By Munir K. Nasser
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas R. Pickering was heckled and booed by an angry Arab American audience in Washington as he was delivering a speech outlining the United States' policy towards Iraq at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's (ADC) 17th National Convention June 9.
Pickering was interrupted by a storm of shouts and banging on tables when he told the audience that the lifting of sanctions on Iraq “would not lead to a dramatic improvement in humanitarian conditions in Iraq.” He went on to say that those who advocate this course overlook several critical factors:
"First, there is no limit on the amount of oil Iraq can export for food, medicine, and other help for the Iraqi people.
"Second, the most recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights noted that the gravity of the human rights situation in Iraq has few parallels since the end of World War II.
"Third, sanctions deprive Saddam Hussein of the financial resources he needs to pursue his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
“Finally, lifting sanctions would free Saddam to rebuild his military and WMD programs, but would not guarantee more money or a better life for the average Iraqi."
The heckling and shouting went on for several minutes, while Pickering stood on the podium waiting for a chance to resume his speech. "Saddam Hussein bears responsibility for conditions in Iraq, he declared. “The willingness of well-meaning people to ignore that fact simply reinforces his inclination to trade on the suffering of his people by withholding supplies," Pickering said.
In the question and answer that followed his speech, Pickering tried to justify his government’s policy towards Iraq. A member of the audience asked him: “What right does your government, and the British government has to bomb Iraq in the North on a daily basis?” Pickering responded: “
“We should make it clear, that the use of air power in Northern and Southern Iraq, particularly to oppress Iraqis by their government, would not be permitted by the United States and Britain. I do not think that it is not authorized; I do not accept that it is aggressive; I accept the fact that it is responsive, and I could tell you that it would stop in one minute, if Iraq will stop attacking American and British warplanes,” he said.
Pickering said that he recognizes the deep-seated sense of hurt that people feel to what has happened to them in the Middle East and beyond. “I cannot deal with the past, I can only help with the future,” he added. “I tend to believe that the policy of my government in the Middle East is the right policy,” he said. “I tend to believe that over the last 25 or 30 years we have made progress. If ten years ago you’ve told me that Chairman Arafat will come frequently to the United States and will be received in the White House as an honored guest. I would have said ten years ago that you are going to lose your sanity. This has been a remarkable change. It also my belief that things in Israel are also changing and will continue to change, just as things among Palestinians are changing,” Pickering said.
In response to a question about the Jewish origin of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and her obvious bias towards Israel, Pickering said: “Based on my experience with Albright, I reject utterly what you have said about her and your conclusion about her motivation as a Secretary of State. She is, like you, an American, but I never seen a Secretary of State who has been engaged in the process of peace as less intensively as she does, but I believe you can count on her to do her best to make sure that every minute she is in office, that we have an effective, fair and a just peace process, and I think the results have already begun to prove that.”
Another questioner accused Pickering of being anti Arab. “You record have proven that you are anti-Arab and anti Muslim,” he told him. “I remember when you were Ambassador in Israel the doors of your embassy were closed and Palestinian Americans were dragged away from the embassy and have not been taken care of as American citizens,” the questioner said.
Pickering responded by saying: “To my knowledge, I have never refused to see an Arab American in Israel or in the US, but you can ask about my record in Israel in meetings with Israel’s Arab community which was unparallel. In addition to that, I made it a point to meet with mayors and other leading officials in the occupied West Bank and Gaza when I was there, and you can ask them. I also would like to remind you that seven months before the Intifada, I gave a speech in Jerusalem pointing out yet again that I thought the Israelis must change the way they are dealing with the Palestinians. The speech was applauded by some Israelis, and a conservative member of the Israeli Parliament called me “the unfriendly ambassador of a of a friendly country. At least I believe I tried to be fair,” Pickering said.
In her reaction to Pickering’s comments, Hala Maksoud, ADC President, expressed her satisfaction at the position taken by the audience. “I am glad that he was able to hear the depth of the feeling of our community towards this issue,” she told Albawaba.com.
“We have been trying to communicate this feeling to the State Department and policy makers for a long time, and I guess that they do not get it. By seeing the mood of the people who represent the community and who are intellectuals and professionals at all levels, expressing their feelings strongly by booing and shouting because they feel strongly about the issue. I think this is good and he has to hear that. The message they got at the State Department is how angry is our community and the Arabs in general about the US policy towards Iraq that does not make sense, and towards the pressure the Administration is putting on Arafat to give more concessions in the name of peace,” Maksoud said.
Naseer Aruri, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts told Albawaba.com that ”what happened today really reflects the sentiments of the Arab American community represented in this audience.
“We may disagree with the manner it was expressed today,” he said, “but it represents the sentiment of the community telling the United States enough is enough. It is not enough that they are committing genocide against Iraq through the sanctions which the whole world condemns, but he is telling an Arab audience to continue to condemn Saddam Hussein.”
Aruri believes the message the State Department got is that Arab Americans are not afraid to express their point of view, and a testimony to the fact that they should be put on notice that this a bankrupt and genocidal policy. “I thought he was smart enough to not to talk about that in front an Arab audience,” he noted. “I think it would be hard for me to imagine that someone would be addressing a meeting at AIPAC, let us say, and tell Israel it must respect the right of return. I would imagine that he would not be able to stay at his job for a long time,” Aruri said.
Clovis Maksoud, former Arab League Representative in Washington thinks the frustration about sanctions against Iraq hurt many people’s deep feelings. He told Albawaba.com that Pickering should have put his statements in a much persuasive manner.
“Unfortunately, the US policy towards Iraq have become in a way for the last ten years a crime against humanity,” he said.
Maksoud, however, thinks the audience should have behaved better. “I think the outburst of anger, although authentic, should have been tailored in a much better reaction, and more forceful, yet with less shouting,” he explained. “I think sometimes the anger would be much more productive if it is articulated in a more subtle and calmer way. Explosion of frustration is understandable, but it is not the way to communicate the authentic feeling of the population” – Albawaba.com
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