I wrote this letter to a Long Island newspaper in reaction to my depressing half-hour meeting with our local Congressman, Lee Zeldin, to discuss the Middle East.
Let’s hope it gets published. Feel free to read and share.
Lee Zeldin, the Middle East, and Me
I knew before meeting Congressman Zeldin that our views would differ. He avidly supports President Trump’s bullying approach to foreign policy. But I did not expect to get massively depressed afterwards.
Received wisdom is that Long Island voters don’t give a whit about foreign policy. This is a shame, given that our disastrous overseas adventures have sucked our economy dry and ruined our global standing.
I’ve lived in the Middle East for a good portion of my life, from Morocco to Syria. I was invited to share my views with Congressman Zeldin based on my unusual experience. I was told that Zeldin wanted me to send detailed questions beforehand. I painstakingly constructed seven questions of concern, from the war in Yemen to the plight of the Palestinians. In each case, I shared my own experience on the ground.
When we were settled in Zeldin’s office, I asked if we should start with the prepared questions that he’d requested. Puzzled, he looked at his assistant. He hadn’t seen them. Fortunately, I had a copy with me.
I am now working on my third project in Iraq since the invasion. Zeldin puts himself forth as a veteran of the Iraqi war. Someone told me that they thought he had been a parachutist. I was curious.
So I told him about my various projects in Iraq – always out there with the Iraqis, sleeves rolled up. I am now on working a project in Mosul, trying to entice small businesses back amid the ruins.
I asked about his experience in Iraq. He was cagey, evasive. I later pressed him a second time and again, no details. I later learned from a fellow politician that Zeldin’s war experience consisted of a few weeks in Iraq as a JAG officer working in some back office with Americans, no contact with the Iraqis. Our perspectives could not have been more different.
I am also working on a project with the woebegone Yemenis. The Saudi-American destruction of that country is at the forefront of my mind. So I asked why we are taking sides in a tribal war in Yemen that’s killing so many civilians.
“There is a plan of the Iranians of a growing regional influence that is a threat for US Interests, whether it’s the US itself or Israel, in the region.”
Yemen is really far from Israel, so that was a puzzling response. In the Middle East, it is widely believed that US foreign policy is concocted in Israel. His response seemed to affirm that.
I asked why he and the President are so rabidly anti-Iran and pro-Saudi. I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia, the country that supplied most of the perpetrators of 9/11. I personally like many individual Saudis but their government is less democratic and less free than Iran. Why were they the good guys?
A muddled answer for that one, except that we’re ‘defending American interests.’ I took this to mean cheap gas and weapons sales. It’s hard to defend Saudi Arabia as a beacon of human rights, and this before Khashoggi’s brutal murder and dismemberment.
Ok, but then how do we get back to peace in Yemen? I didn’t understand how selling all these arms to the Saudis was going to help. Shouldn’t we stop supplying the weapons and logistical support that are killing so many civilians, including children?
His response: “Not unless there’s, not unless … I’m not completely … No one’s read members of Congress like myself completely what strategically the big picture is with that deal. So I’m left to speculate. I don’t believe that that is a solely Yemen play, what the President agreed to in Saudi Arabia. That there is more of a regional play there that’s going on right now. Yemen is a piece of it. If everything got narrowed down to that we’re giving weapons in order to fight in Yemen, it would be a different analysis of what I am speculating to be part of the picture, not all of it.”
I then questioned our foreign aid to Egypt, almost all of it military in a country where over two thirds of the people have no bank account. Since Camp David, Egypt has been the second largest recipient of our funds after Israel. Together the two have received almost half of all US foreign aid for decades. Egypt is a dictatorship arising from a coup. According to US law (Section 508) we must cut aid to countries whose democratic leaders are overturned by a military coup. I personally know Egyptians who have been arrested or have fled for speaking their minds.
Why didn’t we question what’s going on in Egypt?
Long silence, then: “I don’t know exactly what the play is as far as leveraging the money [to Egypt].” Zeldin changed the subject to cutting foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, whose aid has been cut to zero. Egypt still gets billions. But they are the good guys. Like the Saudis.
Tunisia is the Great Hope for democracy in the Arab world, which we Americans purport to care about. Yet the day before our chat, the US Government had cut the already paltry aid to Tunisia from US$120 to US$70 million. Meanwhile Israel, less than half Tunisia’s size, gets several billion in aid a year, receiving each day more than Tunisia’s yearly package. Why in the world would we cut back such critical aid?
“I don’t know, how much did we cut?”
Almost half. This happened yesterday. You voted to support the cut, as I understand.
“I have to dig into that one deeper.”
Well, I never heard back on that, but I didn’t expect to.
We ended on the most delicate of issues, Israel and the Palestinians. I said I thought it was fairly simple: One state or two. Most Americans, including most American Jews, oppose Israel’s colonizing of the occupied territories. The massive settling of the West Bank by Israeli Jews was clearly ending the possibility of two separate states. A single state that absorbed the Palestinian lands, if democratic, would mean the end of the Jewish state, since the majority would be non-Jewish. So how could he support the settlements if he supported two states, as he claimed? Zeldin started to talk about the occupied territories, then corrected himself and said, “the disputed territories.” I’d heard about this trick of right-wing Israelis to falsify the narrative. I corrected him, a bit heated now: I pointed out that since the territories were taken in war, they were occupied, as per the Geneva Convention, to which the US is a signatory. Colonizing occupied territories is illegal. I tried to get him to commit to opposing the settlement project, but he refused.
By this time we realized we had no common ground, and it was time to go. I shook his hand but was deeply saddened to think that this man represented me on the world stage. No wonder Americans are so unpopular.
I went home and went to bed for three hours with the blanket over my head. If this is the best we have to offer, there is little hope for anything but more needless confrontation and endless war.
We are at a crossroads. Lee Zeldin personifies the wrecking ball diplomacy of Sheldon Adelson, John Bolton, and Donald Trump: Tear up treaties negotiated by people of good faith, make enemies of old friends (Canada!), and bully nations big and small. This election we can choose a grown-up who can play well with others. I have met Perry Gershon several times and the difference cannot be more dramatic. Folks like Zeldin gave us the disaster of the Iraq war, trillions of our good money down the drain, and whole nations laid waste. This same clique now wants to do battle with Iran, an even more terrifying prospect. More than half our discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon and our foreign wars, leaving us with a failing national infrastructure and a growing national debt.
Great nations die by battling on all fronts while letting their heartlands wither. Let us not follow that path.