Bert Sacks: Nonviolence and Rob McKenna

These postings are leading up to a government trial against me on September 19, 2011. The U.S. is suing me to collect a $10,000 fine because I was unwilling to ask the U.S. for a license for a 1997 trip I took to bring medicine to Iraqi children. I’ve consistently refused to pay the fine – and did not request a license – in order to challenge the legitimacy and legality of U.S. policy on Iraq.

I ask the question: How can our country legitimately deny medicine to anyone in need?

On the 11th of each month, from January through September 2011, I am posting an article about the U.S. and terrorism.  As the trial date approaches, I’ll post more information on that. You can follow by adding your address on the right for a once-a-month email. If you haven’t yet, please look at earlier postings and follow other pages at IraqiKids.org).  Bert Sacks


In April I wrote about the blockade of Gaza – maintained by Israel with the (perhaps now ending) cooperation of Egypt on its border with Gaza. It is a blockade unilaterally imposed, done without any imprimatur of international legality. I quote Israeli officials’ candid remarks about the blockade: It is collective punishment (dangerous to the life of Gaza civilians) to punish them and to undermine the government of Hamas – evidence that the Gaza blockade is an act of international terrorism per our U.S. legal definition.

In May I wrote about Attorney General Rob McKenna of Washington State co-signing a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rob McKenna signed it, “to convey [his] strong support for the State of Israel’s actions in Gaza [during 'Operation Cast Lead' (winter '09-'09)].” It was an ill-informed letter which said, among other things, that “[t]o Israel’s credit … [it allowed] the entrance of humanitarian aid into Gaza.”

In fact, Israel allowed about 20% of the previously permitted humanitarian aid into Gaza as a way to punish the civilian population for electing Hamas and to undermine that government. Israeli leaders are quoted describing the policy in exactly this way; additionally, data from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) show that during the cease-fire period with Hamas, Israel allowed into Gaza 92 truckloads of food compared with 577 truckloads of food during the actual military attack of ‘Operation Cast Lead.’

How could Israel allow five times more goods into Gaza during actual hostilities if it were done solely to prevent weapons from entering Gaza? This data alone is enough to convince a reasonable person that the blockade was not done mainly for that purpose.

Rob McKenna is a reasonable person. I gave him this data at our meeting in 2009.

Still he continued to justify the Gaza blockade as a regrettable but needed action, done only to keep weapons from Gaza; this is simply not a credible argument. He has refused my requests to correct the record. Instead he lets stand his excuse of the Israeli blockade which endangers the physical and psychological lives of over a million people in Gaza.

How to understand Mr. McKenna?

When he co-signed the letter to Secretary of State Clinton, I believe that Rob McKenna had no idea what Israel’s blockade was actually doing to the Gaza population – or the cruel reason it was put into place.

How could he … if he got his news from our mainstream media?

How many times have we heard on the news, What would the U.S. do if we were being shelled with rockets endangering our citizens? (I heard Israel’s President Shimon Peres say this and then ask incredulously, why does Hamas attack us?) But has anyone ever heard the comparable question, What would the U.S. do if we were being denied 80% of our essential humanitarian needs, including safe water, varied and adequate nutrition, electricity and sewage processing? Wouldn’t we respond to that as well?

I also believe, from meeting Attorney General McKenna, that he now regrets ever co-signing that Clinton letter. All that said, he has still been unwilling to admit a mistake.

I think that Mr. McKenna is emblematic of how bad things happen – and then continue to happen – abetted by intelligent, even well-meaning people who don’t act out of any consciously hurtful intent.

I have already observed that if Rob McKenna gets his understanding of the world from our mass media, he will simply not understand accurately much of what is happening in the world. Perhaps his first failing is not to recognize the immense bias – in this case American-Israeli bias – in our news. If he were to read the news in English from the mainstream Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz he would learn much of what I’ve posted here.

(If a naïve trusting of U.S. mainstream news is itself a failing, it is a failing that is increasingly recognized. But that leaves the ‘playing field’ open to sophisticated, well-funded and well-organized propaganda campaigns that see their task as promoting one side of an issue – not to offer an objective and fair presentation of all the relevant information. Countering this trend, see the pamphlet “Truth against Truth” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the book Merchants of Doubt on a wide range of issues from anti-smoking-causes-cancer campaigns to anti-global-warming campaigns.)

The Nobel Laureate from Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, was asked what quality she thinks is most important in a politician; she answered “integrity … just being honest.” For an American politician, this seems to be particularly difficult at the present time given the widespread misunderstandings which abound in our culture, and the uncivil and confrontational ways in which discussions are increasingly conducted.

(As an example of how effective propaganda can be, and the difficulty a politician has in our country, in 2007 a third of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11! I believe that President Bush’s regular repeating of Saddam Hussein’s name in the same sentence with a reference to 9/11 – without actually saying there was any link – was a major and intentional cause of this false view. And our media hardly objected.)

This means that public figures are often unwilling to challenge conventional wisdom – even if they may know that “wisdom” is mistaken – and even if they foresee disastrous consequences resulting from acting on some mistaken conventional wisdom.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

In January 2003, several months before the actual invasion of Iraq, I spoke before a crowd of 800 filling a local church. I said that our conflict with Iraq was “always about regime change, never about weapons of mass destruction.”  How did I know?  Because we’d said in 1991 (James Baker to Congress, Madeleine Albright later on) that sanctions were going to stay in place until Saddam was gone.  That statement removed any incentive he had to disarm and showed that disarming Iraq was not our major concern.

I’m not aware of any mainstream media pointing this out. And even if Iraq had WMDs, would the invasion be legal? In 70 opinion pieces in The New York Times leading up to that war there was not a single mention of International Law. This war is now eight years old and still going. It is a Three Trillion Dollar War according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and colleague Linda Bilmes. And it is clearly what U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Jackson called “the supreme international crime” – a war of aggression.

In short, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been a disaster for Iraq and for us. It will cost at least $10,000 for each American; it is not making us safer and has recruited terrorists; it has killed thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It is a disaster that should have been avoided. But angry, flag-waving “patriots” made an intelligent discussion that much harder to manage.

The same problem exists with trying to have an intelligent discussion on Israel and Gaza.

In this regard, all of us have some responsibility: If we lose our temper in a discussion we contribute to that environment. (Present company is included: If I blame ‘the other’ for provoking me, that is not an acceptable excuse. Peaceful dialogue is most important when it is most difficult. It’s easy to be peaceful with those who agree.)

Back to Rob McKenna and his erroneous statement about the siege of Gaza.

There is no question that Israel is blockading humanitarian supplies to Gaza. When Israel announced it will loosen the blockade and allow halva and jam into Gaza, that is a clear admission it has stopped items having absolutely nothing to do with weapons. Israel also announced that it will “allow additional foods such as coriander, cardamom, and cookies into Gaza, after banning them for three years.”

I could wish that our Attorney General would recognize the facts and correct his error. But he is now a candidate for governor of Washington State. That makes it even harder for him to step outside “conventional wisdom” and to criticize Israeli policies. But this “wisdom” – as with Iraq – is leading Israel and the United States down a disastrous path.

Gandhi said that there was a coin with “truth” on one side and “nonviolence” on the other. It follows that all of our actions which deny truth are forms of violence.

I empathize with Rob McKenna’s position in refusing to correct (or even to discuss) his position on the blockade of Gaza. He is a politician – he has made an error – and he apparently considers it the safest action, politically, to do nothing. That said, one can still wish that Mr. McKenna would trust that speaking the truth, as best he can know it, would really turn out to be his best policy.

After all, Congressman Jim McDermott went to Iraq in 2002 in an effort to prevent a further catastrophe for that country – and for ours. Even though he failed and was unjustly attacked ad hominem for his efforts by people like George Will – he was rewarded with standing ovations whenever he spoke here when he returned. Plus he was rewarded with the knowledge that he had acted on the truth and done what he could.

Perhaps Rob McKenna might find that admitting and correcting a mistake he’d made would not turn out to be the political liability he fears. And in that event, he might change the belief that to be a politician and get elected, one must not admit mistakes.

That would be a change many of us could believe in.