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Thursday, July 31, 2003 02:20 pm

"Our darkest time"

That’s what former Congressman Paul Findley calls the “disaster” in Iraq

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When Paul Findley was a student at Illinois College in the early years of World War II, he read a book called Union Now by Clarence K. Streit, a New York Times reporter who had covered the fall of the League of Nations. Streit advocated the joining of democracies in the North Atlantic, not in a strategic alliance but in a true federation, much like our federal government. It would have a single defense force, a united foreign policy, and even one postal system.

"It really caught fire with my generation," says Findley, the 82-year-old former U.S. Congressman from Jacksonville. "Streit presented it as the answer to war and the protection of liberty. I still think it's a very sound argument."

To promote the idea, Steit went on to start an organization in Washington, D.C., which sponsored an essay contest for college students. Findley won.

"They gave me a coach train ticket to Washington, where I spent a day with Clarence Streit. And the day I was there, Winston Churchill addressed a joint meeting of Congress, and I was able to peek through the doors of the gallery. This was during a crisis period in American history.

"Churchill spoke favorably of federation among the English-speaking world. He called for a European army. He was a great guy with words, and he could see the outstretched hand of destiny pointing to the day when there would be common citizenship between America and the British Commonwealth. So do I.

"Arnold Toynbee, the great historian, said Streit's idea is inevitable--it will come someday. The only question is whether humankind will have to go through some wrenching international war or economic collapse before we come to our senses."

Many believed that cataclysm was World War II. At the end of the war, Findley was in the Navy, part of the U.S. occupation force in Japan.

"My battalion had been on Guam for 15 months. We were one of the many units that was refitted and prepared to invade Japan. Happily, we didn't have to. I will always have gratitude to Harry Truman for saving my life--he probably did. After we landed in Japan, a buddy of mine and I borrowed a Jeep and we went to Nagasaki and saw the site, just a few miles from where we had landed.

"What did we see? Rubble that had once been a great city. Twisted I-beams that had once been tall buildings--they looked like spaghetti. It showed the power of just one midget atomic bomb, midget compared with the power we have today."

That power remains a frightening force. During his 22 years in Congress, Findley was dedicated to finding peaceful solutions to the world's problems. Many of his contemporaries regarded his stands as idealistic, or, worse, political suicide. For more than a decade he pushed legislation modeled on Streit's idea of international federation. In 1966 he became the first Congressman to advocate normalizing relations with China. He spoke out against the war in Vietnam, reading into a 1969 Congressional Record the name of every soldier killed in that conflict. As a senior member of the House Middle East Committee, he was a lone fighter for the rights of the Palestinian people, and it was this stand that ultimately helped to unseat him.

"I'm not bitter about it," he says. "Leaving Congress opened doors to me that would have never been there otherwise."

Findley still expresses his opinions on the Op-ed pages of various newspapers. He's the author of books on the destructiveness of federal farm policy, Abraham Lincoln's single term as a U.S. Congressman, and, most famously, the pervasive influence of the lobby known as the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on U.S. foreign policy. Of his two books on this last subject, 1985's They Dare to Speak Out became a best-seller and has just been released in a new edition. His most recent book, Silent No More, documents his own 30-year study of Islam in an effort to remedy what he considers to be "America's false images" of Muslims.

"As a young man, I used to think 40 was the jumping off point," he says with a laugh. "Surely, I thought, by then I'd have said everything I have to say. But I'm still trying to finish what I started."

* * *

On a hot and humid morning, Findley walks into his office, a spacious room loaded with mementos from his career. There are photos of him with Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford. He shows off a woodcarving signed by his friend Yasser Arafat. Sitting down in a straight-backed chair, he reflects, "I was born three blocks from where we sit now--so you might say I haven't gotten very far in this life."

His father had been a general secretary in the YMCA, a failed farmer, and an insurance salesman, before he developed Parkinson's disease and became an invalid. "I must have been about ten years old," Findley says. "I can't remember anytime when we had a real conversation.

"My mother was our tower of strength. She got a job as a manager at a high-school cafeteria and we were able to buy our house. My three sisters went to work, and my brother Bill and I always met our own expenses. It was a character-building experience."

Findley met his wife, Lucille, during WWII. "She was a Navy flight nurse bringing the wounded up to Guam for hospitalization," he says. "My advantage was having a Jeep. Our courtship was intermittent--we'd get down to the beach, which had been secured. But then she was evacuating wounded from Okinawa, so she has more battle stars than me. She outranks me too--still does."

Returning to Illinois, the Findleys settled in Pittsfield, where Paul joined a partnership in a weekly newspaper. They had two children, Craig and Diane. Craig now runs the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

In 1952 Findley failed in his first attempt at public office; he ran as a Republican candidate for state senator. In 1960 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, much to the pleasure of Clarence Streit. He championed the Atlantic Union, civil rights legislation, and farm-policy reform. Considering that many of his farm constituents profited from federal subsidies, it's amazing they kept sending him back to Washington. "I've never been afraid to speak my mind," he says.

Then in 1974 he received a letter from a woman who had worked for his paper in Pittsfield. "She wrote to me in Washington to say her son had been arrested in Aden and found guilty of spying. Aden was the capital of what was then the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. Back then it was separate from North Yemen; it was a Marxist state under the thumb of the Soviet Union. Soviet ships had full-range use of their harbor. The Soviets were trying to be a great influence over the Suez Canal, which was then blocked. And I went to the State Department, then to Yemen's ambassador in New York. The British had a diplomatic mission in Aden, and their man sent word to London that if Findley wanted to see his constituent alive he better get over here.

"The young man's name was Ed Franklin. His mother had been writing news notes--you know, who visited who--for years. He was on a commercial flight from Ethiopia. He had been teaching in an American school in Kuwait, and on his way the plane had engine trouble and it had an unscheduled landing in Aden. While he was waiting, he took some pictures around the harbor, and they decided he was a British spy. They sentenced him to five years in solitary confinement. I later learned he had been incarcerated in a very rusty enclosure. South Yemen has a terrible climate. High humidity, temperatures around 130 degrees. He had been there for about 15 months. I decided I had to go to try to get him out.

"When I arrived, the president of Yemen seemed to want to stick out the hand of friendship to the West. I guess he was a little leery of subservience to the Soviets. After three days of anxiety, I got the good news that I could bring our young man home."

Findley says he may have represented something new to the Yemenis--a friendly, well-intentioned American. He began to wonder why in Congress there was so little discussion about Middle East policy. "There is nothing worthy of the name debate that ever occurs," he says. "The only question is 'What does Israel want?' And then they approve it.

"Our bias has been totally in favor of Israel and against Arab interests, and this has been year after year. It's hard to determine how much money goes to Israel a year, because a lot of it is concealed in Defense Department appropriations. It's at least $5 billion a year, plus extras tacked on to compensate for drops in tourism and the cost of the Iraqi war. These facts are well known outside America, but not here.

"The American people are mostly not interested in what happens abroad, and those who are interested get most of the information from news reports that have a bias. Most media avoid anything that puts Israel in a bad light and they welcome whatever puts Arabs in a bad light. So the American people have been largely in the dark about the gross impact of this bias."

He says anyone who stands in opposition to Israel runs the risk of being branded as an anti-Semite. "Even a reckless accusation of anti-Semitism is like the plague. No one wants to be accused of that, and Israel has succeeded in redefining the term as to equate it to anything that's critical of their government."

In 1980 the Democrats ran a Springfield travel agent named David Robinson against him. "My opponent raised most of his money by running ads in Jewish newspapers identifying me as the the worst anti-Semite who ever lived and ever served in Congress. According to AIPAC, money came to my opponent from every state in the union. Dick Durbin ran the next time around, and he had the advantage of that range of support. He didn't make those accusations but he benefited from them. Money poured in, and it was the most expensive campaigns Illinois members of the House ever had. Each of us had to raise about a million bucks a year each of those two campaigns.

"I've had a marvelous experience since my defeat for reelection, and I wouldn't back up and do it any other way. But the effectiveness of AIPAC in stamping out the free exchange of ideas has had awful consequences. Because the outside world knows the degree to which our government has been biased in favor of Israel, especially in the Arab states. Any observer of the scene will recognize that 9/11 had its origins in this accomplishment years ago of stifling the free exchange of ideas in the U.S. Congress. If there had been a free exchange there wouldn't have been a bias in public policy. If there hadn't been a bias in public policy, there wouldn't be the worldwide outrage against the U.S. and Israel for the plight of the Palestinians.

"Nahum Goldmann was one of the pioneers in the creation of Israel. He said the leaders of Israel should do their very best to meet the concerns of the surrounding Arab states. Instead of military action, expansions, wars of attrition, if they had dealt with neighbors in a neighborly way, they would have a far better chance of surviving than otherwise. He predicted that within 50 years Israel would have trouble surviving if it didn't mend its ways. But that message was not heeded, and we're now in a very difficult time. It wouldn't surprise me to see a lot of violence in the Middle East because we've missed so many chances. As much as the new Palestinian prime minister will try to dampen violence and suicide bombing, he doesn't have the political base that Arafat had. The radical impulse of the younger generation will continue, and it's a pity.

"Of course, Arab states all through these years could have done more. They have not welcomed Palestinians to their countries as citizens. But they chose to continue to put pressure on Israel to recognize and honor the rights of Palestinians who had been driven from their land.

"The only time I had a chance to talk to Ronald Reagan, as president, about the Middle East was in the doorway to the cabinet room. We had a session of the Ag Committee on some farm issue, on the way out we sort of got trapped together and I told him that I felt the Palestinians deserved a state of their own. And guess what his response was? 'Yes, I understand that, but where would they have it.' As if the Palestinians had no right to the land to which they had title, where many generations of Palestinians had lived in Palestine. He couldn't comprehend anything except for the sort of Biblical entitlement that many people ascribe to the Israelites of many centuries ago. Israel in Biblical times existed for just a short span of years and yet it forms that basis for the claims of modern Israel to all of Palestine.

"I don't condone the suicide bombings. I think they're dreadful, and counterproductive--politically it's a mistake. But I think I can understand why people who have been driven from their land, disenfranchised, brutalized, humiliated year after year, can go to some very rash actions. Bitterness and the determination to regain their heritage runs very deep in the younger generations. The Palestinian population is getting bigger all the time.

"The occupation is the problem. If George Bush--the man who is capable of big decisions and surprises--if he would recognize the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians and say no more U.S. aid until Israel vacates the territory it seized in the '67 war, that would literally bring peace to the Middle East. Every Arab state, including the Palestinian leadership, Hamas and Hezbollah, has accepted peace on those terms. Bush could make a great page in history. Our government should supply troops to help monitor the border and establish a peaceful relationship during the shakedown period. If he wants stability and calm in the Middle East, he could bring it about, because no prime minister of Israel can afford to defy a clear ultimatum from a U.S. president.

"I hope I live long enough to see some major justice in the Middle East, but the skies are blacker now than anytime I can remember. It's our darkest time, though there are two reasons to remain hopeful: Bush is the first U.S. president to clearly say that Palestinian statehood was a clear objective of our government policy, and his Secretary of State at least has talked about the land seized by Israel in '67 as occupied territory. Now, Don Rumsfeld refers to it as so-called occupied territory, but the administration has not trivialized it that way. Once Bush grasps the enormity of the problem, and how it affects much of the world, he may do the right thing.

"I say it affects much of the world, because the Muslim faith is the faith of most of the Palestinians--about 80 perecent. There are 1.2 billion Muslims. I've been to many countries and talked to many Muslims and I have yet to meet a one who is not outraged at the terrible abuse Israel has meted out to the Palestinians. It's the cause of the anti-Americanism that is flooding the world today. The world knows we are just as complicit because of our unconditional support of Israel.

"I couldn't have told you one thing about Islam when I went to Congress. I had been there about seven or eight years before I knowingly met a Muslim anyplace. The ones I have met are admirable. They're embarrassed by the behavior of Osama bin Laden, but they don't do a good job of correcting the record. There are seven million of them in America-- seven million--and I spend a lot of my time trying to motivate them to correct the false images that headlines have given Islam."

Findley knows that the current scattershot, guerilla conflict in Iraq "doesn't build American sympathy for Arabs. The American people see this as a war of liberation. I'm not sure how many Iraqis see it that way.

"The British came in as liberators of the Iraqi people. They promised everything that Bush and the American generals have promised--we will bring democracy and liberty--and after all these years that never came to be. The Iraqis have every reason to distrust America, because we have let them down. At the close of the Gulf war we were in a position to set all of the conditions for Saddam's surrender. We encouraged an uprising against him, and when the fighting began we pulled out--we didn't give them any support at all. They may not really want an American-style democracy--that's a possibility."

After Vietnam, Findley was among the legislators who swore the executive branch would never again get the country into war without Congressional approval. He was a principal author of the War Powers Resolution and regards this legislature's acquiescence to Bush's plans in Iraq "as act of supreme irresponsibility."

"The Constitution gives Congress the exclusive right to declare war--it doesn't use the term make war; Congress isn't suited to be the commander-in-chief. Abraham Lincoln described the power to authorize war as the power to inflict the worst oppression on the people of America, a greater oppression than any other. He said that the framers of the Constitution very wisely provided that the awesome power to create this oppression should not be lodged in one person alone. I often cited Lincoln when I was in Congress. And now Congress gave Bush just a blank check.

"Bush has been a disaster. I view him as, in a sense, the most dangerous guy in the world because he commands enormous military power and he doesn't have to get the consent of anyone to use it. His assertion of special privileges as world policeman, reserving the right for preemptive attacks against any power that would threaten our security, that really troubles me. It shoots the foundations of the rule of law in international affairs. Now we're assuming the right to go to war on our own without any provocation. This is a very fundamental change, and I'm afraid we're going to rue the day we started down this path.

"There was a panic after 9/11. I think we overreacted to it as a nation. I created quite a furor in this community when I said we dare not overreact. I gave a sermon at the Congregational Church, and I said when we reflect on the enormity of that loss of life on 9/11 very few Americans will remember that we provided Israel with the munitions and military equipment that led to a monumental loss of life in Lebanon, in the suburbs of Beirut in 1984. At least 17,000 innocent civilians died because of the bombardment that would not have been possible except for our unqualified support of Israel."

Findley despairs at the mean and contentious tenor of current political discourse. "I got the best cooperation on my initiatives, like Atlantic Union, from Democrats. We moved freely across the center aisle. I don't see how I could fit in today if I were suddenly elected to the House. Tom DeLay is not my idea of a Republican. I'm not leaving the Republican party. My party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower. I'm saddened by events. There could be a backlash that has not taken shape yet against our involvement in the Middle East in Iraq. The American people have little patience for prolonged costly wars, as we've seen in Vietnam. And when their image of us as the good guys, as the liberators, is dashed, there may be quite a change."

Also from Patrick Arden

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