Stephen Zunes | February 13, 2008
Editor: John Feffer
Foreign Policy In Focus www.fpif.org
Many Americans would be surprised to learn that among the most important constituencies backing the Bush administration’s disastrous agenda in the Middle East and promoting anti-Arab policies has been the one million-strong American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT leadership has gone so far as to make a series of public statements and push through resolutions with demonstrably inaccurate assertions in its defense of administration policy. A key constituent union of the AFL-CIO, the AFT – which also represents a significant number of health care and other public service workers – gives over $5 million in contributions to congressional candidates each election cycle.
In January 2003, as anti-war activists were scrambling to prevent a U.S. invasion of Iraq war by challenging the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq having reconstituted its chemical and biological weapons capability, offensive delivery system, and nuclear weapons program, the AFT’s executive council decided to weigh in on the debate.
The AFT executive council issued a public statement claiming that
The vote for this resolution was not unanimous. A number of members of the executive council – such as Barbara Bowen, president of AFT’s large local at City University of New York (CUNY) – raised concerns over the credibility of the claims made by war supporters in the administration and on Capitol Hill regarding the alleged Iraqi threat. These dissenters were overwhelmed, however, by those on the council who fell in line with the Bush administration. Instead, the majority of the AFT executive council relied exclusively on the opinions of current and former government officials.
At the subsequent biannual convention in 2004, members passed a resolution strongly condemning the Bush administration for misleading the American public on
Despite admitting they were wrong about
Continued Support for the War
In a 2004 resolution at the AFT’s biannual convention, the AFT rebuked anti-war elements of the union by passing a resolution declaring, in part, that “we urge the Bush administration, the Congress and the American people to reject calls for the precipitous withdrawal of
The AFT rank and file opponents of the resolution raised questions about the impact of the occupation on the people of
Eventually, a rank-and-file effort to pass a resolution at the AFT’s national convention in 2006 calling for a withdrawal of American troops from
A Politically Inspired Deception?
In the 1980s – when
This doesn’t make any sense until one considers that the Reagan administration supported
It appears, then, that the AFT leadership – despite its criticism of these two Republican administrations’ domestic policy agenda – was more interested in doing what these Republican administrations wanted it to say than it was in providing its members with an honest assessment of Iraq’s military capabilities.
Backing Bush on
Even as a rank-and-file effort to rescind AFT support for the
As with the decision by the AFT leadership in 2003 to repeat the Bush administration’s false claims about
For example, the resolution claimed that Hezbollah “proudly takes credit for the 1983 bombing of the
The resolution also claims that Hezbollah and Hamas were “holding the people of Lebanon and the Palestinian in Gaza hostage” by putting civilian in harm's way, backing the Bush administration’s insistence that these Palestinian and Lebanese militias were ultimately responsible for the deaths of their fellow countrymen, not the indiscriminate bombardments by U.S.-supplied Israeli forces into civilian areas. However, a detailed study published at the end of the fighting in August by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that it had found “no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack.” Similarly, Amnesty International, in a well-documented report published in November observed, “While the presence of Hizbullah’s fighters and short-range weapons within civilian areas is not contested” it was “not apparent that civilians were present and used as ‘human shields.’” The resolution went on to claim that the aims of Hezbollah and Hamas in that summer’s fighting were to “carry out the agendas of
Similarly, in an apparent effort to undermine Syrian efforts to re-open negotiations with
A History of Militarism
In many respects, the AFT’s right-wing foreign policy agenda is nothing new. The union’s long-time and influential founding president Albert Shankar was an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and of
Shankar was also virtually the only prominent trade unionist to join the Committee on the Present Danger during the late 1970s and 1980s, the influential right-wing group that included a number of neo-conservatives who would later serve in the current administration. Shankar and his colleagues claimed that Soviet Russia and its allies were somehow getting stronger than the
In short, the AFT is continuing its longstanding role of being the principal shill for
It is particularly ironic that a union representing educators would base its foreign policy agenda not on empirical evidence, but simply on statements by right-wing political leaders. Indeed, the significance of the AFT’s hawkish foreign policy agenda is not just its influential role in Democratic Party politics and in formulating the national debate on important policy issues, but the fact that it represents the people who educate
The AFT leadership’s positions are being increasingly challenged by the rank-and file, particularly those involved in the AFT Peace and Justice Caucus and the multi-union U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW.) More than two dozen AFT affiliates have formally joined USLAW – more than from any other union. This includes the statewide chapters from
A willingness to challenge the AFT leadership’s right-wing foreign policy agenda has been growing. A resolution at the 2002 AFT convention opposing a
The AFT is no longer monolithic. There is a strong and growing tendency within the AFT to change directions. And, given the AFT’s important role politically, this could not come too soon.