US talks reform from comfort of fence
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Funny isn't it, how amid historic hoopla something often happens that, if you will excuse a technical term, comes back to bite someone on the bum.
Cast back to the triumph of 1991. The international community was celebrating Saddam Hussein's eviction from Kuwait - the then US president, George Bush, the father, seemed to urge Iraqi Shiites to overthrow the dictator; they tried and when Bush didn't back them, tens of thousands were killed as Saddam took his revenge. The world forgot - but the Shiites didn't.
Twelve years later, president George Bush, the son, rounded up a posse to invade Iraq - at a huge human and dollar cost. Those same Shiites have control of the country, and today they hold their nose distrustfully while dealing with Washington, they happily pal up with the mullah regime in next-door Iran.
Fast forward to the promise of President Barak Obama's first months in office. Remember that intoxicating 2009 day on a Cairo campus? Urging ''bold action'' to meet the needs of people, the Obama declared: ''an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things - the ability to speak your mind and have a say on how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.''
Summoning a metaphorical drumroll, Obama locked in his argument thus: ''These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.''
Remembering he was addressing an audience under dictatorship, a region hijacked by autocrats - these words had resonance.
There was no asterisk at that point - no disclaimer about ''we'' being supportive only in some circumstance and only up to a certain point and, probably never at a cost to ''our'' perceived strategic interests. So, given what followed across the region, the Sunnis of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria and even the Shiites of Bahrain, who might have learnt the lesson of their Iraqi brothers, have difficulty with gradations of diplomatic and policy nuance.
The US media is in a lather still over the murder of four US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, last month. It was a shocking business, but in framing the coverage within the confines of domestic politics, they miss the story of the absent Obama asterisk.
To that end we should be grateful to Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who makes the point that a revolutionary moment is no time for nuance.
Apart from addressing the story that most in the US media skated over - the protests in Libya against the militia accused of killing the diplomats and the genuine anger at attacks on US embassies by Muslims protesting against a crude US-produced video blaspheming the prophet Muhammad.
It is worth taking Malinowski's Cook's tour of the region. Writing in the magazine Foreign Policy, he starts with the ambiguity of the initial response to the protests in Egypt, explaining that in the minds of many Egyptians, they were no more ambiguous than American support for their democratic aspirations.
''[Obama] has not yet convinced a majority of Egyptians that Washington was unequivocally on their side,'' he writes. ''In large part, this is because of the 30-year legacy of US support for [Hosni] Mubarak that Obama inherited. It is also because the fall of Egypt's dictator did not mean the immediate end of its military dictatorship and because the [Obama] administration has continued to balance its support for change in Egypt against its relationship with the country's abusive armed forces.''
Obama's finest hour in Egypt, according to Malinowski, was when he pushed the military to get out of the way of the newly elected Islamist President, Mohammed Mursi, ''but it was not enough - not yet - to overcome decades of popular Egyptian mistrust of the US.''
Next stop Yemen, where Washington had a hand in easing out the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. ''There is still resentment, however, over US support for Saleh in the first months of the Yemeni uprising, over US-backed deals that gave Saleh immunity and allowed his relatives to keep top security posts …
''Supporting democracy and development may be a priority for Washington in Yemen, but Yemenis know that it is not the top priority.''
Thence to Bahrain - where, to use another technical term, the American double standard is nauseating. And yet, opposition leaders still try to rein in demonstrations against the US, because they so desperately want Washington's help and backing.
''[But] Washington has straddled the fence between demanding political reform and staying on good terms with an authoritarian monarchy that hosts a US Navy base.'' Noting the restraint by the opposition, Malinowski writes: ''It is faith - fragile and perhaps temporary - in the possibility of a more principled American policy that protects US interests in Bahrain from the anger of its Shiite street.''
And here is the twist - it is the backers of the minority Sunni regime who stir anti-US resentment in Bahrain. They are the ones brandishing al-Qaeda flags outside the US Embassy in Manama, he observes: ''If there is a threat to the thousands of American personnel stationed in Bahrain, it is more likely to come from supporters of America's authoritarian 'friends' on the island, than from the opposition - as US military officers on the island acknowledge privately.''
And so, on to Syria - but by now, you get the drift. Yes?
The Malinowski piece is addressed to Obama, but it applies even more so to Republican challenger Mitt Romney who, if only in his rhetoric, has been utterly consistent on foreign policy - bring back the Bush swagger, America is exceptional and it does not, will not apologise.
Got it, world? It's backwards to the future, to a Cold War stance that fails to notice that that movie is over.
''Certainly, this is not time … to start seeing the region in terms of threats, not opportunities; to pull out the diplomats and send in the drones,'' Malinowski advises as he states the bleeding obvious - reacting to manipulated protest and violence is to give the hardline manipulators what they want. That is, to deny the political reformers and the civil activists ''whom the Mubaraks and Gaddafis, not to mention the House of Saud, suppressed'', the space in which to counter the violent fringe.