Last night's debaters gave the ongoing events in the Middle East short shrift. But major developments offer both testimony to citizens' desire for freedom and dignity and the need for strong, unified diplomacy in service of U.S. interests and values. In recent weeks, we've seen a violent military crackdown on demonstrations in Egypt, new censure of Syria's President Bashar Assad and a new report on violence in Bahrain. The Arab League, U.S. and other partners succeeded in passing a UN resolution calling for an end to violence in Syria. Regional player Turkey called for Assad to step down. In Egypt, the military government's pledge to step down next summer failed to quell protests in Tahrir Square, which raged into a fifth day. In Bahrain, clashes between protestors and security forces preceded a report on last year's violence. The report, written by the Bahrain Independent Commission, details torture and excessive force but tamps down claims about Iranian meddling. And in Yemen, longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to a plan negotiated by Gulf countries to step down from power.
As the “Arab Spring” turns into the “Arab Summer,” recent developments range from debate in the United States Congress about America’s role in Libya, to clashes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, to constitutional reforms in Morocco. Carnegie Endowment scholar and former Jordanian diplomat Marwan Muasher captures the reality when he writes, “The Arab Awakening is going to be measured in decades, not months or years.”
Headlines focus on the countries in the Middle East mired in violence. But elsewhere, institution building is underway in Tunisia and Egypt, where elections are slated for this fall. NATO representatives are meeting once again to discuss a post-Qaddafi Libya and how states can assist the opposition. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in Saudi Arabia, furthering speculation over his well-being and a possible power transfer. Syrians in one northern town are fleeing to Turkey in the face of a military crackdown, as UN efforts intensify to condemn the Syrian regime and investigate Syria’s nuclear activities.
The protests in Bahrain are first and foremost about how the people of Bahrain live their lives - not about Egypt, the United States or even Iran. But the results matter: Bahrain is an ally of the United States, is the home of major American military assets and is a key piece of the puzzle in dealing with Iran. The regime's repressive response to protests risks promoting instability, when what is needed is a roadmap toward stability via political reform. The same parameters that the U.S. called on all sides to observe in Egypt - no violence, respect for universal rights and movement toward genuine political reform - are the U.S.'s best hope for safeguarding our strategic interests and the universal values we share.