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Ware Lecture: Rashid Khalidi

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General Assembly 2007 Event 4070

Historian Rashid Khalidi delivered a stinging denunciation of the Bush administration and its Middle Eastern policies Saturday night in the annual Ware Lecture. He accused the administration of fomenting a "new Cold War" with Iran that distorts and exacerbates all the country-by-country problems in the region.

Rashid Khalidi holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University. His two most recent books, Resurrecting Empire and The Iron Cage were published by Beacon Press. Khalidi started his remarks by saying that though he does not consider himself a Unitarian Universalist, he feels he has "Unitarian roots." His grandmother who immigrated to America from Lebanon was a member of First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, where Khalidi sometimes attended Sunday school. His parents' mixed-religion marriage was performed in that church.

In his thirty years of studying the Middle East, Khalidi "can rarely remember a time when circumstances appeared grimmer. Since 2000 it seems to me that no one in a position of power in Washington has bothered to read any history. Once upon a time the words 'land war in Asia' would have induced caution in Washington, but now we have started two."

While Americans tend to cast their government's actions in the most benign terms and to believe in America's fundamentally good intentions, Khalidi warned that Middle Easterners see American policy in the context of 200 years of armed European domination, going back to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. "There is a disturbing continuity between what the Americans are doing and what the European colonial powers did" he said.

Khalidi charged Bush administration officials with "arrogance as limitless as their ignorance," not just for the invasion of Iraq, but for dismantling the entire governmental structure of that country and leaving nothing in its place but American military power. "We are told that Iraq is an artificial state. And it is, just like scores of other states. Doesn't that imply that we should not disrupt the forces holding it together?"

"It should be obvious," he asserted, "that democracy does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. No true American interest has been served by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Perhaps we can limit the damage with a little humility and an understanding of the limits of armed force."

Khalidi had a great deal to say about the current fighting in the West Bank and Gaza between Hamas, which won the most recent Palestinian parliamentary elections, and Fateh, the organization that previously held power. "Although the Palestinians have no state, they have two toothless governments. The behavior of both sides has been disgraceful."

He faulted Hamas for rejecting the Oslo accords with Israel while running in elections defined by the Oslo process. "What did Hamas think it was doing?" he asked. Fateh, on the other hand, was rejected by the Palestinian people because it negotiated a bad agreement with Israel at Oslo, and then governed incompetently. Khalidi faulted Fateh for "refusing to accept the judgment of the people" and said that the refusal of Fateh to negotiate a settlement with Hamas "led to the current situation."

"It is difficult in the extreme," he said, "for someone from a Palestinian background to talk about these failures." But without excusing the Palestinian leaders, he placed those failures in the context of a forty-one year occupation by Israel, in which half the Palestinian people remain dispossessed. Meanwhile, he said, 50 percent of the West Bank has been set aside for Israeli settlements and the military and transportation infrastructure that supports them. He characterized Gaza as an "open air prison camp."

The U.S. reaction to Hamas' electoral victory was to mount a "financial siege" against the Palestinian authority. When that did not work, Khalidi charged, the U.S. fomented a Fateh coup by sending arms and money. "Respect for democracy," he admonished, "means respect for all democracy."

Khalidi believes that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have greatly increased the dangers of terrorism. "The use of force is not a solution to the problem of terrorism. It is often what the terrorists want." Until a few years ago, he said, "America was not all that unpopular in the Middle East and al Qaeda was a small fringe group. All that has changed."

The "Manichean worldview" of the Bush administration causes it to see all problems in the Middle East as a manifestation of a good-versus-evil struggle between the United States and Iran. Such a view makes Middle Eastern countries interchangeable and history irrelevant. An "equally simplistic" view among Iranian leaders is causing a new Cold War.

But Khalidi pointed out that "it was not Iranian proxies who attacked us on 9/11." Similarly, it is Sunni insurgents, not a "great Shiite conspiracy" that is inflicting the bulk of American casualties in Iraq.

He observed that the conflict between the United States and Iran is not one of equals. "It is the United States that has surrounded Iran with military bases" and not the reverse. Asked whether he believed an American attack on Iran was imminent, Khalidi replied that historians do not predict the future. He did express his belief that Vice President Cheney wanted such an attack, but that "all sane elements" in the government were opposed.

The Middle East, Khalidi commented, has many indigenous problems unrelated to the United States. "But overlying the internal problems is the Messianic policy of the Bush administration. We are responsible for the conflicts we have provoked" he said. "People in the Middle East are angry. They share most of our values: democracy, free enterprise, and even many of our cultural values. But they are angry because our soldiers are doing things in their back yards—sometimes literally in their back yards—that we would never tolerate in our back yards."

He closed with a call to action and a warning. "It is high time that we speak out against the immoral and undemocratic policies of our government in the Middle East. U.S. policy in the Middle East will never be successful if it does not base itself on universally respected principles of international law and universally recognized values."

In the question period at the end of the session, he recommended that the United States withdraw its forces from Iraq, while offering to return as part of a United Nations force if invited to do so "by a representative government" of the Iraqis.

Reported by Doug Muder; editor Pat Emery.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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