The recent tide of revolts seems to have caught the United States by surprise. President Obama has reportedly told National Intelligence Director James Clapper that he was “disappointed with the intelligence community” for its failure to forecast the tide. Noam Chomsky has said that he thinks this disappointment was genuine. This failure seemed evident as America appeared to be playing catch up in the early days of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts.
But the pattern of responses to the various revolts suggests the possibility that America has caught up and figured out a way to ride the waves of revolt to her advantage. There seems to be a spectrum of response. When the regime under attack is an ally, America supports the dictator and hopes the world won’t even notice the protests in the street. If that proves unmanageable, America supports the dictator until the last possible moment instead of immediately declaring its support for the attempts at democracy. At some point, it may have even occurred to someone that the wave of revolts could be beneficial: it could take out a leader that America wants taken out. In this case, America immediately throws her support behind the revolution. Sometimes, America might even get out in front of the wave, and attempt to steer its force towards a leader it wants taken out, hoping that it will appear to be simply the next inevitable dictator to fall.
To let the western media tell it, the wave of revolts began in Tunisia and Egypt. But that’s only because the suppression of an earlier revolt went successfully unnoticed. Noam Chomsky points out that the first Islamic revolt took place in November of 2010 in Western Sahara. More than thirty years ago, as Western Sahara was on the verge of winning her independence from colonial Spain, Morocco, in an act of international phagocytosis, engulfed her, making her part of Morocco. Both the UN and the International Court of Justice have ruled in favour of Western Sahara’s right to self governance. But the US and France have thwarted the UN’s ability to act on its resolutions, and the US has continued to back the Moroccan monarchy.
Chomsky says that in November, Moroccan troops smashed significant protests in Western Sahara. In a phone conversation on March 2, Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, told me that the protestors in Western Sahara numbered 20,000: a huge number, he said, for a country with such a small population. The protests in that country have been going on for years, and, though they have been nonviolent, Zunes said the protests of this November were brutally crushed. Though Zunes feels that the Moroccan protests probably did not encourage the subsequent Islamic protests, since Western Sahara is as much ignored in the Arab world as it is here, he did feel that this protest was of a kind with the subsequent ones. Zunes says that he knows of no police state worse or more repressive than Moroccan occupied Sahara. Like the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, he says that the protests in Western Sahara were pro-economic justice and pro-democracy.
In other words, the Moroccan protests were just the sort of protests that the US and her allies should have been supportive of. But they weren’t. Chomsky says that France blocked the UN’s attempt to carry out an inquiry into the government’s crushing of the protest. So successful was the west in protecting the Moroccan monarchy that the story found hardly a whisper in the western press.
Why? Zunes said in our conversation that the US sided with the Moroccan regime over the protestors, despite the pro-democracy, pro-economic justice nature of the protest, in order to reward and protect a loyal friend and long time ally in the war on terror and the cold war. The Moroccan monarchy is seen by the Americans as having provided a loyal damn against a left wing nationalist movement.
Nationalists make their nation’s resources work for the people of their nation, not for America. And, as a long line of nationalists from Allende and Mosaddeq to Chavez testifies, nationalists are not America’s favourite rulers. Those who keep them out, are. So we never heard about the brutal suppression of the peaceful protestors of Western Sahara.
And that’s not the only suppressed protests we haven’t heard about. Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in demonstrations all over the country. In response, the US backed government of Nouri al-Maliki imprisoned hundreds of journalists, artists, intellectuals and lawyers in order to suppress the demonstrations. Iraqi soldiers fired into the crowd and sprayed water cannons. At least thirty people were killed. Some journalists said they were handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten. The US embassy played down both the violence and Maliki’s harsh response to the demonstrations. Though there has been some coverage of this story, there has been very little. As in Morocco, the reason is clear. Iraq is a friend and the government is a US backed government.
In Bahrain, the peaceful protest of February 14 was put down by mass arrests and beatings. On February 17, riot police attacked the sleeping protestors, killing four and wounding hundreds. As the protest still remained peaceful the next day, the police attacked again, killing another protestor and wounding many more.
The protestors are seeking a true constitutional monarchy, the resignation of the Prime Minister, greater civil liberties and a real elected parliament. Though Bahrain has a parliament, it is actually governed by the repressive, US backed dictator, King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, whose family has ruled Bahrain for over two hundred years. The prime minister, the king’s uncle, is the longest reigning prime minister in the world, in power now for nearly forty years. The government is repressive, including torture. The upper house of the parliament is appointed by the king and must approve all legislation of the impotent lower house. The king has veto power, can make laws and amend the constitution. The royal family holds twenty of the twenty-five seats in cabinet.
What has been America’s response to the uprising? As in Morocco and Iraq, Bahrain has struggled to get a share of the news and the US has been largely silent on Bahrain. In his February 15 press conference, Obama did not even mention Bahrain, though the mass arrests and beatings occurred the very day before. On February 23, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, went through with his planned visit to Bahrain where he reaffirmed the US’s strong commitment to her military relationship with Bahrain—the same military that had just turned on its people with tanks and planes that were made in the US–and called Bahrain’s response to the protests “very measured”. Mullen stressed their “partnership” and “friendship”. On the same day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also gave full support to the Khalifa dictatorship. The US has continued to support the regime and to call for “stability” and “reform”: two words that are barely even code anymore for standing by the dictatorship.
Why this time? Three reasons. Bahrain’s population is about 70% Shiite, though the ruling family, the government and the elite are all Sunni. The Shia have long been victims of discrimination. Bahrain is located between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran and is seen by the US as a crucially located check on Iranian influence and power. Bahrain is physically linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. Saudi Arabia, an American ally, is pressuring Bahrain to put a stop to the demonstrations because the Kingdom fears they will stimulate the small prodemocracy movement in Saudi Arabia and encourage her own oppressed population of Shia to rebel.
As Iran as a reason is no surprise, so the second reason should be no surprise: oil. As well as still possessing her own small supply of oil, Bahrain is a major source of natural gas and a major refining center. Perhaps more important still, as Bahrain is strategically located between Saudia Arabia and Iran, so she is strategically located on the Strait of Hormuz, an important potential choke point for the world’s supply of oil. Keeping Bahrain is important for controlling oil.
Thirdly, the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, making Bahrain one of the most crucial allies in the web of US allies. In fact, Stephen Zunes reports that the US military controls about 20% of Bahrainian land. The Fifth Fleet was important in Iraq, would be important in any future action in Iran and is important for protecting the Strait of Hormuz.
The US enjoys a free trade agreement with Bahrain and gave her 19 million dollars of military aid in 2010.
Once again, as in Morocco and Iraq, America has stood by a crucial ally and friend instead of getting behind a pro-democracy movement and has given little voice to that movement in the media.
The case in Egypt was different because it was too huge and the momentum too powerful to be contained or ignored. But the intent was the same. Hosni Mubarak and his regime were friends. They were secular, they kept Arab nationalism in check, they opposed Iran and they supported Israel. So America followed a pattern long recognized as supporting a dictator. Talking about Cuba in the 1950’s, national security historian and CIA expert John Prados says, “Washington’s efforts to shore up the dictatorship, and then force Batista into reforms that might stave off Castro, left the Cubans in no doubt as to U.S. policy”. Eisenhower would later “ . . . advocate Batista’s resignation in favor of a Cuban leadership not as radical as Castro . . .”. Back the dictator, encourage reforms instead of removal, and then look for the next best leader: patterns familiar in Egypt, which, again, leave no doubt about America’s policy of supporting the dictator. Once again, when the regime under threat is a friend, America hopes the tide won’t overwhelm it instead of immediately supporting the democratic aspirations of a repressed people.
When protestors target a regime that is not an ally, but an enemy, the US response seems to be to take advantage of the now beneficial tide of protest. So in Iran. Hillary Clinton, who held on to Hosni Mubarak as long as she could, saying “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak friends of my family,” while Vice President Biden said, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. . . . I would not call him a dictator,” said of the people of Iran in a classic Orwellian rewriting of history, “They deserve the same rights that they saw being played out in Egypt,” adding that the US “very clearly and directly support[s] the aspirations of the people who are in the streets”.
If Clinton really wants the same opportunities for the people of Iran as the people of Egypt got, then America should hold on to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for as long as she can; praise him as a partner, a force of stability and a personal and political friend and then help him to repress his people by providing him with billions of dollars of military aid. That clear and direct support for the people of Egypt took a long time to come, as America did not switch sides from dictator to democracy demonstrators until it was clear the dictator was going and she had no choice. And even now, it is still not clear that it is exactly the aspirations of the Egyptians in the streets that Clinton is supporting.
Ahmadinejad, unlike Mubarak, al-Maliki and the Kings of Bahrain and Morocco, is no friend of America. So that wave gets surfed. When the protest is a protest against an enemy of America, America stops swimming against the tide, takes advantage of it, and rides the surf: she throws her immediate support behind the protestors, recognizing that the tide of revolts might take out an enemy ruler.
Similarly in Libya. Gaddafi is no American friend. Decades of American hostility towards Gaddafi followed, among other things, his nationalization of Libya’s oil industry upon taking control of that country. And nationalism, as we have seen, is never a fast track to American friendship. When the people of Libya rose in revolt, the US was swift in its support, freezing assets and restricting travel for Gaddafi at a speed that would have made Mubarak’s head spin. The US was even willing to support the International Criminal Court (though still protecting herself from it) for the first time in referring Gaddafi to the court for alleged crimes against humanity. The wave of protest in Libya is another wave the US is willing to ride.
As the CIA has found out countless times, revolutions can seldom be started from outside without majority support on the inside—though there are rare exceptions, like Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. So the suggestion here is not that the US has started any of these revolts. The suggestion is simply that the US may have found a pattern of response that makes the best of the revolts that arise. One exception may be Venezuela. The recent tide of revolts could provide a context that would make protest against Chavez look like the next in an inevitable series of waves to bring down a dictator.
Chavez is no dictator. He was elected in 1998 and then reelected in 2006 with an overwhelming 63% majority in elections verified as free and fair. He has won over a dozen national elections and referenda in that time. But none of this has stopped the US from painting Chavez as a dictator. And recent stories in the media have tried to insinuate Chavez into this wave of regimes facing revolt. Kiraz Janicke and Frederico Fuentes report that the British foreign secretary alleged that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela: a now obviously false statement that, nonetheless, had the effect of linking Chavez with the brutal Libyan dictator. They also report that the Miami Herald said “With dictators toppling like dominoes across the middle east, Venezuela’s president-for-life, Hugo Chavez, is signaling worry about his own despotic rule”.
More disturbingly, President Obama has requested five million dollars from congress to fund anti-Chavez groups. What is Obama doing interfering in the domestic politics of a sovereign and democratic state? The State Department’s Foreign Operations Budget publicly declares the funding in the lead up to Venezuela’s 2012 national elections, in direct defiance to Venezuela’s law prohibiting foreign funding of political activity.
So America may be more than riding the Venezuelan wave: she may be getting out in front of this one, in an extreme example of a spectrum of responses that suggests the possibility that America has found a way to make the best of a situation that caught her unprepared.