March 21, 2011
Revolution Overloads Faulty U.S. Grid
Denial is supposedly the first sign of a problem. Swimming against the revolutionary current overtaking the Muslim world, President Barack Obama has fought a dogged perception that U.S. foreign policy cannot focus on multiple areas, that he should have visited Cairo and sent his Secretary of State to Latin America. That his administration is simply overloaded.
The criticism echoed so loud that the White House is actively trying to drown it out.
“Even as the President maintains his focus on international crises in Japan and Libya, he discusses his trip to Latin America to open up markets for US products,” reads its website next to a thoughtful-looking Obama.
The sheer mass of ongoing events in North Africa and the Middle East cannot be denied as an overwhelming force. Evidence of a submerged Washington started to accumulate before the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as the White House, Pentagon, and Congress struggled to unify their policy and message. Fears of instability, often viewed through the Israeli lens, ran high and new revolutions were demanding attention before Washington could prepare.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, visibly enjoyed a sudden blackout in Afghanistan, drawing concern from the war’s opponents that Obama has completely ceded to David Petraeus’s authority. And Washington validated its distraction from Pakistan after the case of CIA spy Raymond Davis, which spanned from Egypt’s initial uprising to mid-March, ended in political chaos.
Then an 8.9 earthquake struck Japan’s coast, triggering a nightmarish spew of tsunamis and nuclear radiation. Tragedies collided: the plight of the Japanese, and the cold reality that they just diverted international attention and resources away from the Middle East. No time is good for a natural disaster, but the effects of Japan’s earthquake were literally felt around the world. Japan and Libya became a two-person show as the White House and global media shifted away from accelerating revolutions Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Clearly Washington isn’t immune to a system overload; the U.S. media fell equal victim to global demands. Already spread thin by budget cuts, structural change, geography and the political dangers of covering multiple revolutions, U.S. news organizations generally tend to follow Washington’s direction. Slow to respond to Egypt’s revolution, many U.S. journalists had no time to rest before shipping off to Libya. A ThinkProgress analysis of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News conducted from March 14 to March 18 turned up 9,500 mentions of Libya, 1,500 for Bahrain, and 600 in Yemen.
The New York Times writes, “Despite extensive coverage of Libya and Japan, the television networks have had major blind spots. Last week, none of the broadcast networks had correspondents in Bahrain, where the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, when security forces crushed the protest movement there, nor in Yemen when forces there killed dozens of protesters. The dearth of coverage of Yemen is largely because of its government’s refusal to grant visas to journalists.”
It’s certainly true that Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, deployed a media blanket over his country by limiting entry and deporting those journalists he can catch. Four journalists were famously deported last week but others predated their exit, and Al Jazeera correspondents were deported after catching Friday’s massacre on video. Only now is the world's attention returning to the Middle East, an inevitable result given protesters’ spirited persistence against state oppression.
However the demands of a revolutionary wave only explain half of Washington’s flawed and often sluggish response. That Yemen’s revolution unfolds under a political and media blackout in America is no coincidence. The White House is supposed to block the information curtain to its best ability - and deciding to enforce it completed a system failure.
Revolution in the Muslim world exceeds the ordinary power surge, but it also struck a U.S. foreign policy grid that was outdated and unprepared for an international emergency. A unique disaster didn't overwhelm the strictest precautionary measures. Instead, a lax system built on a crumbling foundation froze on the initial upheaval and has struggled behind the curve ever since. Predicting the revolutionary wave at this particular moment is admittedly difficult, but one could easily perceive the erosion of U.S. policy at an individual and regional level. The system hadn't updated before the power surge struck - wasn't ready for change to the status quo - and needs to be overhauled before a successful reset.
Duplicity and double-standards represent the primary constants in America’s response, not an appeal for universal rights as Obama administration officials insist. And even they are beginning to admit what many others already perceive as obvious: some countries experiencing democratic upheaval are treated differently than others. Libya’s government is treated as an enemy of America and rightly so, but Bahrain's continues to enjoy a cushy blanket. In fact, every threatened government besides Libya is treated leniently by comparison, as if Libya was the only country the West had truly prepared for.
And Saudi Arabia is singled out as the kingmaker, with America as its subservient queen.
"I think we have to be very careful to treat every country differently," Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen recently told ABC News. "Bahrain is in a much different situation than Libya. We haven't had a relationship with Libya for a long, long time. The Bahrainis and that country has been a critical ally for decades. So we're working very hard to support a peaceful resolution there, as tragic as it has been, and we certainly decry the violence which has occurred in Bahrain.”
The same argument has been employed in Yemen despite its failure to qualify for Mullen’s description. Washington’s relationship with Saleh cannot be labeled as sincere or historical, only critical, and now U.S. policy is about to be blown out the door. A leading Hashid in Saleh’s own tribe, Sadeq al-Ahmar, joined the opposition movement after Friday’s bloody massacre left over 50 people dead.
Speaking to Al Jazeera (who else), al-Ahmar explained, "The demands of the protesters are the demands of the Yemeni people. I can no longer fool myself, it is not the custom of men or tribes to do so... I mediated with the president to bring change, but it seems that the authority was not that serious... The president's inner circle are not good people for him or the Yemeni people. They are liars, so I have joined the revolution and I support its demands."
So far Washington is still fooling itself in states like Yemen - a gem that fell into an abyss and now lures its greedy hunters to their doom. Yemen managed to make news in the White House and State Department on Monday, but only after being forced upon them by shocking violence. Obama continues to let his spokespeople do his talking and repeat the need for a political dialogue, demonstrating no policy shift over the weekend.
“I think in Yemen you saw some changes in the government that were made yesterday,” replied Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, when confronted with Sunday’s army defections and a fired cabinet. “I think our view is that there’s clearly going to have to be a political solution in Yemen that includes a government that is more responsive to the Yemeni people. That has been our consistent message to President Saleh. John Brennan actually spoke with President Saleh yesterday to discuss developments in Yemen.”
By this time Yemen's Defense Minister, Mohammed Nassar Ali, had vowed to defend “democracy” against a “coup.” When Saleh consistency rebuffs the message, it’s time for a new message.
The White House stands out all the more in Saleh’s lonely corner after a government exodus delivered its new message. Worse still, U.S. officials appear visibly uncomfortable when addressing Yemeni policy. With Obama and Clinton staying off record and Brennan limiting himself to the backroom, Rhodes and the State Department's Mark Toner were left to fend for themselves in a foreign realm. Toner’s response in particular flopped like a fish out of water.
A lengthy discussion on Libya eventually gave way to Yemen when reporters questioned the double standard: vocal and active versus silent and inactive. One journalist listed the White House's private calls to Saleh and wondered why the U.S. continues to support him when he's stopped listening. Toner essentially repeats the question before stating, “any government has to support political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people," when they’re calling for his immediate exit. Toner also urged Saleh to follow through on an investigation into Friday - as if he had nothing to do with the killings.
The journalist then rephrases her question once more: “Why is the U.S. trusting someone who has committed these apparent acts of humanitarian violence against his own people? Does it come down to the assistance provided against AQAP?”
Toner mumbles something about, “Our assistance is based on trying to address the inequities that exist and trying to build a prosperous economy. Beyond that, it’s not a quid pro quo or anything.”
Except U.S. assistance only recently increased its humanitarian funds after a military-centric policy drew widespread criticism, locally and internationally. Yemen was set for $250 million in military assistance and around $150 million in humanitarian aid when the revolution struck, with talks of $1.6 billion in military funds over six years. U.S. weapons have been employed on protesters, the majority of which are protesting because no one alleviated their political and economic inequality.
Nor does Toner explain why Washington still trusts Saleh when few do in his own country. He even repeats Obama's standard phrase, “This is about the Yemeni people... it’s not about what the U.S. wants to see.” But until now the U.S. wanted to see Saleh in power, and the connection between political support and military assistance is glaringly obvious.
One reporter finally remarks “the silence is deafening,” prompting Toner to defend Obama as outspoken. This response elicits muffled objection from the involved reporters, now irritated with Toner’s non-responses. They know Obama has only issued several brief statements on Yemen, opting to hide behind counter-terrorism and national security officials who have no business delivering a political message on the current scale. Another reporter ultimately compares Yemen's silence to Egypt, and a short discussion ends inconclusively with a lead-in to Japan.
All in all, an accurate impression of U.S. policy in Yemen: contradictory, ambiguous, and fading away.
A case-by-case response appears to make some sense on the surface. People cannot be expected to behave the same among friends and enemies, and some countries may require a different remedy than other. However, this thinking contradicts the ideal of universal freedom and human rights. Varying reactions to similar crises has created an overt double standard and increased the difficulty in responding. And by removing himself under the false excuse “this is about them,” Obama has ceded whatever charisma he possesses and muddied America’s overall image.
Perceived at a deeper level, the politically effective and morally sound response takes a universal stand behind democratic movements. Simplification enables an easier response without simplifying the problem. A sharper message creates real consistency, not the false consistency preached by the White House, and would eliminate the doubt consuming its energy. Additional eyes won't correct flawed policy, and Obama only has a short time to ask himself whether he wants Saleh’s downfall to end like Mubarak’s - on the fence.
Is that the consistency he wants to be remembered for?