- Published on Tuesday, 24 May 2011 14:27
- Category: The Connection
In the aftermath of President Obama’s speech at the State Department outlining his Administration’s Middle East policy, much of the media has fixated on the his “surprising” call to Israelis and Palestinians to return to the pre-1967 borders. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited the Oval Office on Friday, May 20th, angrily refuted the President’s statement during his AIPAC speech on Monday night. Several Republican congressional members, as well as potential presidential candidates, have said that the President is “throwing Israel under the bus.”
But in reality, there was nothing new or shocking in what President Obama said in his speech. His message on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict echoed those delivered by many U.S, Israeli, and Palestinian officials before him. Read in its appropriate historical context, his statement about the 1967 borders is neither noteworthy nor bold. After all, Hillary Clinton stated a similar policy in 2009. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did the same during his tenure; and even Israel’s former Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, agreed with the President’s 1967 borders comment saying it did not reflect an “anti-Israeli” bias. With all of the media focus on the borders comment, the President’s truly shocking policy shift has received much less attention.
The President discussed a Gulf country in which the U.S. has traditionally ignored human rights abuses: Bahrain. Giving voice to an issue on which the U.S. has remained silent, President Obama condemned the violent crackdown on Bahrain’s Shiite protesters. While his statements on Bahrain have received little attention, President Obama should be applauded for taking a strong position on Human Rights with them.
Before the speech, pundits from various news outlets almost overwhelmingly opined that the content of the speech would offer little in the way of new or dramatic policy shifts. Expectations were that mentions of Bahrain would be kept to a minimum and that the Palestinian-Israeli issue would not shift from the status quo (yes to more peace talks; no to U.N. state recognition). To the surprise of everyone, President Obama did the exact opposite in his sharp criticism of Bahrain, saying: “The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail...we have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens.” The strongest moment came when the President highlighted the destruction of Bahrain’s Shiite mosques, something the U.S. news agency McClatchy discovered this month. President Obama said, “Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.”
After months of the Bahraini government destroying mosques, pillaging hospitals for protesters, arresting thousands upon thousands of Shiites, and killing protesters, the country’s leadership had yet to receive a public rebuke from the West. By speaking in such a public manner and in such a profound setting, President Obama signaled to the people of the U.S., the Middle East, and the world that even close allies will not be able to violate human rights with impunity. President Obama’s statement on Bahrain is particularly surprising when we reflect upon his Administration’s somewhat sluggish response to Egypt’s protests. After all, it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said on January 25th , that “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." When compared to that statement, where the Administration seemed constrained and unwilling to make a forceful call for immediate reform and an end to violence against protesters, this improvement should be celebrated, not ignored.
So forceful was the speech that Bahrain’s opposition party, Al-Wefaq, said it welcomed President Obama’s “call for a real and meaningful dialogue between the Bahraini authority and the opposition." Considering that most of the Arab world slept through the President’s speech, this impact is quite significant.
Nations outside of Bahrain responded, as well. Perhaps spurred by President Obama’s speech, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron released a statement indicating that he had raised similar concerns during a meeting with the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman on May 20th: “The prime minister raised concerns about the situation in Bahrain and stressed the importance of the government moving to a policy of reform rather than repression.”
The Bahraini government, which has been ruthless with protesters and the opposition since protests began in mid-March, also responded to Obama’s speech, firmly confirming its position: "the door for dialogue has been open in the Kingdom of Bahrain since the launch of a National Action Charter and will remain so." The Bahraini government also said it did not appreciate the “false accusations” that it claims President Obama labeled in the speech. Given that Bahrain had never received such criticism from the U.S., let alone in such a public manner, this was a particularly harsh sting for the Bahraini government.
With a strong Saudi connection, Bahrain had felt almost impervious to international criticism. Even with the public dissemination of gruesome videos of protesters being attacked and killed in the streets, Bahrain felt in the clear; before Thursday’s speech, the U.S. and other Western allies used timid language to describe events in the country.
Despite President Obama’s strong message, the Bahraini regime may escape sustained international pressure because the media, for the most part, has ignored the story, emphasizing instead his remarks regarding Israel. For many in the U.S., including Jews and Christians, the issue of Israel invokes heated passion. But while the peace process is a key element to the sustained success in the Middle East, it is certainly not the only one. As we saw in Iraq, sectarian tensions can lead to mass casualties and extensive damage across the region. Up to this point, the Arab Spring has been a sectarian-less movement, focused on democracy and economic opportunity. With President Obama boldly stepping into the fray and condemning Bahrain’s sectarian attack on its countries’ Shiites, there is a chance, if the Bahraini regime stops its aggression, to preserve that secular theme. For that, we should praise the President, not ignore him.By Kianpars, Aslan Media Columnist