The Clash of Principles and Interests in the Arab Revolutions
“To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice.”
On February 15, 1991, then-President George H. W. Bush announced to the Iraqi people and the world in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, "There is another way for the bloodshed to stop. And that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."
Nudged by the American president, several uprisings broke out within a few days in the Shi’a-dominated southern Iraq. But they were ruthlessly crushed by the defeated regime of Saddam Hussein. Not only did the American-led coalition stand idly by while tens of thousands of Iraqis were massacred during the unrest, but nearly two million Iraqis ended up in Iran as refugees after fleeing for their lives.
None other than Dick Cheney, the Secretary of Defense at the time, explained the reason the U.S. abandoned the Iraqis when he said, “It would be very difficult for us to hold the coalition together for any particular course of action dealing with internal Iraqi politics.”
Translation: Our Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf countries strongly objected for fear of empowering the Iraqi Shiites.
It took the U.S. and its mainly NATO allies less than seven months to reverse Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. But the U.S. did not hide the reason behind its unprecedented worldwide campaign. Jim Baker, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, said in his testimony before Congress that the U.S. mobilization was about “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” a euphemism for the US and British corporations that would control the flow of oil and its forty percent reserves in that region, and by extension, the global economy.
Sadly Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo did not have much oil, so in the 1990s the administration of Bill Clinton basically ignored these simmering crises. Within the span of three months in 1994, over 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda while the world watched the ongoing genocide.
Years later, encouraged by the do-gooders, slam-dunkers, and cake-walkers, George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false pretense of eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, later modified to spreading “democracy and freedom.” But his real aim was to impose American hegemony and control over this strategic region with potential military bases and oil deals.
However, his gross miscalculation resulted in a fractured Iraq and the colossal failure of American objectives with a cost of at least two trillion dollars, tens of thousands of casualties, and millions of refugees, all while enhancing Iran’s strategic position.
The only consistent policy by Western powers across these examples has been their sheer inconsistency. There can be no doubt that such policies are guided not by the West’s declared values and principles, but by cold and calculated interests, even when they conflict with its most basic and cherished moral standards.
The ongoing Libyan campaign is no different. Libya, with its small population of 6 million, is the largest oil producer in Africa, with proven reserves of over 42 billion barrels (more than twice as those in the U.S.) and 1.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. As far as its sulfur content, Libyan oil is the cleanest in the world as well as the cheapest to extract at $1 per barrel. With Libya’s proximity to Europe, its oil and gas are the cheapest to transport.
Shortly after the Feb. 17 peaceful revolution by the Libyan people protesting Muammar Gaddafi’s forty-one year tyrannical reign, Western countries led by the U.S, France, and Britain condemned Gaddafi and his assaults on his people. Within days, several UN resolutions were passed, freezing the accounts of the Libyan dictator, his sons and close associates, imposing a no-fly zone, and authorizing other military measures for the declared protection of civilians.
Meanwhile, the same countries outraged by Gaddafi’s behavior looked the other way as the Bahraini army, aided by military units from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, cracked down on thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, causing dozens of casualties. The protestors were calling for democracy and freedom from the 230-year dictatorship of the Al-Khalifa family.
Similarly, hundreds of thousands of people across Yemen have been demonstrating continuously during their seven-week struggle for freedom and democracy. However, the crackdown by Yemen’s thirty-two year old regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh against this peaceful revolution was met in the West with a muted or weak response.
In the case of Bahrain, where the fifth fleet of the U.S. navy is stationed, strategic and military calculations have evidently trumped any moral obligation to support the people’s call for democracy and freedom from dictatorship and repression. Likewise the incessant cooperation of Saleh’s regime with the U.S. in the so-called war on terrorism against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula outweighed any consideration for the Yemeni people’s right to live in a free and democratic society.
If the imposition of the no-fly zone against the tyranny of the Libyan regime was based on moral grounds, then the same consideration should have also been applied to the Israeli planes freely roaming the skies of Gaza and wreaking havoc. On the same day that NATO planes were protecting Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s terror, American-made Israeli planes were openly terrorizing Gazan Palestinians, killing eight, including one elderly man who had just finished praying at a mosque, and three children playing soccer.
The following day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had it backwards when she condemned the four ineffective crude rockets that were fired from Gaza in retaliation for the unprovoked Israeli air attack, causing no Israeli casualties, while excusing the earlier Israeli raid killing innocent Palestinian civilians.
On March 17, the U.S. lauded the UN Security Council resolution on Libya that passed with 10 votes (and 5 abstentions) arguing for a world consensus in stopping the carnage against the Libyan civilians. But just a month earlier, on Feb. 18, the U.S. cast the sole negative vote in the UN—defying the world consensus of 14 votes—against the end of the illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. In effect, the U.S. vetoed its own declared policy of the illegality of Israeli settlements for purely domestic political reasons without any regard for moral norms or international law.
But the moral dilemma of applying double standards is not just the dominion of the West. For example, Al-Jazeera, the popular Arab news network, has played a key role in covering the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. However, its coverage of the significant demonstrations in Bahrain was weak, while its reporting on demonstrations in Saudi Arabia was almost non-existent. Meanwhile, the mass demonstrations of thousands of people in sixty cities across Morocco on March 20 were totally ignored by the celebrated network. Clearly political, not technical, grounds were behind its vast coverage in some countries and a lack thereof in others.
On March 19, Hasan Nasrallah, the Lebanese leader of Hezbollah, after praising the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, correctly criticized Arab civil society institutions, political movements, media outlets, intellectuals, and other elites for not lending genuine support –unlike for other revolutions — to their fellow demonstrators for democracy and freedom in Bahrain. He rhetorically asked whether sectarianism was the real reason behind the lack of support for the Bahraini revolution because most of its demonstrators were Shiite.
But Nasrallah himself did not utter a word about the thousands of protesters in neighboring Syria who are equally yearning for the same rights and freedoms as their brethren in Bahrain. If Bahrainis paid with their blood in Pearl Roundabout and the streets of Manama, dozens of Syrians have also been killed and injured by the Syrian security forces in the Omari mosque in Dara’a and other cities.
The Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, which has been in control of Gaza since 2007, were not only silent about the Mubarak regime as it cracked down against the millions of Egyptians protesting in the streets, but it even prevented any demonstrations by other Gazans who wanted to show solidarity with the Egyptian protesters. Apparently Hamas’s excuse was that it did not want to antagonize the former regime, which colluded with Israel in imposing the four-year old crippling sanctions against Gaza, and could have made life even harder for them had they shown any support for the Egyptian revolution.
Throughout these conflicts, there are politicians and leaders who have been consistent in their policy and positions. For instance, Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Ron Paul (R-TX) equally objected to the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Libya and have been consistent in their positions regarding how and when American military power should be employed. Similarly, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader oppose American intervention on principle. However, many other politicians lack the moral standard to advocate consistent policy.
For example, former House speaker Newt Gingrich disparaged President Barack Obama on March 7 for not imposing the no-fly zone and taking out Gaddafi sooner, when he said on Fox News, “All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes.” By the time Obama signed onto the UN resolution to do just that Gingrich did not miss a beat criticizing Obama for getting involved in another foreign war, when he told NBC’s Today show on March 23, “I would not have intervened. I would not have used American and European forces.”
What is needed is the formation of a consistent paradigm for when the international community or regional powers must intervene to save innocent lives against the transgression and violence of military dictatorships or invasions, whether in Libya, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Kurdish areas, Darfur, or Palestine. In essence, the paradigm should be based on the moral imperative of helping and protecting all innocent civilians who call for help after being unjustly attacked by ruthless dictators or aggressors, by supporting their just cause and lending them material support, short of military occupation or economic exploitation.
Such standard must be adopted irrespective of whether the perpetrators are friends or foes of the U.S. or other international powers. Nations and movements can certainly exercise their option whether or not to get involved. But let there be no confusion as to what is right, just, and appropriate.
Abraham Lincoln once observed that, “Moral principle is a looser bond than pecuniary interest.” But he stood firmly against slavery on moral grounds even though the cost to his country was significantly high. Common humanity dictates that moral values must trump any narrow or short-term interests. Saving human lives should always take precedent over economic interests. Taking a firm stand against occupation and oppression cannot be sacrificed at the altar of immediate political electoral gains.
In the words of Albert Einstein, a great leader or individual should not aim to be “a man of success” but rather “try to become a man of value.” Equally, nations as well as individuals should be judged on moral grounds by their consistent adherence to their stated values and principles irrespective of other considerations- not some of the time or under certain circumstances, but all the time and under all circumstances.
ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org