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Opinion: Policy consistency needed in Middle East

Weekly Columnist

Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

It’s hard to think back to a time, as little as two years ago, when the Middle East was home to a largely quiescent population, so accustomed to living under autocratic and monarchic rule as to accept it as a matter of course. The prospect of removing or replacing Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Bashar al-Assad in Syria was harbored only by the most optimistic of democrats and by the most radical of terrorists. All of that changed, of course, with the self-immolation of a Tunisian protestor on Dec. 18, 2010, and the beginning of what we now know as the Arab Spring. If only he could have experienced le déluge in all of the passion, violence and tragedy that followed after his suicide.

The Arab Spring was a spectacular, simultaneous transformation of the civic consciousness of hundreds of millions of people – yet it did not transform their governments. Those governments responded to the upwelling threat presented by their own subjects with meaningless concessions. Failing that, they resorted to violent measures of increasing severity, escalating, in the case of Syria, to the point of a civil war that has wrought utter desolation on that country. The battle of a largely unarmed populace revolting against the powerful and now the United States, under the diplomatic guidance of John Kerry, is inching closer to some measure of intervention on behalf of the rebel forces fighting against so-called President Assad. But why Syria? Why Libya and Yemen? Why involve the United States in these uprisings and not in, say, Bahrain’s?
There, the trajectory of the uprising did not resemble Egypt’s or Libya’s. After a month of protests at the Pearl Roundabout and failed negotiations between opposition leaders and the regime in the capital, Manama, the Al Khalifa monarchy declared martial law and used violent force to prevent the demonstrators from freely associating, employing torture, coercion and arrest without trial to effectively terminate the uprising. The Bahraini government thereby set a powerful example for autocrats the region over, demonstrating that merciless violence and repression, if deployed early and effectively enough, can quiet a people clamoring for freedom.

Bahrain’s small population and insignificant geopolitical stature in its own right do not excuse a refusal to even consider the same sort of intervention implemented in Libya and that is now being contemplated as a remedy for Syria’s civil war. What apparently did, though, was the presence in power of a long-time U.S. ally and the continued use of a military base there. The United States sold weaponry to the repressive monarchy which still rules Bahrain, some of which was used to crush the protests that arose there in March 2011. Furthermore, another regional ally of ours, Saudi Arabia, was also complicit in the suppression of the protest movement, calling in a regional defense force to help the Bahraini military and police establish martial law. The United States may not have intervened directly to preserve the rule of this favored potentate, as it had in so many instances over the past century, but it did little more than admonish the al Khalifa regime in defense of the citizen uprising against it.

If the United States and the international community wish to proclaim the right of all people to entrust their civic and political freedoms to a government of their choosing, they cannot decide to protect that right only where they deem such an intervention to have strategic or economic utility. By that same democratic-internationalist logic, Syria has no greater right to democracy than Bahrain nor Egypt stronger claim than Yemen – all people of all nations are equally deserving of it as human beings. This is why the United States should not pretend to be a force for democratic change in the world. The rest of the world’s people are well aware of the United States’ betrayals of democracy when nurturing it imperiled the interests of the American state. We are not fooling anyone when Libya reawakens from a long, autocratic winter with the help of American military force while Bahrain sinks deeper into its own despite our diplomats’ timid platitudes. If democracy is as morally absolute a proposition as we Americans believe it to be, we must encourage it and defend it as such everywhere or nowhere. But if we decide to encourage and defend it only where it is most expedient to do so, what value, then, do we attribute to democracy?  

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