New Jacobin Essay, and an addendum on Bahrain

March 15th, 2011  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

I have a new essay for Jacobin Magazine, about what the Arab revolutions of 2011 mean for anti-imperialist politics in the United States. I’d encourage my handful of readers on this site to take your click traffic over that way–in spite of my involvement, Bhaskar Sunkara has put together a great group of writers at Jacobin.

By writing about such fast-moving events, I ensured that my contribution would be outdated as soon as it appeared. One thing I had to completely skip over in the essay was the events in Bahrain, but it’s worth talking about because it’s an important counterpoint to the cases I discussed in that piece. I focused on Egypt and Libya, and I argued that American leverage in those two cases was considerably less than most people–left and right–seemed to think. But Bahrain is the opposite sort of case, and it’s pretty clear that Obama has more influence over the situation there than anyone in the American elite wants to admit. A comparison between the way Bahrain and Libya are being discussed in the press illuminates the contradictions and hypocrisies that characterize debates about foreign policy in the United States.

To summarize: Saudi Arabia has sent troops into Bahrain to put down the escalating protests against the monarchy there. Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni Muslim, while the majority of the population is Shia–and the Saudis are clearly afraid that the uprising might give their own Shiite minority some ideas. But by sending in troops, the Saudis could make the whole situation much more volatile and deadly–already, the opposition is denouncing the move as an “occupation” and a “declaration of war”. The U.S. government, meanwhile, “does not consider” the Saudi action to be an invasion.

The United States is deeply implicated in all of this–there is a major U.S. naval base in Bahrain, while the Saudis are close American allies and loyal customers of our military-industrial complex. And as Brookings Doha Center analyst Shadi Hamid remarked on Twitter, the Saudis wouldn’t have gone into Bahrain without U.S. approval, or at least “lack of a red light”. Former British diplomat Craig Murray gets even more specific, reporting that “A senior diplomat in a western mission to the UN in New York . . . has told me for sure that Hillary Clinton agreed to the cross-border use of troops to crush democracy in the Gulf, as a quid pro quo for the Arab League calling for Western intervention in Libya.”

All of which goes to show that when people ask what the Obama administration can do to help the uprisings in the Middle East, the sensible response is that they should start by ceasing to actively prop up the dictators there. Backing away from the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies would be far easier and less bloody than, say, invading Libya. This is the fundamental reason why I don’t think we can take the pronouncements of liberal humanitarian imperialists like Jackson Diehl at face value when they insist that American military intervention is the only solution to authoritarian regimes or global humanitarian crises. Take the aptly-named Anne-Marie Slaughter, who took to the New York Times to condemn Obama for not taking unilateral military action in Libya. To advocate such a dangerous and deadly course of action while ignoring the American role in fomenting human rights abuses in the Arab world is not just ill-considered, it’s fundamentally dishonest. But as Matt Yglesias remarks, “there’s definitely a set of people in the United States who seem to want to help suffering people in the developing world if and only if that can be accomplished by killing other people in the developing world.”

As I say in the Jacobin essay, I think that the decline of American imperial power (and more proximately, the lesson of Iraq) is making people like Diehl and Slaughter less dangerous, simply because their deranged schemes are less likely to be realized. But these silly debates about no-fly zones and humanitarian invasions do still serve to distract attention from American complicity in atrocities like what’s happening in Bahrain. So long as the liberal warmongers can get a hearing in the New York Times and the Washington Post, there’s still a need for a forthrightly anti-imperialist left that can make the argument that the best thing for the liberation movements around the world would be an American government and military that does less to interfere in their affairs, rather than more.

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