Sunday, March 20, 2011

My, it's been a while. So, this:

The helpful thing, if you're overwhelmed by so much news going on at once, is that Bahrain is roughly the same story as Libya—only instead of pro-democracy protesters being murdered by a terrorist-sponsoring monster of a dictator who has been on America's enemies list for ages, the pro-democracy protesters are being murdered by a government that is America's very own dear ally. And where Qaddafi brought in foreign mercenaries for support, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain brought in troops from our even more vital ally, Saudi Arabia.
Which... neglects to mention that until the recent unpleasantness, Qaddafi had also managed over the past few years to join the company of third-world despots with first-world cachet. He, too, was allowed to buy weapons with oil money. He was greeted with respect at state visits to Britain, France and Italy. (The pictures are suddenly hard to find on French government web sites.) His kid had cordial meetings with our Secretary of State. He had "come in from the cold." He had made himself respectable.

So, if Gaddafi is suddenly once again a whole lot less respectable than all the other dictatorial thugs we're happy to deal with, what changed?

I've got two answers: the one that actually matters, and the one you can read about in the New York Times.

The difference that actually matters is this: The incumbent scumbags in Bahrain (and Yemen, and Saudi Arabia itself, where there have been recent armed attacks on demonstrations) are attacking innocent civilians with police and small arms. Qaddafi had escalated to the army and heavy artillery.

Now, you may think this is a bad place to draw the line. But it clearly is where a whole lot of people drew the line. And not just westerners. Also, the Arab League, which consists largely of dictatorial thugs who have nevertheless, at this point, repeatedly condemned one of their own and called for armed action against him. And members of his own diplomatic corps and administration, who had served him for years, knowing full well that he was a dictatorial thug, but have now abandoned him. The armed attacks on demonstrators in Yemen and Bahrain are very, very ugly, but they aren't as ugly as attacks on entire neighborhoods and cities with indiscriminate fire from tanks. One of these things is genuinely not like the others.

But to say this is to acknowledge that there is a level of oppression, rising to the level of the occasional discreet, small-scale massacre, that the United States will happily tolerate in its otherwise faithful allies. And no one wants to say that. So we read instead, in today's New York Times, of a "Proxy Battle in Bahrian" pitting U.S. allies (particularly the Saudis) against everyone's favorite middle east bogeyman, Iran.

So, what kind of a battle is it? Not much of one. The Iranians have publicly grumbled about foreign troops in Bahrain, which has prompted much whining from Bahraini authorities about Iranian interference in Bahraini affairs. And that's pretty much it.

Which, by the way, is already more reporting than the Times itself did on the matter. Read far enough into the Times article, and you'll find the reporters admitting that

There has been no evidence that Iran played a part in Bahrain’s uprising, which was led by young Bahrainis from the Shiite majority.
But to read that, you need to get quite a way in --- that's on the second page of the online version of the story. All the Times is "reporting" on is breathless speculation from its sources (some named, some not) about a proxy battle that could, possibly, some people think, develop in the future. And it takes them that long to say so in plain English.

It seems I will soon need to pay something like $200 a year for unfettered access to this kind of reporting. I think I'll pass.

Two further notes:

First off, a lot of people are treating this as the prelude to something like the Gulf War. Which raises the question: which one? It's odd that the Bush II Gulf War, a mess we have yet to clean up, seems to have completely erased the memory of the Bush I Gulf War, in which a coalition that was carefully crafted ahead of time achieved limited objectives on time and on budget. In fact, Libyan rebels themselves, while calling for air support, have indicated that they very much want not to see American troops on the ground, because, as one said, "We don't want to be like Iraq". Which ought to deeply embarrass anyone who advocated Gulf War II as an opportunity to make Iraq a showpiece for America's benevolence --- but Tom Friedman is beyond embarrassment.

Mind you, it isn't yet clear which parallel applies. It was certainly an error for Obama to say "Qaddafi must go" before getting even his own military to buy into that. And they still haven't bought in --- the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was on Meet the Press this morning saying that Qaddafi clinging to power is "certainly one possible outcome". But I've seen too many folks who seem to start from the premise that all military intervention comes pre-doomed. No. Sometimes it works.

Second, when it comes to this stuff, you've obviously got to read with a skeptical eye, and that goes double for media based within the region. But the Emir of Qatar's pet journalists at Al Jazeera English cannot possibly have been making him any friends among the regional private jet set. In Bahrain, for example, they routinely describe the aims of protesters as legitimate and the protests themselves as basically nonviolent, while treating official excuses for violence with arch skepticism. Lately, they've been covering military raids on the capital's main hospital, which cannot possibly make the government there look good. All of this has, of course, got them banned from Bahrain. A ban which they're respecting to the extent of not naming their correspondents, who would otherwise be subject to arrest.

The ads on the live stream, though, are an odd bunch. For lack of inventory, one presumes, a lot of the available time for such stuff is being filled with spots for one local Qatari venture or another. I have no reason to doubt that Qatalum is indeed an environmentally friendly aluminum smelter, as aluminum smelters go, and I'll be sure to bear them in mind the next time I'm ordering ingots in bulk. But I really don't think I'm in their ideal target demographic.