Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Washington's Double Standards

Internet and phone communications are shut down as violence breaks out during protests in Bahrain, Yemen and Algeria—all US allies—and there is no harsh comment from the White House. Internet and phone communications are shut down as violence breaks out in Iran and the Islamic Republic is demonized. And President Obama dares to call the Iranian leadership hypocritical?

All the while the State Department is encouraging Iranian protesters by Twitter feeds in Farsi, providing the regime with more ammunition to claim that they are all spies. Nice one.

U.S. Follows Two Paths on Unrest in Iran and Bahrain

By Mark Landler and David E. Sanger
The New York Times
February 15, 2011

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has responded quite differently to two embattled governments that have beaten protesters and blocked the Internet in recent days to fend off the kind of popular revolt that brought down Egypt’s government.

With Iran — a country under sanctions pursuing a nuclear program that has put it at odds with the West — the administration has all but encouraged protesters to take to the streets. With Bahrain, a strategically important ally across the Persian Gulf from Iran, it has urged its king to address the grievances of his people.

Those two approaches were on vivid display at a news conference on Tuesday.

President Obama accused Iran’s leaders of hypocrisy for first encouraging the protests in Egypt, which they described as a continuation of Iran’s own revolution, and then cracking down on Iranians who used the pretext to come out on the streets. He then urged protesters to muster “the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government.”

But speaking to other restive countries, including Bahrain, Mr. Obama directed his advice to governments, not protesters, illustrating just how tricky diplomacy in the region has become. He said his administration, in talking to Arab allies, was sending the message that “you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity; and that if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change. You can’t be behind the curve.”

Mr. Obama’s words on Iran, on the other hand, were among the strongest he has ever voiced in encouraging a street revolt, something his administration initially shied away from doing in June 2009, after a disputed presidential election provoked an uprising that was crushed by the government. Later, the administration embraced the protests, but by then the “Green Movement” in Iran had been crushed.

But now, administration officials see an opportunity to expand the fissures in Iranian society and make life more difficult for the mullahs.

“This isn’t a regime-change strategy,” a senior administration official insisted in recent days. “But it’s fair to say that it’s exploiting fractures that are already there.”

Dealing with other countries in the region is more complicated, however, particularly if they are strategic allies — which was true of Egypt and which prompted criticism that the White House was initially reluctant to put more pressure on such a crucial partner. The same complexities apply to Bahrain, an island state that is home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Two protesters have been killed in Bahrain. The authorities also blocked a video channel that was carrying images uploaded by demonstrators in Pearl Square, a traffic circle the protesters have dubbed Bahrain’s Tahrir Square.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Obama did not mention the violence in Bahrain and chose to draw his distinction between Egypt’s successful uprising and the 2009 crackdown in Iran.

“What’s been different is the Iranian government’s response, which is to shoot people and beat people and arrest people,” he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew a similar distinction in a speech on Tuesday on Internet freedom. Both Egypt and Iran temporarily shut down the Web and cellphone networks, she said.

In Iran, she said, “after the authorities raided homes, attacked university dorms, made mass arrests, tortured and fired shots into crowds, the protests ended. In Egypt, however, the story ended differently.”

In addition to those two countries, Mrs. Clinton listed China, Cuba and Syria as other nations that have censored Facebook and other social networking services.

A senior administration official said the White House had been consistent in calling for all these countries to respond to the demands of their frustrated young people, to allow them to assemble freely and to avoid violence.

But the official said there were deep differences between Iran and Bahrain.

In Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that Egypt had followed in the footsteps of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, an “Islamic awakening” he said would result in the “irreparable defeat” of the United States and Israel.

“Frankly, Iran presented this opportunity itself when Khamenei was the only leader in the region who attempted to take credit for Egypt,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “Our messaging on this is simply to underscore the hypocrisy.”

The official said the administration deplored violence anywhere it occurred, and late on Tuesday the State Department issued a statement saying it was “very concerned” about the two deaths in Bahrain. But the official noted that Bahrain’s monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, had responded to the deaths by calling on Tuesday for an investigation and promising to continue a process of political reforms.

King Hamad has been a stalwart American ally in isolating Iran; in fact, in documents released by WikiLeaks, he was quoted by American diplomats as urging the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Likewise, in Jordan, another close ally of Washington, the administration official said that King Abdullah II had attempted to stay ahead of popular unrest by dismissing his government and replacing it with officials who have pledged to pass a more fair election law and rights of assembly.

Last weekend, the State Department sent William J. Burns, a senior diplomat and former ambassador, to meet with King Abdullah in Jordan. Mr. Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has played that role with Yemen, speaking regularly by telephone with its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom he has also urged to avoid violence in responding to protests, the official said.

The administration’s response to Yemen, where demonstrators have marched on the presidential palace, is complicated by the fact that the United States conducts counterterrorism operations with Mr. Saleh’s government.

Mr. Obama used his news conference to argue that while the revolution in Egypt started quickly, the next act could take far longer. Drawing on studies he had asked for inside the government, he said “the history of successful transitions to democracy have generally been ones in which peaceful protests led to dialogue, led to discussion, led to reform and ultimately led to democracy.”

He cited Eastern Europe and the country where he spent much of his youth: Indonesia, “a majority Muslim country that went through some of these similar transitions,” which he said did not end up dividing the nation.

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