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Obama and the Arab Spring in 2011

On 3 January 2011 the new 112th Congress seated itself. In the House of Representatives Obama's party, the Democrats, was the minority: 192 seats to 242 for the Republicans. The Democrats were still the majority in the Senate: 51 to 47.

On 8 January, votes in the House were suspended for a week in response to a mass shooting in Tucson Arizona. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others had been shot. On the 25th, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, and he spoke with optimism (as he had in his 2009 address). He described an "America where we out-innovate, we out-educate, we out-build the rest of the world; where we take responsibility for our deficits; where we reform our government to meet the demands of a new age."

In Tunesia back in mid-December a frustrated vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, opposed to police corruption and ill-treatment, had set himself afire, and there had been copycat self-immolations and in Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania, and waves of protests. Something new was involved: potesters with a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other and media blackouts transcended.

Demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square grew day after day, the numbers there said to have reached 50,000 on January 28, called a "Day of Rage," rage against Egypt's authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak. The crowd chanted "Down with Mubarak" and "The people and the army are one," apparently hoping for protection from an alliance with the army.

By January 30 there were 100,000 in Tahrir Square. Common soldiers were celebrating with the demonstrators. In Washington the Obama administration was watching. Mubarak was a US ally, his infantry having been with US forces in the First Iraq War (1991) and among the first to help remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Mubarak had been described as Israel's best friend in the region and, appreciated for his stand for peace and opposition to terror.

In the US was awareness of Mubarak's negatives. In 2005, Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that conducts research into democracy, reported that "corruption remained a significant problem under Mubarak, who promised to do much, but in fact never did anything significant to tackle it effectively." ABC News reported that experts believed Mubarak's personal wealth, garnered from corruption, was between 40 billion and 70 billion US dollars. His regime was described as putting political figures and young activists in prison without trial. His regime had hidden detention facilities. Universities, mosques, and newspapers rejected people whose politics were disliked. And despite Mubarak's benevolence toward Israel, Egypt's media continued its anti-Semitism, to portray the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as genuine, to accuse Jews of spreading venereal diseases in Egypt, of working to sabotage Egyptian agriculture and of causing the problems of drug addiction among the Egyptian youth.

On February 1st, President Obama and his advisors were in the Situation Room considering what was happening in Egypt. Chuck Todd of NBC writes of Vice President Bidden (age 68), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (63), and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (67) thinking that Mubarak could ride out the storm and thinking the US should stand by its old ally. Todd writes of the younger people in the room — including Obama (49), Susan Rice (47), Ben Rhodes (34), and Samantha Power (41), wanted a "more robust American support for street protests they believed would inevitably be successful (The Stranger, p 243). On Al Jazeera television they saw a live broadcast of Mubarak speaking to his fellow Egyptians, with Mubarak describing "noble youths and citizens practicing their rights to peaceful demonstrations and protests ... being exploited by those who sought to spread chaos and violence." Mubarak announced that he would not be seeking re-election, that at the end of his six-year term that year (he had been President since October 1981) Egypt's parliament would be selecting a new a new president, and he demanded that the "outlaws" causing trouble should be shut down and prosecuted.

"That's not going to cut it," Obama said to others in the Situation Room. Biden, Hillary Clinton and Gates argued that forcing Mubarak out would leave Egypt spiriling into the unknown. What if the rulers who followed were "hard-line Islamists, suddenly eager to help Israel's enemies like Hamas? According to Todd, Clinton said that at the very least the United States should be working with Mubarak on a transition. (The Stranger, p 245).

Obama phoned Mubarak and told him it was for time for him to step down. Mubarak, writes Todd, was "spitting fire," and told Obama "You don't understand this part of the world." That evening, in a 4.5-minute televised speech, Obama expressed his version of events in Egypt and his desire for an orderly transition there that should be meaningful, peaceful, and that "must begin now." (youtube)

For days the turmoil continued. There were tanks in the street. Troops dispersed an assault by pro-Mubarak activists on those in Tahrir Squared. Dozens died and more than a thousand were injured. Anti-Mubarak activists marched on parliament. On February 10 Mubarak make his last speech to his fellow Egyptians. He promised not to run in the next presidential election and to "continue to shoulder" his responsibilties in the "peaceful transition" that he says would occur in September. Demonstrators in Tahrir Square react with fury to Mubarak's plan to remain in power until September, and they demanded the army join them in revolt, and tens of thousands of angry Egyptians took to the streets across Egypt. The presidential palace and parliament were surrounded by protestors, and thousands surrounded the state TV building, keeping anyone from entering or leaving. Mubarak changed his mind and on February 11 resigned, handing power over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). On February 12, 2011, pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square celebrated and started to clean up the square.


Back in 2003, Libya's Brotherly Leader Muammar Qaddafi made a deal with the Bush administration. In exchange for an end of Western trade sanctions he acknowledged and agreed to pay restitution for his regime's role in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and he agreed to give up his research program for chemical and nuclear weapons and to allow inspections. Some were to speculate or claim that by giving up atomic weapons he made himself vulnerable to a hostile intervention by the Western powers, including the United States. Western analysts anticipated Qaddafi's accepting liberal reforms in order to attract Western investment.

Relations between Qaddafi and the US improved. Qaddafi developed a personal tie with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and improved his relations with the European Union. Qaddafi traveled to the headquarters of the European Union in 2004 and the EU ended its sanctions against his regime. In 2009, as a leader of a Pan African movement, a committee of traditional African leaders proclaimed him "King of Kings" by a committee of traditional African leaders crowned him in a ceremony held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Libya became a strategic player in Europe's attempts to stem illegal migration from Africa. In October 2010, the EU paid Libya €50 million euros to stop African migrants passing into Europe, Qaddafi saying that it was necessary to prevent the loss of European cultural identity to a new "Black Europe".

With the arrival of unrest in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, Qaddafi faced dissatisfaction within Libya regarding perceived corruption, entrenched systems of patronage and unemployed up around 30 percent. On February 17, the city of Benghazi (in eastern Libya) had its "day of rage" against Muammar Qaddafi (Colonel Qaddafi). It was the anniversary of Qaddafi's security forces killing protesters back in 2006. On this day in 2011 his security forces killed fourteen. The US news media associated the insurgents with the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Qaddafi accused the rebel protesters of being linked to al-Qaeda. In the days that followed there were protests in cities along Libya Mediterranian coastline, including Tripoli, the capital, where Qaddafi's forces fired indiscriminately into a crowd protesting peacefully, which inspired bigger protests and more brutality. Qaddafi considered himself a political theorist, and on February 22 he elaborated on television by describing the protesters as "serving the devil" and "mice and mercenaries." The protesters, he claimed, were on hallucinogenic drugs and wanted to turn Libya into an Islamic state, that they deserved the death penalty, and he vowed to track and kill them "house by house."

Also on February 22, the UN Security Council, believing it had a say concerning the welfare of Libyans as well as others in the world, demanded an end to Qaddafi's violence. On the 26th it passed Resolution 1970 and turned the matter of slaughter of unarmed Libyan civilians over to the International Criminal Court.

On March 1, the US Senate unanimously approved a resolution calling for the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Since the Korean War (a UN operation), presidents of both parties had been ordering military action without Congressional authorization. On 17 March, another Security Council resolution imposed no-fly restrictions on Qaddafi's air force against the possibility of it attacking civilians. France, Norwegian, British, Canadian, Danish and the US began air force operations in Libya to enforce the Security Council's authority. On the 19th, the British announced it was sending military advisors to Libya to help the rebels improve their organization and communications. The British were also supplying the rebels with telecommunications equipment and body armor. On the 24th a French plane shot down a Libya plane thought to have violated the no-fly resolution. On the 25th, French aircraft destroyed five of Qaddafi's aircraft on the ground, and the Norwegian Air Force destroyed a number of Qaddafi's tanks. On the 26th the Norwegians bombed an airfield in Libya, and the Canadians bombed Qaddafi electronic warfare sites near Misrata. French aircraft destroyed at least seven of Qaddafi's aircraft, including two military helicopters. British and Danish jets hit more military targets. And on March 28, Russia complained that the attacks amounted to intervention in a civil war.

Also on March 28, President Obama spoke on television (transcript). He spoke of the US taking part in a coalition of forces and described what inspired him to take action against Qaddafi: Libyans, he said, had taken "to the streets to claim their basic human rights." He said that Qaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead and that he needed to step down from power.

On 31 March, NATO took command of Coalition air operations in Libya. The US, in the words of President Obama, was playing a "supporting role, including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications." He said that as a member of a NATO-based coalition "the risk and cost of this operation to our military and to American taxpayers will be reduced significantly".

Obama added:

In addition to our NATO responsibilities, we will work with the international community to provide assistance to the people of Libya, who need food for the hungry and medical care for the wounded. We will safeguard the more than $33 billion that was frozen from the Qaddafi regime so that it’s available to rebuild Libya. After all, the money doesn’t belong to Qaddafi or to us – it belongs to the Libyan people. And we’ll make sure they receive it.

Regarding Libya, an Obama advisor interviewed by the New Yorker described the US as "leading from behind (a phrase popularized by Nelson Mandela). Hawkish Republicans jumped on the phrase, suggesting that the US should lead from the front.

Meanwhile, Qaddafi was fighting back with military campaigns against his Libyan opponents. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques were destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military aircraft including helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. Water for hundreds of thousands of people in the coastal city of Misurata was shut off.

Qaddafi ignored attempts to persuade him to give up power and flee the country. He was in the city of Sirte near his place of birth – a stronghold of Qaddafi loyalists. The Battle of Sirte from 15 September to 20 October has been described as the final battle of the Libyan Civil War. A so-called Free Libyan Army numbering around 16,000 triumphed over something like 1,000 on Qaddafi's side. According to Wikipedia the Free Libyan Army suffered 265 deaths and Qaddafi's force lost 868 killed. Qaddafi and a group of loyalists attempted to escape the violence in a convoy of 75 vehicles. Qaddafi was captured and asked his captors not to hit him or kill him. He was ordered to stand and struggled to do so. Qaddafi said "God forbids this," and "Do you know right from wrong?" He was shot dead.

The day after (October 20), Obama spoke from the White House Rose Garden:

"Good afternoon, everybody. Today, the government of Libya announced the death of Muammar Qaddafi. This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya, who now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya."

For four decades, the Qaddafi regime ruled the Libyan people with an iron fist. Basic human rights were denied. Innocent civilians were detained, beaten and killed. And Libya’s wealth was squandered. The enormous potential of the Libyan people was held back, and terror was used as a political weapon.

A new Libyan flag was among the flags flying at the UN headquarters in New York. President Obama welcomed Libya's replacement delegation at the UN, sent by the National Transitional Council (NTC) viewed officially by France back on March 10 as the sole representative of the Libyan people. A constitution had been declared: democracy, Islam as the State religion, and protection for the linguistic and cultural rights of all components of Libyan society. But going into the year 2012 the NTC's authority was insecure. Protesters against the NTC stormed its Benghazi headquarters in January, demanding greater transparency on expenditures, that Qaddafi-era officials be sacked, and that Islamic sharia law be the source of the country's future constitution. Protesters stole computers and furniture. In August the NTC handed power to a newly elected assembly. Libya had a lot of weapons left over from the civil war, and there were rival groups of fighters who considered themselves as having power in their own right, Libya to be described as "a toxic scene of chaos and dead bodies." (he Arab Weekly, 19 Nov 2017). The would include an attack on the US compound in Benghazi in September 2012 that killed and wounded Americans, including the death of J. Christopher Stevens, who was in Benghazi serving as ambassador to Libya.

The Arab Spring and Syria in 2011

In March 2011, pro-democracy protests occurred in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Daraa, where political prisoners were held for speaking out against President Bashar al-Assad Assad's Ba'ath party regime. Thereafter, the protests grew more popular. Government security forces detained some protesters and opened fire on others in Daraa. Bashar had inherited rule from his father, Hafez al-Assad, a military man who had ruled with the Ba'athist political party since a coup and 1970 and who had died in 2000. Bashar's mother was demanding that Bashar employ the brutal crackdowns of the father, enough against opponents to keep the family's power (two brothers still living and a sister) and economic connections secure. Bashar, educated in Britain and having married a Brit was giving up on his initial inclination to establish reforms and was going in the direction of continuing brutalities.

In May 2011, the Obama administration ordered sanctions against the Syrian government for human rights violations. According the United Nations, Assad's assaults on protesters left thousands dead. The protesters were largely Sunni. The Assad regime was Alawite, and Alawites identified with Shi'ite Islam.

A few soldiers deserted rather than commit brutalities. The government pursued them, and they armed themselves. In late July, defecting Syrian Army officers established the Free Syrian Army, its announced goal: to protect unarmed protesters and help to "bring down" the Assad regime". There were some in the US who argued that opposition to the Assad regime should remain non-violent. Instead, a civil war was in the making.

On 18 August 2011, President Obama said the United States opposes the use of violence against peaceful protesters in Syria. He called on Assad to step aside and announced stronger financial action against his regime. He spoke of "the Syrian peoples’ pursuit of a peaceful transition to democracy" and their "courageous persistence in the face of brutality – day after day, week after week." His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said publicly:

Syrians are demanding their universal human rights. The regime has answered their demands with empty promises and horrific violence, torturing opposition leaders, laying siege to cities, slaughtering thousands of unarmed civilians, including children. The Assad government has now been condemned by all countries in all parts of the world and can look only to Iran for support for its brutal and unjust crackdown.

The Assad regime, meanwhile, was supported by the vetoes of Russia and China in the UN Security Council, the two seeing UN moves against Syria as interference in Syria's national sovereignty.

The Death of bin Laden

In 2004, Kurdish forces in Iraq captured an al-Qaeda fighter Hassan Khul and turned him over to US intelligence. Ghul's interrogation revealed the identity of a courier linked to bin Laden. By 2009 this produced the CIA's awareness of bin Laden living in an upper-class mansion in Abbottābad, in Pakistan. In December 2009 the top US commander in Afghanistan said killing or capturing bin Laden would not end al-Qaeda but that the al Qaeda movement could not be eradicated while he remained bin Laden remained at large.

On 29 April 2011, President Obama ordered a covert operation to kill or capture bin Laden, and on May 2nd an early-morning US Navy Seals raid into the Abbottābad mansion compound found thirty people, including members of bin Laden's family. Bin Laden was killed, his identity verified by DNA, and he was buried at sea. That evening President Obama spoke to the public, mentioned bin Laden's role in the September 11, 2001 attack against the US and said,

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must, and we will, remain vigilant at home and abroad. As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam.

The next day his Attorney General, Eric Holder, declared the raid "lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way."

Obama policy regarding Iraq and Afghanistan

In 2008, President Bush signed the US–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, committing the US to the withdrawal of all forces from Iraq by late 2011. President Obama on 21 October 2011 (the day after Qaddafi died) spoke to the American people:

As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end – for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world.

... to date, we’ve removed more than 100,000 troops. Iraqis have taken full responsibility for their country’s security.

A few hours ago I spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. I reaffirmed that the United States keeps its commitments. He spoke of the determination of the Iraqi people to forge their own future. We are in full agreement about how to move forward.

So today I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over.

... As of January 1st, and in keeping with our strategic framework agreement with Iraq, it will be a normal relationship between sovereign nations, an equal partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

... We'll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq's sovereignty.

. ...The tide of war is receding. The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership -- including Osama bin Laden. ...The long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year. The transition in Afghanistan is moving forward, and our troops are finally coming home. As they do, fewer deployments and more time training will help keep our military the very best in the world.

CONTINUE READING: Obama versus Romney (and Jill Stein) in 2012

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