The Arab Awakening: A Wake-Up Call for U.S. Policy
“At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”
–President Jimmy Carter, “A Cruel and Unusual Record,” New York Times, 6/24/2012
The popular, largely nonviolent uprisings that toppled at least two governments in 2011 continue to threaten dictatorships from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. Called the “Arab Spring” in the U.S., this mass civic resistance cannot be limited to a single season. More frequently called the “Arab Awakening" in the Arab world, it has inspired demonstrators the world over, including the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement.
After decades of support for unpopular dictatorships in the region, the U.S. government moved quickly last year to offer rhetorical support for some transitions to democracy and reform. Yet in many cases U.S. government policies continue to support repressive regimes and undermine nonviolent movements.
Leading with Weapons and Military Aid
For decades the U.S. has dispensed military aid to its allies in the Middle East, even when those allies torture and kill their citizens.
Many of the tear gas canisters that assailed protestors during the Arab Awakening had a “Made in the USA” label, a reminder of the decades of support the U.S. has provided to the repressive governments in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries.
When it comes to its allies like Bahrain, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia, or human rights abuses perpetrated under Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, the U.S. has been unwilling to cut off military aid and arms sales even in response to well-documented government repression of nonviolent, pro-democracy activists.
As recently as 2009, the U.S. concluded a multi-million dollar arms deal with Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, despite the State Department’s human rights report of that year documenting brutal torture techniques used by Libya’s security personnel. Just months before the Libyan uprising began, the Obama administration was moving ahead with another arms deal with the Qaddafi regime. While condemning Russian arms sales to the Syrian government, the U.S. continues to provide arms to the al-Khalifa dictatorship of Bahrain, which has systematically killed and tortured nonviolent protestors. This inconsistency inhibits the U.S.'s ability to use diplomatic pressure to encourage Russia to stop selling arms to the Assad regime in Syria.
5 Steps the U.S. Could Take
These steps would make U.S. foreign policy more principled and effective by supporting, rather than undermining, nonviolent movements in the Middle East:
1) Acknowledge Nonviolent Initiatives
In the Middle East, people are using nonviolent means to achieve their goals. This spring more than 1,550 Palestinian prisoners refused food for weeks to protest against indefinite detention without charge and Israeli prison conditions. The hunger strike, believed to be one of the largest in history, officially ended on May 14 when Israel agreed to some of the prisoners’ demands.
Yet the United States has failed to publicly criticize this detention without trial. If the U.S. doesn’t publicly support individuals waging nonviolent resistance to unjust laws, then some in the region may reach the conclusion that violence would be more effective.
2) Reject Military Intervention and Support Diplomacy to Stop Fueling Deadly Conflict
Armed interventions can often cause more problems than they solve. In Syria, a grassroots opposition network called the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) explains that “the method by which the regime is overthrown is an indication of what Syria will be like post-regime…If an armed confrontation or international military intervention becomes a reality, it will be virtually impossible to establish a legitimate foundation for a proud future Syria.”
Perhaps the LCC is looking to the example of Libya, where the 2011 U.S. and NATO military intervention undercut long-term solutions to that crisis. Soon after the NATO bombing campaign began, President Obama declared that the U.S. goal was for Libya to be “finally free of 40 years of tyranny” under Col. Qaddafi. As the justification for military intervention shifted from protecting civilians to regime change, it became more difficult to reach a diplomatic consensus at the U.N. on other interventions, such as condemning and establishing an arms embargo of Syria.
The best way the U.S. government can protect civilians from genocide and other mass atrocities is to invest more to keep conflicts from turning deadly in the first place. By strengthening U.S. contributions to diplomacy, development and international cooperation, the United States could shift its foreign policy away from late military reaction to crises and toward early, peaceful prevention.
3) De-militarize U.S. Policy
In addition to U.S. weapons and military aid, the Middle East is full of U.S. military bases. Opposed by many of the local populations, these bases incite tensions throughout the region. Many of the Gulf’s rulers, fearing domestic public opinion, tightly restrict any media reports that acknowledge the existence of these bases. Even minor reductions in the U.S. military presence and military aid to the region, coupled with wise investments in diplomacy, development and international cooperation, would significantly diffuse tensions in one of the most militarized areas of the world.
4) Negotiate Inclusively
As Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan pointed out, “If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Inclusive diplomacy is essential to encouraging political factions involved in the Arab Awakening to remain committed to achieving their political goals through nonviolent means.
This same approach could end the confrontation cycle between the U.S. and Iran. Just as President Richard Nixon secured a “Grand Bargain” with China in 1972, the U.S. could resolve the nuclear standoff and address human rights concerns by securing such an agreement with Iran. Otherwise, the U.S. and Iran will likely teeter on the brink of war and continue to add to tensions in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
5) Support a Strong Arms Trade Treaty
Arms sales have long fueled deadly conflicts around the world. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) being discussed at a U.N. conference this summer could either be a major step toward preventing conventional weapons from being used to commit atrocities, or it could weaken accountability standards already in place. The outcome of the conference will depend in large part on the position the U.S. takes towards the treaty. The U.S. also needs to re-examine its own policy on arms sales.
In the coming year, Congress will play a major role in determining whether the administration has the political space necessary to embark on a new approach in the Middle East, one that supports nonviolent movements. Your members of Congress can help simply by stating support for these nonviolent movements and against U.S. policies that enable repression. A year and a half after the Arab Awakening's beginning, the U.S. also needs to wake up and embark on a new approach toward the Middle East.
Find out more about how you can be part of this work to support a world free of war and the threat of war.