The Dangerous Game of Playing it Safe
For better or worse — hopefully better, probably worse — the United States finds itself fighting its third war against the government of a Muslim country in less than a decade. Of these conflicts, the first two were predicated to different degrees on the idea that an American military occupation could produce a society with democratic norms and liberal values, and a government naturally aligned to our interests.
The exciting thing about the revolutions taking place in the Arab world these first few months of 2011 is that democratization and the opening of civil society is happening in a purely indigenous and spontaneous manner. In Egypt and Tunisia, regime change has been achieved at comparatively low cost and effort. Weak statehood, rising food prices, unemployment and an increasingly geriatric class of autocrats are much more effective agents of regime change than the B-52 Stratofortress and the M1 Abrams.
That said, the American government has a huge role to play in how successor revolutions play out: our power and influence can either dampen or amplify the effects of the mass movements sweeping the region, and a public debate must be had about our policies. Recently, that public debate has mostly been confined to a single, narrowly-focused question: the efficacy of a no-fly zone in ending the demented proclamations of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Meanwhile, police in countries closely aligned to the United States shoot student protesters at will. This is the central dysfunction of American foreign policy in the Middle East right now: our most open support for democratic movements is in countries where we have the least influence and the least ability to assist.
This dysfunction is certainly true in the case of Libya, where Colonel Gadhafi’s antipathetic relationship the the West is well-attested, and whose rebel movement is so supported by Western governments that this support is now taking the form of a full-blown military conflict. It’s even more true in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country which has not had diplomatic relations with the United States in decades.
Whereas the Obama administration tempered and muted its praise of the protest movement in Egypt until it became clear that they were winning, Hillary Clinton immediately and forcefully backed the protest movement in Iran the first day that those protests reappeared earlier in the year. The State Department even set up its own Persian-language Twitter feed. For his part, Obama expressed his “hope and expectation that we’re going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms.” Surely this yearning is not exclusive to speakers of Farsi.
Meanwhile, in places where the Obama administration has real influence, public support for pro-democracy protesters has been tepid, at best. In Egypt, one could give credit to the administration for playing a fairly even game in waiting out Hosni Mubarak. But we should also remember that for some time the American government had endorsed, as Mubarak’s successor, the morally decrepit Omar Suleiman, the man who, as the head of the Egyptian secret police, was responsible like few others for the human rights abuses of the Mubarak regime.
Then there’s the ongoing situation in Bahrain. On February 17, the government there ordered police into Pearl Square, where the protesters had gathered. 300 people were injured and a 2-year-old girl was shot multiple times. Since then the situation has deteriorated considerably. After the protesters recently moved to the financial district in Manama, the government declared a state of emergency, and asked neighboring Gulf states to send troops. Last week, a thousand Saudi troops arrived to assist the Bahraini government in suppressing the legitimate demands of the protesters. By inviting foreign troops across the King Fahd Causeway, which connects the tiny island of Bahrain to the Arabian mainland, King Khalifa has essentially already abdicated power.
Some pundits have spoken in favor of intervention in Libya by arguing that Gadhafi’s crackdown would have a chilling effect on revolutionary movements in the region. But the Arab world is filled with governments that look like Bahrain’s, and none that look like Libya’s. The regional network of autocrats whose nexus is the cynical and corrupt House of Saud will fight democratic reform to the end, and if the protest movements are to continue successfully, they’ll need the American government as a counterweight. It’s time for President Obama to make good on his speech in Cairo in 2009 and to treat the people of the Arab world — not just their autocrats — with dignity and respect.