What will the Japanese disaster’s toll be in the Middle East?

Under cover of tsunami, the Saudi military rolled into Bahrain to help secure a minority’s rule over an angry, abused majority. Under cover of a nuclear crisis, Libya’s military battered brave but outgunned opponents whose only crime was seeking an end to a four-decade-long brutal dictatorship. Under cover of an earthquake, the nations of the ...

JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

Under cover of tsunami, the Saudi military rolled into Bahrain to help secure a minority's rule over an angry, abused majority.

Under cover of a nuclear crisis, Libya's military battered brave but outgunned opponents whose only crime was seeking an end to a four-decade-long brutal dictatorship.

Under cover of an earthquake, the nations of the West dithered, threatening action in Libya … but by waiting, assuring it would only come after Qaddafi's loyalists had strafed and blasted their way to an upper hand in that country's civil war.

Under cover of tsunami, the Saudi military rolled into Bahrain to help secure a minority’s rule over an angry, abused majority.

Under cover of a nuclear crisis, Libya’s military battered brave but outgunned opponents whose only crime was seeking an end to a four-decade-long brutal dictatorship.

Under cover of an earthquake, the nations of the West dithered, threatening action in Libya … but by waiting, assuring it would only come after Qaddafi’s loyalists had strafed and blasted their way to an upper hand in that country’s civil war.

Japan’s compound tragedies held the world spellbound, and frankly, the world seemed pretty happy with the arrangement.

There were hard questions lurking in the Middle East. Questions about whether America and its allies only supported democracy in states that didn’t produce oil, whether our high values could be traded on the world’s commodity markets, one full measure of national integrity for every barrel of crude. Questions about whether we only supported democracy for some in the Islamic world but, for example, not for Shiites because of their ties with Iran. Or perhaps it is that we support, it seems, rights for Shiites in Iran but not for Shiites in the Gulf.

The Japan disaster obscured the slaughter of a family of five Israeli settlers and the Israeli government’s subsequent announcement of more settlement construction and then the shrill commentaries trying to equate the two. One was the murder of an innocent family. The other was a defiant if ill-considered and demonstratively unproductive policy. But the modern Middle East trades as easily in false equivalencies as it does raging hypocrisies.

Consider that this week that the world debated nuclear reactor safety in Japan while Iran worked silently to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, while Pakistan continued to build its massive arsenal.

What is happening in Japan is extremely important and it warrants the attention of world leaders and it is heartening to see global assistance flowing into the stricken nation. But it does not excuse those leaders from their responsibilities to address other urgent issues elsewhere, and yet one cannot help but feel that many are seeking cover behind these grim stories datelined in Sendai or Iwate Prefecture, an excuse for inaction or worse, for inexcusable actions.

It would be a sad irony if part of the toll of the Japanese quake included thousands more dead in Libya, or the freedom of aspirant millions from the Maghreb to the Gulf. Britain’s David Cameron has said he will seek U.N. action on Libya, a resolution and a threat of a no-fly zone at some point in the future. It’s an admirable ambition but poses the questions: At what point will that be? What will be left of the opposition?

The measure of Cameron’s sincerity and that of the world leaders who once condemned Qaddafi or cheered on the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square is not how soaring their rhetoric is, but how swiftly and decisively they act … and whether or not they remain engaged in support of democratic reforms and the right of self-determination even in the face of other priorities, events that might offer a distraction but can never excuse hesitation from the only people who are in a position to help.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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