Though former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, was best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts in fighting world hunger, he also made a mark regarding U.S. Middle East policy.
Like many liberals of his generation, he had a strong attachment to Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people returning to the lands of their forefathers to escape centuries of oppression. It was only later in his Senate career, in 1975, when asked by Foreign Relationship chairman J. William Fulbright to chair the Middle East subcommittee, did he learn about the plight of the Palestinians. He became a strong supporter of a two-state solution at a time when the Democratic Party was on record opposing Palestinian statehood and emerged as an outspoken opponent of Israeli human rights abuses and other violations of international law while maintaining his steadfast support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.
He emphasized that, as a friend of Israel, he was obliged to do what a real friend must do when they see someone behaving in ways that are both immoral and threaten their own self-interest: tell them to stop.
His support for international law and self-determination was rooted in his taking part in the war on fascism. In his foreword to my most recent book, which analyzes the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, he noted how that experience helped teach him that the right of self-determination “is one of the most fundamental rights of all” and that “no government should get away with denying that right by invading, occupying and annexing another national and oppressing its people.” He faulted successive administrations of both parties for failing to uphold such fundamental principles of international law.
His interest in Middle Eastern affairs led him to become president of the Middle East Policy Council in 1991, a non-profit group based in Washington addressing political, economic and security issues in the region impacting the United States. In a 1993 interview I did with him for The Progressive magazine which took place while we were both visiting Damascus, he observed, “What I’m picking up now in my travels is a feeling that… a new form of imperialism is now operating in the Middle East. We may not have any colonies as did previous Western powers, but there is a belief that many of the ruling regimes are somehow tied in to the West in a way that does not enhance the well-being of the ordinary citizen. I think we’re headed for trouble if that perception prevails, particularly since there is a lot of truth behind it.”
He presciently added, “These Arab regimes are going to have to become more sensitive to the problems of their own people. This is what this Muslim extremism is all about: It’s a kind of desperate move by people who do not know how to get the attention of the ruling regimes any other way but to shake them up with extremist, radical, and sometimes violent methods.”
McGovern later became an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, comparing it to the tragedy of Vietnam. In 2006, he wrote Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now, which helped a number of Democrats who had been too timid to speak out against the war previously to become bolder. In a Washington Post op-ed in January 2008, McGovern – arguing that “Nixon was bad [but] these guys are worse” – called for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice-president Cheney over their violations of the U.S. constitution and of national and international law, and their repeated lies to the American people. Speaker of the House and Democratic Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, however, dismissed such calls for impeachment as “off the table.”
McGovern also expressed concern about the bipartisan threats of war against Iran and the hypocrisy in U.S. nonproliferation policy. In 2006, George and I wrote an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News criticizing the Bush administration for signing a nuclear cooperation agreement with India. We argued, “How can we have any credibility in trying to block Iran’s nuclear program, which is still many years away from weapons capability, when we are supporting the nuclear program of a neighboring country which has already developed a dangerous nuclear arsenal? Maintaining such flagrant double-standards regarding nuclear proliferation is simply not worthy of a country which asserts the right to global leadership.”
It is disappointing to see so many of today’s otherwise liberal Democrats taking belligerent stances towards Iran and allying with Israel’s right-wing government by defending its occupation policies and other violations of international humanitarian law.
It is important to realize that McGovern – despite representing an under-populated state in the Great Plains – became such a prominent voice in foreign policy not just because of his many qualities, but because there were movements that magnified that voice. Ultimately, then, it is up to us to make possible the emergence of political leaders who will challenge both the Republicans and the Democratic establishment on the Middle East, as McGovern did on Southeast Asia.