Monday, May 30, 2011

Civil war developing in Yemen, US policy looking increasingly irrelevant in the Arab Awakening

The opposition claims that the Yemeni dictator Ali Abdallah Salih is allowing Al Qa'ida in Yemen to take over some areas in order to scare other countries into providing aid against the other rebels challenging the regime.

Here is another instance where we see how the constrictions of the War on Terror framework restricts and complicates the foreign policy options of the United States. Robert Fisk argues that US influence seems to be sharply declining in the wake of the Arab Awakening (Who cares in the Middle East what Obama says? The Independent 05/30/2011):

While Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu played out their farce in Washington – Obama grovelling as usual – the Arabs got on with the serious business of changing their world, demonstrating and fighting and dying for freedoms they have never possessed. Obama waffled on about change in the Middle East – and about America's new role in the region. It was pathetic. "What is this 'role' thing?" an Egyptian friend asked me at the weekend. "Do they still believe we care about what they think?"

And it is true. Obama's failure to support the Arab revolutions until they were all but over lost the US most of its surviving credit in the region. Obama was silent on the overthrow of Ben Ali, only joined in the chorus of contempt for Mubarak two days before his flight, condemned the Syrian regime – which has killed more of its people than any other dynasty in this Arab "spring", save for the frightful Gaddafi – but makes it clear that he would be happy to see Assad survive, waves his puny fist at puny Bahrain's cruelty and remains absolutely, stunningly silent over Saudi Arabia. And he goes on his knees before Israel. Is it any wonder, then, that Arabs are turning their backs on America, not out of fury or anger, nor with threats or violence, but with contempt? It is the Arabs and their fellow Muslims of the Middle East who are themselves now making the decisions. ...

Listening to Obama's 45-minute speech this month – the "kick off' to four whole days of weasel words and puffery by the man who tried to reach out to the Muslim world in Cairo two years ago, and then did nothing – one might have thought that the American President had initiated the Arab revolts, rather than sat on the sidelines in fear. [my emphasis]
One of the complications with Syria, Fisk reports, is that Turkey is worried about a flood of Kurdish refugees bolstering Kurdish anti-government sentiment in Turkey and is prepared to send Turkish troops into Syria to set up a "safe haven" for Syrian Kurdish refugees there inside Syria. And he writes of Yemen:

Amid all these vast and epic events – Yemen itself may yet prove to be the biggest bloodbath of all, while the number of Syria's "martyrs" have now exceeded the victims of Mubarak's death squads five months ago – is it any surprise that the frolics of Messrs Netanyahu and Obama appear so irrelevant?
He reminds us that people in the Arab world really do have a different viewpoint than the American conventional wisdom. Writing about Obama's recent pronouncements on Israel-Palestine:

Then we had the endless waffle about the 1967 borders. Netanyahu called them "defenceless" (though they seemed to have been pretty defendable for the 18 years prior to the Six Day War) and Obama – oblivious to the fact that Israel must be the only country in the world to have an eastern land frontier but doesn't know where it is – then says he was misunderstood when he talked about 1967. It doesn't matter what he says. George W Bush caved in years ago when he gave Ariel Sharon a letter which stated America's acceptance of "already existing major Israeli population centres" beyond the 1967 lines. To those Arabs prepared to listen to Obama's spineless oration, this was a grovel too far. They simply could not understand the reaction of Netanyahu's address to Congress. How could American politicians rise and applaud Netanyahu 55 times – 55 times – with more enthusiasm than one of the rubber parliaments of Assad, Saleh and the rest? [my emphasis]
Fisk reminds us of a bit of history, something that seems to get re-written almost daily in US conventional wisdom:

Of course, cynicism grows the longer you live in the Middle East. I recall, for example, travelling to Gaza in the early 1980s when Yasser Arafat was running his PLO statelet in Beirut. Anxious to destroy Arafat's prestige in the occupied territories, the Israeli government decided to give its support to an Islamist group in Gaza called Hamas. In fact, I actually saw with my own eyes the head of the Israeli army's Southern Command negotiating with bearded Hamas officials, giving them permission to build more mosques. It's only fair to say, of course, that we were also busy at the time, encouraging a certain Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan. But the Israelis did not give up on Hamas. They later held another meeting with the organisation in the West Bank; the story was on the front page of the Jerusalem Post the next day. But there wasn't a whimper from the Americans.
And he asks a pragmatic question about the Palestinian quest for UN recognition of statehood as it relates to the Arab Awakening:

Obama warns the Palestinians not to ask for statehood at the United Nations in September. But why on earth not? If the people of Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen and Libya and Syria – we are all waiting for the next revolution (Jordan? Bahrain again? Morocco?) – can fight for freedom and dignity, why shouldn't the Palestinians? Lectured for decades on the need for non-violent protest, the Palestinians elect to go to the UN with their cry for legitimacy – only to be slapped down by Obama.
The United States has to deal with states in international relations. There's a good case to be made that the US should recognize any government that is in practice in control of a country. The idea of formal diplomatic recognition as some kind of reward is a dubious one. It certainly doesn't seem to have proved very constructive in the case of Cuba. And while the Taliban government in Afghanistan was an odious one, it's questionable whether a policy of diplomatic isolation necessarily produced the best result. It's hard to see how a Taliban government with which the US had diplomatic relations could have produced more damaging results that it did with its collaboration with Osama bin Laden's original Al Qa'ida group.

Most Americans like the idea that we should promote democracy in the world, and so do I. But once we get below the level of that grand generalization, things get a lot stickier. The plain fact is that a lot of US democracy-promotion efforts are hard to distinguish from attempts at subversion of the government of a hostile nation-state. Supporting economic development and educational programs through genuinely independent international agencies should help move things in that direction.

But the US is a long way from a serious effort at that kind of thing. We try to promote "civil society" in countries like Iran we regard as hostile, which means in practice supporting opposition groups, including the occasional terrorist band. We claim we're supporting freedom and democracy when we enter a conflict like the Libyan civil war. But the shining democratic credentials of the opposition groups haven't yet become apparent.

We would be better off avoiding wars whenever reasonably possible, which was certainly the case with the Iraq War and the Libya War. And using conflict-resolution efforts like those the Carter Center effectively applies in many areas of the world to diffuse conflicts before they break out into civil wars. Every case is unique, of course. But there has to be some way the US can do a better job of having good relations with dictatorial regimes like those of Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Qaddafi and yet make clear our support for democratic aspirations even in those countries.

Dictatorial regimes do things that the US perceives as being in our interests. Egypt has maintained peaceful relations with Israel since 1978, generally considered a big victory for US foreign policy. Preventing wars is a good thing. Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program voluntarily. It would be foolish for the US not to reward those countries somehow when they do things we want them to do, especially on major policy issues. One of the concerns about the Libya War is that it may lead aspiring nuclear proliferaters to doubt whether it's more in their interest to give up such programs than to push them to fruition in order to be able to deter invasion by the United States.

But those rewards don't have to be so heavily tilted toward giving the dictators in question the military goodies they want so badly. And sticking to international law and basic human rights considerations is good policy. Egypt and Syria were two of the countries who cooperated with the US in the "special rendition" portion of the Cheney-Bush torture program, in which those targeted for torture were sent there to be tortured. When you cooperate with another regime in that kind of dirty business, it makes it hard to cut them loose, even when they are tottering. Because they know stuff. In the case of the torture program, the figure of speech "they know where the bodies are buried" is probably very literally true.

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