A Review of Obama’s Response to the Arab Spring - An Extended look
The revolutionary cascade that began with the fateful self-immolation of Tunisian merchant on December 18th 2010, has become arguably the most monumental political phenomenon of the 21st century to date, and the consequences of the uprisings are likely to sustain turmoil and conflict across the Middle East for decades. The Arab Spring resulted in civil wars and uprisings, massive violent protests and regime change which unfolded on a scale comparable only to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the revolutions of 1989. The worst refugee crisis since the end of WWII, proxy wars between nuclear powers and hundreds of thousands of casualties has influenced the geopolitical climate in an alarmingly irreversible way. The implications of these revolts to the paradigm of International Security cannot be underestimated and as the second term of President Obama comes to end, the role his administration played as these events unfolded can be examined in their entirety.
When Obama took office almost 8 years ago, he was riding the incredible success of his campaign of Hope and Change to an American public that was desperate for the fruition of his promises. The electorate was facing the worst recession in history, two devastating and atrociously expensive wars, unprecedented levels of terrorism and increased tensions across the Middle East. Perhaps the most successful campaigner in living memory, Obama succinctly recognized the exasperation of voters over the many blunders of the Bush administration in the region. His campaign sought to pursue counterterrorism efforts through hard power in Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq while at the same time, diplomatically maintain U.S. soft power. Armed with the doctrine of “diplomatic balancing,” or better known as “Smart Power,” the Obama White House sought to ease off American presence in the region with a vision of multipolar stability where all actors would be appeased and the U.S. could shift its influence eastward.
Diplomatic power balancing and Smart Power may have been the grand strategy for the Obama administration in the Middle East, but the doctrine that came to dominate the political response to the Arab Spring was much more centered on the idea of democracy proliferation. The perception of the Arab Spring in the White House was an awakening of the Arab world, where the Arab Youth, armed with social media were ready or even yearning for democracy. This mindset would come to dominate the U.S. Middle Eastern foreign policy in the infancy of the revolutionary movement and throughout much of the coming crises that came as a result of the Arab Spring. To analyze the role of the Obama administration in the Arab Spring, the policies and actions of the administration’s most decisive policies and actions in the three most consequential (and ongoing) revolutions of the Arab Spring: Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Egypt became the earliest and most significant conflagration point of the Arab Spring when the momentous fervor of the Tahrir square uprising was quickly greeted with the support of regime change from Obama and his cabinet. After only 3 weeks of protests (that were brutally oppressed by government forces), Obama personally praised the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and thus ended his 30-year ascendancy of Egypt. Mubarak, like the rest of the autocratic leaders of the Middle East, was despotic and totalitarian in his rule, but was an ally of historic and critically strategic worth. Only two years prior to his downfall, Obama welcomed Mubarak into the Oval Office and delivered a joint statement expounding the importance of the American-Egyptian partnership and the success of his (Mubarak’s) leadership in the region. Two months earlier Obama decided to make his hallmark, “A New Beginning” speech at Al-Azhar University to reset relations with the Muslim world, and in the same year proposed a budget that included a 25% increase in aid to Egypt over the Bush administration. The public statements made by Obama and his cabinet contributed significantly to the momentum of the events taking place in Tahrir square and vindicated the protesters. Publicly calling for the resignation of an Arab leader and encouraging a democratic election process during the tumultuous spring of 2011 was deeply unsettling to other Arab countries that began to experience similar civil disobedience. Even Israel, despite its antagonistic relationship with Egypt, was taken aback at the betrayal of Mubarak and expressed concern for the inevitable instability and uncertainty.
Following the resignation of Mubarak came the ensuing chaos in the 16 months before the first democratic election in Egypt’s history. During this tumultuous period, only two entities had the political capital to organize a bid for the Egyptian Presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and remnants of the Mubarak regime. The Obama administration’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood during the transitional period is controversial and unsubstantiated, however Obama did stress that Egypt needed assistance during the transitional period. The 2011 figure of U.S. aid to Egypt was then increased from $1.3 billion to $1.45 billion to accommodate the democratic transition, shortly after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with military transition leaders. As the transition wore on and movements were solidified in the upcoming election, Washington expanded its relations with the logic of engaging all actors vying for power in the upcoming election. Muhammad Morsi won the election under somewhat contentious circumstances; although given the circumstances it constituted a significant achievement for the democratic process and the outcome was acknowledged by all parties and supranational powers.
Obama congratulated Morsi on the win, again repeating the desire for regional collaboration and the importance of democratic self-assertion, but at the same time failing to voice concern on the Islamist foundation of his candidacy. The early months of the Morsi presidency saw the Obama administration cordially engage the leader and even partner on negotiations over the Israeli-Gaza conflict in November, 2012. This partnership earned legitimacy for Morsi internationally but distracted from his support for Hamas; Morsi’s Egypt became characterized as “a major external base of Hamas operations.” As the Morsi presidency continued, the domestic socio-economic situation in Egypt was rapidly deteriorating, despite the $1.5 billion dollars in aid and $1 billion in debt forgiveness the Obama administration provided. The political situation was even more dire as Morsi, in the first few months of his presidency, quickly became more authoritarian than his predecessor Mubarak, demolishing the democratic progress Egypt made during the revolution in the process.
In the lead-up to the military coup d’état that ousted Morsi, protesters gathered in the millions across Egypt, alongside violent crackdowns that were similar to the scene in Tahrir square two years prior, if not worse. During these protests, Obama refused to call for the resignation of Morsi nor condemn Morsi’s actions against the opposition in any manner close to the rhetoric he used to help the 2011 revolution topple the Mubarak regime. Following the arrest of Morsi during the coup, Obama issued a statement expressing concern over the affair and urging the military not to arrest Morsi nor any of his supporters. Six weeks later, following the arrest of Morsi and another violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters, Obama strongly condemned both events and suspended a joint military exercise and suspended all aid to Egypt. As Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (the military leader of the coup that removed Morsi from power) was elected President of Egypt the next year, aid resumed and Obama continued the strategic partnership, but it lacked the enthusiasm Morsi enjoyed. The Obama-Sisi relationship was fraught with numerous disagreements that stemmed from the initial retraction of aid, but then evolved into frequent criticisms of Sisi’s regime; points of contention being Syria, the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and attacks on ISIS targets in the Sinai.
The example of Egypt was particularly consequential for the Middle East, not just in the chaos and instability brought on by two revolutions, but also in the signal the U.S. sent to the region in abandoning a historic ally and supporting a democratic process that elected an openly Islamist regime. Obama supported the rise and election of an organization, despite its politically militant and fundamentalist nature and regardless of the hostility and friction it created with Arab allies and Israel. All of this was done in name of the Egyptian people who ultimately suffered more authoritarianism, oppression and instability, only to get another coup that installed another military leader comparable to Mubarak. The policies of the Obama administration did all of this without any immediate strategic benefit, other than the moral perception that the U.S. stood with the Egyptian people and their nascent quest for democracy. Egyptian Domestic opinion of Obama however, did not benefit from his actions; according to a Brookings Institution 2012 public opinion poll stating 75% of Egyptians preferred then Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney over Obama.
The calculus of Obama’s efforts in Egypt were hard to argue against in the political vernacular of the time, since it would mean opposing the hope and self-assertion of a popular revolution demanding fair and elective government. Any criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood assuming the newly minted Egyptian presidency, was dismissed by Obama under the auspices of a democratic project that then collapsed under the authoritarianism of Morsi. The support and political legitimization of a cult-like Islamist organization whose motto is “God is our goal, the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, struggle [jihad] is our way, and death in the service of God is the loftiest of our wishes. God is great. God is great,” is hard to justify even in the context of a greater democratic ideal. The entire Egyptian experience of the Arab Spring presented a difficult dilemma for the U.S., but Obama’s response was nothing short of political casuistry personified into foreign policy. While the hypothetical worst of Morsi’s regime was voided by the coup and establishment of the current Sisi regime, Obama’s Bully Pulpit behavior and policies sent conspicuous signs of support for political Islam and revolution that contributed to the rest of the Islamist elements of the Arab Spring.
American relations with the Brotherly Leader of Libya Muammar Ghaddafi, have been acrimonious since his rise to power in bloodless coup d’état in 1969, climaxing in several crises spanning over two decades. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ghaddafi engaged with a rapprochement with the Western world leading to the eventual reestablishment of diplomatic relations. After Ghaddafi dismantled his WMD program and made other concessions, this made Libya the “Fairy Tale” of political reconciliation. Obama in 2009 at the G8 world summit confirmed his relatively amicable relationship with Ghaddafi, with a handshake and Ghaddafi exclaimed a few months later, “We are content and happy if Obama can stay forever as President” in his speech to the UN. Libya enjoyed the détente with the West primarily by benefiting from the lifting of sanctions, making Libya the “highest GDP per capita and life expectancy in Africa,” a UN Human Development Index ranking of 53 in 2010 and in the same year, Freedom House reported a modest increase of democratic progress.
The revolution in Libya began with protests a few days after the resignation of Mubarak in Egypt and soon became the first civil uprising of the Arab Spring to develop into a sophisticated rebellion. The revolt had all the characteristics of an Arab Spring movement but quickly separated itself from other revolutions through regime-wide defections and the quick formation of opposition groups. As the protests were morphing into armed militias in the face of regime crackdowns, Obama issued an executive order freezing $32 billion in regime assets followed by an UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution passing even tougher measures. Rebel forces then began morphing into a cohesive and internationally recognized, insurrectionist movement and in late February- early March of 2011, talk of intervention and reports of Ghaddafi preparing to massacre his own people, started to buzz around Western media. As the violence intensified, Obama held a press conference stating “Gaddafi Has Lost the Legitimacy to Lead and He Must Leave" two weeks before the UNSC resolution supporting a no fly zone was passed.
The apparent cracks in Ghaddafi’s regime did not lead to an early collapse and as the rebellion was forming and making some forms of progress, government forces began a counteroffensive in the first week of March. Regime loyalists began crushing the rebellion on all fronts and in only two weeks, the majority of gains the rebels made in cities like Misrata, were retaken by Ghaddafi. During this counteroffensive, the rhetoric in Western media regarding the crisis was nearing mass hysteria with reports that Ghaddafi was on the verge of committing country-wide war crimes and genocide. Publications from Western media such as regime sponsored mass rape and the deliberate bombing of civilians, all proved to be either questionable, or completely false when reviewed years later. Much of the sources promoting the “mad dog” narrative of Ghaddafi came from the rebel movement and one senior U.S. intelligence official described the basis for the later NATO intervention as an “intelligence-light decision. This intervention was mobilized with “the lowest approval rating of any military operation polled in the last 4 decades” and the House of Representatives later voted to defund the endeavor. It can be argued that the catalyst for the mission began in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom and France but in the end, roughly “90 % of the military actions against the Libyan regime would not have been possible without the support of the U.S.”
The United Nations passed UNSC resolution 1973 on March 17th, enacting a no-fly zone and setting the legal groundwork for more drastic military intervention. When NATO airstrikes began a few days later under “legally dubious” circumstances, Ghaddafi’s air force was destroyed and as Obama’s deputy national security adviser recanted, “We (NATO) basically destroyed Ghaddafi’s air defenses and stopped the advance of his forces within three days.” The NATO operation codenamed Unified Protector (that encompassed prior British, Canadian, French and American campaigns) was sold politically at the domestic level (i.e. to the American public), as not promoting regime change, but as preventing a massacre and ensuring human rights. Obama’s March 28th address to the nation on Libya carried the message that that NATO’s mission was not regime change, but to halt the “advance (of loyalist forces), bearing down on the city of Benghazi, home to nearly 700,000 men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.” Three days later, Obama signed an order authorizing covert support for Libyan rebels fighting Ghaddafi; the support detailed weapon shipments from Qatar that later became the property of al-Qaeda linked Islamic militants.
As the uprising stretched into a full-blown civil war, the U.S. fully recognized the opposition as the rightful Libyan government and coordination between the rebels and NATO forces became common knowledge, despite the humanitarian mandate. As the civil war irrevocably turned in favor of the rebels, the NATO strategy shifted to assisting the opposition deliver the knock-out punch to the regime and Obama once again began calling for Ghadaffi’s abdication of power. When Ghaddafi was finally killed in October, Obama applauded the end of his regime and stated the U.S’s commitment to the Libyan people and the future path to democracy. Operation Unified Protector ended 11 days after the death of Ghaddafi and presented no plan to aid the fragile transitional council. An analysis of the NATO intervention did however, have high levels of organizational efficacy, “struck 90% of the more than 6,000 targets” and was very successful in respect to coalition coordination; all without any allied casualties. Libyan civilian casualties from the supposed humanitarian mission of Unified Protector can be debated but given the scope of the enterprise, were relatively miniscule.
Whatever the impetus and actual motive of the NATO intervention, it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that it significantly contributed to the removal of Ghaddafi and the consequences of that regime change are monumental. The immediate fallout of the intervention and subsequent operational abandonment, was that Libya devolved into a factionalist, militia-controlled, failed state that would later lead to a coup attempt and another civil war in 2014. Libya became a de facto failed state that led to a power vacuum where three separate ISIS Wilayats (governorates) were established and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had advanced networks and even headquarters. Following the narrative of the Arab Spring to a fault, Islamism and radical versions of Islam clouded the political discourse following Ghaddafi and was the organizing force in many of militias that held power. Groups like Anshar al Sharia that are Salafist fundamentalist Islamists controlled varying degrees of territory and the Libyan Dawn conglomeration of “pro-Islamist militias” that controls the western half of Libya are just examples of the hundreds of groups claiming power after the revolution. These groups were not the freedom fighters Obama envisioned during the revolution and have committed countless human rights violations both during the revolution, and after.
In the political conversation during the intervention, the lexicon surrounding the rebel movement hardly mentioned Islamist, Jihadist or al-Qaeda and was certainly never discussed by Obama in his oratory of humanitarian intervention and democracy. One of Hillary Clinton’s assistant secretaries omit that Opposition leaders “said all the right things about supporting democracy and inclusivity and building Libyan institution… they gave us what we wanted to hear.“ Elements of militant Islam were evident in the opposition very early into the uprising , with a rebel leader acknowledging “no more than 15%” were radical Islamists. This dubious nature of the opposition should have been very easy to surmise even without actionable intelligence, but once again the Arab Spring fantasy overrode conventional geopolitical wisdom. This failure came at the cost of decimation of Libyan oil production (the backbone of the economy), Libya slid 41 places on the Human Development Index and became the focal point for migrant crisis and all the accompanying tangible and intangible harm, and finally the infamous Benghazi attack that killed American Ambassador Chris Stevens and others. As with Egypt, the perception in the Arab world concerning the West’s involvement in Libya was highly unfavorable and the standing of the West in the Middle East only worsened.
The humanitarian rational that eventually matured to regime change still could have averted much of the resulting grief if Obama had a sober and judicious transition strategy prepared during the intervention. Obama recognized this mammoth and enduring failure as the greatest regret of his time in office and rightly so, but the magnitude of this error is even more unforgiveable given the historical context of his predecessor. The Bush administration prematurely declared an end to the Iraq war before Saddam Hussein was captured and city centers consolidated under coalition control, moreover there was a glaring lack of preparation for the post-invasion State. The years of violent insurgency and terror that followed should have served as a harrowing reminder to any invading force; the lesson being to never to prematurely withdraw from a deeply divided society recently liberated from a dictator and consumed by instability. Ironically enough, Obama made another auxiliary mistake in the same month when he announced the complete troop withdrawal from Iraq that has since contributed to the rise of ISIS. Libya is now trifurcated into three warring governments where one former CIA client, General Khalifa Haftar (who controls much of Eastern Libya), is now being pursued by Russia for future cooperation.
The Syrian conflict has emerged as the cardinal crisis of the Arab Spring with roughly half a million dead, 8 million displaced citizens and the near ruin of the Syrian nation state. In almost 6 years since the beginning of the uprising, the complexity of the situation has been compounded by sectarianism, economic interests, terrorism, proxy interference (both regional and supraregional) and everything in between. Each of these components to the Syrian crisis have historic and generational significance on a global level, which has in turn exacerbated consequentiality. This accumulation of contrariety has garnered so many different forces and actors, that it is next to impossible to critically analyze the fundamental dynamics of the conflict in any meaningful way. The role of U.S. foreign policy in the Syrian nightmare has been somewhat guileless in the most explicit of fashions, since there was no direct intervention on the scale experienced in Libya. The Obama administration cannot however, be absolved of the Syrian disaster to any significant degree and the direct and indirect effects of Obama’s strategy will have legacy-defining implications.
The Syrian Arab Spring began with civil unrest in February of 2011 and then a month later nationwide protests erupted after several schoolboys were arrested and tortured for anti-regime graffiti. President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad responded with concessions considered nominal by protesters while at the same time forcefully repressing increasingly militant dissent. In the midst of this escalation the Obama administration formally engaged the crisis with six formal statements, all of them ardently condemning the actions of the Assad regime, all in the span of a month. By the late spring/early summer of 2011, the revolution transitioned into a violent uprising and on May 18th the U.S. imposed sanctions. Exactly three months later Obama made an address calling for Assad to step aside and enacted further sanctions; in response, the Russian Foreign Ministry voiced their disagreement to U.S. policy in Syria. This disagreement was cemented in the fall when a U.S. sponsored UNSC resolution was blocked by Russia and China, former American UN Ambassador Susan Rice responded in outrage claiming the Russians “would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”
In the following year the conflict grew from a civil uprising into a fully-fledged insurgency and al-Qaeda in Iraq began operations in Syria under the pseudonym Jabhat al-Nusrah li-Ahli al-Sham (Front for the Protection of the Levantine People, or simply the al-Nusrah front). The saliency of the Iraqi-Syrian border has proven to be an entry point for foreign terrorists during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and almost ten years later the reversed happened to devastating effect. The al-Nusrah front came from Iraq and quickly began infiltrating the Syrian rebels who were still in their nascent struggle against the more well-equipped Syrian regime. The narrative of secular and Western minded rebels fighting for democracy that was seen in Egypt and Libya, was once again visible in the rhetoric of the Obama administration and the West in general. The reality is that the Syrian rebels represent a volatile and fluid spectrum of actors with varying degrees of Islamism and as a result, the classification of “moderate opposition” is misleading. While the organizations like the Syrian National Coalition, Supreme Military Command and the FSA have extensive Islamist elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, it must be noted that al-Nusrah and the FSA are distinct entities. By one estimate, 60 percent of the Syrian Opposition are Islamist extremists and throughout the conflict, the FSA and al-Nursah have both had countless examples of coordination and cooperation against the Assad regime.
Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has argued that if there was a chance to arm the truly “moderate” faction of the Syrian opposition, it was in early 2012 before the radical Islamists could take root. The al-Nusrah front accomplished just that in late 2012 and demonstrated themselves to be the most successful group of the opposition, transfixing their place in the civil war and making themselves ideal candidates for foreign funding. The Obama administration began authorizing support for the opposition in covert and overt fashion in the summer of 2012, while at the same time struggling to find a diplomatic solution. During the same summer, the first Geneva Communiqué was announced, outlining a transitional plan that was notoriously vague on the role of Assad but had multilateral support from Russia and China. The diplomatic locution surrounding the peace talks was that there was “no military solution in the Syrian conflict,” a mantra that was repeated for years in spite of the escalating violence. All of these developments set the stage for the infamous “red line” doctrine Obama espoused regarding the potential use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.... We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
There have been dozens of reported incidents of chemical weapon attacks perpetrated by every actor (including the rebels) in the conflict spanning a period of years, but the “enormous consequences” never came to fruition. The Obama administration stuck to the red line policy for almost a year with no action, until August of 2013 when he asked for congressional approval for military strike on the regime. This proposal came after a U.S. declassified intelligence report of an alleged chemical weapon incident resulting in approximately 1,500 casualties; at this point the Syrian conflict had a death toll of well over a hundred thousand. The Russian reaction was encapsulated in an open letter from Vladimir Putin to the American public, urging against rash intervention and unforeseen consequences. Shortly after, a U.S.-Russian agreement was reached where Assad handed over his chemical weapons voluntarily to be destroyed. This diplomatic maneuvering completely nullified Obama’s self-imposed strategy for intervention and the speculation on the fallout of this red line debacle is wide-ranging and contentious. Conventional use of chemical weapons has continued in Syria as late as the fall of 2016, with both rebels and regime forces accusing one another.
In 2013 and 2014 the Syrian civil war became an outright proxy war, the center of multiple geo-political struggles and the fertile territory for what became the wealthiest terrorist organization in history. Obama continued his program of non-lethal aid and secret training to the rebels, which was revealed months later to be an abject failure. U.S. policy during this time communed nothing but weakness and a reluctance for decisive action, instead a stagnation of diplomatic and political apathy stalled the progress of the war in either direction. The withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq (which was later redacted by redeploying U.S. troops) allowed almost the entire Levant to be consumed by the Syrian conflict. Credible deterrence against the multitude of actors operating against U.S. interests was removed after the Red Line gaffe and yet the Obama administration did not change their doctrinal purpose of removing the Assad regime. The U.S. instead shifted their focus to combatting the rise of ISIS in the form of a “broad coalition (and) a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists” in both Iraq and Syria.
Russia militarily intervened on behalf of the Assad regime in 2015 and since then the tides have turned in favor of the Assad coalition, of which is exemplified by the recent recapture of Aleppo from rebel forces. The rhetoric used by the Obama administration in the condemnation of the Russian intervention is reminiscent of the most vitriolic diplomatic altercations of the Cold War. These attacks have accomplished nothing except demonize Russian actions and estrange the U.S.-Russian relationship. The analysis of the Russian intervention presents two coinciding conclusions, the first being the self-serving rational in protecting a client state and other strategic goals; this is the reality from the Russian lens. The second conclusion is in the framework of the “bottom line” for the Syrian crisis, which was the stalemate eroding in favor the Assad regime. The dilemma of Assad vs. Rebel forces is an intricate issue, but suffice it to say that a prolonged war is worse than either side winning the war. Casting aside the realpolitik interests of Russia in their intervention, their actions were decisive and have produced results; albeit results that are diametrically opposed to U.S. interests.
Committing to a wholesome exegesis Obama’s Syrian policy deserves much more attention than the analysis presented here, due to the scale of complexity of the Syrian issue. Upon further review, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that there was no easy solution, given that most policies would have been met with too many political obstacles, both domestic and abroad. Nevertheless, there were unmistakable failures in not just the subtext of the Obama administrations behavior throughout the conflict, but in the overarching strategy and decisions during pivotal moments. Exalting the rebel movement as the only way forward for Syria, while at the same time ignoring their many sins and faults, is disingenuous and has been the defining fallacy of Obama’s Syrian policy. A simple thought experiment for a rebel controlled, Assad-less Syria, paints a picture of an Islamist sectarian nightmare comparable to present day Iraq. The Assad-must-go policy dictated the Red Line policy and in essence, prevented the possibility of the U.S. resolving the Syrian issue on American terms.
Obama’s handling of the Syrian conflict has all of the themes of his Arab Spring strategy, i.e. smart power, democracy proliferation and diplomatic balancing. These components did not just fail in the tortuous nuances of the Syrian conflict, but were deficient in the grand vision of Syria and the Middle East in general. As in Egypt and Libya, Obama’s eagerness to open the proverbial can of worms helped unleash the floodgates of countless execrable crises, all in the name of supporting democracy and condemning authoritarianism. In a eulogy for these policies it could be argued that at least the U.S. held the moral high ground and stood up for American values and principles, but this thoroughly ignores the rest of the Arab Spring. This hypocrisy can best be exemplified in the case of Bahrain, where a civil uprising occurred and yet there was a glaring lack of consistency in stratagem.
Bahrain is a small Arab Gulf nation governed by an authoritarian monarchy where Sunni minoritarian rule brutally represses the Shia majority and in some respects, Bahrain is a mirror image of Syria. Dissenting voices have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured, human rights were (and are) in a dismal state; in other words, Bahrain was ripe for the Arab Spring. Protests began in the same fashion as the rest of the Arab Spring and oppressed communities rose up to “demand reform, better human rights and an end to discrimination.” Much like Mubarak, Ghaddafi and Assad, the monarchy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa responded to these protests with a brutal crackdown, with live ammunition fired on the protesters by security forces. The Obama administration did respond by condemning the use of violence but never by condemning the regime, as was done in Egypt, Libya and Syria; moreover, they were silent when Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops in to quash the uprising. Seven months later, President Obama in a speech to the UN General Assembly, made these remarks on Bahrain:
“In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability. We’re pleased with that, but more is required. America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc -- the Wifaq -- to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people. We believe the patriotism that binds Bahrainis together must be more powerful than the sectarian forces that would tear them apart. It will be hard, but it is possible.”
The disparities in policy are evident throughout the uprisings in the Arab Spring and merit an entire book to highlight every contradiction (most prominently being, the Green Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in Yemen). The Arab Spring was an anomaly unforeseen by most and a critical, retrospective analysis hardly presents viable choices, but this does not exonerate Obama’s decisions and criticism is well deserved. Obama’s response to the most cataclysmic phenomenon in the Arab World since Sykes-Picot, is one that is utterly void of candor and plagued with a persistent obfuscation of difficult realities. The chicanery used throughout the Obama presidency to sell his noble intentions domestically can all be chalked up to politics as usual, but the generational misery caused by his doctrine will not be so easily forgiven by the Arab world and all of those most affected by his failures.