Several of the Arab protest movements look set to fail: Bahrain’s already has, Yemen’s is engulfed in civil war and Syria’s faces long odds. To what degree is the U.S. enabling outcomes that leave dictators in place?
The most problematic case is Yemen. There the U.S. has armed and trained military forces that President Saleh and his son have used both against unarmed protesters and tribal rivals. It is hard to believe that the U.S. could not do more to restrain the army, but Washington’s interest in continuing the effort against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has limited the constraints it is willing to impose on Saleh and son. We keep mouthing off about the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for Saleh to pass power to his vice president, in preparation for elections. That clearly is not going to happen. Gregory Johnsen proposes a radical reset to prioritize getting rid of Saleh and reaching a political settlement. It is hard to picture the intelligence community and the Pentagon concurring, unless they’ve learned a lesson or two from Pakistan’s relationship with the Haqqani network. They should be worrying about whether we end up with Yemen looking much like Somalia or Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan: a free fire zone for our drones with an increasingly radicalized population and little prospect of stability.
In Bahrain, the U.S. has essentially stood down from its early support of political reform and dialogue proposed by the Crown Prince. We are now getting ready to sell arms to a monarchy that has dissed its Shia population, which it refuses to recognize as a majority (and won’t bother counting either). The only remaining hope is the international commission of inquiry led by Cherif Bassiouni, which is supposed to report soon. Some will object that the King is not really a dictator, and that both the economy and speech are relatively free in Bahrain. I’d suggest talking with some of the protesters about that. The issues in Bahrain have more to do with concentration and abuse of power, discrimination and prejudice than legal restrictions. We should be continuing to press the monarchy for serious reform.
It would be unfair to accuse the U.S. of enabling Bashar al Assad, who is not a favorite in Washington, and President Obama has now said all the right things. But well-informed commentators think we still haven’t done all we could to organize a concerted multilateral effort against him. My own proposition is for diplomatic observers. If Bashar doesn’t accept them, he embarrasses himself. If he does, they are likely to embarrass him. Meanwhile, the protesters seem increasingly to be taking up arms, a move likely to fail and also ignite sectarian and ethnic violence. That’s a worst case outcome from the American perspective.
So whether by commission or omission, Washington is still not doing all it could to make things come out right. I’m not one who denounces the Administration for leading from behind–the White House is correct to expect Yemenis, Bahrainis and Syrians to take point. But especially in Yemen and Syria, where demonstrations continue daily despite ferocious repression, we should do more to lend a hand to those who have the courage to continue to protest nonviolently.