Where Do We Stand in the Middle East?: What is next? Beyond Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya…….

We seem again to be learning the wrong lessons of the significance of the Middle East upheavals. Last Thursday, the Washington Post had a editorial entitled “Last on Libya,” which wrongly criticized President Obama for what they characterized as “President Obama’s response to a dictator’s atrocities.” 

The fact is that any president has to weigh not only long term but also short term impacts of what he says as well as its costs. I personally would have desired a stronger response to the actions of Gaddafi, but as a former diplomat, I also know that he had to balance the safety of American citizens and embassy personnel still in Libya with how best to respond to fast moving events. 

It also takes time for a government, especially the world’s only truly global power, to make an assessment and act in a way that will be effective and not counterproductive.  Frankly, I think the “WashPost” was itself myopic and lost an opportunity to comment on the larger significance of the Middle East turmoil.  It simply decided to do a cheap shot that seems all too common among the right wing and neo-con types, who see weakness rather than deliberation and who think we can solve all problems by putting American troops on the ground. 

A more thoughtful and deliberate stance is needed and each country’s situation is different. Witness both Yemen and Bahrain and Oman.  That makes sense given our mistakes in Iraq. If only we had thought that through and not believed the lies that were being told.  Sometimes we do need to use military force, but trying other alternatives seems to often be more productive and less costly.  

Over all Obama had his priorities right both for America and for trying to prevail in his first immediate priority, which was to save lives of both foreigners in Libya and its citizens, who were brave to take on their dictator.  He did the same when Tunisia and Egypt were in upheavals, and at the start of the revolt in Libya.  He wanted above all to prevent widespread bloodshed and also have the possibility to dissuade the respective dictators to not use brutal force. It worked to a large extent in the first two countries, and has not fully worked in Libya. But it was a wise choice.  It had some costs to him among right-wing pundits, and now it seems the Washington Post. What Obama did was to get most Americans wanting to leave out of the country safely. 

He is now working hard to get an international consensus to get Gaddafi out of Libya and prevent more bloodshed. But in the end, that is up to the Libyan people to chose. They seem now to not want foreign troops on the ground. But, we can still do much from afar and on the ground in humanitarian relief.  

So what now should be our focus? 

First, bloodshed continues in Libya.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which the Post quoted favorably for his strong words, in fact, did not send in French troops.  He simply did what Obama did; namely he said “The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights.”  He did not say he would immediately send French troops, ships or planes.  Nor has the EU or NATO done so yet.

This hypocrisy aside by the Post editorial page and Sarkozy, the international community still needs to find an effective deterrent against the Gaddafi inspired official killing of Libya citizens. In fact we are consulting with our allies and others in the region to develop a response to meeting the situation.  Also, the citizens of Libya, along with defecting Army elements and other units, seem to be creating some kind of opposing force. 

If any force does go in from outside, better it be ‘international’ and not a power that supported or made deals with Gaddafi. But, as I noted in earlier posts, we do need to clearly side with the voices of reform and democracy rather than stand silent.

The issues facing us, besides trying to now minimize the loss of life, is to provide to the Libyan, Egyptian, and Tunisian peoples assistance that will help them build a humane system of governance that is responsive to the needs of the people, provides security and moves towards developing economies that have been shattered. 

The problem is that the Republicans in the House want to gut State, and especially USAID, of resources we need to help that recovery and demonstrate to the people of the region that they have an ally on their side which shares their aspirations. The tax cutting for the rich GOP talks a great game of democracy, but there is none there. They are concentrated in criticizing the President, while threatening shutting down government in the next round and attacking civil servants at State and national levels.

This is a time for serious “rethinking of national security” by both parties and standing behind the President’s efforts to deal with a complex, difficult and fast moving series of major upheavals and their implications. One thing is clear, we need to be on the right side of history and our values, but do so in a way that works toward peace and reconciliation of all states in the region, and raises legitimate hopes and not anger, disappointment, and fundamentalism.

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