Can President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary of State Clinton walk and chew gum at the same time? Evidently not. Perhaps Obama can take the 3:00 a.m. phone call, but alas he and his team are ill-prepared to take that, and the 3:10 a.m. and the 3:15 a.m. phone calls together.
What is going on in the Middle East is truly incredible. A Tunisian fruit vendor’s self-immolation leads to the fall of the Tunisian dictator—truly a noxious character albeit a secular one—followed in short order by Hosni Mubarak, an ally in name only. Now, Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh is hanging by a thread, NATO forces are half-heartedly trying to undermine Qaddafi’s hold on Libya, and trouble has started in Syria. In all these cases, the Obama administration has been behind the curve. Obama’s foreign policy style is akin to a gambler at a blackjack table who wants to sit at the table, but place his bets only after the dealer has laid out the cards.
In all these crises, President Obama has only reacted after violence has occurred. What message does this send to dissidents and those peacefully seeking reform?
It seems, alas, that only the squeaky wheels get the grease. Demonstrators must use bombs and bullets if they want to be heard. That is not a message Washington should send.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, protesters have been out in the street for more than 50 days protesting peacefully against corruption, nepotism, and the lack of democracy. Even though the demonstrations have been peaceful—some rock-throwing aside–Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani’s militias have opened fire on crowds, killing at least eight. Journalists have been leading the charge, and a number have been arrested, beaten, or shot. And yet, through it all, the Obama administration has been largely silent.
Silence is not neutrality; it benefits dictatorships. Last week, during his swing through Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Barzani. Gates’s mission was straightforward. He was seeking resolution on Iraq’s unresolved government formation, and was also discussing flashpoints such as Kirkuk. What he was not doing, according to members of his team, was showing any shade of green light to Barzani’s actions to crackdown on the democracy protestors. But the U.S. silence has given Barzani an opening to do what Barzani does best: spread falsehoods in the interest of his own political power. Iraqi Kurdish officials have hinted darkly to the protesters that the Obama administration has blessed a crackdown. The only certainty amid the Kurdish crisis is that “the most pro-American people in the Middle East” will now blame the United States the next time Barzani decides to kidnap a journalist or shoot a 14-year-oid.
Perhaps now would be a good time for the White House to call publicly for Barzani’s restraint, and work privately to lay the foundations of a real democracy and human rights regime in Iraqi Kurdistan. And if Barzani must retire for that to happen, so be it.