The success of pro-democracy protests in Tunisia and Egypt in late winter raised hopes that peaceful change would take place elsewhere in the region. Those hopes faded when the rulers of Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Saudi Arabia used their armed forces to put down protests, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi proved willing to kill as many Libyans as necessary to remain in power.
Qaddafi’s 41-year record of oppression, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment was not entirely unique in a region where little dissent is tolerated and the Israelis inflict every conceivable hardship on the Palestinians in an effort to take permanent possession of their land. Yet with U.S. forces still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration joined Britain and France in launching a war against the Libyan ruler.
The U.N. Security Council had called for a cease-fire and for measures to protect Libyan civilians, but the allies’ attack far exceeded that mandate. Warships bombarded Libyan cities and air bases with Tomahawk missiles while B-2 Stealth bombers and fighter jets dropped 500-pound bombs on Libyan troops, military installations and government buildings, including Qaddafi’s personal compound.
The intensity of the attacks prompted sharp criticism from Security Council members Brazil, Russia, China and India, and from the Arab League. "What we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," said the League’s secretary-general, Amr Moussa.
In justifying his decision to go to war without a congressional mandate, Obama said, "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different." That statement was certain to provoke such questions as why Obama’s concern for civilians did not extend to the victims of other brutal dictators, such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast. Why had Obama shown no sympathy for the 1,400 Gazans slaughtered by the Israelis during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9, or for the many Palestinians killed since then?
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was more candid in explaining the choice of opponents. He admitted that Libya was not of "vital interest to the U.S.," but added, "We clearly have interests there, and it’s part of a region which is of vital interest to the United States." He did not have to explain what those interests are. Libya possesses large quantities of oil, and is one of the few Arab countries where the industry is still nationalized. The bulk of Libya’s oil profits do not flow to oil companies abroad, nor are they used to buy American arms.
As the war went into its third week, and Qaddafi’s troops recaptured territory they had lost, the U.S. reportedly considered arming the ragtag rebel army or even leading an all-out ground assault on Qaddafi’s forces. But the allies still had not agreed on an ultimate goal. Obama claimed they did not intend to oust Qaddafi by force, but it was clear they intended to get rid of him.
Such an outcome would have its own perils, especially since it was not clear who made up the rebel army. Some intelligence analysts even suspected it included members of al-Qaeda or similar groups. When Qaddafi overthrew the king 41 years ago Libya was a collection of warring tribes, and his departure could reignite old rivalries and, as happened in Iraq, plunge the country into renewed violence.
Obama’s decision to go to war to protect Libyan civilians was in sharp contrast to his behavior toward other Arab rulers who, unlike Qaddafi, faced mostly unarmed protestors rather than armed rebels. After the forces of Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh opened fire on demonstrators in Sana’a on March 18, killing at least 52 of them and wounding hundreds more, Obama called only for "restraint." Saleh, a close ally in fighting al-Qaeda, has allowed CIA-operated drone missiles to carry out assassinations on Yemeni territory.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, home port of the U.S. 5th Fleet, is an even more crucial ally. Gates visited Khalifa on March 11 to assure him of American support and urge him to negotiate with protesters, who were calling only for democratic reforms under a constitutional monarchy. Khalifa ignored Gates’ request, and instead imposed martial law and called in an army composed of troops from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Soldiers backed by tanks and helicopters used clubs, tear gas, and live bullets to disperse unarmed protesters."They broke everything," one of the demonstrators said. "They shot at kids. There was no humanity, no respect." Obama again urged "restraint."
Administration officials were far harsher in their condemnation of Syria, where soldiers killed some 60 demonstrators before pulling back. In an effort to appease the protesters, President Bashar al-Assad freed hundreds of political prisoners, and promised to lift the 50-year-old emergency laws and institute major reforms–”at some future date. Gates condemned the Syrians for using violence against the demonstrators and "ignoring the political and economic needs of the people." He issued this statement, with no apparent embarrassment, from the Israeli Defense Ministry.
In Egypt, the success of a March 19 vote to approve several constitutional amendments virtually assured there would be elections for parliament in September and for president in November. The military council that took over from Hosni Mubarak meanwhile appointed as interim prime minister Essam Sharif, a former judge on the International Court of Justice.
Sharif in turn named as foreign minister Nabil Elaraby, who immediately declared Israel’s blockade of Gaza to be a violation of international law, and said Israel "must be held accountable when it does not respect its obligations." Despite these encouraging signs, the military, which receives $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid, has yet to end Egypt’s enforcement of the blockade or enact the economic and political reforms demanded by the protesters.
Obama’s selective approach to Middle East rulers based on the size of their oil deposits and their relations with Israel was explained by a senior administration official who spoke off the record. He acknowledged that many of the Arab protesters identified their struggle with the American civil rights movement and therefore expected Obama to support them. But, the official said, "His first job is to be the American president."
Some Middle East experts believe Obama would be wise to redefine that job in terms of America’s true interests, and adjust to the new reality. If pro-democracy movements are successful, the administration’s willingness to tolerate Israel’s excesses and those of its Arab allies may cause the new leaders to reconsider their relations with the U.S. As Arab political systems become more representative of their populations "they will for sure become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States," said two former members of the National Security Council, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett.
Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University puts much of the blame for the prevalence of autocratic Arab regimes on the imperial powers. After World War I Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire between themselves, drew national borders accordingly, and installed hand-picked rulers. Since World War II the U.S. and Britain have assured the continuance of these regimes by systematically undermining democratically elected governments.
Unlike democracies, however, dictatorships are essentially unstable. The reform-minded crowds who are willing to risk tear gas and bullets are addressing longstanding and deeply held grievances. In doing so they have coopted al-Qaeda’s appeal, and demonstrated to Western leaders that the most effective weapon against terrorism is not drone missiles, but freedom from oppression.
That message has been rejected by the Israelis. As Israel takes over more and more West Bank land, Palestinian villagers endure an increasing number of shootings, beatings, stabbings and incidents of arson. Soldiers who accompany the marauding settlers often shoot Palestinians who try to fend them off. West Bank Palestinians have refrained from retaliatory violence, but in early March an assailant entered the right-wing settlement of Itamar and stabbed to death a family of five, including a small infant.
Since Palestinians are barred from entering Itamar, the killings may have been carried out by one of the many foreign workers employed there. Nevertheless, settlers stormed through the West Bank, wrecking whatever they found in their path. The army raided dozens of homes in the area, arrested 19 Palestinians, and left a trail of broken furniture, emptied water cisterns and smashed computers. The killer has not been found.
"They murder, we build," Netanyahu said in announcing that Israel would add 500 more settlement units in the West Bank. In fact the Israelis murder as well as build. Jewish Voice for Peace recently reported that between the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 and Jan. 1, 2011, the Israelis killed 150 Palestinian men, women and children. In 2010 alone, according to the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs, the Israelis killed 11 children and wounded 360. These figures are certain to be even greater in 2011.
As a million and a half Gazans were trying to survive with not enough food and electricity, and with dangerously polluted water, the Israelis found an additional way to punish them by kidnapping the operating manager of Gaza’s only functioning power plant, Dirar Abu Sisi. Sisi was visiting Ukraine when he was seized by Israeli agents and flown shackled and hooded to Israel, where he has been imprisoned ever since (see story p. 18).
After Israel restricted the import of regular fuel to Gaza, Sisi devised a way to run the power plant’s turbines on diesel fuel smuggled in from Egypt. Israel eventually accused Sisi with developing missiles and rockets for Hamas, a charge his Israeli lawyer called unrealistic and "meant only to justify what has been done to [him]." His abduction was clearly aimed at punishing him for that crime and reducing even the small amount of electricity available to Gazans.
Israel’s continuing assassinations of Hamas members, and the shooting of Gazans who came too close to the border, finally accomplished their purpose in March, when a bomb set off near a Jerusalem bus stop killed a 60-year-old British woman, and Hamas broke its 13-month cease-fire by firing 50 mortar shells into Israel, lightly wounding two Israelis. With renewed peace talks now safely out of the question, Israel was free to strike back with repeated air strikes and shelling, killing militants and civilians alike.
Gates, who like Obama had remained silent when Palestinian children were killed, called the Jerusalem bombing "a horrific terrorist attack." Since then Hamas and other militant groups have agreed to restore a cease-fire if Israel stopped its attacks, but the air strikes have continued.
The escalating violence raised fears of a repeat of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza two years ago that left 1,400 Palestinians dead. A group of Israeli peace activists demanded that Israel and Gaza be made a no-fly zone, and the International Crisis Group (ICG) called for an immediate and comprehensive cease-fire, an immediate end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and greater unity between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The last, according to the ICG, would require a "different approach" to Hamas by the West.
Obama has the diplomatic and economic means as well as the moral power to force an end to Israel’s illegal occupation and its excesses. He has chosen instead to ignore the Palestinians’ plight and embark on yet another war. His decision to intervene in Libya may or may not prove dangerously short-sighted. His refusal to condemn Israel’s crimes is indefensible.