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Yemen and Bahrain Uprisings Appear to Be on Different Trajectories

The Pentagon claimed at their press conference that the Arab League formally backed the actions of the UN coalition i Libya, after previously criticizing it. But I’ve seen no Arab League communiques on the situations in Yemen and Bahrain, which of course concern Arab League member states. So let’s look at those situations on their own.

The citizens of Yemen have decided to respond to the violent assault and murder of protesters with a massive funeral in Sanaa. Tens of thousands of mourners gathered in what is considered the largest demonstration yet; the Guardian put the number at 150,000, which would be amazing. And opposition parties, which previously sought political reforms, now are intent on removing President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. The rising crowds, not just in Sanaa but in other cities, show how tenuous Saleh’s position is at this time.

Saleh responded by dumping his cabinet, but not before many cabinet ministers and Yemen’s ambassador to the UN resigned in protest. Saleh imposed a state of emergency in the country, and rolled out tanks and soldiers into the streets for the first time. It seems the military is one of Saleh’s last strongholds. Even the tribes are deserting him:

Yemen’s tribes, one of the few remaining bastions of the embattled Saleh’s rule, appear also to be turning against him. Sadeq al-Ahmar, the leader of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, issued a statement on Sunday asking Saleh to respond to the people’s demands and leave peacefully.

So the trajectory in Yemen is similar to what we saw in Egypt, with the nonviolent protests ultimately pushing Hosni Mubarak from power. With the outrage internally at Saleh’s forces firing on unarmed protesters, and the growth of the demonstrations, we could see Saleh forced to resign. The status of the army would be crucial, and a shift in the international posture as well.

Bahrain, I fear, is following a different trajectory. Foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are enforcing martial law along with Bahraini forces. Opposition leaders are being rounded up. Hospitals are under siege. And while the US has given lip service condemning the crackdown, you’re seeing talk about Iranian agitators among the protesters creep into many statements. The Bahraini opposition has formally asked for an intervention from the US and United Nations under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. They don’t look wrong in believing that their lives are in danger without international support.

I’m willing to accept that these situations are unique, and the lack of intervention in one trouble spot does not mean that it should be withheld everywhere. But it is incumbent upon the US and their allies to explain precisely why their standard supports interventions in one context and not others. Especially because the doctrine of humanitarian intervention does not really make these distinctions – it essentially avers that, wherever civilians are threatened, the international community has a responsibility to defend them. Each case is unique, but we have a right to know what makes Libya different from Yemen, or Bahrain, or Syria, where the protest movement has grown in recent days. And this is separate from understanding what we are prepared to take on – nation-building, partitions, a permanent presence – when we agree to these interventions.

UPDATE: Attention should be paid to Richard Lugar (Via John Cole):

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) warned on Sunday that the U.S. is starting a treacherous descent down a slippery slope of international diplomacy by getting involved in Libya.

It doesn’t make sense, he said, for the U.S. to help Libyan civilians when the citizens of countries like Bahrain, Yemen and Syria are also being oppressed.

“We had better get this straight from the beginning,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “or there’s going to be a situation where war lingers on, country after country, situation after situation, all of them on a humane basis, saving people.”

Should this be the goal of American foreign policy?

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David Dayen

David Dayen