Obama Falters on Middle East Democracy
May 20, 2011
By Matthew Mainen
President Obama’s speech on the Arab Awakening presented a rare opportunity of catapulting American leadership in the Mideast. Unfortunately, little more than platitudes were offered. We heard appeals to man’s dignity, self-determination , the yearning for freedom and inalienable human rights, but those were largely overshadowed by a disproportionate focus on the non-sequitor of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something of little concern to the Arab masses yearning for freedom from their own autocratic regimes, not from Israel.
In fact, the criticism directed at Israel during Obama’s tenure exceeds that directed to some Arab regimes violently repressing their people. Israel’s successively approving new home construction in East Jerusalem was more harshly condemned than Bahrain’s destroying 30 Shia mosques and shrines in recent weeks. What would Obama have said if Israel destroyed 30 mosques? Adding insult to injury, his State Department withdrew from a congressional hearing on Bahrain’s deteriorating respect for human rights at the last minute, not even bothering to send a junior officer.
Even worse, Obama classified the Bahraini revolution differently than those in other Arab countries. Bahraini protest, Obama hinted, is part of an Iranian attempt to intervene in the Gulf, and not a genuine march for democracy and rights that started in the 1970s, long before the success of the Iranian revolution. This was an insult to the Bahraini people who lost family members to death and torture in the crackdown before and after the Saudi-led invasion. Bahrain’s problem in Obama’s eyes is a matter of dialogue that should take place between the monarchy and its subject. He made clear that political change is only appropriate for America’s foes in the region and for those regimes that have already collapsed.
While mentioning Rosa Parks and women’s rights, Obama ignored the struggle against gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia, where severe restrictions prevent women from driving, let alone voting in token municipal elections. Obama said nothing about the Saudi monarchy’s announcement to bar women from participating in the ongoing limited municipal elections for powerless councils. Nor did he of the June 17th plan by Saudi women, in the spirit of Rosa Parks, of defying Saudi gender apartheid by driving en mass.
The White House made it position clear when they only invited activists from Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran to the speech excluding all activists from the Gulf Arab countries ruled by absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Qatar. American allies are not to be subjected to the same standards of human rights as others under the Obama administration.
The US consistently claims that it does not support Arab dictators, but it continues to arm them. Such arms were used in Bahrain and Oman to kill protesters and in Saudi Arabia to violently suppress them. It’s ironic that the US bans even the sale of civilian aircrafts to Iran on the partial pretense of not wanting to support a violent regime while some of the Gulf allies are predisposed to the same level of brutality as allies using American-made weapons.
One should hold in mind that speeches are neither inherently worthless nor innocuous in foreign policy. Reagan’s 1987 “Tear Down this Wall” speech demonstrated America’s unyielding commitment to democracy and emboldened those behind the Iron Curtain in breaking free of communisms poisonous tentacles. When the walls finally fell, President George H.W. Bush had little say, and his response to the democratic uprisings mimicked Obama’s.
If today’s speech delineates Obama’s future policy of dealing with the Arab Awakening, then he will find himself relegated to the same pages of history George H.W. Bush finds himself in failing to enthusiastically support the revolutions of 1989. Even if Obama achieves unlimited domestic progress, he will be shadowed by an inept foreign policy.
Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Gulf Institute.