February 18, 2011

U.S. Foreign Policy Running in Circles

A consensus among Arab scholars and regional observers is gaining ground in Africa and the Middle East: the Muslim world has irreversibly changed even if no more dominoes fall after the Hosni Mubarak regime. No longer can unresponsive governments rule without accountability. Globalization is erasing the bonds of fear, ignorance, and subservience that held their peoples in check, and the Muslim world will move forward regardless of what happens next.

Sadly this optimistic feeling goes hungry in America, where a democratic up-welling is being treated as a strategic liability.

President Barack Obama’s response to the Muslim world’s awakening may go down as one of history’s greatest ironies. Choking fits the description as well; few U.S. presidents swept to office with such high expectations for restoring American ideals of democracy and human rights. Although George Bush left the country’s global image in the gutter, Obama easily persuade the Muslim world to give him a chance.

Now is that chance.

“I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen,” he said in a prepared statement today. “The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur. We express our condolences to the families and friends of those who have been killed during the demonstrations. Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly. The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests and to respect the rights of their people.”

Since he considers himself a sports aficionado, the revolutionary wave thundering across the Muslim world affords a heroic World Series, bottom-of-the-ninth situation. Except he’s striking out with the bases loaded - and going on strike seven.

It’s interesting to watch the U.S. media belatedly credit Obama for “demanding” regime change in Egypt - more interesting to read the many editorials and op-eds advising caution against pulling “another Mubarak.” In many quarters Obama didn’t do enough to prop up a dying dictator, leading to fears that he set a poor example for other U.S. allies. These thoughts and their offspring fall off the historical cliff, and continuing to suppress the revolutionary spirit will yield negative results for both the region and U.S. policy.

Such is the case in Egypt, where Obama patted himself on the back for installing an increasingly unpopular military council as a last resort. The Pentagon’s pet still stands a good chance of being overthrown by a pure civilian authority. But the fear of pulling “another Mubarak” takes on new life in states like Bahrain and Yemen, where the U.S. opposes any further regime change. Here we find similar walkbacks from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s eating her earlier praise of Bahrain's government. After the King opened live fire on peaceful protesters, Obama released his all-too-familiar statement of concern for loss of life. Always after, never before.

"This is a war," said Dr. Bassem Deif, an orthopedic surgeon examining dozens of bullet wounds.

In Yemen protesters enter their 9th straight day of marches despite violent government suppression. Saleh has unleashed his own loyalists, stealing a play from Mubarak, yet he continues to pull in U.S. military aid. Weeks ago many U.S. pundits and analysts were downplaying the opposition’s mobilization and praising President Ali Abdullah Saleh, arguing that he doesn’t use force on his people - that few Yemenis want regime change. But many did want Saleh gone, and more are changing their minds with each oppressive day.

The Saleh government denies involvement in the attacks even though officials from the U.S. embassy admitted to spotting government coordinators. And the White House continues to act as though it has the right policy in place.

“We have a counter-terrorism strategy with Yemen,” said spokesman Philip Crowley, “but part of that is, in fact, the kind of economic and political assistance that can help strengthen Yemeni institutions, strengthen the bond between Yemen and its citizens. Yemen’s got a number of challenges. They’ve got multiple conflicts, and that’s why we have a robust and expanding civilian program in Yemen that complements what we’re doing on the terrorism front.”

Not only has the trust deficit expanded between Saleh and Yemenis under U.S. policy, Washington knows that Saleh misappropriates U.S. training and equipment against the Houthis and Southern Movement. Only now has civilian aid caught up to military aid after widespread criticism of a counterproductive policy. And while anti-American sentiment remains high, Washington stubbornly shields Saleh from regime change because of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But Saleh's problems aren't going anywhere, and sacrificing popular opinion to keep up the fight contradicts the nature of counterinsurgency.

“Counter-terrorism” is a cheap knockoff that assigns a lower value to “hearts and minds,” which are now being chucked to the floor at an alarming rate.

The repetitive nature of the Obama administration's response vividly demonstrates how little has been learned from Egypt. Facing down 14-1 odds on Israel’s settlements is especially indicative of a broken foreign policy. Although Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, argued that the Palestinian resolution would harden each position, the resolution also possesses a chance to break the current deadlock in negotiations. Clearly 14 other nations disagreed with the U.S. position. Most of the international community does.

This stat sums up U.S. foreign policy, an isolation that has become dangerously repetitious.

Without Egypt’s gravity to hold him accountable, Obama has reverted to silence as he passes the dirty work to officials and spokespeople. Only when situations escalate dramatically does he feel the need to make an appearance. However his silence speaks volume and costs lives, fomenting the impression that he sides with oppressive regimes. Conservatives pundits accuse Obama of becoming too friendly with Muslims and toppling U.S. allies, yet his main fault is the very absence of a connection to Muslims.

Crowley insisted to skeptical reporters, “The principles that we’ve laid out throughout the last few weeks, one of them has been the absolute requirement for political, economic, and social reform. As the President said last week, there is change coming to the region, and governments will be well served to anticipate and stay ahead of that change.”

Reform, reform, reform - but who trusts these governments to deliver? They’ve already chosen wrongly in violent suppression, and after receiving U.S. praise. Maybe the two share a correlation: the perceived safety in getting away with their actions. U.S. policy is going backwards, threatening the last of Obama’s credibility in the Muslim world. He wanted change and got regime change - and now he’s trying to stop it or slow it down. For all the talk of being on the right side of history, Obama must be asking himself how he ever found himself on the wrong side.

It’s not too late to change though. Revolution isn’t going away any time soon. But Obama needs to demonstrate, not just articulate, his clear support for Muslim democracy before trapping America on the wrong side for good.

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