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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, pages 29, 59

Special Report

Congressman Nick Rahall Assesses Impact Of Iraq and Israel on U.S. Elections

By Delinda C. Hanley

  • Congressman Nick Rahall warns there is no honesty in an election year (photo Michael Keating).

ON APRIL 21, a week after President George W. Bush’s well-choreographed White House meeting with “man of peace” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, visited the offices of Congressman Nick Rahall, (D-WV), one of the few straight-talkers on Capitol Hill. President Bush had just reversed longstanding U.S. and international policies regarding Israel’s illegal settlements and the Palestinian right of return. To add insult to injury, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the candidate who could capture the “anyone but Bush vote,” tried to cut into the dance and outdo Bush’s praise of Sharon’s “peace plan.” What, we asked Rahall, was a conscientious voter to do?

Rahall is a third-generation Lebanese American whose grandfather settled in Beckley, WV in 1903. The future congressman grew up in Beckley, received his B.A. from Duke University, and worked in the retail, real estate, and broadcasting fields. He was staff assistant to the legendary Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) before running for office himself in 1976. At the age of 27, Rahall became the youngest member of the U.S. Congress. Now serving his 14th term in the House of Representatives, Rahall is well-known for his expertise in transportation, infrastructure, energy and environment issues. He has fought for miners’ health and safety, as well as for veterans’ issues.

Rahall’s first visit to the Middle East was in 1980, and he’s been going and talking to leaders from all parties there ever since. “I’ve traveled to the occupied territories many times and I’ve seen the Palestinians’ humiliation and despair,” Rahall said. “Someone in the State Department asked me not to go to Ramallah and meet with Chairman Arafat last April. I told him, ”˜Listen. I’ve known Arafat since before you were born. I’m going.”˜“

When asked about U.S. relations with Middle Eastern countries, Rahall cut straight to the chase. “The wars in Iraq and Palestine are definitely intertwined,” he said. “Each affects the other. Israel’s occupation of Palestine, political assassinations, treatment of prisoners—well, actually, the whole of the Likud Party camp in Israel is reflected in President Bush’s policies, statements and actions in both Israel/Palestine and Iraq.”

Sharon uses every opportunity to link Israel’s war on Palestinians with Bush’s war on terrorism, Rahall noted. According to Sharon, terrorism prevents peace negotiations, and he had to build a wall to prevent terrorism. His brutal attacks on the occupied territories and targeted assassinations, he claims, are in response to terrorism. The similarities between the American and Israeli leaders’ tactics are uncanny, Rahall said.

The congressman characterized Bush’s strategy for re-election as “keep ”˜em scared and they’ll vote Republican.” Real terrorists must love it, Rahall said: “Bush is accomplishing their mission for them. He’s making us afraid.

“Here we have a U.S. president who cannot answer a single question on any subject without invoking the word ”˜terror,’” Rahall continued. “That’s just what Ariel Sharon has done in his own country.”

A good look at Sharon’s actions and policies, Rahall added, makes you realize “his only strength is fighting terrorism.” He was too much the gentleman to say the same of Bush.

In his talks with Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans supporting either side, Rahall said, he has discovered something quite wonderful: “Middle-of-the-roaders on both sides want peace. They know that everyone loses when the philosophy ”˜military might is the only right’ is followed.”

As for Iraq, just before the war Rahall traveled to Baghdad, hoping to convince Iraqi leaders to agree to U.N. weapons inspections and provide unfettered access to every site. “Tareq Aziz accepted all of Bush’s demands,” Rahall explained. “Bush said the war was not inevitable, but we now know that wasn’t true. Iraqis did allow for complete access but Bush’s mind was already made up. Iraqis were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.”

Bush’s personal vendetta and the neoconservative agenda were set in motion “the day the Supreme Court declared Bush president,” according to Rahall. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) suddenly were a big problem. WMDs hadn’t worried anyone too much in March 1984, shortly after Saddam Hussain allegedly used chemical weapons in his war with Iran. Donald Rumsfeld, then President Ronald Reagan’s special Middle East envoy, visited Baghdad in order to forge better relations with the Iraqi leader.

After George W. Bush’s election, however, “overnight, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction became a direct and imminent threat to us,” Rahall said. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush linked Iraq with his war on terrorism and Ossama bin Laden. Bush’s neocon advisers insinuated that toppling Saddam somehow would bring peace to the Middle East, Rahall recalled. They told anyone who would listen that Iraqis would view us as liberators and there would be a minimal number of U.S. troops involved. Iraq’s oil revenue would pay for expenses. “We were falsely led into this war,” Rahall stated bluntly.

“This war in Iraq is George W. Bush’s war of choice, not a war of necessity. I supported the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” Rahall said. “That was necessary. I firmly believe the war in Iraq weakened the war against al-Qaeda—troop-wise as well as financially.”

Rahall shook his head, “We had allies in fighting the war on terrorism—but we lost them in Iraq.”

Looking at the situation today, Rahall is glum. “Can we cut and run now?” he mused. “Al-Qaeda is definitely in Iraq now. Now, after our invasion of Iraq you can honestly say that terrorism now exists.”

Rahall said he feared that Syria is next on the agenda and that Bush may attack before the November 2004 elections. “They’re using the same rhetoric against the Syrians they used against Iraqis,” he pointed out. “We now have the Syrian Accountability Act. All this despite the State Department’s admission that Syria helped us capture key al-Qaeda operatives and helped save American lives.”

Asked if Saudi Arabia also is on the list, Rahall replied, “They wouldn’t dare. The Kingdom has been a key ally for decades.”

Regarding the upcoming elections, Rahall asked, “Where has George Bush’s presidency gotten us in the Middle East? Can it get any worse? I think John Kerry brings less arrogance, more flexibility and a deeper appreciation of other countries’ positions and needs.

“Kerry knows he’d need strong international support for the reconstruction of Iraq,” Rahall said. “International help is needed to help bring security and stability to Iraq.”

When asked why Kerry seems to try to outdo Bush in his knee-jerk support of Israel, Rahall admitted, “This worries me, too, because of the message it sends to our allies. But it is to be expected in an election year. There’s not much honesty in an election year.”

What can Arab-, Muslim- and other peace-seeking Americans do to get their viewpoints across to each candidate? “Get involved and get involved,” Rahall said. “Make your views known. Question candidates, especially in the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida. Put the right questions to candidates. Make your views known in local campaign offices.

“I recognize the political entrenchment of our cousins’ lobby,” Rahall said. “It’s part of the democratic system of government. Every ethnic group has the right to look after its own interests. But all voters should keep in mind what is in America’s best interest first.

On Oct. 17, 2003, President Bush asked Congress for an additional $87 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Bush’s plan $157 will be spent per Iraqi on the country’s water and sewage systems. Compare that to $14 per person here at home. Bush would spend $255 per person for electricity in Iraq, compared to 71 cents per American. For hospitals and health care in Iraq, Bush would allocate $38 per person, versus $3 per person at home, Rahall noted—although he agrees with Colin Powell’s remarks, if we broke it we should fix it. But it frustrates Rahall that this president blocks domestic transportation and infrastructure bills and spends needed American tax dollars overseas.

It also infuriates Rahall that Israel, a highly developed nation, is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. “It’s nearly impossible to figure out how much money Israel gets because it comes from so many different funds,” Rahall said, warning that Israel probably will request supplemental funds in addition to the normal appropriations expected to pass this summer. “Israel can’t continue to occupy, humiliate and destroy the dreams and spirits of the Palestinian people and continue to call itself a democratic state,” he insisted.

While things look more discouraging each day given U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, there is still the possibility of success, Rahall argued. He’s determined, he said, to “put up a good fight. I know what I’m doing is in America’s best interest. I go to bed with a clear conscience. I talk to my colleagues in private about votes they have had to make that they don’t firmly believe in. They say, faintly, ”˜It was just a meaningless resolution they had to have.’ But anger is seething underneath. Probably there are some folks feeling the same way in this White House.”

When asked how he manages to keep his conservative Christian constituency happy with his tough stance on Israel, Rahall holds up a Robert Novak article about the apartheid wall from the April 1 Washington Post (see p. 64), which describes what Sharon is doing to Christians in the Holy Land. “Sharon is not doing anything in return for support from the Christian Right,” Rahall explained. “He’s not working to fulfill Biblical promises. He’s just making a land grab. His wall, assassinations and closures are just a distraction from his legal problems.”

As for squaring his views on the president’s war on Iraq with his Christian constituents, Rahall quips, “I grew up in a Christian household. I thought every Christian made mistakes. Apparently our president can’t think of any mistakes he’s made.”

Asked if his honesty has ever jeopardized his reelection, Rahall recalled a vicious letter-writing campaign that had all the signs of originating from afar. Local West Virginians wrote the letters but the information they used came from the District of Columbia, he said.

“I’m not afraid to keep speaking out, because I keep America’s self-interest first. That’s how I frame the debate,” he said. “The constituency I represent is intelligent, knowledgeable and deeply concerned with where their tax dollars go, because we have such dire needs at home. They understand it when I vote against foreign aid. It’s not a vote against the state of Israel. I support the state of Israel. When I advise a more even-handed policy in the Middle East, a restoration of America as an honest peace broker, it’s in Israel’s best interest as well as Palestinians’. All three securities, Congressman Rahall reiterated, are deeply intertwined with each other.”

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.