Stephen Zunes : Obama Foreign Policy
The Obama administration’s continued support of the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain, in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrators, once again puts the United States behind the curve of the new political realities in the Middle East. For more than two weeks, a nonviolent sit-in and encampment by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters has occupied the Pearl Roundabout. This traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama – like Tahrir Square in Cairo – has long been the symbolic center of the city and, by extension, the center of the country. Though these demonstrations and scores of others across the country have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, they have been met by severe repression by the U.S.-backed monarchy.
Q: Which countries in the region share similar economic, political, demographic and social conditions to those that have ignited unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?
A: Most Arab countries share these problems. However, some are more susceptible to these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.
Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?
There has been a major shift within the Obama administration over the weekend regarding its policy toward Egypt. President Obama appears to have finally realized that reform within the regime, as the administration had been advocating until Sunday, will not placate the Egyptian people. The administration has yet to issue an explicit call for the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, at least in public. However, yesterday, for the first time, Secretary of State Clinton and other officials began calling for “an orderly transition” to democracy.
Over the years, as part of my academic research, I have spent many hours at the National Archives poring over diplomatic cables of the kind recently released by WikiLeaks. The only difference is that rather than being released after a 30+ year waiting period — when the principals involved are presumably dead or in retirement and the countries in question have very different governments in power — the WikiLeaks are a lot more recent, more relevant and, in some cases, more embarrassing as a result.
The ongoing presence of over 50,000 US troops, many thousands of civilian employees and tens of thousands of US-backed mercenaries raises serious questions over the significance of the partial withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The August 31 deadline marking the “end of US combat operations in Iraq” is not as real or significant a milestone as President Obama implied in his speech. Indeed, hearing for the umpteenth time that the US has “turned a corner” in Iraq, it makes one think that the country must be some kind of dodecahedron.
In a letter to President Barack Obama date June 17, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives referred to Israel’s May 31 attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers and crew and injuries to scores of others, as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” Similarly, a June 21 Senate letter — signed by 87 out of 100 senators — went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense,” claiming that the widely supported effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”
The [former Obama campaign volunteer and current Florida college] student’s question was simple: Given that Obama had spoken about “America’s support for human rights,” she asked, “Why have we not condemned Israel and Egypt’s violations of human rights against the occupied Palestinian peoples [while continuing to support such oppression] with billions of dollars coming from our taxes?” Obama didn’t even try to answer her question….
The Obama administration, citing its relations with Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full House of Representatives of a resolution passed this past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of a 1.5 million Armenians. Even though the Obama administration previously refused to acknowledge and even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern ally, few believed that the administration would go as far as to effectively deny genocide…
Despite two ongoing wars, it was striking that Obama focused so little in his first State of the Union speech on the world outside our borders other than the call to be competitive in the global economy. Indeed, he dedicated only eight minutes of the 70-minute speech to foreign policy. Yet many of the pressing economic problems the country faces that were addressed in the speech are directly related to foreign policy. And, despite promises of change, much of this foreign policy shows disappointing continuity with previous administrations.
One year into their term in office, the Obama administration’s record on human rights has been a major disappointment. In part because the Bush administration abused the promotion of democracy and human rights to rationalize its militaristic policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama administration has at times been reluctant to be a forceful advocate for those struggling against oppression. For example, Obama was cautious in supporting the ongoing freedom struggle….