Arab Spring Sparks Washington Scramble for Plan B

By Rebecca Gordon
March, 2011

Washington's Wars and Occupations: Month in Review #71

By Rebecca Gordon, and the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras editors

What a month!

Uprisings continued in the Arab world, presenting the first serious threat to U.S. power in that region since the 1970s, when OPEC nations first combined to hike oil prices, and the Iranian people tossed out the Shah, a long-time U.S. ally.

Since the Shah's demise Washington has relied on Israel and an array of dictatorial police states - Egypt and Saudi Arabia above all - to protect U.S. interests in this oil-rich strategic region. Now that arrangement is in shambles. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak has already been ousted. Grassroots protests for democracy and economic opportunity are rumbling - if unevenly and under differing political banners - across the entire Arab world. And a rightward-moving Israel is growing more isolated internationally by the week.

Caught off-guard by the ferocity and breadth of the Arab Spring, Washington is left to scramble for a Plan B. Without yet agreement on tactics within the U.S. elite (or even apparently within the Obama administration itself), the White House is working overtime to try to blunt the most democratic and radical impulses in the Arab popular revolt and shape the outcome of the current wave of protests. Washington is desperate for a backup arrangement that - even if some concessions to popular aspirations are required - preserves maximum imperial control.

Right now the centerpiece of that scramble is the intervention in Libya. President Obama – without congressional authorization – now commands the first war begun under his presidency. Atlantic columnist Andrew Sullivan has rightly observed that the administration's response to any murmurings about lack of democratic process in this country has been, "Shut up and leave it to us." Hours after the U.N. Security Council (with significant abstentions from China, Russia, Germany and Brazil) voted to establish a no-fly zone over Libya- using the all-too-real danger of massacres by the Qaddafi regime as its main justification - French and British planes began their bombardment. U.S. bombs and missiles continue to hit targets in Libya at this writing. 

On March 28, the President spoke about Libya to the U.S. people, in an address that some, such as Middle East expert Juan Cole, found "close and elegant moral reasoning tempered by a steady pragmatism." Other progressives found Obama's rhetoric distressingly similar to speeches they'd heard from his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, about the U.S war in Iraq. These responses continued a debate that had broken out on the left over whether or not to support intervention. While recognizing that Washington's true motivations have to do with controlling the political landscape of the Arab world rather than humanitarianism, still for some on the left, sympathy with a massacre-threatened popular uprising against the brutal Qaddafi regime justified limited support for this particular foreign intervention.  

Shift in Initiative at Home Too?

Things have been changing in the streets here in the U.S. as well. Responding to the all-out Republican assault on public workers (a leading edge of the larger and significantly bipartisan "impose-austerity" attack on workers, communities of color and the poor) a wave of militant grassroots protest has emerged. Centered in Wisconsin, this wave has spread to many other states and given rise to new if still fragile coalitions of labor and community groups. 

The labor movement seems to have awakened at the national level. Move On reports that the AFL-CIO is planning demonstrations and workplace actions around the country for Monday, April 4. More information here, including a map of actions planned around the country.  This remains a largely defensive battle, but already it has shifted momentum as far as grassroots action is concerned from the Tea Party to the progressive end of the spectrum.

Moreover, peace activists have thrown themselves into this new motion and been pressing the link between cutting the military budget, ending the (now three) U.S. wars and meeting human needs at home. Thanks to the work of one such campaign, Hartford, Connecticut has become the latest city to pass a resolution asking that U.S. military spending be redirected to domestic needs.

People's Victories in Tunisia and Egypt; What's Next?

There's a famous scene in Gillo Pontecarvo's masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. Late at night, National Liberation Force foot soldier Ali La Pointe sits on a rooftop with FLN leader Larbi ben M'hidi, discussing the general strike called that week by the organization and considering the future. Ben M'hidi says, "You know, Ali, It's hard enough to start a revolution, harder still to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it's only afterwards, once we've won, that the real difficulties begin."

The people of Tunisia and Egypt now confront "the real difficulties" of building democratic societies in countries long under autocratic rule. As Ahmed Faouzi Khenissi, mayor of Zarzis, a city of 70,000 in Tunis told the New York Times, "It's an entire country that needs to be remade. It's not going to be one year, or two years, or three years. It’s going to be an entire generation."

One of the difficulties movements in both nations face is that the uprisings in the Arab world have two intertwined, but different, roots, a combination of economic and political desires. It remains an open question whether young people's aspirations for work commensurate with their educations (or any work at all) will be first, achievable, and second coextensive with demands for democratic change.

In Egypt, the March 19 referendum on constitutional amendments represents an important moment. As War Times author Hany Khalil wrote, "The amendments passed by a large margin. With 41% of the electorate turning out, 77% voted in favor. The approval paves the way for parliamentary elections in June, presidential elections in the fall, and the writing of a new constitution by the newly elected parliament within a year." But the vote and the debates leading up to it made clear real divisions within the forces that overthrew Mubarak. The army and the Muslim Brotherhood backed the referendum, while secular, left, and younger people opposed it. Instead, they favored scrapping and rewriting the constitution, and they believe that June is too soon for them to organize successful electoral campaigns after decades of the suppression of political parties.

It is not uncommon in revolutions that liberation does not free everyone to the same extent. Many of the same Egyptian women who sat in for weeks in Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding Mubarak's resignation received an ugly welcome from some of their recent comrades when they returned on March 9 to celebrate International Women's Day. Their demonstration was attacked by male civilians. Amnesty International reports that at least 18 women who were arrested that day were physically and sexually abused by the Egyptian Army. They "told Amnesty International that they were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to ‘virginity checks’ and threatened with prostitution charges." Read more here.

Libya: Anti-Dictator Uprising, Civil War and Western Intervention

Of all the anti-government movements roiling the Arab world this year, only the Libyan one shifted quickly to a mainly armed confrontation. Analysts are still sorting out how much of this was due to the regime's immediate use of deadly repression, to the early defections by some of Qaddafi's generals, or to the outlook of some in the anti-dictator revolt. Whatever the case, in short order the uprising became a war, one in which French, British, and U.S. militaries are now deeply embroiled, with a smattering of Arab "cover" provided by two (U.S.-built) warships and some planes from Qatar.

The defecting Libyan generals do not appear to have had much effect on the actual fighting, most of which has been conducted on the ground by enthusiastic but profoundly disorganized young men. Across the eastern part of the country, control of cities and towns has teetered back and forth between pro-and anti-Qaddafi forces. As airstrikes rout a section of Qaddafi's army, the rebels advance rapidly from their stronghold in Benghazi to towns like Ras Lanuf, Uqayla, Brega, and Ajdabiya. Just as rapidly, once the air support lets up, the army roars back, and rebels retreat back along the coast.

While NATO has agreed to take responsibility for maintaining the no-fly zone, it has little internal agreement about whether that responsibility includes airstrikes on Qaddafi's forces on the ground. Several NATO nations have explicitly ruled out direct aid to anti-Qaddafi forces. Meanwhile the NY Times reports that President Obama signed a secret "finding" permitting the arming of the rebels, and approving CIA operations on the ground.

Nor are the NATO nations agreed on their whether the ultimate goals of the military campaign include the removal of Qaddafi from power. Here is how the New York Times describes this argument:

"The United States has all but called for Colonel Qaddafi’s overthrow from within — with American commanders on Thursday [March 24] openly calling on the Libyan military to stop following orders — even as administration officials insist that is not the explicit objective of the bombing, and that their immediate goal is more narrowly defined.

"France has gone further, recognizing the Libyan rebels as the country’s legitimate representatives, but other allies, even those opposed to Colonel Qaddafi’s erratic and authoritarian rule, have balked. That has complicated the planning and execution of the military campaign and left its objective ill defined for now."

The fact that the Times chooses terms like "inchoate" and "ill defined" to describe the coalition and its objectives suggests the degree to which the West was caught flat-footed and has not yet developed a unified strategy for asserting imperial interests in this crucial region. Read the whole story here.

Meanwhile, several nations, including Brazil and Germany have expressed concerns that NATO, by appearing to take sides in the conflict, has overstepped the constraints of the U.N. Security Council resolution. Resolution 1973, which only authorizes "protection of civilians and civilian populated areas," and not Qaddafi's overthrow. (Read the full text of the resolution here.) Russia and China have gone further, denouncing the U.S.-British-French operations as clearly exceeding the U.N mandate and being driven by desire to control Libyan and regional oil.

Perhaps Lives Were Saved, but Not Due to Altruism

Part and parcel of the wider Arab Spring, the revolt in Libya deserved and quickly gained the sympathy of almost all partisans of democracy and peace. But after initial optimism the uprising seemed on the verge of defeat and Qaddafi openly threatened to go house-by-house to hunt down and kill those who had rebelled. Many in the rebel ranks then shifted from their earlier stance and asked desperately for a No-Fly Zone or other forms of Western help. No surprise under these circumstances that humanitarian concerns led some on the left to argue that, on balance, Western military intervention with all its dangers was a lesser evil than non-intervention.

War Timesrespected these opinions (and referenced several of them in this project's initial comments on Libya). And it may turn out that Western intervention ends up saving more Libyans than it kills with current bombings and missile strikes - though this is by no means certain especially as Western military action escalates. But even if that is the case, certainly the underlying reasons - not the "official story" floated for propaganda purposes - need to be identified and explained.

Here one relevant point is Washington's track record regarding "humanitarian intervention." It is apparent that such interventions are highly selective and tend to occur only when they align with some imperial interest. One need only point out the difference between the U.S. response to Saudi-assisted assaults on Bahraini civilians (maintaining support for the repressive regime with mild criticism) vs. Qaddafi's assaults on Libyan civilians. Or the utter lack of response to a documented humanitarian crisis of far greater magnitude than that taking place in Libya today: In the Ivory Coast another dictator's attempt to stay in power has led to large-scale violence and, according to the U.N., over a million people becoming internal refugees, with many more fleeing to Liberia and Sierra Leone. So far, no response from the Security Council or Washington. Is this perhaps because, while Libya has oil, Côte d'Ivoire's main export is chocolate?

And beyond Western hypocrisy, there are the concretes of Washington's posture toward the Arab Spring and Libya in particular. After much hesitation - and against the wishes of U.S. Neocons, the Israeli establishment and the Saudi Royal Family - the Obama administration threw Mubarak under the bus and hitched its 'stabilize things' wagon to the Egyptian military. Recognizing (unlike his predecessor) that U.S. military and political power has limits in today's world, Obama moved to reposition the U.S. at least mildly supportive of Arab democratic aspirations. (All the better to influence if not control what the administration sees as the inevitably less dictatorial regimes that will take shape in the "Next Middle East.")

Then Libya, where Qaddafi was not Washington's favorite collaborator anyway, provided the U.S. with a chance to accomplish many things at once: Do something "real" that could be promoted as getting behind Arab aspirations; decisively influence whatever new regime would come to power in Libya; and reassure the Saudis and Israelis that the U.S. was still going to be there with muscle when needed. (Thus green-lighting Saudi intervention in Bahrain and the latest Israeli assaults on Gaza are the corollary to the Libya operation.)

Those things underlie matters whether or not a no-fly zone around Benghazi was a good thing in and of itself. For useful background and much more detail, see especially:

Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Yemen

This review would grow too long for all but the most devoted readers to wade through if we were to give decent coverage to events in all the other Arab countries experiencing popular revolt. What is important to note is that each of these country has its own history, economy, and set of forces, and U.S. government interests are different in each. Bahrain, for example, is strategically important for the U.S. because the island nation lies in the Persian Gulf and houses the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. And Jordan, bordering Israel and with a majority Palestinian population, has long been important to U.S. efforts to "stabilize" the region, hence not even a word from Washington about the crackdown on dissent in that country.

Meanwhile, in the Old "Back Yard"

President Obama spent five days in Latin America in March, in an attempt to reinforce another traditional arena of U.S. power. He'd hoped to come away with improved trade agreements, especially with the region's rising economic power, Brazil. As Progressive Media Project's Julian Blanco Prada points out, not only has China supplanted the U.S. as Brazil's most important trading partner, but Brazil is in the process of outstripping this country in trade with other Latin American nations. Latin America has been moving leftward to a greater degree than any other part of the world. While administration backing for the Honduran coup and continued military aid to Colombia show that Washington is keeping "all options on the table" there too, a U.S. with declining economic clout in the region has not yet settled on the exact contours of a "Plan B" for this crucial area.

Things Will Not Be the Same

Whatever the outcomes in the Arab world, it is clear that U.S. power there has been profoundly shaken. The old tripod of U.S. allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt – has lost a leg, leaving a much less stable platform for U.S. efforts to control events. This period marks a historic shift in world power.

It simultaneously marks a turning point for the world's access to energy and how that intersects with the environmental crisis and global power relations. Don't miss Michael Klare's penetrating article on this, The Collapse of the Old Oil Order. Combined with the horror at the nuclear plants in Fukushima, Japan - which have shaken the recent international consensus in favor of nuclear power - a new period is opening up in the battle over energy production and the world's dependence on environmentally disastrous fossil fuels.  

And resistance is growing worldwide to global capital's program of austerity. It's not just Wisconsin and Ohio. London saw its largest demonstrations since the lead-up to the Iraq war, as hundreds of thousands turned out to protest the U.K. government's drastic austerity budget.

There's a growing consensus among progressives that U.S. global power is in decline.  In March 2011, evidence of that decline - and new dynamism in popular movements that could accelerate it further - is all around us.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Rebecca Gordon is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras organizing committee. She has been a political activist for more years than she cares to remember, working on issues of feminism, war and peace, economic and racial justice, and specifically torture in the post-9/11 United States. Rebecca's new book, Mainstreaming Torture comes out in May 2014 from Oxford University Press. She's also the author of Letters From Nicaragua, a record of six months spent in the war zones during the contra war.

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