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Friday, March 25, 2011

Human Rights Violations by Rulers in Syria and Bahrain: On the American Reaction as Old World or New?

The New York Times reported on March 25, 2011 that Syrian military troops opened fire on protesters in the southern part of Syria. Tens of thousands of demonstrators in the southern city of Dara’a, a well as protesters in some other cities and towns around the state, were defying a ruler who once again demonstrated his willingness to use lethal force against his own citizens. The paper reported on March 27th that "(w)ith 61 people confirmed killed by security forces, the country’s status as an island of stability amid the Middle East storm seemed irretrievably lost." Weeks earlier, the Arab League had declared that Qaddafi had lost his sovereignty—meaning his right to rule without intervention from other countries—because he had been engaged in having Libyan civilians killed. Since the League’s declaration on the Libyan dictator, the “president” of Yemen had use force against protesters—even gaining power from the legislature to lock up his detractors. As if these cases would not be enough of a bad precedent, Bahrain’s ruler had also been using lethal force against protests—just days after sitting down with U.S. Secretary of Defense William Gates, who was urging restraint.
In the midst of the Syrian government's violence, MSNBC reported on March 25th that the United States called on the Syrian government to stop the violence against marchers, White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "We strongly condemn the Syrian government's attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators,'' he told reporters. Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, the new American ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, was "quietly reaching out to . . . Assad to urge him to stop firing on his people." Quietly? Meanwhile, American fighters had been bombing what was left of Qaddafi's airforce in Libya. The inconsistency was not lost on some American officials, according to The New York Times. "Having intervened in Libya to prevent a wholesale slaughter in Benghazi, some analysts asked, how could the administration not do the same in Syria? Though no one is yet talking about a no-fly zone over Syria, Obama administration officials acknowledge the parallels to [Qadaffi]. Some analysts predicted the administration will be cautious in pressing Mr. Assad, not because of any allegiance to him but out of a fear of what could follow him — a Sunni-led government potentially more radical and Islamist than his Alawite minority government." So strategic interests, even if running at cross-purposes with itself, are thought by some as a legitimate basis for a rather blatant inconsistency from the standpoint of human rights and the long term goal of democracy in the Middle East.
I contend that the continued support of rulers in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen while turning on Qaddafi, as if diplomacy were sufficient in dealing with the former three but not with the latter, is not at all in the interest of the United States beyond short-term political expediency in the theatre of international relations. Moreover, the double-standard concerning the rulers who have turned on their own people undercuts the credibility of the American government. “Syria’s security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters’ lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. Whitson evinces a consistency seems so easy, yet is for some reason so difficult for government officials around the world, and particularly in the United States. Lest I be misread as bashing my own country, my aim is to call us to a higher ideal and a better international relations. It would be nice to see the Obama administration take the moral high ground on a consistent basis, rather than simply according to vested interests, such as oil but also a desire to maximize influence among sitting heads of state.
Beyond breaking off relations with rulers who violently turn on their own citizens, the self-declared republics of the world have a moral obligation to step in to protect the civilians from their own respective governments. To be sure, there is an opinion in the United States that opposes such intervention unless there is an important U.S. interest at stake. A Middle East populated by republics is in Americans’ interest even apart from the moral imperative to protect the defenseless against their own governments. Even so, as reported in The New York Times on March 27th, narrower strategic concerns were being raised by senior American officials. Specifically, they worried that the widespread nature of the Syrian uprising, for instance, "could dash any remaining hopes for a Middle East peace agreement . . .  It could also alter the American rivalry with Iran for influence in the region and pose challenges to the United States’ greatest ally in the region, Israel." A Syrian republic could pull away from Iran, though it could also undo any deals that the Americans have made for Assad's assistance with a peace agreement involving Israel. In other words, the officials were "pulled between fears that [Syria's] problems could destabilize neighbors like Lebanon and Israel, and the hope that [the fall of Assad] could weaken one of Iran’s key allies." Such a pretzel is only natural for short-term strategic thinking that is obsessed with immediate self-interest from all angles. In other words, an obsession to maximize such self-interest is actually self-defeating not only because it is short-sighted, but also because no one scenario is completely in one's self-interest and this is apt to be paralyzing to such a mentality. One might even say that such a mentality deserves itself. It definitely does not deserve to be "leader of the free world."
In the end, and even for today, the world stopping any ruler's violent betrayal of masses of his people such that sovereignty can no longer be construed as absolute is in the American (and the world’s) short and long term interest. This is the new idea that burst through in the world’s consciousness as the Middle East erupted in protest in early 2011. Sadly, the implementation of even such an idea can be compromised by the routine or status quo that naturally goes with a narrower self-interest that assumes that tomorrow will be just like today. Even if merely the idea itself of sovereignty being conditional on a ruler’s non-abusive conduct evinces a significant advance in human political understanding long overdue, consistent implementation is implied. Otherwise, Qaddafi can be viewed as a victim of the unfairness that is implicit in the inconsistency of a lapsed implementation. Such irony undercuts the principle as it manifests on the world stage. American officials who merely urged restraint in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain even as American aid continued were by 2011 woefully antiquarian--as if fossilized incarnations of habits long since expired from the old world.
Beyond the particular cases discussed here, it is important to take note of the phenomenon of human beings whose staid mentality and conduct continue much like the continued instinctual motions of a recently killed insect. Even though the world has gone on to demand more, if only from its new awareness, diplomatic analysts still move their mental limbs in the same awkward movements. How can people in government be so regimented in their cognitive apparatus that they allow themselves to think and behave so out of context (even possibly without realizing it)? This phenomenon is like the nerd who continues dancing on the dance floor (by himself) after the music has stopped or is on to a new song having a different beat. 
For example, on March 12th, The New York Times reported that “in the wake of a violent clash between protesters and Bahrain’s security forces and pro-government vigilantes, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates [Bahrain’s] ruling family on Saturday that “baby steps” toward reform would not be enough to meet the political and economic grievances sweeping the region. Mr. Gates also cautioned Bahrain’s king and crown prince during two hours of meetings in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, that if the reform process was prolonged, the United States feared that Iran would become involved and create more chaos. Gates said he was convinced that the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and the crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, were serious about reform and starting a dialogue with protesters demanding more democracy.”

While perhaps being in line with the narrow American strategic interest in Iran’s influence being contained in the region, urging more than baby steps and being assured were clearly inadequate positions from the standpoint of stopping the king from continuing to violate his subject’s human rights. Moreover, Gates’ comments seem so woefully timid or pallid given the facts on the ground in Bahrain at the time that one could be excused for asking if the secretary was suffering from dementia. The New York Times reported that even “as Mr. Gates arrived, security forces firing what protesters said were rubber bullets and pro-government Sunni vigilantes wielding sticks and swords beat back a group of several hundred protesters near the royal palace in Riffa, a residential neighborhood for the ruling family and the Sunni Muslim elite. The protesters said they had been met with stones and clouds of tear gas.” Even so, Gates told the king, “Obviously, leading reform and being responsive is the way we’d like to see this move forward.” Alternatively, the secretary could have said, “Obviously, if your forces continue to fire on unarmed protesters, the U.S. military would have to step in on humanitarian grounds to project your subjects from you—and of course the flow of American aid to you would have to stop.” On the plane, Gates had remarked concerning Libya, “If we are directed to impose a no-fly zone, we have the resources to do it.” The inconsistency is striking, if not indicative of differential motives based on the geo-political strategic interest of the United States.
According to The New York Times, two days later, “about 2000 troops — 1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Ehmirates — entered Bahrain as part of a force operating under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation regional coalition of Sunni rulers that has grown increasingly anxious over the sustained challenge to Bahrain’s king.” Violence against protesters (rather than restraint) ensued while the Obama administration continued to work at the U.N. for a resolution calling for a no fly zone in Libya. Meanwhile, “A senior American diplomat arrived [in Bahrain] on an unplanned visit and sought ways to calm the chaos while pressing the government to exercise restraint.” Additionally, a White House spokesman called for “calm and restraint on all sides.” Calm? Either the American administration is woefully ignorant of an appropriate response or the officials want to protect deals that have been made between the United States and the rulers in Yemen and Syria. Fortunately, there is a third alternative. Sadly, however, the "analysts" have it all figured out, even if their song has ended.

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