As people across the Middle East continue to demand change, a group of leaders have proven more obstinate – and far more brutal – than their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts. For all their differences, the regimes in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria have effectively shown what many Middle East observers already knew: survival trumps all else.
Tumult in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, has led the ruling Sunni regime to call for a Saudi and Emirati intervention. Tanks and troops have poured into the city, where Bahraini police and army personnel had already been brutalizing demonstrators for weeks.
Meanwhile, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised to hand over power to what he called “safe hands.” A deal is in the works, but it took the death of 50 protestors in Sanaa and the defection of a top general to convince Saleh that his continued rule was untenable.
In Libya, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has vowed to fight to the last. An international coalition has enforced a no-fly zone, destroyed key government installations, and has attempted to protect civilians caught in the crossfire. For now, Libya remains split between Qaddafi-controlled lands and rebel areas. With NATO looking to assume responsibility for international operations, which the U.S. and France have led until now, the fate of Qaddafi and the country he has lorded over for 40 years remains uncertain.
Finally, in Syria, a country that Washington analysts expect will face “the longest, and most difficult, path to change,” the Asad regime has already killed at least 37 people. Dissent in the southern city of Daraa has reached a feverish pitch, and unrest has spread to other parts of the country, including Damascus.
These events call to mind a recent piece in The Huffington Post, in which the author, my friend and colleague Ian Moss, situates the current wave of dissent within a human choice between “the ballot or the bullet.” Drawing from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Moss presciently argued that the U.S., like the peoples of the Middle East, would soon face a choice. America, he argued, could support the liberties of open societies or overlook the countervailing brutality of regimes desperate to cling to power.
Aside from its action in Libya, which came after the French basically spearheaded international involvement, the Obama administration has approached regional unrest with caution. With the outcome of these demonstrations and clashes uncertain, and given the fear of derailing popular movements by tainting them with “American interventionsim,” that move could be described as prudent.
But if prudence demands silence or pause in the making of foreign policy, it also demands action when events demonstrate that the convenient arrangements of the past are crumbling.