US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the State Department that described in detail the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. He focused on the unfolding transformation in the region and how it was a “moment of opportunity.” And, he called the State Department a “fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy.”
He called out Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the rulers of Bahrain in a roll call of ongoing state repression. He illuminated what he thinks a peace deal between Israel and Palestine should look like at this point in world history and put forth an economic of foreign investment plan. And, he drew attention to the use of technology to fuel the Arab Spring but, despite the fact that Amnesty International hailed WikiLeaks as a catalyst in the Arab Spring, he did not mention WikiLeaks and the organization’s release of previously classified US State Embassy cables.
The core of the speech aims to highlight the value of ordinary citizens sparking movements for change. He says these movements “speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years.” He explicitly highlights how America came from a history of nonviolence, protest and rebellion against empire.
This focus is deceitful on many levels because individuals who engage in nonviolence and fight against repressive domestic and foreign policies here in the United States (some that have to do with what Obama raised in his speech) can easily be harassed, intimidated and even criminalized for engaging in political activity. US citizens who take too much interest in US foreign policy in countries like Colombia or Palestine risk having their homes raided by the FBI/SWAT and subsequently being subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.
A “giant monster” that began in September of last year and involves six FBI division offices, seven raided homes and twenty-three activists subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury continues. Carlos Montes, long time Chicano activist and an individual who had been actively participating in the struggle against FBI repression of antiwar and international solidarity activists, had his home raided by the FBI and a SWAT Team of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department on May 17 early in the morning.
The Team smashed the front door, rushed in with automatic weapons while Montes was sleeping and proceeded to “ransack the house, taking his computer, cell phones and hundreds of documents, photos, diskettes and mementos of his current political activities in the pro-immigrant rights and Chicano civil rights movement.”
Along with that, the FBI engages in a practice of “sending paid, untrained informants into mosques and Muslim communities,” a procedure for fighting terrorism that more and more find constitutes entrapment. A report released by the New York University Center for Human Rights and Global Justice details US government “informants held themselves out as Muslims and looked in particular to incite other Muslims to commit acts of violence.” They pushed violent jihad and encouraged defendants, who were targets, into believing “it was their duty to take action against the United States.”
In three cases, the US government proposed locations the defendants would be accused of targeting and provided “material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.”
How can President Obama speak to a region of the world that is challenging state repression as a burgeoning security state in the US escalates its attacks on democratic activism? How can he expect those in the Middle East especially Muslims in the region to take him seriously when he is the leader of a government that is targeting US citizens?
Obama claims the US has shifted its foreign policy since he took office. This is surreptitious attempt to cover up the fact that all that has happened is a re-branding of Bush administration policies. While there has been a withdrawal in Iraq, the US plans to leave behind a permanent presence of troops.
In his first year in office, Obama committed the US to a surge in Afghanistan. He expanded the war into Pakistan.
NATO and US forces have employed drone strikes and night raids that have terrorized the civilian population of Afghanistan.
Torture and abuse continue in black site prisons. The abomination that has caused revulsion among many populations in the Middle East known as Guantanamo Bay remains open. Detainee abuse in places like Iraq post-Abu Ghraib scandal has been whitewashed with little to no accountability for the crimes against humanity committed.
Military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Colombia and Iraq continue to be waged and supported by the US. The Libyan invasion, while presumed to be a humanitarian intervention, was launched illegitimately without a declaration of war from Congress. And, while Obama may be proud to have been involved in Pakistan now, prior to bin Laden’s killing the war was going on under a veil of secrecy.
All this week, Jeremy Scahill of The Nation has been reporting on news that Blackwater founder Erik Prince is offering his mercenary services to the United Arab Emirates. The forces would be used to quell any uprising that might happen in the UAE as a result of citizens being inspired by the Arab Spring. The Obama Administration supports this development as one official said, “The Gulf countries, and the UAE in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help.”
Nick Turse at TomDispatch.com notes in a recent article, while Obama plans to “reset” American policy with an address on the Arab Spring, “all signs indicate that the Pentagon will quietly maintain antithetical policies, just as it has throughout the Obama years.”
For months now, the world has watched as protesters have taken to the streets across the Middle East to demand a greater say in their lives. In Tunisia and Egypt, they toppled decades-old dictatorships. In Bahrain and Yemen, they were shot down in the streets as they demanded democracy. In the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, they called for reforms, free speech, and basic rights, and ended up bloodied and often in jail cells. In Iraq, they protested a lack of food and jobs, and in response got bullets and beatings.
As the world watched, trained eyes couldn’t help noticing something startling about the tools of repression in those countries. The armored personnel carriers, tanks, and helicopters used to intimidate or even kill peaceful protesters were often American models.
For decades, the U.S. has provided military aid, facilitated the sale of weaponry, and transferred vast quantities of arms to a host of Middle Eastern despots. Arming Arab autocrats, however, isn’t only the work of presidents past. A TomDispatch analysis of Pentagon documents finds that the Obama administration has sought to send billions of dollars in weapons systems — from advanced helicopters to fighter jets — to the very regimes that have beaten, jailed, and killed pro-democracy demonstrators, journalists, and reform activists throughout the Arab Spring.
And, in the key of neo-conservatism, the Congress is considering a provision for worldwide war that is tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The ACLU, the New York Times, and a few political leaders have expressed concern over Section 1034 of the NDAA that currently reads:
…the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force…This section would also affirm that the President’s authority pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force includes the authority to detain certain belligerents until the termination of hostilities.
The American political class may wish they could get more power to “detain certain belligerents” but this all seems like something that would ramp up the new McCarthyism in America, as evidenced by the grand jury investigation playing out in Chicago.
Claiming more war powers will not help the US “speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people.” In fact, it will “feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues [its] interests at [the] expense” of the world’s population especially those in the Middle East and North Africa.
WikiLeaks has unveiled the reality of US diplomacy and foreign policy. President Obama can thank Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but that is simply disingenuous. Many of the revelations that have come out especially those detailing spying at the UN deserve much more attention. The forced resignation of PJ Crowley also deserves more scrutiny, as he was forced out because he was raising concerns about inhumane treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower to WikiLeaks.
The State Department did nothing in the immediate days after Mohammed Bouazizi doused himself in fuel and lit himself on fire. On January 4, 2011, it was still of no concern to the Department, as evidenced by this exchange at a State Dept briefing:
QUESTION: On Tunisia, there’s continued, sort of, civil unrest there, and I was just wondering –
MR. CROWLEY: What country?
QUESTION: Tunisia. Tunisia. And I was wondering what you made of the situation there.
MR. CROWLEY: Actually, I didn’t get updated on Tunisia today. So we’ll save that question –
QUESTION: When was the last time you did get updated on Tunisia? (Laughter.)
This talk about valuing the dignity of a street vendor over a dictator is duplicitous.
The “street vendor” or US citizen who takes action in the US is rarely esteemed for activism, nonviolence or resistance. The people of the Appalachian Mountains, who fight the coal industry’s wholesale destruction of the region through mountaintop removal coal mining (the blowing up of mountains), are entirely ignored. Military veterans, who call for an end to wars, are liable to get stomped on by police horses. Peace activists organizing become the focus of FBI surveillance operations that are being carried out because the FBI needs something to do. People who fight for health care as a human right are forced to stay in a “veal pen.” And, workers, who rise up to fight assaults on their union rights (which has been happening in Wisconsing and other US states), will find themselves betrayed as the White House says as little as possible, afraid that support for the people might make it hard to win re-election.
It is highly unlikely the right lessons from the Arab Spring are learned so long as America fights its citizens’ attempts to create change in the United States.
The reality is the Obama Administration should not be giving speeches to those who are transforming the Middle East but rather it should be inviting leaders of the revolutions in the Middle East to come give Middle East speeches on nonviolence, resistance, freedom and democracy to the Obama Administration (and perhaps the people of the United States).