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Message Received? Obama Weaves Warning for Syria, Yemen, Bahrain Into Libya Speech

Commentators and bloggers are buzzing today with critiques of President Obama’s speech on Libya. He’s taking hits for the questions he didn’t answer — What happens if Gaddafi stays in power? — and for the broader issues he didn’t address — Where’s the “Obama Doctrine”?

When it comes to the region, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi should be “somewhat comforted” to hear the president say “regime change by force would be a mistake.” But one select audience, three Middle East despots faced with rising protests, has been silent so far. The president was sending them a warning, and it goes something like this:

To: President Bashir Assad, Damascus, Syria

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sana’a, Yemen
His Royal Highness, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Kahlifa, Manama, Bahrain

From: President Barack Obama, Washington D.C., USA

Dear Bashir, Ali and Hamad,

You’ve got a lot on your plates, I know. So do I. So I’m not an American president itching to pull the trigger, to unleash my country’s military muscle around the world. But there is a red line of behavior that you cross at your peril. Did you read my lips last night?:

“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Translation: We’ve done nothing to stop the killing in Congo, or Zimbabwe, I know. But the eyes of the world are now on the “Arab Spring” of the Middle East. Fair warning: If your behavior toward your people is so egregious that even the self-protective Arab League urges us to act, and our NATO allies do, too, we may. And if we do, make no mistake, we won’t stop at setting up a “no fly zone.” We’ll not only take out your air defenses. We’ll decimate your entire military as we are in Libya. Then try to maintain control at home.

My hurdles for embarking on military action buy you time, quite a bit of time. The Arab League isn’t likely to call for Western air strikes against another member of the club anytime soon, nor are the members of NATO. And we’ll urge the opposition to see you as part of the solution, if you seem to be taking steps to reforms that your people are demanding. That’s what we did for Mubarak, until he blew it by dragging his feet so long that his own people didn’t believe him anymore.

But our patience isn’t infinite. So deal with your opposition while you still have time — and in the process, keep the violence to a level the world can tolerate.


It was a minimalist message: The U.S. won’t use military force to compel political change and reforms in the region — unless a leader inflicts casualties on his own people so brutally that it shocks the conscience of the world.

But it’s unclear if even this bare-bones warning was received. Each of the three leaders is canny enough to know that his country presents strategic complications for the U.S. that are far thornier than Libya did. Upheaval in Syria would reverberate across the heart of the Middle East, blowing back on U.S. allies Jordan and Israel, and combustible Lebanon. Unseating the government in tribal Yemen could literally split the country apart, expanding the ungoverned space that al-Qaida’s affiliate is already exploiting there.

And U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has already made it clear, by sending troops, that it won’t stand for Bahrain’s disenfranchised Shiite majority* challenging the ruling family in Manama, so it’s hard to see the U.S. intervening militarily on the side of the Pearl Square protestors.

In short, each country presents factors that could stay a U.S. commander-in-chief’s hand. That may give Assad, Saleh and Hamad comfort. But after last night’s speech, these leaders can’t know for sure.

Corrected to “majority” from the original post, which said “minority”.

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