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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Three things happened simultaneously this week that point the way to a looming
We may be witnessing the birth of an exciting new era in which Arab and American values actually converge -- for the best interest of both parties, says Rami G. Khouri.
new era in the Middle East: U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech Monday laying down the reasons for American military involvement in Libya, the involvement in that campaign by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the continued spread of Arab citizen revolts. All three are significant historical developments in their own right. Together, they usher in important possibilities for change in the Middle East that could positively impact the entire world.
The most fascinating of the three developments may be the involvement of the UAE's and Qatar’s military in the Libyan no-fly zone. This coincides with the UAE and Saudi Arabia sending troops to neighboring Bahrain, to help quell the demands of citizens there for equal rights and constitutional change. For three of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries moving their troops around the region is a novel development. The contradiction that these troops in the case of Bahrain aim to stop the citizen revolt for human and civil rights, while in Libya they aim to support a similar revolt for equality, dignity and credible constitutionalism, is probably a sign of political maturity -- because all governments act in inconsistent and hypocritical ways when it comes to defending what they see as their national interest.
I am writing this during a working trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where the prospects of a citizen uprising similar to the ones unfolding across the region is zero, though various degrees of agitation in GCC compatriot states like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain is already a reality. For the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to be moving and using their troops in other countries across the Middle East and North Africa will spark serious debates for a long time to come. There is no doubt, though, that these moves represent a historic turning point, and probably mark the birth of GCC countries trying to actually forge tangible foreign policies in which they use their assets to back their principles -- however contradictory the two may be in the Bahraini and Libyan arenas. That Qatar recognizes the transitional national council in Libya as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people is part of this process.
These decisive moves mark a step forward for these three GCC states’ advance on the path towards real statehood, but they also raise two nagging issues. The first is how deep or satisfying that statehood is when the citizens of those countries have no direct input into such foreign policies that are carried out in their name. The second is the glaring contradiction in the use of military power to simultaneously suppress and to support Arab citizen uprisings in different places. These are questions that the countries themselves must grapple with. For the meantime, it is heartening to see them become more self-assertive, after decades of docility and apparent acquiescence to the policy priorities of foreign powers.
President Obama’s speech about the events in Libya was an important and welcomed corrective to previous American policies, and also struck a refreshing balance between guts and guns -- the reference to core American principles and the implementation of actual foreign policies on the ground (or mostly in the air, in the Libyan case). Obama struck the right tone between the idealism of seeing America’s national interest as stopping a potential massacre that would have “stained the conscience of the world,” on the one hand, and mustering Arab-international military action to prevent what he called a looming genocide in Benghazi. He also acknowledged the dangers of moving in to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power, noting correctly that, “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq…regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”
It is refreshing to see the United States using its diplomatic and military power in congruence with Arab states and international legitimacy, as manifested in UN Security Council resolutions. If Washington continues to act in a manner that can be interpreted as supporting the expanding pan-Arab citizen revolt, and assists those brave Arab men and women who risk their lives to demand their citizenship and human rights from their autocratic governments, we may be witnessing the birth of an exciting new era in which Arab and American values actually converge, for the best interest of both parties.
The air remains clouded with hypocrisy and double standards for now, and perhaps some conflicting interests when it comes to issues like Israel and Iran. Decades of incompetence and self-destructive policies by Arabs and Americans will not change overnight. This week, though, we may have glimpsed the first signs that such a change is possible.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global