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Democracy, stability or just opportunity? Washington chooses which dictators to embrace

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama praised Libyans this week for being the latest Middle Easterners to prove that “the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.”

It helps when the Washington does not support the dictator. First, the U.S. backed the downfall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, then Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and now Syria’s President Bashar Assad. So, why not more?

In the name of “stability,” U.S. military leaders since the start of the Arab Spring have continued unapologetically backing undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. 

It’s tradition. Since the early 20th Century, America has embraced autocrats who permitted a strategic foothold in the region. The U.S. military, coldly, must deal with the foreign leaders and military officers they are dealt, officials say.  

Look to Bahrain, where the royal family tolerated protestors until the day after former Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the al-Khalifa regime in Manama. Then that regime’s iron fist turned deadly, firing military-grade weaponry on peaceful protestors and imprisoning human rights activists.

Bahrain is home thousands of Americans and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Last November, the U.S. established a new forward-deployed headquarters for Marines in Central Command. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is already telling troops he expects a high-tempo of counterterrorism operations requiring the U.S. to maintain a forward-deployed presence across the region.

So, while rebels in Tripoli have received four-months of legitimizing U.S. rhetoric and thousands of NATO sorties overhead, protestors in other countries fend largely unaided. 

“To me, opportunism is a good word in foreign policy, not a bad word,” said Greg Gause, Middle East professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Vermont. “I want my foreign policy to be opportunistic.”

The White House was right, Gause said, to wait before jumping on the Arab Spring bandwagon until oppositions in some countries showed they had gained a foothold, instead of trying to lead revolutionary change. He disagreed with Obama’s decision to involve the U.S. military in Libya.

“I don’t think we should lead on Syria, I think we should follow,” he said. “And if the regime collapses, it collapses and we’ll deal with what comes next. ... But I don’t think that it’s worth spending any of our capital and certainly no military force to push a political change in Syria.”

Just look at the Bush administration, he said, which pushed for Palestinian democracy in Gaza only to legitimize a Hamas electoral victory.

Obama seems content avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach. Bahrain’s protestors have never shown serious signs of toppling the royal family, which has agreed to some reforms.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers prevented the Arab Spring from awakening there by promising a bloodbath on demonstrators should Saudis get any ideas about self-determination. Still, both Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen made it a point to stop in Riyadh this year before retiring.  

Further south, in Yemen last year, Gen. David Petraeus publicly courted President Ali Abdullah Saleh with millions in military aid and counterterrorism forces after discovering the attempted Christmas “underwear bomber” went through that country. Critics were glad the U.S. gave more attention to Yemen’s fomenting extremism. But they questioned Petraeus’ hasty visit that put the U.S. on the same side with a deeply unpopular autocrat, stirring anti-U.S. sentiment where none previously existed.

Saleh on Tuesday returned to Sanaa for the first time since a June bombing, Yemen is flailing, and the U.S. remains a marginal player.

“There’s always going to be complaints about double-standards in U.S. foreign policy,” Gause said, “because liberals in the Arab world want us to force governments to be more liberal. On the other hand, nobody in the Arab world wants to be seen as a client of the United States.”

Andrew Cordesman, the Center for Strategic and International Studies' prolific Middle East security expert, warned this week: “We need to consider the very real risk – and probability – of elections [in Libya] that trigger deep political divisions and elect leaders with little real political experience and no experience in governance.”

In other words: instability.

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