Free Markets, Free People
Yes it’s another fine mess. Of course the Japanese tragedy and struggles with their nuclear power plants has sucked all the air out of news elsewhere, there is, in fact much news elsewhere. And not the least of it is coming out of the Middle East where Saudi troops, as a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), moved into Bahrain ostensibly to “guard government facilities”.
The GCC is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. It was created in 1991 (think Iraq invasion of Kuwait), the 6 members share common borders and are committed by their charter to help each other in times of need.
The action by the GCC, as you might imagine, is in direct conflict with how the White House has indicated it would prefer the situation in Bahrain be resolved. Obviously that’s not carried much weight with the GCC.
The move created another quandary for the Obama administration, which obliquely criticized the Saudi action without explicitly condemning the kingdom, its most important Arab ally. The criticism was another sign of strains in the historically close relationship with Riyadh, as the United States pushes the country to make greater reforms to avert unrest.
Other symptoms of stress seem to be cropping up everywhere.
Saudi officials have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls “universal values,” including peaceful protests.
The GCC move has caused both Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense and Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to cancel upcoming visits to Saudi Arabia.
Again, the apparent genesis of these tensions appear to be related to the way the US handled Egypt. It has caused the Saudis and other GCC nations to trust the US less than before:
The latest tensions between Washington and Riyadh began early in the crisis when King Abdullah told President Obama that it was vital for the United States to support Mr. Mubarak, even if he began shooting protesters. Mr. Obama ignored that counsel. “They’ve taken it personally,” said one senior American familiar with the conversations, “because they question what we’d do if they are next.”
Since then, the American message to the Saudis, the official said, is that “no one can be immune,” and that the glacial pace of reforms that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in since 2003 must speed up.
Obviously the Saudi’s have their own ideas of how to handle this and apparently aren’t taking kindly to the US attempting to dictate how it should handle it’s internal affairs. And, given the treatment of Mubarak, the Saudi rulers can’t help but feel that they’re just as likely to be thrown under the bus if protests were to escalate as was Mubarak.
Consequently, they’ve decided to go their own way and handle it with force within the GCC while throwing money at the problem within the Saudi Kingdom. Speaking of the latter:
One of President Obama’s top advisers described the moves as more in a series of “safety valves” the Saudis open when pressure builds; another called the subsidies “stimulus funds motivated by self-preservation.”
Saudi officials, who declined to comment for this article to avoid fueling talk of divisions between the allies, said that the tensions had been exaggerated and that Americans who criticized the pace of reforms did not fully appreciate the challenges of working in the kingdom’s ultraconservative society.
Of course the difference between their “stimulus funds” and ours is they actually have the money. But it is ironic to see the adviser describe “stimulus funds” in those terms isn’t it? The actual point here should be evident though. The GCC has rejected the “Bahrain model” as the desired method of addressing the unrest. As you recall that was the “regime alteration” model, v. the regime change model.
So where does that leave us?
Demonstrating to Iran that the Saudi-American alliance remains strong has emerged as a critical objective of the Obama administration. King Abdullah, who was widely quoted in the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks as warning that the United States had to “cut off the head of the snake” in Iran, has led the effort to contain Iran’s ambitions to become a major regional power. In the view of White House officials, any weakness or chaos inside Saudi Arabia would be exploited by Iran.
For that reason, several current and former senior American intelligence and regional experts warned that in the months ahead, the administration must proceed delicately when confronting the Saudis about social and political reforms.
”Over the years, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been fraught with periods of tension over the strategic partnership,” said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a public policy organization. “Post-September 11 was one period, and the departure of Mubarak may be another, when they question whether we are fair-weather friends.”
That phone keeps ringing at 3am, doesn’t it?
Questions: given the “critical objective” as outlined above, is it smart to cancel visits by SecDef and SecState? Doesn’t that possibly signal lack of support for the Saudis and play into the perception the US is a fair-weather friend? Doesn’t that promise the possibility of more actions the Saudi’s might take that will be contra to the US’s advice? Isn’t now the time to be going in there and making the case with top leaders and showing support while trying to twist a few arms to ramp down the situation instead of canceling?
Here’s a little insight into the Iranian connection mentioned above:
The entrance of foreign forces, including Saudi troops and those from other Gulf nations, threatened to escalate a local political conflict into a regional showdown; on Tuesday, Tehran, which has long claimed that Bahrain is historically part of Iran, branded the move “unacceptable.”
“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a news conference in Tehran, according to state-run media.
Even as predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran pursues a determined crackdown against dissent at home, Tehran has supported the protests led by the Shiite majority in Bahrain.
“People have some legitimate demands, and they are expressing them peacefully,” Mr. Memanparast said. “It should not be responded to violently.”
He added, “We expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means.”
You have to love their chutzpah. A little analysis:
The Gulf Cooperation Council was clearly alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite political victory in Bahrain, fearing that it would inspire restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protest as well. The majority of the population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern provinces is Shiite, and there have already been small protests there.
“If the opposition in Bahrain wins, then Saudi loses,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “In this regional context, the decision to move troops into Bahrain is not to help the monarchy of Bahrain, but to help Saudi Arabia itself .”
So that’s the lens by which much of what happens should be viewed – two regional rivals, each aligned with a different sect of Islam as well as different ethnic groups (Arab v. Persian) attempting to take advantage of a situation in the case of Iran, or trying to prevent change that would favor Iran in the case of Saudi Arabia.
The possible result?
An adviser to the United States government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, agreed. “Iran’s preference was not to get engaged because the flow of events was in their direction,” he said. “If the Saudi intervention changes the calculus, they will be more aggressive.”
Of course they have their own problems at home, but Iran may very well, at least covertly, try to support the opposition in Bahrain.
The primary reason that Bahrain has ended up asking the GCC in is because the recommended way to resolve the crisis, negotiate with the oppositions, was rejected by the opposition. As I mentioned in an earlier post about regime realignment, the entire process hinged on the opposition being willing to engage in honest negotiations with the government. It appears the Bahranian royal family at least made an attempt to do the things necessary as advised by the US:
The royal family allowed thousands of demonstrators to camp at Pearl Square. It freed some political prisoners, allowed an exiled opposition leader to return and reshuffled the cabinet. And it called for a national dialogue.
But the concessions — after the killings — seemed to embolden a movement that went from calling for a true constitutional monarchy to demanding the downfall of the monarchy. The monarchy has said it will consider instituting a fairly elected Parliament, but it insisted that the first step would be opening a national dialogue — a position the opposition has rejected, though it was unclear whether the protesters were speaking with one voice.
Indeed. But it doesn’t matter now, does it. The likelihood of this simmering down to the point that such negotiations and dialogue could occur seem remote – especially with Iran in the background keeping this all stirred up.
We live in interesting times.
According to the Wall Street Journal, that’s the outcome of “weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world”.
To put it more succinctly, they’ve decided the “Bahrain model” is superior to the “Egypt model”. I’m not sure I disagree.
In the Egypt model, the end result was the US throwing Hosni Mubarak under the bus … finally … and fully supporting the protesters. Of course it didn’t end up pleasing either side in Egypt and it certainly didn’t please other Arab governments in the least. They felt that President Obama had abandoned Mubarak and were worried he’d do the same to them as protests mounted. The US eventually throwing it’s full support behind the Egyptian protestors had the governments of other countries very concerned. Among them, interestingly, was Israel:
As Mr. Mubarak’s grip on power slipped away in Egypt, Israeli officials lobbied Washington to move cautiously and reassure Mideast allies that they were not being abandoned. Israeli leaders have made clear that they fear extremist forces could try to exploit new-found freedoms and undercut Israel’s security, diplomats said.
And there is evidence in Egypt that Israel’s concerns have a just foundation. So, the administration approached the protests in Bahrain somewhat differently:
"Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule," said a U.S. official. "Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail."
The reason it is “too important to fail”, to repeat the cliché, is because it is home to our 5th Fleet and other war fighting headquarters. The fear was that if the government there fell, the new government would have ties and leanings toward Iran. Suddenly “stability” became much more important than it had previously been.
The solution hit upon has the goal of “help[ing] slow the pace of upheaval to avoid further violence.”
Why slow the “pace of upheaval?” Well the most obvious reasons are to attempt to maintain stability and important strategic alliances while also attempting to persuade the effected governments to negotiate in good faith with protesters with the eventual goal of implementing reforms in each country which would make the government more representative.
Yeah, admittedly, a little on the moon pony side. The alternative choices, however, are few.
As the article points out there is a lot of opportunity for failure in this particular approach, but while it may be a lower probability approach, if it works it would actually end up strengthening the governments and our ties with them. And in all honesty, there is no real “high probability” approach for the US in this situation.
However, the argument against it working are founded in some simple truths – A) autocratic governments don’t like to give up their power, B) people in revolt are leery and cynical about promises like that and impatient for change and C) a slower pace might allow other more destructive factions the time to organize while “negotiations” are under way.
Obviously, as one official said, this is all done on a “country by country” basis – with the obvious exception being Libya. Libya’s in a civil war and it’s outcome is anyone’s guess – although, as I’ve mentioned, usually the most ruthless side wins, and right now the most ruthless side appears to be that of Ghadaffi. Meanwhile the world dithers and discusses while the massacre proceeds.
Back to the new diplomatic approach. Do I think it will work? It might is the best I can say. It obviously depends on good faith negotiations being a priority for both sides and a real willingness to make change. Do I think that exists? I’m not sure. My gut reaction is “no”. Instead I wouldn’t be surprised to see governments use the time such a policy offers as a means to consolidate their power while throwing a few bones to the protesters. Do I think it is worth a try? Yes, given that the choices are limited and instability in the region is not in the best interest of the US.
But, let’s also be real about its chances – we’re talking about two very different views of outcome here (government v. protesters) and reconciling them wouldn’t be easy even if both sides were fully committed to good faith negotiations. The question is have these governments been scared enough to actually agree to make significant changes or are they simply buying time and using the US as a means of doing so?
Old cynical me, again referencing Human Nature 101, thinks it’s probably the latter.
All sorts of fun stuff … but has anyone noticed how the coverage of Egypt had all but ceased? What’s up with that?
Uncovered by most of the media has been the return from exile of the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has, for years, hosted one of the most watched talks shows on Al Jazeera.
Some of the young activists who launched the Egyptian uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak say they are skeptical about the military’s pledges to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
They also warned Western diplomats in Cairo Monday that the remnants of Mubarak’s regime that still hold positions of power could overturn the uprising’s gains.
Nah … that can’t be true can it? And who do those who ran through the streets denouncing Mubarak, Israel and the US want to help ensure the military keeps its word?
The seven activists – representatives of a broad coalition of youth groups – also called on the international community to support Egypt’s transition toward democracy, and asked for help in tracking down Mubarak’s assets – rumored to be in the billions of dollars.
The activists spoke as senior U.S. and European officials, including British Prime minister David Cameron, were to arrive in Cairo for talks with the country’s military leaders.
Why us, of course.
Meanwhile in Gadaffi land, things have gone from bad to worse. The old boy has managed to get a fatwa issued against him.
‘Whoever in the Libyan army is able to shoot a bullet at Mr Gaddafi should do so,’ Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born cleric who is usually based in Qatar, told Al-Jazeera television.
Qaradawi also told the Libyan army not to fire on protestors. And there are reports in some areas of Libya that those instructions are being followed.
Probably most interesting about the collapse going on in Libya are the words of Gadaffi’s son about what may follow:
"Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt. Libya is composed of clans and tribes. There are alliances. Libya does not have a civil society with political parties. No, Libya is composed of clans and tribes. [...]
"There will be civil war in Libya. We will return to the civil war of 1936. We will kill one another in the streets. Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt. Libya has oil, and that is what united the country. An American oil company played a pivotal role in the unification of Libya.
"We have a single source of income – oil. It is found in central Libya – not in the east or the west. It is in central and south Libya. That is what all five million Libyans live off. If secession takes place – who will give us food and water? Who will control the oil wells? Who is capable of managing the oil sector in Libya? [...]
"We will be forced to emigrate from Libya, because we will not be able to divide the oil between us. There will be war, and all of Libya will be destroyed. We will need 40 years to reach an agreement on how to run the country, because today, everyone will want to be president, or Emir, and everybody will want to run the country.
"Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt. Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt."
Interesting points about Libyan society (lack of political parties meaning lack of democratic institutions/tribes and clans – Afghanistan in N. Africa, except it has oil.) Of course he also said:
"There is no alternative other than to adopt a firm stand. I tell you that the army will play a central role in this, and the Libyan army is not like the army of Tunisia or of Egypt.
"Our army will support Libya and Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi to the last moment, and it will be victorious, Allah willing. Matters will be set straight. We will destroy all the dens of strife. [...]
"In any event, our morale is high. The leader Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi is here in Tripoli, leading the campaign. We stand by him, and the armed forces stand by him. Tens of thousands of people are on their way to Tripoli. We will not sell Libya short. We will fight to our very last man, woman, and bullet. Under no circumstances will we leave our country.
"Let Al-Jazeera TV, Al-Arabiya TV, and the BBC laugh at us. Let those bullies and those traitors, who live abroad, laugh at us, and say that we are destroying our country, but we will not leave it." [...]
And he’s considered the “reasonable” one in the Gadaffi family. My guess is our State Department has no clue about the societal implications and probable outcome of this particular revolution – so I expect sunny, moon-pony pronouncements about “democracy advancing” in Libya to be their stock answer to everything.
Morocco, Bahrain and Yemen are also undergoing disturbances and protests in some form or fashion – and some of those are being met with violent government crackdowns.
Meanwhile in Iran:
Antigovernment protesters gathered throughout parts of Iran on Sunday, most concentrated in the capital Tehran, to mark the deaths of two men killed during demonstrations last Monday. The government mounted a stultifying security presence in the capital, with the police making arrests and using tear gas to try to prevent the unrest from escalating.
The security forces seemed prepared for them, and in some locations, witnesses reported that police officers and baton-holding mercenaries outnumbered the protesters. There were reports of police officers firing on the crowds, although those could not be confirmed, because most foreign journalists were not allowed to report in Iran.
Opposition Web sites and witnesses said that ambulances were driven into the crowds. Security forces, including riot-control units on motorcycles, deployed tear gas to disperse crowds in several places, including near Valiasr Square and Vanak Square.
Plainclothes officers stopped and frisked people on the streets and removed people from vehicles, witnesses said.
Business as usual. And if not busy enough at home, Iran has decided now was a good time to provoke Israel by sending two warships through the Suez canal for “exercises” with Syria – the first time in 30 years Iranian warships have transited the canal.
Finally, something else to keep an eye on:
BEIJING—Chinese authorities detained dozens of political activists after an anonymous online call for people to start a "Jasmine Revolution" in China by protesting in 13 cities—just a day after President Hu Jintao called for tighter Internet controls to help prevent social unrest.
Only a handful of people appeared to have responded to the call to protest in Beijing, Shanghai and 11 other cities at 2 p.m. Sunday, a call first posted on the U.S.-based Chinese-language news website Boxun.com and circulated mainly on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
Yeah, probably not happening — yet.
Not a good week for authoritarians it appears. Of course be careful what you wish for – while we may see one crop of authoritarians shunted to the side, there is no indication that anything other than a different type of authoritarian regime would replace it in many of these places. Change is definitely in the air. But whether that’s finally a “good thing” remains to be seen.