Zenga Zenga, Mr. Obama
Obama's selective intervention in Libya is tarnishing the American image even more in the Arab world.
Mark LeVine and Reza Aslan
30 Mar 2011 10:21
As President Obama took to the airwaves two nights ago to explain the reasons behind his launching of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, he might have mentioned that the mission began on the 8th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.
And while that is a coincidence the United States would very much like to ignore, the long term consequences of the Iraq war have never been more relevant than now.
However noble and justified the United States' intentions may be in launching an attack on a dictator who has murdered his own people and supported international acts of terrorism, the hypocrisy and inconsistently with which the Obama administration has dealt with the so-called "Arab Awakening" risks generating as much ire in the region as did the invasion of Iraq, especially among the young people who have led the pro-democracy revolutions that have inspired the world.
If there is one thing that the Arab world's "Facebook Generation" does not suffer, it is hypocrisy, either by its own governments or by its foreign allies and patrons.
Yet it is impossible not to recognise the rank hypocrisy in supporting the rights of anti-government protesters in Libya, while turning a blind eye to the same in Bahrain, where government troops have massacred dozens of unarmed civilians; in Yemen, where the regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been firing live ammunition into peaceful crowds; in Saudi Arabia, whose military has been sent into neighbouring countries to brutally suppress people's demand for the most basic rights and freedoms; in the Palestinian territories, where non-violent demonstrations for an end to Israeli settlements have been completely ignored by an American administration who, until recently, vowed that a settlement freeze would form the basis of its Middle East policy.
In announcing the military strikes against Colonel Gaddafi, Obama declared that the United States "cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up its assault on innocent men and women [who] face brutality and death at the hands of their own government."
He reiterated this theme in his latest speech.
Does the president not recognise the irony of those words, which could be applied to any one of America's dictatorial allies in the Middle East?
Surely he must, and yet he refused to address this issue head on, even though it has come to define the way the people of the region view his credibility.
They may applaud his vow that "the dark forces of civil conflict and sectarian war will have to be averted, and difficult political and economic concerns addressed."
But they cannot help but question his continued support of dictatorial allies in the region whose leaders are actively fomenting the very same sectarian divisions.
Such inconsistency – what reporters and opinion writers alike are openly describing as "cynical realpolitik" – will inevitably cause permanent damage to the United States' standing in the new Middle East.
Mr. Obama's speech did nothing to address the inconsistencies in America's response to the so-called "Arab Spring".
And at the meeting of "allies" behind the no-fly zone in London, secretary of state Clinton's declaration that, "it is obvious to everyone that Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead" betrayed irony and hypocrisy in equal measure, since by any reasonable definition of "legitimate" few if any leaders in the Arab world have "legitimacy to lead".
At the same time, by refusing to become a party to the International Criminal Court, the United States undermines the legitimacy of the ICC as a venue for trying Gaddafi for crimes against his people, as allies like Britain have suggested.
Overall, it seems that the United States is still playing by a now outdated script, in which adversaries can be invaded for actions which friends are allowed to continue more or less with impunity. That is no way to run a 21st century foreign policy.
In our frequent travels across the region, we have heard repeatedly from activists and ordinary people alike that they cannot accept American military intervention in one country and acquiescence and perhaps tacit support for crackdowns in others.
Activists in Egypt wait in vain, as Clinton was pointedly told in Cairo in her recent trip, for the US to speak up about the continuation of arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, torture, and emergency rule.
The Shia (as well as their Sunni compatriots) who are struggling for democracy in Bahrain are waiting for some recognition from the United States of the legitimacy of their demands.
The people of Yemen are waiting for the US to stop supporting an unpopular authoritarian president in the name of national security, as are their neighbours to the north, in Saudi Arabia.
Even as those concerned about humanitarian suffering in Libya have cause to hope that the US-led intervention will continue to prevent a major bloodbath, time is quickly running out for US policy more broadly.
The legacy of the Obama administration, and the position of the United States in the world, depend in good measure on whether American foreign policy can align with the peoples of the region and their fundamental human and political rights, which are a far surer guarantor of America's long-term national security than military or petroleum alliances with venal and autocratic leaders.
And whatever his actions in Libya, it seems that Mr. Obama has yet to grasp this very basic fact.
Reza Aslan is founder of AslanMedia.com and author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).