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The Undead Chicken

The United States has shaped its policy toward the evolving situation in the Middle East according to the Chinese proverb of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.”

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Foreign Policy in Focus

Muammar Gaddafi is the undead chicken. Bashar al-Assad of Syria and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain are the unscared monkeys.

The United States has shaped its policy toward the evolving situation in the Middle East according to the Chinese proverb of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” The Obama administration has intervened in the conflict in Libya with the apparent goal of punishing Gaddafi for cracking down on the emerging protest movement back in February. This intervention was designed to send a message to other autocrats in the region: don’t fire on your unarmed opposition — or else.

But the United States and its allies are having problems with the "or else" part of the equation. Despite going beyond a no-fly zone, they have only struck a glancing blow against Gaddafi. The chicken is bleeding, but it hasn’t yet flown the coop. Rebel forces have regained their edge in the key city of Misurata, but Gaddafi’s air strikes have also knocked out oil production in the rebel-held zone for a month. There are voices inside NATO calling for more: more U.S. involvement, a surge in air strikes, even boots on the ground. The talk of where to send Gaddafi into exile has shifted to how to handle him if he survives the onslaught.

The Obama administration continues to insist that the mission is all about protecting civilians, not instigating regime change. But that position has become ever more difficult to maintain, especially with the recent introduction of unmanned drones and their dubious record of killing large numbers of civilians in Pakistan. In Vietnam, we destroyed villages to save them; in Libya, are we killing civilians to save them? Or is U.S. policy, as in Kosovo, more about protecting U.S. soldiers by dispensing death from a distance? Humanitarian intervention is not a dinner party, as Mao Zedong might have said under the circumstances. It’s not for the squeamish. And monkeys are not scared by chickens that have only been roughed up.

In Syria and Bahrain, the authorities may well be under siege, but the unfolding of the Libya scenario has not prompted them to step down, institute major reforms, or otherwise demonstrate their fear of outside pressure.

In Bahrain, for instance, Washington has given the ruling al-Khalifa family little more than a slap on the wrist. Since the protests began in February, the government has cracked down hard. Government forces killed more than 20 protestors; several have died under suspicious circumstances in custody; more than 30 medical personnel have simply disappeared. “U.S. pressure was crucial in advancing democratic revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but Washington has been far from helpful for Gulf protesters,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Richard Javad Heydarian in The Economics of the Arab Spring. “This has reinforced many protesters’ views of the United States as a staunch supporter of oppressive regimes rather than a democracy promoter.”

In addition to hosting the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet — and thereby holding it hostage — Bahrain has spooked Washington by identifying the hand of Iran behind the opposition’s activities. “With reference to Iran’s alleged covert intelligence activities in Bahrain, the leader of the National Unity Gathering party, Shaykh Abd-al-Latif al-Mahmud, went so far as to claim that the Iranian charge d’affaires himself was distributing weapons to Shi’a protesters in Manama,” writes FPIF contributor Bernd Kaussler in Gulf of Mistrust.

In Syria, Assad knows that the Obama administration is not going to take on yet another military intervention, particularly in a country that could easily disintegrate into a nasty civil war. Even Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the Hill's greatest champion of military intervention in Libya, is not calling for something similar in Syria. The Syrian government has already killed several hundred protestors and sealed off the city of Dara’a, where major protests began. As a result, the Obama administration is considering targeted sanctions. But even pulling the ambassador from Damascus is not yet on the table. If the demonstrators eventually dislodge Assad or his family or the Alawite minority that rules the country, it will not likely be because of a no-fly zone or similar military action. The most that the United States has done is fund an anti-government TV station. After all, Washington is not even sure that it wants Assad gone, since the alternatives might be less palatable.

Those who hope that the Arab Spring will turn into an Arab Summer can take some heart from the turn of events in Yemen. Readers of Dexter Filkins’ in-depth piece on Yemen in The New Yorker might come away with the impression that President Ali Abdullah Saleh could retain power forever through a mixture of brutality, pay-offs, and careful manipulation of a variety of après-moi-le-deluge threats including an emboldened al-Qaeda and a Somali-like failed state. And yet, even as Assad was sending in the tanks in Dara’a and Gaddafi was battling the rebels in Misurata, Saleh offered to meet a key opposition demand by stepping down. The catch is that he wants immunity from prosecution. The opposition, however, wants to see Saleh on trial, and who can blame them? Poles had to stomach a transition period with the much-reviled Wojciech Jaruzelski as president in 1989. In contrast, Egyptians have had the distinct pleasure of seeing Mubarak and sons go to prison. The Yemenis were aiming for an Egyptian solution but it now appears that they are settling for a Polish one.

Saleh’s sudden vulnerability stems largely from the courageous efforts of the opposition movement. He certainly didn't learn the lesson of Libya, which was that a tyrant can oppress his people, stand up to the international community, and live to rule another day. Like his fellow authoritarians in Syria and Bahrain, Muammar Gaddafi is not yet taking the golden parachute option. By maintaining his status as an undead chicken, he aims to make a monkey out of the Obama administration.

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John Feffer is codirector of Foreign Policy in Focus and a contributor to Right Web.

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