefully blocked a call for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council.

The silence and worse from President Biden and most of our representatives in Congress at the massacre of civilians and mass destruction of Gaza is unconscionable. The independent voices speaking out forcefully for Palestinians, including Senator Sanders and Representatives Tlaib, Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, show us what real democracy looks like, as do the massive protests that have filled U.S. streets all over the country.

US policy must be reversed to reflect international law and the shifting US opinion in favor of Palestinian rights. Every Member of Congress must be pushed to sign the bill introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum insisting that US funds to Israel are not used "to support the military detention of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law."

Congress must also be pressured to quickly enforce the Arms Export Control Act and the Leahy Laws to stop supplying any more U.S. weapons to Israel until it stops using them to attack and kill civilians.

The United States has played a vital and instrumental role in the decades-long catastrophe that has engulfed the people of Palestine. U.S. leaders and politicians must now confront their country's and, in many cases, their own personal complicity in this catastrophe, and act urgently and decisively to reverse U.S. policy to support full human rights for all Palestinians.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

A voice of reason in an insane world: Why a legendary diplomat resigned from the United Nations

Denis Halliday is an exceptional figure in the world of diplomacy. In 1998, after a 34-year career with the United Nations—including as an Assistant Secretary-General and the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq—he resigned when the UN Security Council refused to lift sanctions against Iraq.

Halliday saw at first hand the devastating impact of this policy that had led to the deaths of over 500,000 children under the age of five and hundreds of thousands more older children and adults, and he called the sanctions a genocide against the people of Iraq.

Since 1998, Denis has been a powerful voice for peace and for human rights around the world. He sailed in the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza in 2010, when 10 of his companions on a Turkish ship were shot and killed in an attack by the Israeli armed forces.

I interviewed Denis Halliday from his home in Ireland.

Nicolas Davies: So, Denis, twenty years after you resigned from the UN over the sanctions on Iraq, the United States is now imposing similar "maximum pressure" sanctions against Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, denying their people access to food and medicines in the midst of a pandemic. What would you like to say to Americans about the real-world impact of these policies?

Denis Halliday: I'd like to begin with explaining that the sanctions imposed by the Security Council against Iraq, led very much by the United States and Britain, were unique in the sense that they were comprehensive. They were open-ended, meaning that they required a Security Council decision to end them, which of course never actually happened - and they followed immediately upon the Gulf War.

The Gulf War, led primarily by the United States but supported by Britain and some others, undertook the bombing of Iraq and targeted civilian infrastructure, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and they took out all electric power networks in the country.

This completely undermined the water treatment and distribution system of Iraq, which depended upon electricity to drive it, and drove people to use contaminated water from the Tigris and the Euphrates. That was the beginning of the death-knell for young children, because mothers were not breast-feeding, they were feeding their children with child formula, but mixing it with foul water from the Tigris and the Euphrates.

That bombing of infrastructure, including communications systems and electric power, wiped out the production of food, horticulture, and all of the other basic necessities of life. They also closed down exports and imports, and they made sure that Iraq was unable to export its oil, which was the main source of its revenue at the time.

In addition to that, they introduced a new weapon called depleted uranium, which was used by the U.S. forces driving the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. That was used again in southern Iraq in the Basra area, and led to a massive accumulation of nuclear debris which led to leukemia in children, and that took three, four or five years to become evident.

So when I got to Iraq in 1998, the hospitals in Baghdad, and also of course in Basra and other cities, were full of children suffering from leukemia. Meantime adults had gotten their own cancer, mainly not a blood cancer diagnosis. Those children, we reckon perhaps 200,000 children, died of leukemia. At the same time, Washington and London withheld some of the treatment components that leukemia requires, again, it seemed, in a genocidal manner, denying Iraqi children the right to remain alive.

And as you quoted 500,000, that was a statement made by Madeleine Albright, the then American Ambassador to the United Nations who, live on CBS, was asked the question about the loss of 500,000 children, and she said that the loss of 500,000 children was "worth it," in terms of bringing down Saddam Hussein, which did not happen until the military invasion of 2003.

So the point is that the Iraqi sanctions were uniquely punitive and cruel and prolonged and comprehensive. They remained in place no matter how people like myself or others, and not just me alone, but UNICEF and the agencies of the UN system - many states including France, China and Russia - complained bitterly about the consequences on human life and the lives of Iraqi children and adults.

My desire in resigning was to go public, which I did. Within one month, I was in Washington doing my first Congressional briefing on the consequences of these sanctions, driven by Washington and London.

So I think the United States and its populus, who vote these governments in, need to understand that the children and the people of Iraq are just like the children of the United States and England and their people. They have the same dreams, same ambitions of education and employment and housing and vacations and all the things that good people care about. We're all the same people and we cannot sit back and think somehow, "We don't know who they are, they're Afghans, they're Iranians, they're Iraqis. So what? They're dying. Well, we don't know, it's not our problem, this happens in war." I mean, all that sort of rationale as to why this is unimportant.

And I think that aspect of life in the sanctions world continues, whether it's Venezuela, whether it's Cuba, which has been ongoing now for 60 years. People are not aware or don't think in terms of the lives of other human beings identical to ourselves here in Europe or in the United States.

It's a frightening problem, and I don't know how it can be resolved. We now have sanctions on Iran and North Korea. So the difficulty is to bring alive that we kill people with sanctions. They're not a substitute for war - they are a form of warfare.

Nicolas Davies: Thank you, Denis. I think that brings us to another question, because whereas the sanctions on Iraq were approved by the UN Security Council, what we're looking at today in the world is, for the most part, the U.S. using the power of its financial system to impose unilateral sieges on these countries, even as the U.S. is also still waging war in at least half a dozen countries, mostly in the Greater Middle East. Medea Benjamin and I recently documented that the U.S. and its allies have dropped 326,000 bombs and missiles on other countries in all these wars, just since 2001 - that's not counting the First Gulf War.

You worked for the UN and UNDP for 34 years, and the UN was conceived of as a forum and an institution for peace and to confront violations of peace by any countries around the world. But how can the UN address the problem of a powerful, aggressive country like the United States that systematically violates international law and then abuses its veto and diplomatic power to avoid accountability?

Denis Halliday: Yes, when I talk to students, I try to explain that there are two United Nations: there's a United Nations of the Secretariat, led by the Secretary-General and staffed by people like myself and 20,000 or 30,000 more worldwide, through UNDP and the agencies. We operate in every country, and most of it is developmental or humanitarian. It's good work, it has real impact, whether it's feeding Palestinians or it's UNICEF work in Ethiopia. This continues.

Where the UN collapses is in the Security Council, in my view, and that is because, in Yalta in 1945, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, having noted the failure of the League of Nations, decided to set up a United Nations that would have a controlling entity, which they then called the Security Council. And to make sure that worked, in their interests I would say, they established this five-power veto group, and they added France and they added China. And that five is still in place.

That's 1945 and this is 2021, and they're still in power and they're still manipulating the United Nations. And as long as they stay there and they manipulate, I think the UN is doomed. The tragedy is that the five veto powers are the very member states that violate the Charter, violate human rights conventions, and will not allow the application of the ICC to their war crimes and other abuses.

On top of that, they are the countries that manufacture and sell weapons, and we know that weapons of war are possibly the most profitable product you can produce. So their vested interest is control, is the military capacity, is interference. It's a neocolonial endeavor, an empire in reality, to control the world as the way they want to see it. Until that is changed and those five member states agree to dilute their power and play an honest role, I think we're doomed. The UN has no capacity to stop the difficulties we're faced with around the world.

Nicolas Davies: That's a pretty damning prognosis. In this century, we're facing such incredible problems, between climate change and the threat of nuclear war still hanging over all of us, possibly more dangerous than ever before, because of the lack of treaties and the lack of cooperation between the nuclear powers, notably the U.S. and Russia. This is really an existential crisis for humanity.

Now there is also, of course, the UN General Assembly, and they did step up on nuclear weapons with the new Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which has now officially entered into force. And every year when it meets, the General Assembly regularly and almost unanimously condemns the U.S. sanctions regime against Cuba.

When I wrote my book about the war in Iraq, my final recommendations were that the senior American and British war criminals responsible for the war should be held criminally accountable, and that the U.S. and the U.K. should pay reparations to Iraq for the war. Could the General Assembly possibly be a venue to build support for Iraq to claim reparations from the U.S. and the U.K., or is there another venue where that would be more appropriate?

Denis Halliday: I think you're right on target. The tragedy is that the decisions of the Security Council are binding decisions. Every member state has got to apply and respect those decisions. So, if you violate a sanctions regime imposed by the Council as a member state, you're in trouble. The General Assembly resolutions are not binding.

You've just referred to a very important decision, which is the decision about nuclear weapons. We've had a lot of decisions on banning various types of weapons over the years. Here in Ireland we were involved in anti-personnel mines and other things of that sort, and it was by a large number of member states, but not the guilty parties, not the Americans, not the Russians, not the Chinese, not the British. The ones who control the veto power game are the ones who do not comply. Just like Clinton was one of the proposers, I think, of the ICC [International Criminal Court], but when it came to the end of the day, the United States doesn't accept it has a role vis-a-vis themselves and their war crimes The same is true of other large states that are the guilty parties in those cases.

So I would go back to your suggestion about the General Assembly. It could be enhanced, there's no reason why it couldn't be changed, but it requires tremendous courage on the part of member states. It also requires acceptance by the five veto powers that their day has come to an end, because, in reality, the UN carries very little cachet nowadays to send a UN mission into a country like Myanmar or Afghanistan.

I think we have no power left, we have no influence left, because they know who runs the organization, they know who makes the decisions. It's not the Secretary-General. It's not people like me. We are dictated to by the Security Council. I resigned, effectively, from the Security Council. They were my bosses during that particular period of my career.

I have a lecture I do on reforming the Security Council, making it a North-South representative body, which would find Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa in situ, and you'd get very different decisions, you'd get the sort of decisions we get in the General Assembly: much more balanced, much more aware of the world and its North and South and all those other variations. But of course, again, we can't reform the Council until the five veto powers agree to that. That is the huge problem.

Nicolas Davies: Yes, in fact, when that structure was announced in 1945 with the Security Council, the five Permanent Members and the veto, Albert Camus, who was the editor of the French Resistance newspaper Combat, wrote a front-page editorial saying this was the end of any idea of international democracy.

So, as with so many other issues, we live in these nominally democratic countries, but the people of a country like the United States are only really told what our leaders want us to know about how the world works. So reform of the Security Council is clearly needed, but it's a massive process of education and democratic reform in countries around the world to actually build enough of a popular movement to demand that kind of change. In the meantime, the problems we're facing are enormous.

Another thing that is very under-reported in the U.S. is that, out of desperation after twenty years of war in Afghanistan, Secretary Blinken has finally asked the UN to lead a peace process for a ceasefire between the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban and a political transition. That could move the conflict into the political realm and end the civil war that resulted from the U.S. invasion and occupation and endless bombing campaign.

So what do you think of that initiative? There is supposed to be a meeting in a couple of weeks in Istanbul, led by an experienced UN negotiator, Jean Arnault, who helped to bring peace to Guatemala at the end of its civil war, and then between Colombia and the FARC. The U.S. specifically asked China, Russia and Iran to be part of this process as well. Both sides in Afghanistan have agreed to come to Istanbul and at least see what they can agree on. So is that a constructive role that the UN can play? Does that offer a chance of peace for the people of Afghanistan?

Denis Halliday: If I were a member of the Taliban and I was asked to negotiate with a government that is only in power because it's supported by the United States, I would question whether it's an even keel. Are we equally powerful, can we talk to each other one-to-one? The answer, I think, is no.

The UN chap, whoever he is, poor man, is going to have the same difficulty. He is representing the United Nations, a Security Council dominated by the United States and others, as the Afghans are perfectly well aware. The Taliban have been fighting for a helluva long time, and making no progress because of the interference of the U.S. troops, which are still on the ground. I just don't think it's an even playing field.

So I'd be very surprised if that works. I absolutely hope it might. I would think, in my view, if you want a lasting relationship within a country, it's got to be negotiated within the country, without military or other interference or fear of further bombing or attacks or all the rest of it. I don't think we have any credibility, as a UN, under those circumstances. It'll be a very tough slog.

Nicolas Davies: Right. The irony is that the United States set aside the UN Charter when it attacked Yugoslavia in 1999 to carve out what is now the semi-recognized country of Kosovo, and then to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. The UN Charter, right at the beginning, at its heart, prohibits the threat or use of force by one country against another. But that is what the U.S. set aside.

Denis Halliday: And then, you have to remember, the U.S. is attacking a fellow member state of the United Nations, without hesitation, with no respect for the Charter. Perhaps people forget that Eleanor Roosevelt drove, and succeeded in establishing, the Declaration of Human Rights, an extraordinary achievement, which is still valid. It's a biblical instrument for many of us who work in the UN.

So the neglect of the Charter and the spirit of the Charter and the wording of the Charter, by the five veto members, perhaps in Afghanistan it was Russia, now it's the United States, the Afghanis have had foreign intervention up to their necks and beyond, and the British have been involved there since the 18th century almost. So they have my deepest sympathy, but I hope this thing can work, let's hope it can.

Nicolas Davies: I brought that up because the U.S., with its dominant military power after the end of the Cold War, made a very conscious choice that instead of living according to the UN Charter, it would live by the sword, by the law of the jungle: "might makes right."

It took those actions because it could, because no other military force was there to stand up against it. At the time of the First Gulf War, a Pentagon consultant told the New York Times that, with the end of the Cold War, the U.S. could finally conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about starting World War III. So they took the demise of the Soviet Union as a green light for these systematic, widespread actions that violate the UN Charter.

But now, what is happening in Afghanistan is that the Taliban once again control half the country. We're approaching the spring and the summer when the fighting traditionally gets worse, and so the U.S. is calling in the UN out of desperation because, frankly, without a ceasefire, their government in Kabul is just going to lose more territory. So the U.S. has chosen to live by the sword, and in this situation it's now confronting dying by the sword.

Denis Halliday: What's tragic, Nicolas, is that, in our lifetime, the Afghanis ran their own country. They had a monarchy, they had a parliament - I met and interviewed women ministers from Afghanistan in New York - and they managed it. It was when the Russians interfered, and then the Americans interfered, and then Bin Laden set up his camp there, and that was justification for destroying what was left of Afghanistan.

And then Bush, Cheney and a few of the boys decided, although there was no justification whatsoever, to bomb and destroy Iraq, because they wanted to think that Saddam Hussein was involved with Al Qaeda, which of course was nonsense. They wanted to think he had weapons of mass destruction, which also was nonsense. The UN inspectors said that again and again, but nobody would believe them.

It's deliberate neglect of the one last hope. The League of Nations failed, and the UN was the next best hope and we have deliberately turned our backs upon it, neglected it and distrusted it. When we get a good Secretary General like Hammarskjold, we murder him. He was definitely killed, because he was interfering in the dreams of the British in particular, and perhaps the Belgians, in Katanga. It's a very sad story, and I don't know where we go from here.

Nicolas Davies: Right, well, where we seem to be going from here is to a loss of American power around the world, because the U.S. has so badly abused its power. In the U.S., we keep hearing that this is a Cold War between the U.S. and China, or maybe the U.S., China and Russia, but I think we all hopefully can work for a more multipolar world.

As you say, the UN Security Council needs reform, and hopefully the American people are understanding that we cannot unilaterally rule the world, that the ambition for a U.S. global empire is an incredibly dangerous pipe-dream that has really led us to an impasse.

Denis Halliday: Perhaps the only good thing coming out of Covid-19 is the slow realization that, if everybody doesn't get a vaccine, we fail, because we, the rich and the powerful with the money and the vaccines, will not be safe until we make sure the rest of the world is safe, from Covid and the next one that's coming along the track undoubtedly.

And this implies that if we don't do trade with China or other countries we have reservations about, because we don't like their government, we don't like communism, we don't like socialism, whatever it is, we just have to live with that, because without each other we can't survive. With the climate crisis and all the other issues related to that, we need each other more than ever perhaps, and we need collaboration. It's just basic common sense that we work and live together.

The U.S. has something like 800 military bases around the world, of various sizes. China is certainly surrounded and this is a very dangerous situation, totally unnecessary. And now the rearming with fancy new nuclear weapons when we already have nuclear weapons that are twenty times bigger than the one that destroyed Hiroshima. Why on Earth? It's just irrational nonsense to continue these programs, and it just doesn't work for humanity.

I would hope the U.S. would start perhaps retreating and sorting out its own domestic problems, which are quite substantial. I'm reminded every day when I look at CNN here in my home about the difficulties of race and all the other things that you're well aware of that need to be addressed. Being policeman to the world was a bad decision.

Nicolas Davies: Absolutely. So the political, economic and military system we live under is not only genocidal at this point, but also suicidal. Thank you, Denis, for being a voice of reason in this insane world.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is a researcher for CODEPINK, a freelance writer and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Biden officials had a dust-up with a Chinese delegation — but it actually brings a sign of hope

On March 18, the world was treated to the spectacle of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sternly lecturing senior Chinese officials about the need for China to respect a "rules-based order." The alternative, Blinken warned, is a world in which might makes right, and "that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us."

Blinken was clearly speaking from experience. Since the United States dispensed with the UN Charter and the rule of international law to invade Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and has used military force and unilateral economic sanctions against many other countries, it has indeed made the world more deadly, violent and chaotic.

When the UN Security Council refused to give its blessing to U.S. aggression against Iraq in 2003, President Bush publicly threatened the UN with "irrelevance." He later appointed John Bolton as UN Ambassador, a man who famously once said that, if the UN building in New York "lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

But after two decades of unilateral U.S. foreign policy in which the United States has systematically ignored and violated international law, leaving widespread death, violence and chaos in its wake, U.S. foreign policy may finally be coming full circle, at least in the case of Afghanistan.

Secretary Blinken has taken the previously unthinkable step of calling on the United Nations to lead negotiations for a ceasefire and political transition in Afghanistan, relinquishing the U.S.'s monopoly as the sole mediator between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

So, after 20 years of war and lawlessness, is the United States finally ready to give the "rules-based order" a chance to prevail over U.S. unilateralism and "might makes right," instead of just using it as a verbal cudgel to browbeat its enemies?

Biden and Blinken seem to have chosen America's endless war in Afghanistan as a test case, even as they resist rejoining Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran, jealously guard the United States' openly partisan role as the sole mediator between Israel and Palestine, maintain Trump's vicious economic sanctions, and continue America's systematic violations of international law against many other countries.

What's going on in Afghanistan?

In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban to fully withdraw U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.

The Taliban had refused to negotiate with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until the U.S. and NATO withdrawal agreement was signed, but once that was done, the Afghan sides began peace talks in March 2020. Instead of agreeing to a full ceasefire during the talks, as the U.S. government wanted, the Taliban only agreed to a one-week "reduction in violence."

Eleven days later, as fighting continued between the Taliban and the Kabul government, the United States wrongly claimed that the Taliban was violating the agreement it signed with the United States and relaunched its bombing campaign.

Despite the fighting, the Kabul government and the Taliban managed to exchange prisoners and continue negotiations in Qatar, mediated by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who had negotiated the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. But the talks made slow progress, and now seem to have reached an impasse.

The coming of spring in Afghanistan usually brings an escalation in the war. Without a new ceasefire, a spring offensive would probably lead to more territorial gains for the Taliban—which already controls at least half of Afghanistan.

This prospect, combined with the May 1st withdrawal deadline for the remaining 3,500 U.S. and 7,000 other NATO troops, prompted Blinken's invitation to the United Nations to lead a more inclusive international peace process that will also involve India, Pakistan and the United States's traditional enemies, China, Russia and, most remarkably, Iran.

This process began with a conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on March 18-19, which brought together a 16-member delegation from the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul and negotiators from the Taliban, along with U.S. envoy Khalilzad and representatives from the other countries.

The Moscow conference laid the groundwork for a larger UN-led conference to be held in Istanbul in April to map out a framework for a ceasefire, a political transition and a power-sharing agreement between the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed Jean Arnault to lead the negotiations for the UN. Arnault previously negotiated the end to the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1990s and the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in Colombia, and he was the Secretary-General's representative in Bolivia from the 2019 coup until a new election was held in 2020. Arnault also knows Afghanistan, having served in the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006.

If the Istanbul conference results in an agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban, U.S. troops could be home sometime in the coming months.

President Trump—belatedly trying to make good on his promise to end that endless war— deserves credit for beginning a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But a withdrawal without a comprehensive peace plan would not have ended the war. The UN-led peace process should give the people of Afghanistan a much better chance of a peaceful future than if U.S. forces left with the two sides still at war, and reduce the chances that the gains made by women over these years will be lost.

It took 17 years of war to bring the United States to the negotiating table and another two-and-a-half years before it was ready to step back and let the UN take the lead in peace negotiations.

For most of this time, the U.S. tried to maintain the illusion that it could eventually defeat the Taliban and "win" the war. But U.S. internal documents published by WikiLeaks and a stream of reports and investigations revealed that U.S. military and political leaders have known for a long time that they could not win. As General Stanley McChrystal put it, the best that U.S. forces could do in Afghanistan was to "muddle along."

What that meant in practice was dropping tens of thousands of bombs, day after day, year after year, and conducting thousands of night raids that, more often than not, killed, maimed or unjustly detained innocent civilians.

The death toll in Afghanistan is unknown. Most U.S. airstrikes and night raids take place in remote, mountainous areas where people have no contact with the UN human rights office in Kabul that investigates reports of civilian casualties.

Fiona Frazer, the UN's human rights chief in Afghanistan, admitted to the BBC in 2019 that "…more civilians are killed or injured in Afghanistan due to armed conflict than anywhere else on Earth….The published figures almost certainly do not reflect the true scale of harm."

No serious mortality study has been conducted since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Initiating a full accounting for the human cost of this war should be an integral part of UN envoy Arnault's job, and we should not be surprised if, like the Truth Commission he oversaw in Guatemala, it reveals a death toll that is ten or twenty times what we have been told.

If Blinken's diplomatic initiative succeeds in breaking this deadly cycle of "muddling along," and brings even relative peace to Afghanistan, that will establish a precedent and an exemplary alternative to the seemingly endless violence and chaos of America's post-9/11 wars in other countries.

The United States has used military force and economic sanctions to destroy, isolate or punish an ever-growing list of countries around the world, but it no longer has the power to defeat, re-stabilize and integrate these countries into its neocolonial empire, as it did at the height of its power after the Second World War. America's defeat in Vietnam was a historical turning point: the end of an age of Western military empires.

All the United States can achieve in the countries it is occupying or besieging today is to keep them in various states of poverty, violence and chaos—shattered fragments of empire adrift in the twenty-first century world.

U.S. military power and economic sanctions can temporarily prevent bombed or impoverished countries from fully recovering their sovereignty or benefiting from Chinese-led development projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, but America's leaders have no alternative development model to offer them.

The people of Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela have only to look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Libya or Somalia to see where the pied piper of American regime change would lead them.

What is this all about?

Humanity faces truly serious challenges in this century, from the mass extinction of the natural world to the destruction of the life-affirming climate that has been the vital backdrop of human history, while nuclear mushroom clouds still threaten us all with civilization-ending destruction.

It is a sign of hope that Biden and Blinken are turning to legitimate, multilateral diplomacy in the case of Afghanistan, even if only because, after 20 years of war, they finally see diplomacy as a last resort.

But peace, diplomacy and international law should not be a last resort, to be tried only when Democrats and Republicans alike are finally forced to admit that no new form of force or coercion will work. Nor should they be a cynical way for American leaders to wash their hands of a thorny problem and offer it as a poisoned chalice for others to drink.

If the UN-led peace process Secretary Blinken has initiated succeeds and U.S. troops finally come home, Americans should not forget about Afghanistan in the coming months and years. We should pay attention to what happens there and learn from it. And we should support generous U.S. contributions to the humanitarian and development aid that the people of Afghanistan will need for many years to come.

This is how the international "rules-based system," which U.S. leaders love to talk about but routinely violate, is supposed to work, with the UN fulfilling its responsibility for peacemaking and individual countries overcoming their differences to support it.

Maybe cooperation over Afghanistan can even be a first step toward broader U.S. cooperation with China, Russia and Iran that will be essential if we are to solve the serious common challenges confronting us all.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

These early signs show Biden heading in a deeply flawed direction on foreign policy

The Biden presidency is still in its early days, but it's not too early to point to areas in the foreign policy realm where we, as progressives, have been disappointed--or even infuriated.

There are one or two positive developments, such as the renewal of Obama's New START Treaty with Russia and Secretary of State Blinken's initiative for a UN-led peace process in Afghanistan, where the United States is finally turning to peace as a last resort, after 20 years lost in the graveyard of empires.

By and large though, Biden's foreign policy already seems stuck in the militarist quagmire of the past twenty years, a far cry from his campaign promise to reinvigorate diplomacy as the primary tool of U.S. foreign policy.

In this respect, Biden is following in the footsteps of Obama and Trump, who both promised fresh approaches to foreign policy but for the most part delivered more endless war.

By the end of his second term, Obama did have two significant diplomatic achievements with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and normalization of relations with Cuba. So progressive Americans who voted for Biden had some grounds to hope that his experience as Obama's vice-president would lead him to quickly restore and build on Obama's achievements with Iran and Cuba as a foundation for the broader diplomacy he promised.

Instead, the Biden administration seems firmly entrenched behind the walls of hostility Trump built between America and our neighbors, from his renewed Cold War against China and Russia to his brutal sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Syria and dozens of countries around the world, and there is still no word on cuts to a military budget that has grown by 15% since FY2015 (inflation-adjusted).

Despite endless Democratic condemnations of Trump, Biden's foreign policy so far shows no substantive change from the policies of the past four years. Here are ten of the lowlights:

1. Failing to quickly rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement. The Biden administration's failure to immediately rejoin the JCPOA, as Bernie Sanders promised to do on his first day as president, has turned an easy win for Biden's promised commitment to diplomacy into an entirely avoidable diplomatic crisis.

Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of brutal "maximum pressure" sanctions on Iran were broadly condemned by Democrats and U.S. allies alike. But now Biden is making new demands on Iran to appease hawks who opposed the agreement all along, risking an outcome in which he will fail to reinstate the JCPOA and Trump's policy will effectively become his policy. The Biden administration should re-enter the deal immediately, without preconditions.

2. U.S. Bombing Wars Rage On - Now In Secret. Also following in Trump's footsteps, Biden has escalated tensions with Iran and Iraq by attacking and killing Iranian-backed Iraqi forces who play a critical role in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Biden's February 25 U.S. airstrike predictably failed to end rocket attacks on deeply unpopular U.S. bases in Iraq, which the Iraqi National Assembly passed a resolution to close over a year ago.

The U.S. attack in Syria has been condemned as illegal by members of Biden's own party, reinvigorating efforts to repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force that presidents have misused for 20 years. Other airstrikes the Biden administration is conducting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are shrouded in secrecy, since it has not resumed publishing the monthly Airpower Summaries that every other administration has published since 2004, but which Trump discontinued a year ago.

3. Refusing to hold MBS accountable for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khasssoghi. Human rights activists were grateful that President Biden released the intelligence report on the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi that confirmed what we already knew: that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) approved the murder. Yet, when it came to holding MBS accountable, Biden choked.

At the very least, the administration should have imposed the same sanctions on MBS, including asset freezes and travel bans, that the U.S. imposed on lower-level figures involved in the murder. Instead, like Trump, Biden is wedded to the Saudi dictatorship and its diabolical Crown Prince.

4. Clinging to Trump's absurdist policy of recognizing Juan Guaidó as President of Venezuela. The Biden administration missed an opportunity to establish a new approach towards Venezuela when it decided to continue to recognize Juan Guaidó as "interim president", ruled out talks with the Maduro government and appears to be freezing out the moderate opposition that participates in elections.

The administration also said it was in "no rush" to lift the Trump sanctions despite a recent study from the Government Accountability Office detailing their negative impact on the economy, and a scathing preliminary report by a UN Special Rapporteur, who noted their "devastating effect on the whole population of Venezuela." The lack of dialogue with all political actors in Venezuela risks entrenching a policy of regime change and economic warfare for years to come, similar to the failed U.S. policy towards Cuba that has lasted for 60 years.

5. Following Trump on Cuba instead of Obama. The Trump administration overturned all the progress towards normal relations achieved by President Obama, sanctioning Cuba's tourism and energy industries, blocking coronavirus aid shipments, restricting remittances to family members, putting Cuba on a list of "state sponsors of terrorism," and sabotaging Cuba's international medical missions, which were a major source of revenue for its health system.

We expected Biden to immediately start unraveling Trump's confrontational policies, but catering to Cuban exiles in Florida for domestic political gain apparently takes precedence over a humane and rational policy towards Cuba, for Biden as for Trump.

Biden should instead start working with the Cuban government to allow the return of diplomats to their respective embassies, lift all restrictions on remittances, make travel easier, and work with the Cuban health system in the fight against COVID-19, among other measures.

6. Ramping up the Cold War with China. Biden seems committed to Trump's self-defeating Cold War and arms race with China, talking tough and ratcheting up tensions that have led to racist hate crimes against East Asian people in the United States.

But it is the United States that is militarily surrounding and threatening China, not the other way round. As former President Jimmy Carter patiently explained to Trump, while the United States has been at war for 20 years, China has instead invested in 21st century infrastructure and in its own people, lifting 800 million of them out of poverty.

The greatest danger of this moment in history, short of all-out nuclear war, is that this aggressive U.S. military posture not only justifies unlimited U.S. military budgets, but will gradually force China to convert its economic success into military power and follow the United States down the tragic path of military imperialism.

7. Failing to lift painful, illegal sanctions during a pandemic. One of the legacies of the Trump administration is the devastating use of U.S. sanctions on countries around the world, including Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria. UN special rapporteurs have condemned them as crimes against humanity and compared them to medieval sieges.

Since most of these sanctions were imposed by executive order, President Biden could easily lift them. Even before taking power, his team announced a thorough review, but, three months later, it has yet to make a move.

Unilateral sanctions that affect entire populations are an illegal form of coercion, like military intervention, coups and covert operations, that have no place in a legitimate foreign policy based on diplomacy, the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. They are especially cruel and deadly during a pandemic and the Biden administration should take immediate action by lifting broad sectoral sanctions to ensure every country can adequately respond to the pandemic.

8. Not doing enough to support peace and humanitarian aid for Yemen. Biden appeared to partially fulfill his promise to stop U.S. support for the war in Yemen when he announced that the U.S. would stop selling "offensive" weapons to the Saudis. But he has yet to explain what that means. Which weapons sales has he cancelled?

We think he should stop ALL weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, enforcing the Leahy Law that prohibits military assistance to forces that commit gross human rights violations, and the Arms Export Control Act, under which imported U.S. weapons may be used only for legitimate self defense. There should be no exceptions to these U.S. laws for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Egypt or other U.S. allies around the world.

The U.S. should also accept its share of responsibility for what many have called the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today, and provide Yemen with funding to feed its people, restore its health care system and rebuild its devastated country. A recent donor conference netted just $1.7 billion in pledges, less than half the $3.85 billion needed. Biden should restore and expand USAID funding and U.S. financial support to the UN, WHO and World Food Program relief operations in Yemen. He should also press the Saudis to reopen the air and seaports, and throw U.S. diplomatic weight behind the efforts of U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to negotiate a ceasefire.

9. Failing to back President Moon Jae-in's diplomacy with North Korea. Trump's failure to provide sanctions relief and explicit security guarantees to North Korea doomed his diplomacy and became an obstacle to the diplomatic process under way between Korean presidents Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, who is himself the child of North Korean refugees. So far, Biden has continued this policy of Draconian sanctions and threats.

The Biden administration should revive the diplomatic process with confidence-building measures such as opening liaison offices, easing sanctions, facilitating reunions between Korean-American and North Korean families, permitting U.S. humanitarian organizations to resume their work when COVID conditions permit, and halting U.S.-South Korea military exercises and B-2 nuclear bomb flights.

Negotiations must involve concrete commitments to non-aggression from the U.S. side and a commitment to negotiating a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War. This would pave the way for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and the reconciliation that so many Koreans desire — and deserve.

10. No initiative to reduce U.S. military spending. At the end of the Cold War, former senior Pentagon officials told the Senate Budget Committee that U.S. military spending could safely be cut by half over the next 10 years. That goal was never achieved, and instead of a post-Cold War "peace dividend," the military-industrial complex exploited the crimes of Sept. 11, 2001 to justify an extraordinary one-sided arms race. Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. accounted for 45% of global military spending, far outstripping its own peak Cold War military spending.

Now the military-industrial complex is counting on Biden to escalate a renewed Cold War with Russia and China as the only plausible pretext for further record military budgets that are setting the stage for World War III.

Biden must dial back U.S. conflicts with China and Russia, and instead begin the critical task of moving money from the Pentagon to urgent domestic needs. He should start with at least the 10 percent cut that 93 Representatives and 23 Senators already voted for. In the longer term, Biden should look for deeper cuts in Pentagon spending, as in Rep. Barbara Lee's bill to cut $350 billion per year from the U.S. military budget, to free up resources we sorely need to invest in health care, education, clean energy and modern infrastructure.

A Progressive Way Forward

These policies, common to Democratic and Republican administrations, not only inflict pain and suffering on millions of our neighbors in other countries, but also deliberately cause instability that can at any time escalate into war, plunge a formerly functioning state into chaos or spawn a secondary crisis whose human consequences will be even worse than the original one.

All these policies involve deliberate efforts to unilaterally impose the political will of U.S. leaders on other people and countries, by methods that consistently only cause more pain and suffering to the people they claim - or pretend - they want to help.

Biden should jettison the worst of Obama's and Trump's policies, and instead pick the best of them. Trump, recognizing the unpopularity of U.S. military interventions, began the process of bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, which Biden should follow through on.

Obama's diplomatic successes with Cuba, Iran and Russia demonstrated that negotiating with U.S. enemies to make peace, improve relations and make the world a safer place is a perfectly viable alternative to trying to force them to do what the United States wants by bombing, starving and besieging their people. This is in fact the core principle of the United Nations Charter, and it should be the core principle of Biden's foreign policy.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Trump and Biden’s secret bombing wars

On February 25th, President Biden ordered U.S. air forces to drop seven 500-pound bombs on Iraqi forces in Syria, reportedly killing 22 people. The U.S. airstrike has predictably failed to halt rocket attacks on deeply unpopular U.S. bases in Iraq, which the Iraqi National Assembly passed a resolution to close over a year ago.

The Western media reported the U.S. airstrike as an isolated and exceptional incident, and there has been significant blowback from the U.S. public, Congress and the world community, condemning the strikes as illegal and a dangerous escalation of yet another Middle East conflict.

But unbeknownst to many Americans, the U.S. military and its allies are engaged in bombing and killing people in other countries on a daily basis. The U.S. and its allies have dropped more than 326,000 bombs and missiles on people in other countries since 2001 (see table below), including over 152,000 in Iraq and Syria.

That's an average of 46 bombs and missiles per day, day in day out, year in year out, for nearly 20 years. In 2019, the last year for which we have fairly complete records, the average was 42 bombs and missiles per day, including 20 per day in Afghanistan alone.

So, if those seven 500-pound bombs were the only bombs the U.S. and its allies dropped on February 25th, it would have been an unusually quiet day for U.S. and allied air forces, and for their enemies and victims on the ground, compared to an average day in 2019 or most of the past 20 years. On the other hand, if the unrelenting U.S. air assault on countries across the Greater Middle East finally began to diminish over the past year, this bombing may have been an unusual spike in violence. But which of these was it, and how would we know?

We don't know, because our government doesn't want us to. From January 2004 until February 2020, the U.S. military kept track of how many bombs and missiles it dropped on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and published those figures in regular, monthly Airpower Summaries, which were readily available to journalists and the public. But in March 2020, the Trump administration abruptly stopped publishing U.S. Airpower Summaries, and the Biden administration has so far not published any either.

As with the human casualties and mass destruction that these hundreds of thousands of airstrikes cause, the U.S. and international media only report on a tiny fraction of them. Without regular U.S. Airpower Summaries, comprehensive databases of airstrikes in other war-zones and serious mortality studies in the countries involved, the American public and the world are left almost completely in the dark about the death and destruction our country's leaders keep wreaking in our name. The disappearance of Airpower Summaries has made it impossible to get a clear picture of the current scale of U.S. airstrikes.

Here are up-to-date figures on U.S. and allied airstrikes, from 2001 to the present, highlighting the secrecy in which they have abruptly been shrouded for the past year:

Numbers of bombs and missiles dropped on other countries by the U.S. & its allies since 2001

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These figures are based on U.S. Airpower Summaries for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's count of drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; the Yemen Data Project's count of Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen; the New America Foundation's database of foreign airstrikes in Libya; and other published statistics. Figures for 2021 are only through January.

There are several categories of airstrikes that are not included in this table, meaning that the true numbers of airstrikes are certainly higher. These include:

  • Helicopter strikes: Military Times published an article in February 2017 titled, "The U.S. military's stats on deadly airstrikes are wrong. Thousands have gone unreported." The largest pool of airstrikes not included in U.S. Airpower Summaries are strikes by attack helicopters. The U.S. Army told the authors its helicopters had conducted 456 otherwise unreported airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2016. The authors explained that the non-reporting of helicopter strikes has been consistent throughout the post-9/11 wars, and they still did not know how many actual missiles were fired in those 456 attacks in Afghanistan in the one year they investigated.
  • AC-130 gunships: The airstrike that destroyed the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2015 was not conducted with bombs or missiles, but by a Lockheed-Boeing AC-130 gunship. These machines of mass destruction, usually manned by U.S. Air Force special operations forces, are designed to circle a target on the ground, pouring howitzer shells and cannon fire into it, often until it is completely destroyed. The U.S. has used AC-130s in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Syria.
  • Strafing runs: U.S. Airpower Summaries for 2004-2007 included a note that their tally of "strikes with munitions dropped... does not include 20mm and 30mm cannon or rockets." But the 30mm cannons on A-10 Warthogs and other ground attack planes are powerful weapons, originally designed to destroy Soviet tanks. A-10s fire 65 depleted uranium shells per second to blanket an area with deadly and indiscriminate fire, but that does not count as a "weapons release" in U.S. Airpower Summaries.
  • "Counter-insurgency" and "counter-terrorism" operations in other parts of the world. The United States formed a military coalition with 11 West African countries in 2005, and now has a drone base in Niger, but we have not found a database of U.S. and allied air strikes in that region, or in the Philippines, Latin America or elsewhere.

It was clearly no coincidence that Trump stopped publishing Airpower Summaries right after the February 2020 U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, reinforcing the false impression that the war in Afghanistan was over. In fact, U.S. bombing resumed after only an 11-day pause.

As our table shows, 2018 and 2019 were back-to-back record years for U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan. But how about 2020? Without the official records, we don't know whether the withdrawal agreement led to a serious reduction in airstrikes or not.

President Biden has foolishly tried to use airstrikes in Syria as "leverage" with Iran, instead of simply rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement as he promised during the election campaign. Biden is likewise trailing along in Trump's footsteps by shrouding U.S. airstrikes in the secrecy that Trump used to obscure his failure to "end the endless wars."

It is entirely possible that the highly publicized February 25th airstrikes, like Trump's April 2017 missile strikes on Syria, were a diversion from much heavier, but largely unreported, U.S. bombing already under way elsewhere, in that case the frightful destruction of Mosul, Iraq's former second city.

The only way that Biden can reassure the American public that he is not using Trump's wall of secrecy to continue America's devastating airwars, notably in Afghanistan, is to end this secrecy now, and resume the publication of complete and accurate U.S. Airpower Summaries.

President Biden cannot restore the world's respect for American leadership, or the American public's support for our foreign policy, by piling more lies, secrets and atrocities on top of those he has inherited. If he keeps trying to do so, he might well find himself following in Trump's footsteps in yet another way: as the failed, one-term president of a destructive and declining empire.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, is the author of the 2018 book, "Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran". Her previous books include: "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection" (2016); "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control" (2013); "Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart" (1989), and (with Jodie Evans) "Stop the Next War Now (Inner Ocean Action Guide)" (2005). Follow her on Twitter: @medeabenjamin

Nicolas J.S. Davies is the author of "Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq" (2010). He also wrote the chapters on "Obama at War" in "Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama's First Term as a Progressive Leader" (2012).

A broken promise: Biden's Syria bombing is a reckless mistake

The February 25 U.S. bombing of Syria immediately puts the policies of the newly-formed Biden administration into sharp relief. Why is this administration bombing the sovereign nation of Syria? Why is it bombing "Iranian-backed militias" who pose absolutely no threat to the United States and are actually involved in fighting ISIS? If this is about getting more leverage vis-a-vis Iran, why hasn't the Biden administration just done what it said it would do: rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and de-escalate the Middle East conflicts?

According to the Pentagon, the U.S. strike was in response to the February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed a contractor working with the U.S. military and injured a U.S. service member. Accounts of the number killed in the U.S. attack vary from one to 22.

The Pentagon made the incredible claim that this action "aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq." This was countered by the Syrian government, which condemned the illegal attack on its territory and said the strikes "will lead to consequences that will escalate the situation in the region." The strike was also condemned by the governments of China and Russia. A member of Russia's Federation Council warned that such escalations in the area could lead to "a massive conflict."

Ironically, Jen Psaki, now Biden's White House spokesperson, questioned the lawfulness of attacking Syria in 2017, when it was the Trump administration doing the bombing. Back then she asked: "What is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country."

The airstrikes were supposedly authorized by the 20-year-old, post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), legislation that Rep. Barbara Lee has been trying for years to repeal since it has been misused, according to the congresswoman, "to justify waging war in at least seven different countries, against a continuously expanding list of targetable adversaries."

The United States claims that its targeting of the militia in Syria was based on intelligence provided by the Iraqi government. Defense Secretary Austin told reporters: "We're confident that target was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the strike [against U.S. and coalition forces]."

But a report by Middle East Eye (MEE) suggests that Iran has strongly urged the militias it supports in Iraq to refrain from such attacks, or any warlike actions that could derail its sensitive diplomacy to bring the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 international nuclear agreement or JCPOA.

"None of our known factions carried out this attack," a senior Iraqi militia commander told MEE. "The Iranian orders have not changed regarding attacking the American forces, and the Iranians are still keen to maintain calm with the Americans until they see how the new administration will act."

The inflammatory nature of this U.S. attack on Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, who are an integral part of Iraq's armed forces and have played a critical role in the war with ISIS, was implicitly acknowledged in the U.S. decision to attack them in Syria instead of in Iraq. Did Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, a pro-Western British-Iraqi, who is trying to rein in the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, deny permission for a U.S. attack on Iraqi soil?

At Kadhimi's request, NATO is increasing its presence from 500 troops to 4,000 (from Denmark, the U.K. and Turkey, not the U.S.) to train the Iraqi military, reducing its dependence on the Iranian-backed militias. But Kadhimi risks losing his job in an election this October if he alienates Iraq's Shiite majority. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein is heading to Tehran to meet with Iranian officials over the weekend, and the world will be watching to see how Iraq and Iran will respond to the U.S. attack.

Some analysts say the bombing may have been intended to strengthen the U.S. hand in its negotiations with Iran over the nuclear deal (JCPOA). "The strike, the way I see it, was meant to set the tone with Tehran and dent its inflated confidence ahead of negotiations," said Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official who is currently a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute.

But this attack will make it more difficult to resume negotiations with Iran. It comes at a delicate moment when the Europeans are trying to orchestrate a "compliance for compliance" maneuver to revive the JCPOA. This strike will make the diplomatic process more difficult, as it gives more power to the Iranian factions who oppose the deal and any negotiations with the United States.

Showing bipartisan support for attacking sovereign nations, key Republicans on the foreign affairs committees such as Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Michael McCaul immediately welcomed the attacks. So did some Biden supporters, who crassly displayed their partiality to bombing by a Democratic president.

Party organizer Amy Siskind tweeted: "So different having military action under Biden. No middle school level threats on Twitter. Trust Biden and his team's competence." Biden supporter Suzanne Lamminen tweeted: "Such a quiet attack. No drama, no TV coverage of bombs hitting targets, no comments on how presidential Biden is. What a difference."

Thankfully though, some Members of Congress are speaking out against the strikes. "We cannot stand up for Congressional authorization before military strikes only when there is a Republican President," Congressman Ro Khanna tweeted, "The Administration should have sought Congressional authorization here. We need to work to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate." Peace groups around the country are echoing that call. Rep. Barbara Lee and Senators Bernie Sanders, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy also released statements either questioning or condemning the strikes.

Americans should remind President Biden that he promised to prioritize diplomacy over military action as the primary instrument of his foreign policy. Biden should recognize that the best way to protect U.S. personnel is to take them out of the Middle East. He should recall that the Iraqi Parliament voted a year ago for U.S. troops to leave their country. He should also recognize that U.S. troops have no right to be in Syria, still "protecting the oil," on the orders of Donald Trump.

After failing to prioritize diplomacy and rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, Biden has now, barely a month into his presidency, reverted to the use of military force in a region already shattered by two decades of U.S. war-making. This is not what he promised in his campaign and it is not what the American people voted for.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is a freelance writer and a researcher with CODEPINK, and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.

Biden risks an early major blunder on the world stage

As Congress still struggles to pass a COVID relief bill, the rest of the world is nervously reserving judgment on America's new president and his foreign policy, after successive U.S. administrations have delivered unexpected and damaging shocks to the world and the international system.

Cautious international optimism toward Biden is very much based on his commitment to Obama's signature diplomatic achievement, the JCPOA or nuclear agreement with Iran. Biden and the Democrats excoriated Trump for withdrawing from it and promised to promptly rejoin the deal if elected. But Biden now appears to be hedging his position in a way that risks turning what should be an easy win for the new administration into an avoidable and tragic diplomatic failure.

While it was the United States under Trump that withdrew from the nuclear agreement, Biden is taking the position that the U.S. will not rejoin the agreement or drop its unilateral sanctions until Iran first comes back into compliance. After withdrawing from the agreement, the United States is in no position to make such demands, and Foreign Minister Zarif has clearly and eloquently rejected them, reiterating Iran's firm commitment that it will return to full compliance as soon as the United States does so.

Biden should have announced U.S. re-entry as one of his first executive orders. It did not require renegotiation or debate. On the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders, Biden's main competitor for the Democratic nomination, simply promised, "I would re-enter the agreement on the first day of my presidency."

Then-candidate Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said during the Democratic primary, "We need to rejoin our allies in returning to the agreement, provided Iran agrees to comply with the agreement and take steps to reverse its breaches …" Gillibrand said that Iran must "agree" to take those steps, not that it must take them first, presciently anticipating and implicitly rejecting Biden's self-defeating position that Iran must fully return to compliance with the JCPOA before the United States will rejoin.

If Biden just rejoins the JCPOA, all of the provisions of the agreement will be back in force and work exactly as they did before Trump opted out. Iran will be subject to the same IAEA inspections and reports as before. Whether Iran is in compliance or not will be determined by the IAEA, not unilaterally by the United States. That is how the agreement works, as all the signatories agreed: China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union - and the United States.

So why is Biden not eagerly pocketing this easy first win for his stated commitment to diplomacy? A December 2020 letter supporting the JCPOA, signed by 150 House Democrats, should have reassured Biden that he has overwhelming support to stand up to hawks in both parties.

But instead Biden seems to be listening to opponents of the JCPOA telling him that Trump's withdrawal from the agreement has given him "leverage" to negotiate new concessions from Iran before rejoining. Rather than giving Biden leverage over Iran, which has no reason to make further concessions, this has given opponents of the JCPOA leverage over Biden, turning him into the football, instead of the quarterback, in this diplomatic Super Bowl.

American neocons and hawks, including those inside his own administration, appear to be flexing their muscles to kill Biden's commitment to diplomacy at birth, and his own hawkish foreign policy views make him dangerously susceptible to their arguments. This is also a test of his previously subservient relationship with Israel, whose government vehemently opposes the JCPOA and whose officials have even threatened to launch a military attack on Iran if the U.S. rejoins it, a flagrantly illegal threat that Biden has yet to publicly condemn.

In a more rational world, the call for nuclear disarmament in the Middle East would focus on Israel, not Iran. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in the Guardian on December 31, 2020, Israel's own possession of dozens - or maybe hundreds - of nuclear weapons is the worst kept secret in the world. Tutu's article was an open letter to Biden, asking him to publicly acknowledge what the whole world already knows and to respond as required under U.S. law to the actual proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Instead of tackling the danger of Israel's real nuclear weapons, successive U.S. administrations have chosen to cry "Wolf!" over non-existent nuclear weapons in Iraq and Iran to justify besieging their governments, imposing deadly sanctions on their people, invading Iraq and threatening Iran. A skeptical world is watching to see whether President Biden has the integrity and political will to break this insidious pattern.

The CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC), which stokes Americans' fears of imaginary Iranian nuclear weapons and feeds endless allegations about them to the IAEA, is the same entity that produced the lies that drove America to war on Iraq in 2003. On that occasion, WINPAC's director, Alan Foley, told his staff, "If the president wants to go to war, our job is to find the intelligence to allow him to do so" - even as he privately admitted to his retired CIA colleague Melvin Goodman that U.S. forces searching for WMDs in Iraq would find, "not much, if anything."

What makes Biden's stalling to appease Netanyahu and the neocons diplomatically suicidal at this moment in time is that in November the Iranian parliament passed a law that forces its government to halt nuclear inspections and boost uranium enrichment if U.S. sanctions are not eased by February 21.

To complicate matters further, Iran is holding its own presidential election on June 18, 2021, and election season--when this issue will be hotly debated--begins after the Iranian New Year on March 21. The winner is expected to be a hawkish hardliner. Trump's failed policy, which Biden is now continuing by default, has discredited the diplomatic efforts of President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, confirming for many Iranians that negotiating with America is a fool's errand.

If Biden does not rejoin the JCPOA soon, time will be too short to restore full compliance by both Iran and the U.S.—including lifting relevant sanctions—before Iran's election. Each day that goes by reduces the time available for Iranians to see benefits from the removal of sanctions, leaving little chance that they will vote for a new government that supports diplomacy with the United States.

The timetable around the JCPOA was known and predictable, so this avoidable crisis seems to be the result of a deliberate decision by Biden to try to appease neocons and warmongers, domestic and foreign, by bullying Iran, a partner in an international agreement he claims to support, to make additional concessions that are not part of the agreement.

During his election campaign, President Biden promised to "elevate diplomacy as the premier tool of our global engagement." If Biden fails this first test of his promised diplomacy, people around the world will conclude that, despite his trademark smile and affable personality, Biden represents no more of a genuine recommitment to American partnership in a cooperative "rules-based world" than Trump or Obama did.

That will confirm the steadily growing international perception that, behind the Republicans' and Democrats' good cop-bad cop routine, the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy remains fundamentally aggressive, coercive and destructive. People and governments around the world will continue to downgrade relations with the United States, as they did under Trump, and even traditional U.S. allies will chart an increasingly independent course in a multipolar world where the U.S. is no longer a reliable partner and certainly not a leader.

So much is hanging in the balance, for the people of Iran suffering and dying under the impact of U.S. sanctions, for Americans yearning for more peaceful relations with our neighbors around the world, and for people everywhere who long for a more humane and equitable international order to confront the massive problems facing us all in this century. Can Biden's America be part of the solution? After only three weeks in office, surely it can't be too late. But the ball is in his court, and the whole world is watching.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, is the author of the 2018 book, "Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran". Her previous books include: "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection" (2016); "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control" (2013); "Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart" (1989), and (with Jodie Evans) "Stop the Next War Now (Inner Ocean Action Guide)" (2005). Follow her on Twitter: @medeabenjamin

Nicolas J.S. Davies is the author of "Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq" (2010). He also wrote the chapters on "Obama at War" in "Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama's First Term as a Progressive Leader" (2012).

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