By William Fisher
American voters, according to Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, are hoping that President Obama’s speech Thursday will set out what Kurtzer calls “a developed U.S. position.”
"This is a moment to have a presidential articulation of how the U.S. looks at the respective political changes in Egypt and at the terrible situation that's developing in Syria and that is ongoing in Libya," Kurtzer says.
I hope they get what they’re looking for.
But to achieve that President Obama will have to confront not only Tunisia and Egypt, whose revolutions are already past-tense; and not only Syria, which is large enough and powerful enough to merit Presidential opprobrium for the unspeakable cruelty with which President Basher Assad has sought to destroy Syria’s anti-government protestors; but smaller and apparently less important countries employing equally barbaric practices against the most basic reforms, and about which the president has had little or nothing to say in the past months.
Bahrain and Yemen are the two that jump off the page. In respect to both these countries, the U.S. has remained largely silent in the face of outrageous crimes being perpetrated by governments against their own citizens.
In Bahrain, dozens of doctors and nurses have been arrested, and charged with a laundry list of crimes including, embezzlement of public funds, physical assault on civilians, assault leading to death, possession of unlicensed weapons and ammunition, failure to carry out their employment duties, and so forth. All bogus. The reason physicians and nurses are being arrested and imprisoned is to keep them from treating Bahraini citizens who show up at the main hospital; to instill such fear into the wounded that they won’t use the hospital; and to keep doctors and nurses them from testifying about what they saw. The consequence is that the security services have dragged sick patients out of their hospital beds and taken them away, presumably to detention or worse.
The Bahraini monarchy has also rounded up more than two dozen protesters and put them on “show trials” before military courts. These people have been held for days and weeks without access to their lawyers or to their families. Most of them don’t know what charges have been brought against them.
All this could well have happened in Assad’s Syria or Mubarak’s Egypt. But they occurred in a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf where a majority of Shia Muslims is ruled by a Sunni Muslim king. And now a king whose position has been reinforced by the presence of Saudi and UAE troops.
And let us make no mistake: it is largely out of deference to the Saudis – suppliers of 12 per cent of our oil – that the US has not spoken out more forcefully against the brutal repression of Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority by the Sunni minority headed by the king and the royal family. The US is making nice on the Saudis because the oil sheiks were miffed by Obama’s actions in Egypt: They think he threw Mubarak under the bus too quickly. The US had no overarching national interest in Tunisia; ergo, the message welcoming the overthrow of that country’s ruler of 30 years came relatively quickly. Egypt was seen as a loyal and effective ally for many years; it had its own peace treaty with Israel and had been helpful in brokering agreements between Hamas and Fatah. So it appeared to some to be taking forever for the president to, as they say, throw Mr. Mubarak under the bus – albeit that the Saudis are miffed because they think Obama did this much too soon.
But the Syrian situation is every bit as complex as any of the other Arab Spring sites. Mostly Sunni Syria has reached out to mostly Shi’ite Iran to arm Hamas and Hizbollah. Syria sits dangerously close to Israel and the two countries have been mortal enemies for years. And Syria exerts enormous influence in Lebanon, sitting on Israel’s northern border.
So one might have expected Obama to walk as gingerly among the Syrians as among, say, the Egyptians or the Bahrainis. Better the devil you know, would have been the reasoning.
That he didn’t – that he couldn’t – so reason is a work of self-destruction by Mr. Assad. Even in this time when the US is learning again how to balance the national interest with realpolitik, the unspeakable brutality, the total blindness, of some nations – no matter how influential – reaches a point where silence is no longer an option.
And the Administration is quick to remind us of Bahrain’s strategic
importance, as the home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
In Yemen, where the US has a vital national interest in the form of hunting down AlQaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the US has helped broker a deal for the current president to step down. But the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has offered to step down numerous times before and has always reneged, is still in office. It has been reliably reported that President Saleh is attempting to win criminal immunity from prosecuton for himself and his family.
Obama’s audience should expect to hear a strong statement condemning President Saleh’s serial dissembling.
As The Arab Spring has progressed, the position of the US Government has caused consternation among pro-democracy activists throughout region,. especially among the young – who were, after all, the drivers of the uprisings.
To these young men and women, it seems that the US remains silent until it knows who is going to win, and then it lets the world know who it’s supporting.
The US had no overarching national interest in Tunisia; ergo, the message welcoming the overthrow of that country’s ruler of 30 years came relatively quickly. Likewise, Libya, whose barbaric treatment of his own people draw a quick and unequivocal response from the US and NATO.
Egypt was looked upon differently. It had been a loyal and effective ally for many years; it had its own peace treaty with Israel and had been helpful in brokering agreements between Hamas and Fatah. So it appeared to some to be taking forever for the president to, as they say, throw Mr. Mubarak under the bus. Which he finally did.
The Syrian situation is every bit as complex as any of the other Arab Spring sites. Mostly Sunni Syria has helped mostly Shi’ite Iran to arm Hamas and Hizbollah, Israel’s archenemies. Syria sits dangerously close to Israel, with which is it still technically at war. And Syria exerts enormous influence in Lebanon, sitting on Israel’s northern border.
So one might have expected Obama to walk as gingerly among the Syrians as among, say, the Bahrainis.
That he didn’t – that he couldn’t –is not so much an act of courage on Obama’s part as an act of self-destruction by Mr. Assad. Confronted with the unspeakable brutality, the total blindness, of some nations – no matter how influential – one reaches a point where silence is no longer an option.
As a concerned American citizen, I’m hoping I will hear President Obama tell us that he has drawn a line in the sand – that rulers that kill and torture their own peaceful people are unequivocally unacceptable to the United States.
One day The Arab Spring will be over. The United States will need the trust and goodwill of those who risked everything and went into the street – and eventually became democratic governments replacing aging authoritarian autocrats.
Obama can take some positive steps to bond with those brave men and women in his speech this week.