As NATO continues to forcefully suppress Libyan leader Mohamar Qaddafi’s ability to slaughter his own people, the world is largely standing by and watching while Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad does exactly that to in Syria. If the Syrian people eventually succeed in overthrowing their dictator, what incentive do they have to ally themselves with Western nations that simply stood by and watched their slaughter from web browsers and cable television clips?
I’ve written before on the dangerous lack of a consistent U.S. foreign policy throughout the Arab world. While we encourage and incentivize democratic reforms in Tunisia, we tolerate the harshest denials of basic human rights, such as allowing women to shop and drive alone, in Saudi Arabia. While we fiercely oppose an Islamic government in Egypt, we help create one in Iraq. And while we intervene militarily in Libya when its leader only threatens to slaughter his people, we stand by in Syria while its leader actually does.
The Arab people are not blind to the West’s disparate treatment of the various Arab nation-states of the Middle East. In fact, they are much more aware of it than we are, and it is a cause of significant anger and resentment on the Arab street. It significantly erodes our moral authority and weakens our prominent stance in the international community when we engage in such blatant hypocrisy.
After the revolution in Egypt that overthrew long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians took to the American television cameras on the streets of Cairo at the time to ask, “Where was the U.S.? Where was Barak Obama?” Of course it doesn’t matter who the current president is, but the inconsistent U.S. foreign policy and the lack of even an expression of strong moral support for the Egyptian revolution in the beginning are what those Egyptians were reacting to.
The U.S. is always in a precarious position when it comes to how much support to give to foreign protest movements. Almost certainly, we give covert support to most if not all of these pro-democratic movements, but that does not help the U.S. image abroad. Such help will be kept quiet even after a given movement has either succeeded or failed. But a balance must be struck, and we have not always succeeded in finding that proper balance.
There was a definite need to let the Egyptian people fight their own battle against their own dictator, and the first public trial of a former Arab leader by his own people is an historic accomplishment that the Egyptian people can be proud of. But perhaps the U.S. could have been a little more forthcoming with moral support for the revolution earlier in its development. That’s all the youthful Egyptian revolutionaries wanted, and it might have sped the end of the Mubarak regime and possibly saved some lives in the process. The U.S. eventually came around, but to many Egyptians it was too late for the U.S. to be given credit for actually helping.
We are at the same point now with Syria, except with much more dire consequences for the Syrian people. The pro-democracy, anti-Assad movement in Syria is being systematically slaughtered by the regime and its military forces, a step beyond what prompted us to intervene in Libya, yet neither the U.S. nor NATO is coming to their rescue. Will anyone blame the Syrians if they eventually succeed in overthrowing the Assad regime but are then sour toward the West for not being more helpful in that effort?
It’s a difficult position for the U.S. and the West to be in. We surely can’t get away with being involved in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria all at the same time. But nevertheless, our current hands-off approach to the escalating violence in Syria is not sufficient either, especially given our continued military aid to the Libyan rebels. Whatever the outcome of the Arab Spring in the end, our inconsistent policy toward the Arab states is sowing the seeds of yet another generation of anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the region, but for a whole new set of reasons.