Reining in the revolution

May 25, 2011

Despite the platitudes and cheerleading, Barack Obama's speech on the Middle East made it clear that the U.S. is no friend of the Arab revolution.

BOMBS and bribes, promises and threats. That's Barack Obama's formula for derailing the revolutions in the Arab world and keeping the region under U.S. domination.

Of course, the president didn't put it that way in his May 19 speech at the State Department, billed as a major address on U.S. policy in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and ongoing revolt throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Instead, Obama sought to portray the U.S. as the champion of people power. He acknowledged that "we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force--no matter how well-intentioned it may be." As if George W. Bush was "well-intentioned" in undertaking an imperial conquest that took an estimated 1 million Iraqi lives and left thousands of U.S. soldiers dead and many more maimed.

Passing quickly over Iraq, Obama postured as the champion of Palestinian self-determination, calling for a Palestinian state based on Israel's 1967 borders. And he portrayed the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as in keeping with U.S. traditions:

Barack Obama delivering his speech on the Arab Spring and the Palestine-Israel conflict
Barack Obama delivering his speech on the Arab Spring and the Palestine-Israel conflict

For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union--organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa -– words which tell us that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.

"Tyrants will fall?" The downfall of Middle Eastern dictators came as no thanks to the U.S. government, which propped up Egypt's Hosni Mubarak for 30 years. "Inalienable rights?" Mubarak ruled through a never-ending state of emergency, rigged elections, a ban on protests, systematic torture and the outlawing of independent trade unions--all bankrolled by more than $1 billion a year in U.S. government aid.

The U.S. policy was similar in Tunisia, where the corrupt and brutal regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was the recipient of a steady flow of funds from Washington--and Paris--as a reliable ally in the "war on terror." The U.S. only pulled the plug on Mubarak and Ben Ali when White House strategists, the CIA and the Pentagon concluded that the revolutionary upsurge would sweep away their clients no matter what.

WHAT ABOUT Libya? Didn't the U.S. finally put itself on the right side of the revolution, answering the call of rebels fearful of a massacre at the hands of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces? "Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed," Obama said in his speech.

In reality, the U.S., which counted Qaddafi as an ally in the "war on terror" and an important oil supplier, acted only when it appeared that the situation would spiral out of control, taking Libyan oil offline and sending a wave of refugees headed for European shores.

Thus, what was presented as limited NATO air strikes to protect civilians in the city of Benghazi was soon revealed to be an open-ended intervention, complete with CIA operatives on the ground, support for a rebel government increasingly shaped by Western interests, and an explicit call by the U.S. and its allies for Qaddafi's ouster.

But that doesn't make the U.S. the midwife of the Libyan revolution. On the contrary, the U.S. call for regime change is an invitation for the Libyan ruling elite to dump Qaddafi and come to terms with the West, or face the effective partition of the country into a U.S. client state in the eastern region around Benghazi, while NATO air power continues to pound away at the regime's strongholds around the capital of Tripoli.

And while the U.S. is openly attempting to bring down Qaddafi, Washington is giving the repressive monarchy in Bahrain, well, the royal treatment.

A satellite state of Saudi Arabia and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has long oppressed the majority Shiite Muslim population while a Sunni elite has grown fantastically wealthy. But when the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions inspired a nonviolent pro-democracy movement to take to the streets, the Bahrain security forces, backed by the Saudi military, cleared the streets with tanks and live ammunition.

But that was only the beginning of the crackdown. In recent weeks, the Bahraini authorities have carried out mass arrests, engaged in systematic torture, fired Shiites from their jobs en masse, and orchestrated anti-Shia pogroms that have left mosques and entire neighborhoods in ruin. All of this is taking place literally on the doorstep of the U.S. military.

Obama couldn't ignore this repression entirely in the age of the Internet and al Jazeera. "If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change," the president said, naming both Yemen and Bahrain.

But there was no saber-rattling or threats of sanctions targeting Bahrain. Just a call--a polite suggestion, really--that the Bahrain government "must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis."

As for Yemen, the U.S. has tried to prop up the three-decade rule of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh despite weeks of mass protests that have endured a violent crackdown. The U.S. appears to be working through the Gulf emirates to try to ease Saleh out of office gradually, so that Yemen doesn't become the latest revolutionary victory and give new impetus to the regional uprising.

But having provided the Saleh regime with $300 million per year, including $170 million in military assistance, Washington wants to keep the Yemeni security state intact in a post-Saleh government. Hence Obama's mild verbal reprimand in his speech: "President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power."

In fact, the U.S. appears unfazed by the fact that a armed mob of Saleh supporters trapped the U.S. Ambassador and other allied diplomats in the United Arab Emirates' embassy. But the longer the U.S. props up Saleh, the more polarized the situation in Yemen becomes, thanks to a mass movement of the poor that threatens all the strongmen that the U.S. would like to see take over in Yemen.

Even in Syria, long reviled in Washington as a "sponsor of terror," the U.S., along with Israel, is tacitly backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad against a mass pro-democracy movement.

Fearful that a democratic Syrian government would further inspire anti-U.S. and anti-Israel struggles in the region, the Obama administration was conspicuously quiet when Syrian armed forces shot down unarmed demonstrators, laid siege to entire towns with artillery, and arrested and tortured protesters by the thousands.

It was only after the pro-democracy movement was already reeling from repression that the U.S. sharpened its rhetoric against Syria. But rather than getting a cruise missile from a NATO plane, Assad got a warning from Obama, some limited sanctions and a call to "start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition."

ESSENTIALLY, OBAMA is trying to rebrand the U.S. from the image of arrogant military overlords to one of cheerleaders for the democratic revolutions. "There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity," he said.

But even in this public relations exercise, parts of the real U.S. policy are visible, like the tips of icebergs. According to Obama's speech, a future Palestinian state should be based on "land swaps" with Israel--which would mean that Israeli settlers would get the best land and water in the West Bank, while Palestinians remain locked outside their homeland.

Obama made no mention of Palestinians' right of return--so much for those "inalienable rights." And when Obama sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss White House proposals, the president sat by as Netanyahu told the world's media that he rejected even Obama's pro-Israeli "compromise."

Above all, Obama made it clear that the U.S. is still the boss of the region and a reliable ally for loyal repressive regimes, like the Saudi royal family. "As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners," Obama said.

The speech also contained prominent mention of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden, implying that the U.S. "war on terror" was in the interest of the revolutionary democratic movements in the Arab and Muslim world. In fact, the U.S. wants to continue to use the "war on terror" as a pretext to carry out military intervention anywhere in the world.

That's why the White House has kept quiet as House Republicans add language to a defense authorization bill that, as former Republican Rep. Bob Barr wrote, gives a blank check for U.S. military intervention against "terrorist targets":

What this latest language does is give the Obama administration and its successors preemptive permission to use military force against an alleged terrorist group, or even a country harboring them, based on some arbitrary, alleged association with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. While the Obama administration has not asked for these expanded powers, neither is it offering firm opposition.

So if a few more wedding parties in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are bombed by U.S. drones as a result of attacks on "high-value targets," so be it.

Finally, Obama's offer of economic aid for Egypt and Tunisia is, in fact, an effort to ensnare those economies in the corporate-friendly, market-driven neoliberal policies tailored to the needs of Western corporations. The model for this initiative, Obama said, are the programs used in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall-- efforts that turned the countries of that region into low-wage economies dominated by the West.

Now Obama wants to repeat that process in the Middle East, claiming to "open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement."

The U.S. attempt to limit a revolutionary upsurge with carrots as well as sticks is nothing new. In the aftermath of the First World War, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who took the U.S. into the trench-warfare slaughter to "make the world safe for democracy," was out to open up new areas of the world to U.S. influence.

The words of warning then by the U.S. revolutionary journalist and Communist Party founder John Reed are once again timely for a new generation of revolutionaries in the Middle East.

Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam's promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.

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