By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Friday June 3 2011
“We believe, not simply in the rights of nations, but the rights of citizens.” Thus spoke U.S. President Barack Obama during his speech before the British Parliament last month.
It was a wonderful address, articulating the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s democratic values which, Obama said, inspired the Arab Spring and encouraged a people that “longs to determine its own destiny.” It was also nonsense.
It was rather like what British Prime Minister David Cameron said following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In that speech he apologized for the U.K.’s role in supporting autocratic regimes in the Middle East and said that his government would in the future support “peaceful protest” and “freedom of speech” and “the rule of law.”
And here’s some more nonsense. Ask any British government official why the kind of military intervention under way in Libya is not equally justified in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria and the standard answer you will receive runs along the lines of, “We can’t solve every problem, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve this problem.” Some might also point to the logistical difficulties of a military intervention in the Gulf.
Really? Let’s pretend for a moment that politicians were honest about the reasons for not lifting a finger to prevent civilian deaths in Arab countries different than Libya. They would say, unequivocally, that while the U.K.’s strategic interests are well served by the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, those same interests are not served by the fall of regimes elsewhere in the Middle East or the Gulf.
Why? In Libya, it’s worth pointing out that the country was in a state of civil war before the West intervened, one where a sizeable chunk of territory was under the control of those opposed to Gadhafi. The U.K., France and the U.S. believed a limited military intervention would tilt the balance toward the rebels and rid the world of a despot, with little wider geopolitical upheavals. Their intervention was overdue and has not been entirely effective, yet it was commendable and right.
But in terms of the Gulf, what the West wants is stability, and if politicians are honest, they are not overly particular how that is achieved. Central to British policy at the moment – and that of the U.S. – is the degree to which the wave of political unrest across the region will work to the benefit of international bogeyman Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Iran of attempting to hijack the region’s democracy protests in a bid to “destabilize” America’s allies in the Gulf. Bahrain has also accused Hezbollah of involvement in the protests in Manama. And straight from its success in suppressing dissent at home, Iran is understood to have supplied Syria with crowd-control equipment and technical help in blocking and tracing Syrian protestors’ use of the Internet and mobile phones.
It is worth pointing out that Egypt’s transitional government has already extended an olive branch to Tehran, ending years of sour relations. It has also opened its border with Hamas-controlled Gaza. It’s hardly a dramatic realignment of the balance of Middle East power, but goes some way to explaining why the G-8 is offering the giant carrot of Western aid to Egypt and others, despite the fact that so far only two regimes have been toppled by the wave of unrest across the region.
It is against this backdrop that the U.K. chooses to ignore events in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
Yemen is a deeply unstable country that has battled separatists in the south and Shiite insurgents in the north. Even allowing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s interest in hyping up the threat, the country is increasingly recognized as an Al-Qaeda stronghold. Saleh has been viewed in the U.K. as a crucial ally in countering that threat. Last year the British government announced it was looking to “substantially increase” the amount of aid it gave to Saleh’s government to prevent Yemen from becoming a “second Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is also America’s largest military base in the region and a crucial ally of Washington and London. If something akin to British and American democracy replaces the Al-Khalifa regime, it means that the government could be dominated by Shiites, which in turn raises the specter of increased Iranian influence in a critical strategic outpost of the U.S. military.
Moreover, if the opposition prevails in Bahrain, neighboring Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most important ally, would have to address the demands of its own Shiite population. Hence the only foreign military intervention in Bahrain has seen Saudi and other Gulf units arriving to help contain the protest movement.
Bashar Assad, though no friend of Washington, is seen as critical to regional stability and any hope of a peace deal with Israel, since Western governments resumed courting him three years ago and he made his peace with Saudi Arabia. The British government also fears that the collapse, or even the weakening, of the Assads might open up a regional can of worms and lead, among other things, to a resurgence of Kurdish nationalism, which could impact Iraq and Turkey.
Therefore, for all the rhetoric, and commendable action in Libya, there are defined limits to how far the U.K. and the West will go in supporting human rights, free speech and democracy.
The West saved Benghazi, but it should explain why bloodshed elsewhere is not, in political terms, worth getting in a fight over. Sadly, the best that those seeking human and political rights in other Arab countries can hope for is that the eventual toppling of Gadhafi will send a message to their leaders. It would be nice if Cameron and Obama would just admit this rather than indulging in empty rhetoric while those seeking the ideals they espouse are being eliminated.