February 11, 2010

Is Relativity Real?

The embers still burn. Nearly nine months after Iran’s presidential election and protesters are again preparing to storm Tehran’s streets. Today marks the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution, expected to be a flash-point between pro and anti-government forces.

Cyber warfare is in effect.

President Obama, leery of being perceived as interfering with Iran’s electoral process, has been criticized for taking a hands off approach. Falsely we believe, as an aggressive approach towards Iran is futile. For now he’s consumed by pressuring China for sanctions, but he’s surely monitoring the situation through US intelligence and will likely make a statement soon.

Obama and his circle are busy preparing for a number of hands on approaches - if the time is right.

Unfortunately the time will never be right in Sri Lanka, or Afghanistan for that matter. These electoral specimens may appear dissimilar, but they share at least one commonality - US interest determining the value of their “democracy.” Paradoxically, the only real difference is America's response.

Gazing through Iran’s prism illuminates the numerous ways Washington manipulates foreign governments by staying silent.

Obama’s reaction to Iran represents the right choice strategically and morally. His many critics will fault him on a four day delay in his public reaction after the June election, but there was no use in rushing a response within a day or two. Though he might have been tentative he still spoke.

After violence spread he was able to freely express his opposition to Iran’s conduct - voting irregularities, media suppression, and oppressive force.

"What I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process,” Obama told the Green Revolution, “I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching."

Luckily for Obama the world isn’t watching Sri Lanka, relatively speaking, because those that rise up here will also be put down. Six days of silence have passed since his congratulatory message to President Rajapaksa on February 5th. The election was held more than two weeks ago, hailed a success because of low violence.

"I urge you to seize this opportunity to provide the leadership that will allow all Sri Lankans to come together and meet their aspirations to live in a country that is rooted in tolerance, respect for human rights, accountability, the rule of law, and freedom of the press- all elements essential for national reconciliation," Obama says in the letter.

But three days have passed since Sarath Fonseka, former Sri Lankan general and currant opposition candidate, was arrested without evidence and could be court martialed. One of the charges, conspiracy to commit a coup, has so far played out false. A second was Fonseka's alleged agreement to international investigations.

Obama would be on TV the next day had the same occurred to Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Instead the most America has mustered is State Department spokesman Philip Crowley’s unintentionally comical, "It's an unusual action to take right on the heels of an election.” He means to say America is a leading trade partner with Sri Lanka and must watch out for China.

Obama has applied the same wait and see strategy as with Iran, but with limited damage domestically or internationally. Republicans could care less as long as economic ties remain strong and most Sri Lankans, nearly 70%, are content with their government. Sri Lankan oppositional protesters carry the front story of CNN’s Asian section - while being blasted by water cannons,

Iranian protesters grace the home page.

But given the overall situation before and after the election, Sri Lanka's activity is equal to Iran and the moment for a timely response has already passed. Consistent low level violence in the run-up gave way to Sri Lankan opposition parties organizing a counter attack. Protests against Fonseka’s arrest have already begun and appear certain to see bloodshed.

Al Jazeera's Minelle Fernandez reported from Colombo, “When they [the opposition] were assembling, basically, there was a counter-demonstration that was put together by pro-government supporters. There was a lot of tension between both groups and clashes broke out."

It would be perfectly in bounds for President Obama to issue a public statement on Sri Lanka’s general state of affairs. He’s beyond late, afraid to come down on Rajapaksa, which could admittedly sway him to China’s side. But these are the types of actions necessary to restore America’s global image.

Sri Lanka’s dilemma extends beyond the election itself, for the most part “fair” and with unexpectedly low violence. The problem is complex in that the losers must be accommodated for the war to truly end.

"The recent end of the war creates a historic opportunity for Sri Lanka to heal the divisions of conflict, and build a society that offers equality and opportunity for all," Obama wrote in his letter, standard fare from US officials.

Except the war isn’t over. Divisions and tensions remain: Tamil society is still in rubble, 80,000 remain in camps, many of the returned without jobs and unregistered to vote, and an election that further segregated rather than healed the country. Tamil vote was down, but still voted for Fonseka 2 to 1.

A marginalized minority just became more marginalized.

Sri Lanka’s north isn’t post-war - it was and still is counterinsurgency. Until Tamils are successfully integrated into the island, either through autonomous status or national inclusion, the war is still happening.

A militancy of any form is liable to regenerate if the root of the conflict remains. Thus if America wants the Tigers to stay dead it should actually increase the pressure on Rajapaska to reform without delay. So far war crime allegations, human rights violations, and an ethnic breakdown that enables tyranny of the majority have failed to produce Washington's response to Iran.

At least EU nations have threatened to suspend Sri Lanka's preferential trade status because its human rights record.

But to watch Fonseka dragged off by his hands and feet and hear no clamor lays bear the polarity between Obama’s reaction to Iran and Sri Lanka. Too bad that the violence is going to rise and Fonseka may be endangered. Obama will be forced to respond eventually.

Then again he never gave a definitive and widely disseminated response to Afghanistan’s election and never suffered much damage with Americans focused on the economy. Eager to congratulate Hamid Karzai on the first morning, there would be no series of condemnation because no oppositional violence materialized.

Afghans for the most part pragmatically accepted a fraud riddled vote with low turnout. Abdullah withdrew in protest, but he wasn’t dragged away “like an animal,” in the words of Fonseka’s wife Anoma.

Obama has managed to escape criticism over his handling of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka’s respective elections, dwarfed as they are by Iran, yet he isn’t out of the woods. Like Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka’s electoral outcomes have a good chance of creating instability over time. Eventually Karzai will come back to bite Obama, and failing to speak up now for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils also comes with side-effects.

Naturally it’s unrealistic to expect America to treat every foreign state the same. Any given democracy has become subject to America’s needs, not necessarily those of the local people. This process is nothing new, states make decisions based on self interests. And yet relatively is not so real either.

Based on current and past examples America’s arbitrary definition of democracy isn’t a recipe for resolving conflict - or, for instance, countering China. Standing up for minorities in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka - to make a long list short - could produce more overall leverage against China than an offensive targeted on Iran, Taiwan, and North Korea.

The reality is that all human rights vacuums must be engaged if America is to revive its lofty image and regain preeminence in the world.

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