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Obama’s Middle East Speech: Arab Spring or Same Old Thing?

How the president and the Pentagon prop up Middle Eastern despots and American arms dealers.

| Wed May 18, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

The Pentagon's reliance on the deep pockets of Arab partners across the Middle East, however, has a price, which may help to explain the Obama administration's willingness to support dictators like Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak until their ousters were givens, and to essentially look the other way as security forces in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and elsewhere, sometimes using American-supplied equipment, suppressed pro-democracy activists. After all, the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, along with regional partner Jordan—are set to spend $70 billion on American weaponry and equipment this year, and as much as $80 billion per year by 2015.

"The Middle East Military Air Market: Revenue Opportunities and Stakeholder Mapping," a recent analysis of just one sector of defense spending in the region by US-based defense consultants Frost and Sullivan, projects yet more growth in the future. "[The] regional military air market is… set to generate revenues of $62.9 billion between 2010 and 2020," it reports. Frost and Sullivan analysts add that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are likely to be the biggest spenders and will continue to buy most of their arms through the United States for the sake of "political influence."

For his part, Deputy Secretary of Defense Lynn wants to make it ever easier to put sophisticated military technology in the hands of such deep-pocketed allies. On his recent trip to New York, he spoke of streamlining the process by which tanks, jets, and other advanced weapons systems are sold around the world. "To keep our base healthy, it is in our interest for defense companies to compete globally," he explained, while deriding the current system for selling arms abroad as "archaic" and in need of an overhaul. "The barriers that we place at this point in the export control system look something like a marriage of the complexity of the Internal Revenue Service with the efficiency of the Department of Motor Vehicles," he said. "It's something we have to change."
 

Sending a Message

In February, in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and Tikrit, Iraqi protesters took to the streets, focused on ending corruption and chronic shortages of food, water, electricity, and jobs. In response, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has in recent years consolidated power with US military backing, unleashed government security forces. They arrested, beat, and shot protesters, leaving hundreds dead or wounded. In the weeks since, the Obama administration has not only failed to forcefully rebuke the Maliki regime, but has announced its intent to bolster those same security forces with another $360 million in military materiel ranging from radios to radar systems.

In March, the United Arab Emirates sent security forces into neighboring Bahrain to help put down pro-democracy protests. Early the next month, UAE security forces disappeared leading human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor and, in the days thereafter, detained at least four other prominent democracy activists. Before the month was out, however, the Obama administration announced its intention to arm the UAE with advanced Sidewinder tactical missiles.

Saudi Arabia also sent troops into Bahrain and has been cracking down on nonviolent activists at home with increasing vigor. At the beginning of this month, for example, Human Rights Watch reported the arrest of "at least 20 peaceful protesters, including two bloggers." Within days, the Obama administration notified Congress of its intent to see the Saudi security forces receive $330 million worth of advanced night vision and thermal-imaging equipment.

This year, US-coordinated arms sales have resulted in the delivery of helicopter gunships to Yemen, navy patrol boats to Iraq, and the first of six cargo aircraft to the UAE. At the moment, used armored personnel carriers are being refurbished for shipment to Iraq later this year.

Whatever "reset" may be in the works for Obama administration policies in the Middle East, the president and the Pentagon are already on the record. Since 2009, they have sought to arm some of the most anti-democratic regimes on the planet, while repeatedly highlighting the need for democratic reform and now for a fresh start in the region. Even as the "reset" begins, the Pentagon is leaning ever more heavily on rich rulers in the Arab world to prop up the military-corporate complex at home. If the Pentagon and the weapons makers have their way, the provisional successes of the demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia will turn out to be outliers as an Arab Spring turns distinctly wintry.

In June 2009, President Obama traveled to Cairo University to give a heavily hyped and much-lauded speech ("On a New Beginning") to "the Muslim world." In his remarks, the president spoke of an American Cold-War-era attitude "in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations." Then came his first call for a reset of sorts in the region. "I've come here to Cairo," he said, "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Before that summer was out, however, Obama notified Congress of his intent to send Cold War-era autocrat Hosni Mubarak a shipment of new helicopters to beef up his security forces.

During that speech, Obama talked of his "unyielding belief" that all people yearned for free speech, a say in their governance, the rule of law, freedom from corruption, and other basic civil liberties. These weren't, the president insisted, just American ideals, they were human rights. "And that is why we will support them everywhere," he said to waves of applause.

In its actions, however, the Obama administration almost immediately left its reset rhetoric in the dust. Whether the president does any better in the Arab Summer of 2011 will depend mightily on whether he can stand up to the Pentagon and its weapons-makers.

Nick Turse is a historian, essayist, investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. This piece is part of Turse's ongoing coverage on US military impacts on the Arab Spring and the third in his TomDispatch series on the subject. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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