Morally Usurped by Brutal Monarchs

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By Matthew Mainen

President Obama entered office pledging to restore America’s moral standing in the world. But his response to the Arab Spring has thus far has left much to be desired. This week, however, the president allowed the U.S. unprecedented embarrassment as it stood on the sidelines as two of the world’s worst human rights violators – Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – along with Kuwait withdrew their ambassadors from Syria following its intensified crackdown. It’s time to reclaim the initiative.

The president’s cautious position is understandable. His predecessor’s hawkish Mideast policy in response to the unprecedented environment created by the September 11 attacks and rise of international Islamic extremism challenged ties with Europe and temporarily destabilized Iraq.
Obama’s policies, however, are far from dovish, and have not adequately mended ties with the Muslim world.  He reneged on his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo Bay. He intensified drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing many civilians. And in an insult to American values, he personally approved Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists behind closed doors.

Some may argue that prudence with respect to containing Iran, despite the long-term consequences of enraging Bahrain’s population, determined the administration’s Bahrain policy. And containing al-Qaeda dictates the U.S. position in Yemen. But there’s no excuse for continued foot-dragging in Syria, which has killed over 2,000 protesters and has, this year alone, transported tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons to Hezbollah, a terrorist organization claiming the lives of hundreds of Americans and allied citizens.
Last month U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford visited Hama. This month, Syria laid siege to the city, killing 100 people in one day. Since his visit, Ford has remained generally confined to Damascus and nowhere near the protests. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have sent a clear message to Syria, however, by withdrawing their ambassadors.

The move was politically motivated but nonetheless calculated to gain international sympathy. Syria is Iran’s only Arab-state ally, and an isolated Syria threatens Iran. A collapsed Syria hastens Iran’s demise. By taking a strong stand against Syria’s human rights violations, these states pursue their aims against an enemy regime under a humanitarian guise. They also hide their own transgressions.

In Bahrain, hospitals were converted to torture chambers where even doctors were not spared. Shia school girls were randomly selected and sexually threatened. Politicians were disappeared. And internationally renowned human rights activists such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Hassan al-Mushama, and Professor Abdul-Jalil al-Singace sit in jail for life.

Bahrain’s crackdown was orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, a medieval regime that practices lashing, beheadings and amputations for relatively mundane crimes. Lebanese citizen Ali Sabat sits on death row for hosting a show in which he predicts the future. Hadi al-Mutif has spent the past 13 years and will spend the rest of his life in jail for making a joke about the Prophet Mohammad. Women are banned from driving, voting and traveling without a man’s permission. Shia are banned from government posts and judicial positions.

These aren’t the headlines in the mainstream media for these countries, though. An al-Jazeera article bylines the ambassadors’ withdrawal followed by a quote from Saudi King Abdullah: “What is happening in Syria is not acceptable…” When the words of an octogenarian absolute monarch match those of our secretary of state, the administration should up the ante. When that same absolute monarch is a chief human rights violator and has applied greater moral pressure, the administration is in trouble.

Prior to President Obama’s tenure and the Syrian crackdown, the American ambassadorship to Syria was left vacant by the Bush Administration. Syria was an ally of Iran, a sponsor of terror and a brutal dictatorship. This was not a country deserving of America’s highest local representative. Nothing has changed, except for the small fact that the Syrian people are now in a deadly struggle for freedom claiming scores of lives daily.

Ambassador Ford must be recalled, today. But to reclaim the moral high ground, the administration must go a step further by becoming the first country in the world to publically proclaim that it no longer views Syria’s Ba’athist regime as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. U.S. relations with the Muslim world will soar and America, not the world’s leading dictators, will make headlines for their humanitarian positioning.

Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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