The Demise of the Double Standard in the Middle East?

The Demise of the Double Standard in the Middle East?

by Mark Chmiel

Double standard, noun. Any code or set of principles containing different provisions for one group of people than for another.


Hopes are being raised for President Obama’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. To many, the appointing of George Mitchell as the Special Middle East Envoy seems to augur well, given Mr. Mitchell’s previous negotiations in the Northern Ireland conflict. President Obama acknowledged the difficulties of reaching an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but said, “That’s why we’ve got George Mitchell going there. This is somebody with extraordinary patience as well as extraordinary skill, and that’s what’s going to be necessary.”

Undoubtedly, these traits and skills are necessary, but certainly not sufficient. For there to be a breakthrough, Mr. Mitchell is going to have to terminate a long-standing practice of U.S policy in the Middle East, which is the adherence to a strict double-standard.

For example, prepare yourself to hear for the thousandth time how it is absolutely central for Hamas to make good on three issues: recognize Israel, renounce all violence, and adhere to previous agreements.

Who could disagree with these wonderful goals?

Yet, will Mr. Mitchell insist (not merely ask) that Israel also renounce violence? If so, will that renunciation include the fundamental violence of the Israel occupation of the West Bank and the violence of the embargo and the creation of Gaza as an open-air prison? Will the U.S. envoy call for others in the international community to work to prevent Israel from securing more weapons, which aren’t smuggled in through tunnels, but arrive in broad daylight at Israeli ports?

Will Mr. Mitchell’s research assistants provide him with a single instance of any Israeli Prime Minister who has recognized any Palestinian right to exist on the land they have cultivated for centuries?

Will the Special Envoy demand that Israel, like Hamas, abide by previous agreements or, more broadly, international law? Like the Geneva Conventions which prohibit an occupying power from moving its population into occupied territory?

These questions cut to the heart of the matter: How can one reasonably expect our government to “broker” a peace settlement, when the United States has such a lopsided relationship to one of the antagonists? Consider the arms deals, the diplomatic support in the U.N., and the year-after-year munificence lavished on the Jewish State.

Here’s a thought experiment: Given the Israeli onslaught in Gaza, how many U.S. Senators do you think would issue a public statement (however belated) supporting the Palestinians’ right to self-defense?

As La Rochefoucauld remarked, “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.” In U.S. policy in the Middle East (a region so indispensable because of the oil resources), double standards are standard operating procedure. The U.S. cloaks its actions and policies in the most noble and moralistic rhetoric, yet realpolitik is the way, the truth, and the life.

Remember: Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds did not arouse the Reagan Administration’s indignation; that indignation was only expressible years later when, in his rhetorical build-up to invasion, George W. Bush repeated ad nauseum, “He gassed his own people!”

Remember: The U.S. is dead set against Iran having a nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the thought of Iran having nuclear bombs is nerve-wracking, but the thought of anyone having nuclear weapons ought to be similarly nerve-wracking. When have you heard a single comment from a U.S. politician critical of Israel’s existing nuclear weapons arsenal? It’s regularly asserted that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; it’s also the only nuclear power. The U.S. isn’t concerned about that some nation has nuclear weapons per se; it’s which nation has them.

Remember: The U.S. justified its invasion of Iraq because the Iraqi people deserved freedom and democracy, which we, as U.S. citizens, are to understand as worthwhile objectives. Notice, though: There has been no invasion of Saudi Arabia to liberate those people under the thumb of a brutal Islamic fundamentalist regime.

Remember: In recent years, U.S. military officials and politicians have expressed outrage that a foreign political power—Iran—dares to interfere with Iraq’s progress to stability and democracy. Of course, the foreign power that is the U.S. isn’t meddling—it’s helping.

Many people outside U.S. borders understand quite clearly that the U.S. government and corporations have long played a crucial role in assisting Israel in its dispossession and torment of the Palestinian people. They can also see the pertinence to the U.S. of Orwell’s observation, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”

The horrors in Gaza are indefensible. We have to undermine the righteous defense of these horrors and increase the number of people in our own society who can see the true workings of the United States in the Middle East. We can start by asking our friends, relatives, co-workers, neighbors, clergy, teachers, and media workers: Should we conduct our public affairs by a single standard based on human rights and international law? Or is the United States entitled to a double standard? Does might make right? Are we above the law?

How the Bush Administration answered these questions is painfully clear. Mr. Mitchell, President Obama, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are soon to reveal their answer.


Mark Chmiel teaches at St. Louis University and Webster University. Mark’s first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, was published in spring 2001 by Temple University Press.  He is on the Board of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in St. Louis, Missouri.


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