Charting a Sane Course in the Middle East

Lakshmi Chaudhry

In April, a U.S. soldier stands guard near Baghdad's Buratha Shiite mosque.

When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, everything changed.” Or so people said. This terrifying post‑9/​11 world required new strategies, new weapons and an entirely new war – on terror, itself. Progressive critics were immediately dismissed by the keepers of conventional wisdom as deluded fools with a pre‑9/​11 world view.” But, as the past four-plus years have revealed, it is the Bush administration that has problem facing the reality of this new threat.

The so-called Bush doctrine is little more than old-fashioned Cold War strategy re-jiggered for a unipolar world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East, where U.S. policy consists of arming friendly” tyrants, deposing or undermining the unfriendly ones in the name of regime change,” and aligning ourselves with Israel against much of the Arab world. Sound familiar? Indeed, the very idea of fighting terrorists over there so as to avoid fighting them at home is just warmed-over containment” talk. The significant break from the past is our flagrant disregard for our European allies, but this has less to do with 9/11 than the fall of the Soviet Union, which made us the sole superpower.

The war on terror” is not just wrong-headed and counterproductive, it’s also entirely passé. Whatever the debatable merits of our Cold War strategy, it is clearly unsuited to the task of taking on the complex phenomenon of Islamic extremism. No one nation is training or arming these militants. Of course, there is a global jihadist movement linking extremist groups and their adherents. Yet the reasons why such groups are appealing to Muslims in Britain are very different from those in Palestine or Kashmir or Indonesia. Terrorism, which is simultaneously transnational and local in nature, cannot be contained or deterred in the conventional sense. The fluid nature of the terrorist threat is equally challenging for progressives, since past peacemaking strategies– such as negotiating a détente – are impossible. In the end, political and military battles against terrorism have to be fought within local communities and, more importantly, by the people who live in them.

Given the complex realities of the post‑9/​11 world, what would an effective Middle East policy look like? Our roundtable discussion below tackles that very question with the help of four foreign policy experts from around the world. While such a discussion can’t be expected to produce a brand new vision, it does outline the primary challenges that would face any president determined to change course in the Middle East. Their verdict is a sobering one.

Any future U.S. administration will be limited by the disastrous legacy of the Bush policies, which may well include two failed states in Iraq and Palestine. It’s clear that there is no magic solution. For example, a good-faith effort in Palestine may help improve our image, but is unlikely to undo the fallout from Iraq. And as for that favorite solution of American progressives – turning to Europe – our allies show little will to do better than us. Where some of the roundtable participants suggest that a more pragmatic approach may simply be to do less, all agree that disengagement is not an option. Those of us secretly hoping that just staying out of the Middle East will make us and the world much safer will likely be disappointed.

But there are U.S. policies that can encourage Muslims around the world to become part of a truly global battle against terrorism, which – let’s not forget – threatens the daily life of civilians in the Middle East. A first step is to abandon overarching labels such as Islamic fundamentalism.” We must learn to distinguish those who pose a real threat from those we merely disagree with; we may well need the support of the latter to defeat the first. A second step is to play a more constructive role in the Israel-Palestine peace process, preferably in close association with our European allies. Some also propose setting up regional organizations similar to the European Union, allowing the United States to cut back on its military presence, and offering transnational mobility to those who need it most, such as the Palestinians.

Most importantly, however, crafting a real alternative to the current Mideast policy requires accepting the grim reality that there are very few good options left. As Chris Toensing points out in his companion essay, Why Exiting Iraq Won’t be Easy,” (to be published on this site later this week) we should not fool ourselves about the consequences of our departure for the Iraqi people.

The confrontation with Iran is equally difficult. The Bush administration’s policies – the occupation of Iraq, botched nuclear negotiations– have helped secure the power of Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who shares the conservative view of the world as a clash of civilizations. Ahmadinejad reminds the rest of us of the price of staying the course” in our Middle East policy: the threat of an apocalyptic confrontation between religious extremists likely to engulf not just the region, but the world. However onerous, thankless, or grim the alternatives may be, we have no choice but to try to do better.

Our roundtable discussion included Brian Katulis, director of democracy and public diplomacy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.; Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House in London; Yezid Sayigh, professor of Middle East Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, who joined us from Lebanon; and Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East History at Stanford University.

Since the Second World War, the Middle East has been seen as important for two reasons: One is oil and, related to that, the region’s vital role in the strategy of containing the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially since 9/11, our view of the Middle East has been colored by Islamic fundamentalism. The region is now seen as the source of the number one threat to U.S. security. 

These views of the Middle East have been criticized again and again by many on the left, but that begs the question: How should the United States view the Middle East, and what does that imply for the kind of role that we should play in this part of the world?

Brian, as someone who has been part of the policy-making establishment in Washington, what do you think?

BRIAN KATULIS: President Bush’s latest national security strategy says, We’re a nation at war.” But characterizing it and framing it in this way – as he has for the last 4.5 years – has led us to use our military force improperly, to the detriment of using American political and diplomatic power. We need to move beyond this frame of the war on terror and start thinking about how to integrate the region more closely with the global economy and the rest of the world. How do you do this in a way that actually helps to affirm the desire for progress that you see in many countries like Egypt and Palestine?

What about you, Rosemary? Do things look different to you from across the pond? What role do you think Europeans might play in such an effort to reframe U.S. policy?

ROSEMARY HOLLIS: Europe’s history is intimately connected with that of the Middle East region. Were the Europeans to take a step back and see that reality, then they might understand that there has been cultural, historical, and economic interchange for centuries and that we’re just in another phase of it. In this particular phase – which is the era of globalization – you have communities in Europe with roots and connections in the Middle East and vice versa. A way forward would be to think more expansively about the overall relationship, rather than trying to see it as a kind of bilateral relationship between Europe as a bloc on the one hand and the Arabs on the other hand.

How would the United States play into that? 

HOLLIS: Washington would have to acknowledge that their view is bound to be different from Europe. While the United States may be welcome in taking a lead on some issues, such as Israel, that that doesn’t mean that they are the best source of wisdom on everything or that Europe has no other part to play than trotting along behind the United States when called upon to put some cash in.

Yezid, I’m going to flip the question on its head for you. You’ve heard Brian and Rosemary. We all know that the United States is more unpopular than ever in the Middle East, but is there any desire for the United States to play a positive role in the region were it sincerely to attempt to do so? Or has there been too much loss of credibility? 

YEZID SAYIGH: There’s such a loss of credibility that anything the United States does for a while will continue to be regarded with a great deal of suspicion. After all, the Bush administration has in its ranks senior officials who are committed to preventing Palestinian statehood, to colonizing and settling the rest of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, etc. 

The United States needs to take a policy of least harm. In other words, it can act in ways that are less concerned with changing reality in a proactive way. Alternatively, it might try to say, We want to avoid assisting authoritarian regimes. At the same time, it’s not our business to go setting up new people as new leaders.”

I as a liberal might welcome the support of the West or the United States on certain issues, but I also know that at the end of the day it’s only local people who are going to be able to make the real changes. The United States, however mighty it is, can’t actually engineer new political systems. We’ve seen that precisely in Iraq where the [Bush administration] went in with a certain image of what Iraq was, how it should be rebuilt, and has messed up the job on a tremendous and worrying scale. 

Brian, please respond to that – you’re saying we can be a force of good and there are ways in which we can promote human rights and democracy, but Yezid is saying that maybe it’s more pragmatic to take a first do no harm” policy. 

KATULIS: I don’t think we disagree, essentially. We talk about promoting democracy and promoting institutions abroad on the one side, and on the other side we abuse detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other places. We work with some of the same characters in these regimes that we criticize to help them crack down on what is legitimate political dissent.

We need to fundamentally change our policies in the Middle East peace process, frankly. The Bush administration has unilaterally taken itself out of the ballgame and it hasn’t been a constructive force at all in helping the Israelis and Palestinians reach any agreement. We need a radical shift. That’s terribly important not only in the Israeli/​Palestinian context, but in terms of how we’re viewed throughout the region. One way to do that is actually working with our allies in Europe, as Rosemary suggests. 

Especially if you consider that our relationship to Israel has been the lynchpin of U.S. foreign policy. Joel, how should we reconsider this relationship in terms of changing our strategy in the region? 

JOEL BEININ: The United States has – since the end of World War II at least – supported the most regressive, backward regimes in the region because they have been its most important allies in the Cold War, because they have guaranteed the free flow of oil at desirable prices to the West, because they have reinvested their petro-dollars in the stock markets of New York and London. And the relationship with Israel doesn’t directly have very much to do with that. 

It’s a pretty big task to revise that. But I would begin with Palestine and Israel. The United States needs to stop unreservedly supporting Israel. It needs to remove itself as the moderator of what is called the peace process.” The moderating role needs to be turned over to international bodies that are much less tied to one party in the conflict.

There is an international consensus on what the resolution to this conflict should be. Two states: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with its capital in East Jerusalem and some consideration for the right of Palestinian refugees to return; and the state of Israel inside its borders, as they were before June 1967. The only significant dissidents from that position are Israel and the United States, and Israel is only able to persist because the United States backs it.

What you’re saying is that we dramatically cut back on our commitment to Israel?

BEININ: No. I think that’s actually the wrong way to put it. The United States has not been committed to Israel’s security. The United States has been committed to maintaining Israel as the strongest military power in the region because Israel is the most unreserved ally of the United States. It’s not a question of reducing the American commitment to Israel. It’s a question of redefining what it means to have a commitment. 

What we should really be concerned with is ensuring physically secure, economically productive lives for the Israeli and Palestinian people. Then we’d insist that a reasonable peace agreement has to be reached immediately, and that international peacekeeping forces be inserted if necessary to police that agreement. 

This notion that Israel can simply unilaterally do what it chooses – withdraw from Gaza and launch military strikes on it anyway; say that it’s withdrawn from Gaza, but really keep the whole territory in a stranglehold – all of that now falls under a description of what Israel needs to do for its security that is very rarely questioned in this country. But, in fact, these things are directly undermining the possibility that there can ever be security for the Israeli people. The United States would do Israel a favor if it would call it up short and say, No. You are in the Middle East. Sorry, but that’s where your country is located. Your neighbors are Arabs and Muslims, and you need to learn how to get along with them.”

Rosemary, what do you think about that?

HOLLIS: The issue is more than just one between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with or without their respective allies. The refugee issue tells you the geography of the conflict today. More Palestinians are living outside the West Bank and Gaza than living inside the West Bank and Gaza. The refugees have spread around Lebanon; they make up more than half the population of Jordan. They’re across the Gulf region, and they’re certainly across Europe. 

Do you agree that it’s Europe that should be taking the lead?

HOLLIS: Yes, but I feel there is a latent hostility in Europe toward accepting that they had any role to play in the evolution of the conflict, any role to play in reconciliation with the Jews about the past that might open new ways for the future.

Brian, do you see room for a sort of radical revision of our commitment to Israel that Joel describes? 

KATULIS: I don’t disagree with a lot of what Joel has to say, but his central proposal isn’t terribly practical. If you ask the Europeans and others to take the lead, I don’t think they will. Plus, there are imperatives that drive U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process and in the Israeli/​Palestinian conflict, imperatives here at home that make it difficult to say: That’s it. You Europeans are going to take over.” I don’t think that’s the best way to advance our own national security interest. 

We need to do something that the Bush administration is not good at – working very closely with multilateral institutions, international institutions, and our European friends to figure out how we can advance certain ideas like the roadmap.

BEININ: I wasn’t calling for the United States to disengage, but to acknowledge the limits of what the American role can be. As Yezid said, the United States hasn’t got much credibility in the Arab world or even in the broader Muslim [community]. The United States can’t reconvene some version of a Camp David Summit and have people believe that an acceptable outcome can come of that. 

Yezid, if the United States were able to play a more credible role in the issue of Palestine would it help them in other situations that they are dealing with in the region, whether with Iran or the fallout from the occupation of Iraq? 

SAYIGH: The United States does need to radically alter its approach to the Israel/​Palestine conflict and hopefully the peace process. But I don’t think that the United States is measured solely by its policy on Israel and Palestine. When you come to Iraq or Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or any of the other parts of the Middle East where there are particular issues and important alliances with and involvement by the United States, there are local issues that for local people are at least as important. I don’t think that solving the Palestine problem will radically change everything. 

The United States is stuck. We’ve heard mention of disengagement and so on, but I object to loose talk of disengagement for a very simple reason. America is a major industrial power and major global power, involved in the daily lives and daily affairs of government, security … every dimension of life of everyone in the Middle East and, in fact, Europe, Russia, or elsewhere. It’s not an option for the United States to be disengaged. It would be a pretence for the country to pretend that it has no view on what’s happening politically or strategically in the Middle East when, in every other respect, it’s massively engaged in energy policies, in markets, in liberalization of the economies, etc. 

What the United States needs to do is to accept responsibility for its involvement. It can’t change authoritarian governments, but it can, I think, be more careful in who it allies itself with. And it needs to be more respectful of divergent opinions, not just in Europe, but also in the Middle East.

I don’t like Hamas. On the other hand, if they come to power through honest, fair elections and they win according to electoral rules designed by incumbent regimes, then frankly I don’t think we have much ground to oppose their coming to power. Now the United States can say, We don’t want to aid the government that is run by Hamas unless it recognizes Israel and renounces violence.” Fair enough. What it shouldn’t do though is actively undermine the Palestinian economy in the hope of driving Palestinians against Hamas to bring down the government. That becomes direct engagement in a partisan conflict. I think that is a very good example of where the United States needs to draw a line.

HOLLIS: On the subject of Hamas, I don’t think there is going to be any choice for either the United States or the Europeans but to engage with Islamic governments. If we look at the brewing confrontation between the United States and Iran, there is one recourse that has not yet been tried by the United States, and that is to actually talk directly to the Iranians. Without this, there is no possibility for the United States to retain influence or be a force for good in the region.

Brian, let’s first acknowledge that, yes, terrorism is a problem. It’s killing the Americans. It’s killing Arabs. It’s killing people in Kashmir and in Pakistan and so on. Is part of grappling with this challenge being willing to talk to Hamas, being willing to talk to Iran? 

KATULIS: A lot of people think that talking is a sign of weakness, but it could be viewed as a sign of strength. It’s been an absolute disaster on the part of the Bush Administration to refuse talk to the Iranian regime, with the notion that it’s somehow less legitimate than the North Korean regime, which is not elected and doesn’t even go through the pretense of having some form of election.

Over the last five years, the Bush administration has appeased some of the worst elements of the Iranian regime and unwittingly has empowered them by not dealing with the Iranian regime directly, instead choosing a policy of regime change and farming out our diplomacy to Russia and to our European friends. 

Advancing the notion of democracy defined by elections in this narrow and naive way that the Bush administration has won’t do much to defeat Islamic extremism. You’ve had extremist organizations seize the reigns of power through democratic means. 

The question is: How do we deal with those realities and help the people of the Middle East advance political rights and civil liberties in a real way? The Bush administration has been unable to move beyond its own paradigms of how it wants to view the world. We need to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish and hope and dream it might be. 

Yezid, do you think that part of it is also learning to make a more nuanced differentiation between the use of terror as a weapon and fundamentalism as a political ideology that might have its place? 

SAYIGH: Who doesn’t have fundamentalism? Christian fundamentalists in the United States believe in Armageddon and wish to accelerate Armageddon in order to bring about God’s will. We’ve got people who are very dangerous in almost every society on earth. For a start, I think we have to be very careful about applying these terms too easily. 

One problem is that the United States lumps all of the Middle East into one category. If you actually look at the region, it contains Israel, which is very different from most Arab states, which are very different from Iran, very different from Turkey. You’re dealing with very different countries. 

And on top of that we speak of Islamic fundamentalism as if it’s one thing. In fact, most fundamentalists in the Middle East are people who are simply returning to the mosque, returning to belief in God, and more actively pursuing social and religious beliefs – just as born-again Christians do in the United States. Most of them are not involved in activist politics or in militant politics, let alone in violence.

A huge problem is the U.S. tendency to simplify matters into one overarching ideological framework. We had the Cold War, and there was the evil empire of the Soviet Union. National liberation movements from Indochina to Sub Saharan Africa, through the Middle East and Latin America were all seen as emanations of one single communist plot. Now we have something of the same sort: American academic, political analysts, media and lobbyists are gearing up to wage a new, overarching conflict with terrorism and political Islam. 

The threat has been built up, inflated and exaggerated enormously, becoming the framework within which the United States determines whether or not to pursue democracy, whether or not to pursue human rights. 

In reality, the overarching and overriding priority for U.S. policy toward places like Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, or Palestine is not human rights, is not democracy, is not good government or honest government. It’s security, specifically in combating terrorism. Who the terrorists are, what terrorism is, is not really well defined. We need local communities in Egypt, in Jordan, in Iraq and elsewhere to voluntarily take part in combating terrorist thinking and extremism. These are the real allies and this is where the United States really needs credibility and support. If all it does is resort to beefing up military and security agencies of governments of Egypt, Jordan or elsewhere, then I think it’s making a huge mistake. 

What would be three initial steps that an American president could take that would begin, in a real pragmatic way, to tackle the challenge of terrorism?

SAYIGH: For a start, terrorism is a real threat, definitely, but it’s a threat to many actors, many governments, not just the United States. It requires, in the first instance, a policing and intelligence response because of the nature of the threat. It requires intelligence efforts, human intelligence above all else, as well as communication. It requires police work by local police forces, community support. That’s the front line.

Backing that are international alliances and coalitions across governments. But beyond that is the need to develop policies that acknowledge other people’s concerns and priorities even when the United States doesn’t necessarily agree with others. This sets the backdrop within which local communities and governments might be more willing to cooperate and to extend information where needed.

BEININ: I actually agree entirely with Yezid, except that I would reverse the order. I would just say that for any of that to have any chance to work, there has to be a radical revision of policy. So if the United States would announce a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, if it would announce that it’s going to pay reparations to Iraq for destroying their country, if it would announce an initiative to achieve an actual peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel that would be perceived as having a modicum of justice in the Arab world, then all of these essentially tactical approaches to dealing with the threat of terrorism in a more effective way would have a much, much better chance of bearing fruit.

Rosemary, what do you think, especially since Europe has had a much longer experience with terrorism? 

I’m slightly afraid that all this intelligence work – which I agree is where the focus has to be as opposed to on the use of military force – is leading to profiling and stereotyping and is re-igniting some social tensions in Europe. We’ve got to be careful about that. And also, we’ve got to be careful that the sharing of intelligence doesn’t give particular advantage to governments that we might otherwise consider dictatorial in the Middle East.

While acknowledging the intelligence role, we’ve got to consider ourselves as part of the problem, and therefore part of the solution. This is not about them and us, and the idea that if the Middle Eastern states would only become more like us, they wouldn’t breed terrorists. In Europe, they are homegrown, and that is because they don’t fit and they’re being made to feel that they don’t fit. So there’s got to be some introspection on the Western side. 

Brian, isn’t this exactly what is then seen as being soft on terrorism? 

KATULIS: I don’t think so, necessarily. There’s a growing lack of confidence in President Bush’s stewardship of national security and an argument to be made that he’s lost control of our country’s security and failed in his fundamental duty to protect Americans. Nearly five years after 9/11, the Bush administration remains stuck on a misguided strategy that doesn’t deal with the very real threats that are out there. There is a way to frame it from a progressive angle, which isn’t from a position of weakness, but one of strength. 

We also need to update the way that we fight this battle of ideas. The Bush administration has relied on a Cold War approach to getting America’s voice into the debate. They’ve established irrelevant news outlets like Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra television, which haven’t done anything to get our voice in the policy debates out there. We need to recognize that there’s been a significant change in the global media, particularly in the Middle East, and we need to engage in that debate smartly. 

The one thing that a lot of people in America miss is that audiences in the Middle East are incredibly sophisticated and have grown even more sophisticated with the advance of regional media like Al Jazeera and Al Harbia. The Bush administration’s approach is to criticize these new media outlets and try to put the Arab media genie back into the bottle. My approach would be to engage these outlets and say, There are a lot of things that the U.S. can be proud of and stand for, and we can be a force for good.”

I think markets work, and free markets of information can help people obtain the information and ideas that they need to advance their own interests. 

What about the way we talk about terrorism at home? 

KATULIS: There’s a lot more space to say, Look, there’s a way to advance freedom and democracy in a part of the world that hasn’t seen much of that, but do it in a way that’s constructive. Do it in a way that actually affirms the need for stability – where stability is not a code word for dictatorships and authoritarianism.

Maybe I’m too optimistic, but if you look at discontent at home with oil at $72 a barrel and gas prices so high, a lot of people are saying, What have we gotten as a result of these policies?”

If we were to build a roadmap for the Middle East and try and do things right, as so many of you have suggested, what kind of pragmatic goals can we set for ourselves? 

KATULIS: In the Gulf region, we need to fundamentally rethink whether or not we need such an extensive military presence. It’s insane to me that we don’t have, or have not supported, some form of regional security cooperation between the actors in the region. Europe has NATO, the Western hemisphere has the OAS, and Africa the African Union.

We need to set a clear timeline for our troops to depart from Iraq. But in what other ways do we mitigate the risk of the eventual draw-down of our troop presence there – in a way that actually affirms the need for stability and progress in the region? We need to start planting some seeds to help actors in the region do a little bit more for themselves to achieve that stability and progress. 

HOLLIS: I would want policies that take the heat out of the extremist platform and demonstrate that there are other ways to achieve some of the social, economic and political good that there’s clearly an appetite for in the region. One way to do that would be much more civil society contact.

The second thing I would be interested in is whether we could change our understanding of the issues for the region by promoting regional discussions, inclusive of security. Yes, a regional security structure would be terrific, but also a regional structure to address the environmental and ecological problems.

Lastly, I would want the walls that divide the states in terms of citizenship to be more flexible. In the European Union you can hold a passport in one place, you can have a house in another, and you can have a job in a third. Were [Palestinians] able to live in one place, do business in another, and have a Palestinian passport that meant something, then you wouldn’t have to accommodate all the Palestinians and therefore the solution in the West Bank and Gaza.

BEININ: I’d like to see several things that I think are doable. First, a real commitment to economic development. That means getting off the dogmatic horse of the Washington consensus, neoliberal International Monetary Fund approach to development and taking a look at things that have worked better, that target local communities, that target women, and that actually empower people rather than large corporations.

Second, I think we can promote democracy without intervening in governments and trying to change regimes. There are lots of organizations in the Middle East – civil society organizations, NGOs, human rights organizations – who would gladly be our partners if they perceived us to be serious about promoting democracy.

Finally, we have to move as quickly as we can towards extricating ourselves from Iraq and towards contributing massively to rebuilding the country. And we have to have a radical revision of our policy towards Palestine and Israel and, in concert with other international actors, move towards a resolution of the conflict.

Yezid, you get the last word.

SAYIGH: In that case, we’ve heard all the possible wishes and I just wish we could all believe that any of them would come true. I’m just going to add a couple of predictions. 

One has to do with Iraq and Iran. I really don’t see that the United States has any happy options in Iraq. The situation is almost beyond repair. Unless America somehow makes an implicit deal with Iran, it’s probable that in a three- to five-year period there’s not going to be any modicum of stability in Iraq that would allow the United States to pull out without leaving a total mess behind – a mess that would totally and fundamentally discredit and undermine any future prospect for effective U.S. intervention of any type in the region. That’s one concern.

The second is that when it comes to Israel and Palestine, the current U.S. policy is not going to change in time. I think we are heading toward a real mess in Palestine if Hamas is totally isolated and brought down. This will break the Palestinian government, break the political system, break the local economy, all which are extremely fragile. And we will be left with a humanitarian crisis on our hands, ironically, one that has been engineered by U.S. and Western policies. By the end of the Bush presidency, we will not have the Palestinian state we were promised several times. We will not have a peace deal. 

This, I think, is what the United States will be left with. 

Editor’s note: This is an expanded version of the roundtable discussion that appeared in the June 2006 print edition of In These Times.

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Lakshmi Chaudhry, a former In These Times senior editor and Nation contributing editor, is a senior editor at First​post​.com, India’s first web-only news site. Since 1999 she has been a reporter and an editor for various independent publications, including Alternet, Mother Jones, Ms., Bitch and Salon.
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