The Obama Doctrine
Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi passed through Beirut a couple of weeks ago and gave a terrific lecture at AUB entitled “Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011.”
In response to a student’s question, Khalidi disputed that there was any “Obama Doctrine” worthy of that label and he predicted the White House would be much more tolerant of human rights abuses in Bahrain than say, in Libya and some other countries whose despotism indexes are no worse than the 200-year ossified Al Khalifa dynasty’s war against its majority Shia population.
After his talk I reminded Rashid in our brief encounter that we had not crossed paths since that fateful summer of 1982 in West Beirut where we and our mutual friend, American journalist Janet Stevens, who had introduced us, all shared a similar experience of trying to do research amidst the Israeli bombing and intermittent electricity and water cuts and for that period when Israeli forces, on orders of Ariel Sharon, cut all the power and water to the trapped civilians in West Beirut. In those, now sometimes romanticized “summer of ‘82 days” Khalidi was an intense, hard-working young man and his 1982 research was published in his 1983 volume, Under Siege: P.L.O. Decisionmaking During the 1982 War.
It was during this period that Janet (Rashid was in no way involved!) and I committed at least four felonies (I was just following orders!) and broke into the abandoned AUB cafeteria & AUB storage rooms and liberated maybe 500 cases of AUB bottled water and perhaps 50 large cartons filled with that nasty orange powdered drink stuff called Tang.
Janet put me in charge of about 100 Fatah fighters who, wisely assuming the Israelis would think twice before bombing AUB had set up a base under the Banyan trees on campus and we all used to share the AUB beach and swim together. The PLO fighters were under orders from their Commander Abu al-Walid, who was one of those in charge of the defense of West Beirut, not to damage the AUB campus or enter AUB buildings. So the fighters demurred to the breaking and entering part of our operation and waited outside.
Janet and I were under no such orders.
Our guys quickly distributed the liberated humanitarian supplies and for days afterwards there were plenty of tykes running around West Beirut with orange mouths and cheeks carrying plastic bottles of fresh spring water.
It was only after the 20 year Statute of Limitations ran and I was living in Kerr Hall on campus that my conscience got the better of me and I finally blurted out my crimes to the AUB President. He laughed with delight and on behalf of AUB excused our egregious war time sociopathy. That being said, I heard not long ago that the US Embassy is looking into trying to open a case against me since USAID paid for the AUB water and the nasty Tang and the Embassy is still insisting on accountability.
On the issue of Ariel Sharon’s cutting off of water and electricity during the hot summer to West Beirut in order to punish the trapped civilian population for their presumed support for the PLO in defending an Arab capitol, the US government was furious. President Reagan and his secretary of State George Shultz, and Middle East envoy Morris Draper claimed they yelled at and threatened Israeli PM Menachem Begin to immediately restore water and power to West Beirut. Begin kept promising Reagan that the utilities would be quickly restored and Draper told Begin that Beirut was becoming like the Warsaw Ghetto. Begin replied that Draper’s comparison was a “blood libel against every Jew everywhere.” Begin used that turn of phrase more than once during 1982, once to Reagan’s face. Philip Habib later reported that he called Begin every day and Begin always claimed there were ‘technical problems’ but that Sharon promised his that the utilities would be restored by the next day at the latest.
It did not happen.
Not until Janet Stevens, working with Palestinian colleagues discovered the truth behind what Begin told Reagan were “technical problems” and she informed journalists in the bar of the Commodore Hotel, where many journalists spent their time (thinking the Israelis would not bomb the western journalists “shelter”—they actually did shell in twice during the summer) waiting for others to bring in the news of the day so they could get on the PLO-maintained telexes to their editors and “report from the Front.” We noticed that some of them actually started dressing like Robert Fisk, a real war correspondent.
What Janet explained to the rapt reporters was that Israeli commanders and their right wing Phalangist collaborators, with Sharon’s, if not Begin’s approval, were making plenty of fast cash selling truckloads of water to trapped West Beirutis and the business soon expanded to Bekaa hashish. By late July some of the Israeli checkpoints along the green line between East and West Beirut were manned by stoned Israelis such that the PLO was able to bring in truckloads of needed relief supplies including ammunition and weapons even after the power and water were eventually restored. The late Lebanese Patriot, George Hawri, head of the Lebanese Communist Party, worked to maintain this lifeline with the help of friends from the Bekaa and years later relished each retelling of the story. The Israeli troop’s blurry condition may have contributed to several routs they experienced by PLO forces and the loss of more than 25 tanks and APC’s near the Beirut racecourse just east of the green line. 1982 was not the last time Israeli troops eagerly traded weapons and intelligence for drugs in Lebanon.
What Khalidi remains critical of, like many observers, is what he sees as the Obama administration’s claimed “American values imperative” being made a mockery of whenever American “interests” are brought up to justify cherry picking which brutal despots get the ‘moderate’ or ‘reformer’ label while others are no-fly zoned and targeted for elimination for being “genocidal.”
The Obama administration’s hypocrisy toward the unarmed civilians being killed in Bahrain is flagrant. Speaking on 4/13/11 at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, a gathering sponsored by Qatar and the Brookings Institution, Secretary of State Clinton assured the World that “America’s core interests and values have not changed, including our commitment to promote human rights equally in every country.”
Clinton’s remarks prompted some groans from the audience and one Georgetown University student impolitely blurted out “Tell that to the people of Bahrain and prove it, lady!”
What the exasperated student, and others in the audience apparently found outrageous was Clinton’s comment that, “We know that a one-size-fits-all approach to American values doesn’t make sense in such a diverse region at such a fluid time” as she hailed Bahrain for what she called a “decades-long friendship which we expect to continue long into the future.” Referring to the government crackdown, she added that “violence is not and cannot be the answer.”
Clinton explained that the Obama administration will neither recall its ambassador to Manama nor threaten sanctions — a striking disparity that is fueling anti-U.S. sentiment among Bahraini opposition groups. The Obama Doctrine words are all about freedom and democracy and change, but in Bahrain, the reality is that the Obama Doctrine amounts to a protection for the dictatorship.
By contrast, Obama has repeatedly justified military attacks in Libya, saying: "Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested. These acts are against core American values."
But while the same human rights abuses noted by Obama are happening in Bahrain, but the Obama Doctrine is not on the Presidents teleprompter. It appears that core American values aren’t so important when the regime being reformed houses the Fifth Fleet and has Saudi neighbors, themselves afraid of potential protests, according to the Wall Street Journal.
What the rude Georgetown student at Clinton’s speech this week understood, is that as Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch noted a couple of days ago concerning yet another brutal Khalifa government killing of unarmed civilians, “Four detainee deaths in nine days is a crime, not a coincidence. The government tells families of detainees nothing about their whereabouts or well-being while they are alive or about the circumstances of their deaths. "Emergency laws should not be used as a cover for brutality," Stork reminded the Obama administration that torture and killing of the peaceful protesters in Bahrain at the hands of both the Bahrani armed forces and the additional forces provided by Saudi Arabia are not supported by the American public.
Obama administration officials, like most of the US media, have been playing a game of criminal silence about the situation in Bahrain. Political institutions have been trying to stoke the fire of Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism instead of trying to resolve the real issues – the barbaric actions and unfair political and economic policies of the ruling family in Bahrain, a state of forceful repression.
More than 70 per cent of native Bahrainis are Shi’ites, while the ruling family and most elites are Sunnis. This state of affairs has led to an apartheid mentality among the ruling family. Shi’ites are not allowed to work in the army, the intelligence service, or the police force, nor are they fairly represented in top-level governmental positions. In addition to jailing activists and banning Shiite-led opposition parties, Bahraini authorities fired civil servants and even professional athletes who participated in demonstrations. The country’s only independent newspaper was taken over last week and its editor forced to resign. On 4/14/11 the Sunni government moved to ban Bahrain’s largest political party, the Shiite-dominated al-Wefaq, along with a smaller Shiite party.
When they apply for jobs the Shia in Bahrain experience in some ways what the Palestinian refugees suffer in Lebanon. They may be offered a job but it is quickly withdrawn when the prospective employer learns that the applicant is Shia. As Nicholas Kristof wrote of the Khalifa’s attitude toward Shi’ites in his New York Times Blog: “the language of the ruling party sounds a lot to me like the language of white South Africans — or even like the language of white southerners in Jim Crow America, or the language of militant Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There’s a fear of the rabble, a distrust of full democracy, a sense of entitlement.”
The “American humanitarian values”-based “Obama Doctrine” offers no protection for the majority Shia population of Bahrain. They’re vulnerable. They are expendable. The Fifth fleet is not. Nor are Saudi interests for they represent for Washington’s neocons a strategically important bulwark against Iranian power in the region.
The “Obama Doctrine” offers no police, security or judicial system to protect them. In the past few days the Khalifa regime has intensified their attacks on this community – harassment on the streets, housing and job discrimination, and systematic attacks in the media.
The Obama administration appears to be trying to use the Iran issue in a way similar to how the Arab regimes use Israel in order to deny justice to their people and prevent them from participating in the government.
At the same time the “Obama Doctrine” ignores recent polls showing that nearly 60 per cent of Americans support the uprising in Bahrain and the region even if the uprisings lead to regimes more likely to oppose US policies in the region including US support for Israel.
These polls of American public opinion reflect true American values.
The “Obama Doctrine” as selectively applied, does not.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and is reachable c/o firstname.lastname@example.org