May 19, 2011

Separating Obama’s Myths From His “Facts”

As some members of the U.S. government, particularly those within the Pentagon, nod their heads in agreement, a substantial number of observers may be surprised to hear that U.S. troops have “broken the Taliban’s momentum” in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama himself may have been surprised at the line. In a “facts sheet” released soon after his Thursday address, the Taliban’s momentum had already been downgraded to “arrested.”

Stopped, not broken.

Although this rhetorical swap doesn’t alter Obama’s conclusion - “the strategy in Afghanistan is working” - the difference in expectations is crucial given that arrested momentum may start up again. The subtle switch also leads to questions surrounding other “facts.” While “fact-sheets” are a common occurrence in the White House, its use in this particular moment amplifies the falsity of Obama’s rhetoric. Refusing to indulge in humility while triumphing his response to revolution in the Middle East and Africa, Obama declared that his administration has fully supported every democratic uprising.

“The President reaffirmed his commitment to a set of core principles that have guided the U.S. response to events in the Middle East and North Africa for the past six months. First, the United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region. Second, we support a set of universal rights including free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly and association; equality for men and women under the rule of law; the right to practice your religion without fear of violence or discrimination; and the right to choose your own leaders through democratic elections. Third, we support political and economic change in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of the people throughout the region.”

It’s as though Washington has done no wrong. Were this actually true, Obama wouldn't have found it necessary to give this particular speech to begin with. He broke silence because people are doubting his foreign policy, not because they trust him.

Bahrain's “facts:”
The United States is committed to Bahrain’s security. However, we believe that reform is the only path to enduring stability in Bahrain and that both sides must compromise to forge a just future for all Bahrainis. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

Bahrain’s facts: Washington has supported Saudi Arabia’s intervention to restore Bahrain’s “security,” justified by Iran’s “interference.” The regime’s brutal crackdown on opposition figures and medical officials has been relatively ignored in favor of Libya and Syria’s crackdowns. The opposition has also been outmaneuvered through hollow reform and dialogue, and has no reason to trust the regime at this point. Their freedom comes second to Saudi Arabia's buffer zone and America’s 5th Fleet.

Syria’s “facts:”
The United States condemns the Syrian government’s murder and mass arrests of its people. We have imposed additional sanctions on the regime, including on President Assad and his inner circle. We stand by the Syrian people who have shown their courage in demanding dignity and a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
Syria’s facts: Despite a vocal presence in Syria, the Obama administration was widely criticized for reacting too slowly to events mirroring Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown. For now this outcome has less to do with military logistics, as in Libya’s case, and more to do with Israel’s border security. Many liberal pundits expressed surprise that Syria had been revealed as a lynchpin of U.S.-Israeli-Saudi policy. When sanctions were finally levied after the opposition’s body count exploded, these same detractors criticized them as insufficient to halt President Bashar al-Assad’s viscous campaign against pro-democracy protesters.

Despite his best impression of Gaddafi, Obama still offers al-Assad a choice after he has consistently resorted to force. Syria’s popular opposition is unlikely to accept his legitimacy at this point.

Yemen’s “facts:”
The United States supports the aspirations of the Yemeni people for a more stable, unified, and prosperous nation, and we are committed to assisting them in this courageous pursuit. We are also committed to assisting Yemen to eradicate the security threat from al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. We support a peaceful and orderly transfer of power that begins immediately."
Yemen’s facts: Washington has supported an unpopular power transfer that caters to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s desires. Rather than remove him peacefully, the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) mediation has exasperated Yemen’s insecurity at the orders of Washington and Riyadh. A delayed time-frame plays into Saleh’s duplicity, while immunity has been handed out to his U.S.-trained relatives as they violently suppress pro-democracy protesters. This policy stands in stark contrast to sanctions against al-Assad’s family, who hold similar positions in his security forces. Saleh’s orchestrated violence of regular forces and plainclothes gunmen have mirrored Egypt’s ferocious urban resistance.

The GCC’s proposal - authored by U.S, EU, and Saudi diplomats - also includes a clause stipulating that protesters return home, contrary to U.S. support for peaceful assembly.

The Obama administration tried and failed to preempt his speech with an agreement from Saleh. The White House tried again on Thursday and magically produced an “agreement” - Saleh is willing to sign “any time,” in this case Sunday. This is exactly what he would say to appease Obama in the moment. If signed, the GCC will usher in a violent and disorderly transition under the watch of Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). Saleh has even vowed to stage his own uprising rather than leave the country, as proposed by the GCC.

Supporting a “power transfer” under these terms backs Saleh, not the pro-democracy movement. A number of youth coalitions released three bullet-points to accompany Obama’s speech, starting with the rejection of Saleh’s immunity. They also said that no one should be allowed to negotiate for them, and ended by vowing to march on the presidential palace. The GCC’s proposal is designed to sidestep their demands and ensure the continuous flow of U.S. counter-terrorism support, the only truthful aspect of Obama’s “facts.”

Although these revolutions share their causes and suffering, a one-size-fits-all strategy clearly isn’t being applied. In Bahrain, regime change is out of the question. In Syria, al-Assad can either lead the reform process “or step aside.” Yet in Yemen Saleh must leave office (even though this call is superficial). U.S. officials consider this “flexibility” a good thing - a realist strategy. We consider it an arbitrary scale based primarily on U.S. interests, not universal freedom and human rights, and America has paid a price on the streets.

Finally, the Obama administration’s “focus on al Qa`ida” overlooks vast gaps in U.S. policy.

“We have applied unprecedented pressure to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qa`ida and its adherents. We have disrupted plots at home, and increased military, intelligence, and diplomatic support to expand the capacity of our partners from Pakistan to Yemen; from Southeast Asia to Somalia. Over half of Al Qa`ida’s top leadership has been killed or captured, including, most recently, Al Qa`ida’s leader, Osama bin Laden. As the President noted in announcing Bin Laden’s death to the American people, his demise does not mark the end of our effort, as al-Qa`ida remains intent on and capable of striking the United States and our partners.”

It’s true that U.S. and allied forces have applied “unprecedented pressure” to al-Qaeda’s network in recent years. However the conditions of its battlegrounds remain largely ignored by one-dimensional U.S. policy, which applies drones and little else to impoverished conflict zones such as Yemen and Somalia. More importantly, Obama’s rhetoric once again signals how little bin Laden’s death altered al-Qaeda’s global battlefield. After hyping his death for ratings, bin Laden is now being exploited to continue U.S. military operations across the world.

The Obama administration's focus on al-Qaeda remains plagued by flaws. Leaving Pakistan aside, al-Qaeda’s three main havens are Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. In Yemen, Obama’s brief demand that Saleh exit is soon forgotten as “our partners in Yemen” are praised. Saleh has served as a fair weather ally, moving against AQAP only when it serves his own interests. Many Yemenis and international observers believe that he intentionally slackens on AQAP in order to secure additional U.S. military and economic aid. He’s also quick to throw Washington under the bus, first exposing U.S. air-strikes and later blaming Obama for “controlling” the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Saleh is more enemy than friend to America.

Meanwhile U.S. policy against al-Shabab relies on Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, another regime under pressure to “transition.” Western governments also refuse to commit funding for his troops because of political discord within Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), provoking a series of alarmist statements from TFG and UN officials. In North Africa, U.S. policy is run through Algeria’s paranoid security apparatus, and the administration is fortunate that an uprising stalled before takeoff.

Thus U.S. foreign policy is acutely vulnerable and contradicts American values where al-Qaeda remains strongest. Washington is carrying out bin Laden’s will through such a policy. This narrow-mindedness is causing and will continue to cause the White House to miss the historic opportunity in front of it.

This warning won’t be found on any “fact-sheet.”

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