All eyes may be on Japan, but violence is escalating in Bahrain, Qaddafi is gaining in Libya, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is paying her first visit to Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
Here is the latest on how the U.S. has (or has not) responded to continued diplomatic challenges in the Mideast:
[Update, 3/17: In a shift, the U.S. threw its support behind United Nations Security Council draft resolution authorizing military action against Libya. If approved, the resolution would permit airstrikes on Qaddafi's ground forces and aircraft.]
The tide seems to have turned in Libya—the rebels have been fading as the country’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, continues with his offensive to regain rebel strongholds.
This New York Times interactive map shows how Qaddafi’s forces have retaken cities one by one, recapturing Ajdabiya yesterday—the last defensive line for the opposition before the rebels’ de facto capital, Benghazi. Here’s Reuters:
As his forces advanced toward the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, a confident Gaddafi taunted Western countries that have backed a no-fly zone over Libya but shown no sign of actually imposing one.
"Strike Libya?" he said. "We'll be the one who strikes you! We struck you in Algeria, in Vietnam. You want to strike us? Come and give it a try."
And if Western nations do strike, "we will ally ourselves with al Qaeda and declare holy war," he told an Italian newspaper.
The United States has pledged $30 million in humanitarian aid to help the people displaced by the Libyan conflict and has been in communication with some rebel leaders.
But it has not shown any signs of changing its stance on Libya, which for several weeks now has been to call on Qaddafi to step down, to monitor the ongoing human rights abuses, and to tell the press repeatedly that “all options are on the table” for holding Qaddafi accountable.
The Times, citing an unnamed senior official, reported today on a “growing consensus” within the Obama administration that imposing a no-fly zone over Libya would no longer make a difference and would take until April to impose effectively—too late to help the rebels.
Last month, the U.S., European Union, and the United Nations imposed sanctions on Qaddafi, but in the weeks since, the U.S. has consistently said that further action against Libya “should be done in concert with our international partners” and preferably through the United Nations.
The U.K. and France have called strongly for action. Over the weekend, the Arab League also called for a no-fly zone. The U.S. “welcomed” the statement—in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—but has not itself endorsed the measure.
Asked yesterday whether the U.S. has any regrets about its response given that the rebels “seem to be finished,” White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the U.S. stance.
“In terms of the speed of our response, I would simply say that it is -- we have acted with the utmost urgency,” Carney said. “We have taken dramatic action, together with our international partners, to put pressure on Muammar Qaddafi and his regime. And obviously, as you know, the President has called on him to give up power.
“The international community has failed us,” a rebel commander told Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, Qaddafi’s security forces have tortured Libyan civilians and foreign journalists alike, according to several reports and firsthand accounts from three BBC journalists who were themselves tortured.
Four New York Times journalists in Libya went missing this week. The Times said on Wednesday that it had received unconfirmed second-hand reports that the reporters were captured by Libyan government forces. The Libyan government has said that if the journalists were captured, they would be released unharmed.
After a temporary calm, security forces in Bahrain ratcheted up the violence against protesters, and yesterday the king of Bahrain imposed a state of emergency, authorizing the commander of Bahrain’s defense forces to “take all necessary measures to protect the safety of the country and its citizens.”
A video emerged today showing security forces shooting an unarmed protester point-blank (A warning: it’s graphic.):
President Obama called the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and called them to express "deep concern" and exercise "maximum restraint" with the protesters, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday. The White House had issued a statement over the weekend saying it “strongly condemns the violence” in Bahrain: “We urge the government of Bahrain to pursue a peaceful and meaningful dialogue with the opposition rather than resorting to the use of force.”
More than a thousand security forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain this week in response to the Bahrani government’s call for support. Asked about the matter yesterday, White House press secretary Carney said the following:
We were aware of obviously the invitation by the Bahrain government for assistance from [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries. And I would simply say that Saudi Arabia is an important partner of ours, as are other countries in the region.
Obviously we maintain close partnerships with some governments in the region, and it’s precisely out of friendship that we are encouraging governments in the region who are our partners to pursue political dialogue and to respond to the legitimate aspirations and grievances of their people, because we believe therein lies the future, the positive future for countries in the region.
When asked whether the U.S. is calling on the Saudi forces to leave, Carney responded, “We are calling on the Saudis, the other members of the GCC countries, as well as the Bahraini government, to show restraint.”
Secretary Clinton said yesterday from Cairo that the U.S. is “particularly concerned about increasing reports of provocative acts and sectarian violence by all groups.” She said the State Department’s assistant secretary is in Bahrain “working with the parties as we speak.”
Bahrain’s main opposition group has also urged protesters to “avoid confrontation with security forces and to remain peaceful,” Reuters reported.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Bahrain last week and met with the Bahraini King and Crown Prince. According to the Pentagon’s press secretary, he was expected to “reassure leaders of US support & encourage national dialog.”
After the meetings, Gates said he was convinced that Bahrain’s leaders were serious about reform, even after the violent clashes. According to the Times, he said the country’s immediate problem was that the main opposition party in Parliament had not agreed to conditions for the talks.
At least 120 people were wounded today in Yemen as government forces continues attacks on protesters, Al Jazeera reported. About 40 people have so far died in the ongoing protests there.
The government has also been detaining and deporting foreign reporters who wrote stories critical of the government.
The White House on Sunday issued a statement condemning the violence in Yemen.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Egypt, visiting Tahrir Square and meeting with officials. She said the U.S. has committed $90 million in near-term economic assistance to Egypt and “stands ready to help in every way possible to translate what happened in Tahrir Square into the new reality for Egypt.”
“Egypt and the United States have many strategic interests in common, and a democratic Egypt will continue to have strategic interests in common with the United States,” Clinton said. “Now, will we agree on everything? No. I don’t know two people who agree on everything, let alone two countries. But we have a relationship of openness, and that will continue.”
In a briefing last week, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said he spoke to the head of Egypt’s military council, Field Marshal Tantawi, to thank him for his leadership., As we have noted, Tantawi is the military official that State Department cables once referred to as “Mubarak’s poodle” for his loyalty to the regime of Egypt’s ousted leader. The cables also described him as opposed to economic and political reforms.
A State Department spokesman also said last week that the U.S. condemns the violence against women and the Coptic minority in Egypt in recent weeks and has “urged the Egyptian transitional government to act swiftly to bring the perpetrators of that violence to justice.”