US reluctance to wholeheartedly call for the departure of autocratic leaders across the Middle East and North Africa is fuelling a revival of anti-American sentiment.
Rising anger in countries like Bahrain, where significant US military and geo-political interests are at stake, and Syria, where the US is concerned about who might replace the incumbent regime, contrasts starkly with the absence of anti-American sentiment for much of the past seven months since the Arab revolt erupted in December 2010.
The US was slow to endorse the demand for the departure earlier this year of one of its closest Arab allies, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Nonetheless, this did not spark anger among anti-government protesters who noted the Obama administration’s endorsement a month earlier of Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. The US has also albeit ineffectually called for the removal of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the US has sought to position itself as those countries embark on transition or in the case of Yemen struggle to get to the point of a transition by reaching out to opposition forces, including ones like the Muslim Brotherhood, that it kept at arms lengths when its autocratic friends were in power or not on the brink of demise.
The US has also reached out to opposition forces in Syria and Bahrain. Nonetheless, that has not prevented the emergence of anti-American sentiment among protesters.
In Syria, the US in consultation with opposition forces has played a supportive role in the background in what US officials describe as leadership from behind as opposed to leadership in the front row.
This approach has meant that the US has imposed economic sanctions on Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, called for an end to Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters, offered political advice to the opposition and provided it with assistance so that it can operate satellite television and broaden its access to the Internet.
The support however has not prevented anger to mount at the Obama administration’s reluctance to call for Mr. Assad’s resignation. The Obama administration has consistently shied away from calling for Mr. Assad’s departure. Instead, it has repeatedly suggested that its preference would be for Mr. Assad to embrace the protesters’ demands for genuine political and economic reform.
The US reluctance to drop Mr. Assad stems from uncertainty about who might succeed him. It is also concerned that it could lose face if it demands the president’s departure but is unable to force him to comply.
Yet, it is US inconsistency and hesitancy alongside that of Europe and Turkey as well as support for Mr. Assad by China, Russia and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah that is fuelling public anger in Syria. Protesters charge that US and Western reluctance is what keeps Mr. Assad in power because he is under no international pressure to step down.
The US effort in Bahrain to, on the one hand, support change and condemn the government crackdown earlier this year that quelled largely Shiite Muslim mass protests and on the other to maintain close ties with the Sunni Muslim regime has sparked the ire of both communities. In fact, anger at the United States albeit for different reasons may well be the only thing the two communities agree on.
Bahrain’s Defence Force commander-in-chief Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmad al Khalifa went earlier this month far as alleging that the anti-government protests that were quelled by security forces were “by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the US.”
Officials from Bahrain and the Gulf have charged repeatedly that Iran was instigating problems in the Gulf but Marshal Ahmad’s assertion gave the accusation a new twist.
Bahrain’s February 14 youth movement named after the day anti-government demonstrations started on the Gulf island, in a harking back to the days before the Arab revolt erupted when anti-US protests in Arab countries were a dime a dozen, has called for a demonstration in front of the US embassy on Friday, according to the online opposition newspaper Bahrain Mirror.
Marshal Ahmad’s targeting of the US is mirrored in the youth movement’s assertion that the US had supported the entry into Bahrain of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces at the invitation of the government and has asked Bahraini authorities to crack down on any protesters that gather on Friday in front of its embassy in Manama.
If President Obama thought that delicately navigating the rocky cliffs of the Arab revolt would allow the United States to safeguard its national interests and at the same time support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa, facts on the ground in Syria and Bahrain threaten to prove him wrong. Mr. Obama’s attempt to have cheesecake and eat it at the same time looks like it may backfire.
Granted, the Arab revolt does not offer Mr. Obama easy choices. But if the rise of anti-Americanism on the streets of Syria and in Bahrain is any indication, Mr. Obama will have to make choices rather than straddle the fence if he wants to be, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the right side of history.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer)