Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Mideast "Reset" That Really Wasn't: Houz-man Meets the Obamaman

Obama's long-awaited, groundbreaking speech on the Middle East has finally been delivered, and it turns out that somehow the principal lesson from the Arab uprisings is that ... the Israeli-Palestinian peace process must be restarted. As the New York Times proclaims:


Thus it seems that last week's preview in the Times had the inside track when it said: "Even before the Bin Laden raid, officials said, Mr. Obama was casting about for ways to tie together events in the Middle East. White House officials had weighed a speech in which the president would link the upheaval to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations."

Now, if Obama was looking for random things to which to connect the 2011 uprisings (which the Israeli-Palestinian issue surely is), I would have preferred personally to have seen a link made to the failed attempts so far to find the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider. Or the looming May 21 rapture.

In any event, though he did speak of Bahrain, and rather candidly, he certainly did not take this advice offered by a writer at the UN Dispatch, aptly titled "Why Bahrain Should Be Front and Center in Obama's Middle East Speech." As he notes, "Nowhere in the Arab world today does the Obama administration face a policy dilemma more vexing as it does toward Bahrain. ... With the speech today, Obama has the opportunity to chart a new course." Or not.

The operative bit on Bahrain was a few paragraphs stuffed in the middle, since Bahrainis were for some reason not included in Obama's introductory flurries about those whose "shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region"--i.e., in Cairo, in Sana'a, in Benghazi, and in Damascus. What probably happened is that since the Pearl Roundabout is technically halfway between Manama and Sanabis, he didn't want to be geographically inaccurate by saying something like, "In Manama, we heard the protesters' camp being attacked by the army at 3:00 am."

Like I say, the operative bit about Bahrain was stuffed in the middle, in a single paragraph conveniently introduced by some anti-Iranian sentiment just to keep everyone honest:
Our opposition to Iran’s intolerance – as well as its illicit nuclear program, and its sponsorship of terror – is well known. But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today. That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that is true, today, in Bahrain.

Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

And the only other named reference to Bahrain was some paragraphs later:
And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.
What happens if they've already been destroyed, though?

Indeed, such is the obvious reaction to the entire speech vis-a-vis Bahrain: Yes, we understand that in principle the U.S. supports the cause of "dialogue" in Bahrain, opposes the "mass arrests and brute force," and so on. But what is it prepared to DO about it? Its main face of Bahrain policy, Jeffrey Feltman, went on PBS Newshour just days ago to report "positive developments" in Bahrain, i.e. the planned end of martial law on June 1.

Meanwhile, just today the government announced 20-year prison terms for 9 of the 21 suspected "terrorists"--i.e., leaders of all the main opposition groups, many of whom have reported torture and sexual abuse in prison--on trial for whatever it is they're accused of. In the case of those sentenced today, which notably exclude most of the main leaders apart from Sh. al-Miqdad, it was "kidnapping a police officer."

Yes, that's right: these 9 masterminds were conspiring to overthrow the entire Al Khalifa regime by doing what?: kidnapping a single police officer, who is said to have escaped his imprisonment by rappelling down the side of a house using a hose. Indeed, the whole story was so ludicrous from the time it was aired in theatrical fashion on Bahrain TV that it has given birth to an entire Internet meme called "Hose Man" (or Houz-man: هوزمان), a Bahraini superhero who destroys ma'tams in a single bound with his Shi'a-fighting superpowers.

Don't believe me? See for yourself in this original video from Bahrain TV:


It did not take long for people to come with such adaptations as this:


For the full story of this Internet sensation, see here.

Less humorously, Bahrain is also prosecuting a court case against three editors of the former opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat, which has since been reopened under new (pro-government) management. The three are accused of publishing false information in a dramatic plagiarism scandal broken again by, you guessed it: none other than Bahrain TV.

Even LESS humorously, if that is possible, Bahrain has seen the recent targeting of the United States itself in the form of official and unofficial media harassment of the U.S. Embassy and Embassy officials, accused by government supporters of empathy for or collusion with the opposition. Indeed, a Political Officer was forced to leave the country altogether only two weeks ago after pictures of him and his wife, his Bahrain address, and personal threats were posted to pro-government blogs and Salafi Internet forums. The Embassy itself has been lambasted for weeks in the pro-government Al-Watan and Akhbar al-Khalij.

Finally, I have been told by Bahraini contacts that students from the American Studies Center at the embattled University of Bahrain have been specifically targeted recently for having taken part in protests since February. Photos of them and their spouses have been posted to Internet sites used by Bahrain's intelligence services to publicly identity political activists.

So, then, if Obama is serious in ending his Cairo II speech with the following words:
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa – words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.
--if he is serious in saying that "repression will fail" and "tyrants will fall," the obvious question is, again, what is the U.S. prepared to do about it? Quotes from the Declaration of Independence are nice, but if the U.S.'s Bahrain policy continues to combine equivocal criticism of its response to the unrest while stressing its unique position as a U.S. ally, then it seems Obama's administration is happy to sit back and allow the momentum of history to do its work for it.

Sure, repression may eventually fail in Bahrain, and tyrants fall, but there is no indication from what we've heard today that the U.S. will have played any part in it. "We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights," the NYT headline reads. But what better word to describe the U.S. response to date in Bahrain than just that--"hesitation"?

Update: Some are already reading much more into Obama's criticism.

Some Bahrainis, at least, are clearly upset. Here is the Facebook page of the owner of Al-Ayam newspaper, and adviser to the king.

However, the Bahraini cabinet "welcomes" the speech, albeit in a backhanded way. According to the Bahrain News Agency, "the principles contained in the speech delivered by the US President Barack Obama ... agree with democratic strategy adopted by Bahrain under the leadership of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa." Well that settles that! Move along everyone--nothing to see here!

More Updates: Pro-government forum-goers are blaming--who else?--the U.S. Embassy. Here. And they don't seem to like the coverage in Britain of the Crown Prince's visit. Here.

Also, remember those 9 policemen run over at a vehicle checkpoint earlier this week? Well, the Saudis have the inside scoop: it was Hizballah! Of course! How did we miss that? It does reflect badly on Hizballah, of course, having gone from holding the Israelis to a military stalemate in 2006 to committing vehicular manslaughter in a random Bahraini village. Now, given its sheer complexity, I had suspected this might have been a SEAL Team 6 operation, but Hizballah sounds just as good.

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