United States Fails to Stand for Peaceful Change

The Palestinians and other Arabs have long used violence to try to reclaim land taken from them by Israelis. The approach has long been a failure, but anger has long supplanted rationality, thus leading to periodic violent spasms in Palestine for almost a century. Now a potentially more effective weapon is being brandished: peaceful actions to undermine Israeli occupation.

The Palestinians are campaigning for a voluntary boycott of goods and culture coming from Israel and West Bank settlements and for disinvestment from there. For example, both international and local artists and celebrities are refusing to do shows in these locations. Simultaneously, the Palestinian Authority is seeking recognition for a Palestinian state at the United Nations. Israel is very worried about both initiatives. And it should be.

Largely peaceful protests toppled the autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia. If peaceful dissent can work against authoritarian thugs in those countries, it has an even better chance of working in democratic Israel. Democracies—or at least a significant portion of their populations—can more easily be shamed into change than can dictatorships. For example, in the end, apartheid in democratic (for whites) South Africa ended because of the shame induced by peaceful opposition rather than by the success of the armed rebellion. Israeli celebrities joining the Palestinian boycott and the activities of Israeli peace groups have demonstrated the premise in Palestine.

Yet the United States regularly decries violence in Palestine but then is not supportive of peaceful means of Palestinian protest either. For example, it is taken as a given that, this fall, the United States will veto in the United Nations Security Council any resolution for Palestinian statehood.

This U.S. stance—coupled with its tepid and belated backing of the Egyptian and Tunisian opposition and its support for the violent overthrow of oppressive leaders, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya—sends the wrong message to those seeking liberty around the world. By its support for violent outcomes, U.S. policy encourages more bloody revolts around the world, and the accompanying loss of life and property, without necessarily increasing the chances for democracy.

Instead, the United States should quit interfering in the internal turmoil of other nations—especially avoiding the provision of weapons and military expertise to movements that violently oppose governments unfriendly to the U.S.—and should instead steadfastly declare rhetorical support for peaceful transitions to democracy and respect for individual rights.

The latter does not mean that the United States should actively “promote” democracy and human rights in other countries using U.S. personnel, contractors, or government funds. Such U.S. efforts are usually an ineffective sinkhole for taxpayer dollars and may very well be counterproductive if the U.S. superpower is seen as meddling for its own gain—as is often the perception.

In conclusion, current U.S. policymakers should follow John Quincy Adams’ long-forgotten advice rejecting the lure of American intervention to promote democracy abroad in favor of rhetorical support and leading by example:

She [America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart….

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be.

But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

Ivan Eland

She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

Ivan Eland
The Independent Institute


  1. says

    Interesting that Eland is especially opposed to US military support of opponents of regimes UNfriendly to the US. Why this bias in favor of our enemies? He claims that it’s to avoid violent outcomes – as if the existing regimes in Iran and Syria aren’t imposing violence that matches anything likely to result from revolutions in those places.

    Of course, Eland is not alone in his bias. Obama shares it. When it comes to military action or support, Obama has given a pass to virulently dangerous and anti-US regimes like Iran and Syria, and prefers to meddle instead with somewhat more friendly regimes.

    The Eland-Obama concept, a new advanced altruistic morality, seems to be that (1) the USA has been the world’s biggest villain, and (2) therefore – to expatiate our past guilt – we owe it especially to those regimes which are our nastiest enemies (even if they are also their own people’s nastiest enemies) to make it easier for them.

    Despite this broad new morality, when it comes to national self-determination Eland’s focus for it is the same old narrow scope. For Eland too, it’s never mind the Tibetans, the Kurds, or any other nation in the world which is being denied its own state. Apparently only the Palestinian Arabs merit our attention.

    Maybe that’s because so far the basic aim of Palestinian Arab nationalism has been of an appealingly simple kind – almost pure negativism. The main purpose of our state, say their leaders (Hamas and PLO charters, Abbas writing in NY Times), will be to function as a tool or way-station in fighting and destroying the Jewish state.

    Contra Eland, UN resolutions for a Palestinian state would not be a ‘peaceful protest’ of anything, least of all of Israeli policies – which have already for the world laid out reasonable minimal conditions under which an actual Palestinian Arab state would be quite acceptable even at this late stage, even though Palestinian Arab leadership rejected such a state in 1939 and 1947 and realistic possibilities for it in 2000 and 2008.

    Actually, any seriously discussed UN resolutions on the subject of Palestinian statehood – with or without a US veto – would serve mainly further to debase the relevance and therefore usefulness of the UN. Back in 1988 and once even earlier, the PLO itself ‘proclaimed’ a Palestinian state. Proclamations and resolutions on the matter come easy. The Moslem-Arab bloc in the UN commands so many votes that it can readily pass (except for a US veto) any UNGA or UNSC resolution it wants. One minor detail has so far rendered all these resolutions and declarations fruitless on the ground. Namely, Israel so far has been given insufficient incentive to agree to its own destruction.

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