Arab Spring: Obama Can Do Better – OpEd


For some reason or another, Barack Obama is being hesitant, certainly confusing, about revealing his followup plans, if any, for ushering Moammar Qaddafi out of Libya now that the bloodbath in that strife-torn oil-rich North African Arab state had become intolerable. In the strategic oil port of Misrata on the Mediterranean, more than a thousand have reportedly been killed in the civil war that has been raging in the country for several weeks.

All spokesmen for the American president would say is similar to what Assistant Secretary of State Philip H. Gordon told reporters in Washington at a special briefing: “If we get to a situation in which other assets are needed that we don’t currently have and NATO commanders ask for them, then, obviously, the United States would consider those requests. But that’s not the situation that we’re facing now, and I would add (that) was not in any way a dominant theme of the discussions in Berlin,” where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the end of the NATO foreign ministers meeting on Libya and the current uprisings in the Arab World.

“The contradictions at the heart of U.S. policy in Libya,” editorialized The Washington Post, “are becoming more acute.”

U.S. President Barak Obama
U.S. President Barak Obama

In an earlier press interview, the American president acknowledged that the war between the poorly armed anti-Qaddafi forces and the loyalists is stalemated. He also said that he did not foresee recommitting American planes to bombardment of Libyan troops as they did successfully in the first weeks of the air strikes.

There were more confusions about U.S. policy in the Middle East. It was also revealed, in part thanks to WikiLeaks, that the U.S. government has been financing so-called anti-government pro-democracy groups in the Arab states. The New York Times reported that “as American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.” These groups were in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen.

Among the American organizations reportedly offering the training were the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization which receives the “bulk” of its money from the U.S. government. The Republican and Democratic institutes are “loosely affiliated,” reported The Times, with the Republican and Democratic Parties, both created and financed by Congress through the National Endowment for Democracy, “to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations” at a cost of $100 million a year.

It was also revealed, three days later by The Washington Post, that Syrian political opposition groups and a London-based satellite television station called Barada, among others, beam anti-Syrian government programming into the strife-torn Arab country. The television station, the paper reported, “is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles.” The paper said that “classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the State Department has funneled as much as $6 million to the group since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria.” But, it said, it is “unclear” whether the official funding is ongoing since it began under the presidency of George W. Bush and continued by President Obama “even as his administration sought to build relations “with President Bashar al-Assad.

Tamara Wittes, a deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees the democracy and human rights portfolios in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, explained to the Post: “There are a lot of organizations in Syria and other countries that are seeking changes from their government. That’s an agenda that we believe in and we’re going to support.”

Before joining the government, Ms. Wittes was on the staff of The Saban Center which is affiliated with the Brookings Institution and was until recently run by Martin Indyk, who had served two terms as ambassador to Israel.

Barada’s TV news director told the Post he was “not aware” of U.S. government funding, saying the channel receives money from “independent Syrian businessmen” who, the paper revealed, he declined to name.

The disclosure of these activities by the two newspapers is indeed praise-worthy but the fact that the U.S. government has initiated such programs is shortsighted and shocking, certainly shameful. On the other hand, it underlines the fact that some Arab governments need to open their societies and allow their citizens to express their concerns and opinions freely and  without fear. Hopefully the Arab Spring will pave the way to this cherished goal.

At the same time, President Obama would do well if he would help all the Arab regimes in the region to learn how to cope with the aspirations of the new Arab generation that is currently leading these intafadas or uprisings.

George S Hishmeh

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist.

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