While we weren’t watching

I admit it is hard to shift attention away from the consequences of Osama bin Laden’s death.  America and Pakistan have embarked on a great debate.  Sticking with the claim that they knew nothing about either OBL’s whereabouts or about the American operation to kill him, Pakistan’s government now has to explain its apparent incompetence.  The Obama Administration has to explain why we should  provide billions in assistance to a country that incompetent, or worse, one that harbored OBL.

These debates will go on for some time but is unlikely to change much.  Congress will fulminate, but President Obama will not want to reduce aid, for fear of making the situation worse, and he will stick to his drawdown schedule in Afghanistan, starting small. Maybe in Pakistan the debate will have a broader impact:  its military and intelligence services deserve a thorough airing out, though they are likely to survive with their prerequisites intact.

More interesting for the long term are the things that were, and were not, happening in the Arab world while we weren’t watching.

In Syria, the crackdown is proceeding, with hundreds more arrested in apparently indiscriminate security sweeps of major provincial centers of unrest.  Bashar al Assad shows every sign of continuing.  Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities, remain relatively quiet.  Friday will tell us whether the repression is succeeding.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has managed to slip out of an agreement negotiated with the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia plus other oil-rich gulfies) to step down in 30 days.  It is unclear whether the GCC, the political opposition or the protesters can do much at this point to resurrect the agreement, so it is likely both demonstrations and repression will continue.

In Libya, a kind of tottering stalemate has developed, with Gaddafi continuing to pound the western town of Misrata and to hold off the rebels in the east.  Turkey has turned against the Colonel, but it is unclear whether that will make much difference.  For all the much-vaunted rise of Turkey as a regional player, Ankara seems to have trouble making its weight felt with either Bashar al Assad or Muammar Gaddafi.

In Bahrain, repression is also in full swing, with the Americans seeming to bend to Saudi pressure not to object too strenuously.  The regime there, in the past one of the milder ones, has been arresting doctors and nurses who provided medical treatment to protesters.

So it looks as if counter-revolution is succeeding for the moment across the region.  It would be ironic if OBL’s death were to coincide with failure of the protests that showed promise of harnessing the discontents that used to be channeled into terrorism.  Mr. Obama, where was that right side of history last time we saw it?

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