This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
As the Arab Spring blossomed and President Obama hesitated about whether to speak out in favor of protesters seeking democratic change in the Greater Middle East, the Pentagon acted decisively. It forged ever deeper ties with some of the most repressive regimes in the region, building up military bases and brokering weapons sales and transfers to despots from Bahrain to Yemen.
As state security forces across the region cracked down on democratic dissent, the Pentagon also repeatedly dispatched American troops on training missions to allied militaries there. During more than 40 such operations with names like Eager Lion and Friendship Two that sometimes lasted for weeks or months at a time, they taught Middle Eastern security forces the finer points of counterinsurgency, small unit tactics, intelligence gathering, and information operations—skills crucial to defeating popular uprisings.
These recurrent joint-training exercises, seldom reported in the media and rarely mentioned outside the military, constitute the core of an elaborate, longstanding system that binds the Pentagon to the militaries of repressive regimes across the Middle East. Although the Pentagon shrouds these exercises in secrecy, refusing to answer basic questions about their scale, scope, or cost, an investigation by TomDispatch reveals the outlines of a region-wide training program whose ambitions are large and wholly at odds with Washington’s professed aims of supporting democratic reforms in the Greater Middle East.
Lions, Marines, and Moroccans—Oh My!
On May 19th, President Obama finally addressed the Arab Spring in earnest. He was unambiguous about standing with the protesters and against repressive governments, asserting that “America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them.”
Four days earlier, the very demonstrators the president sided with had marched in Temara, Morocco. They were heading for a facility suspected of housing a secret government interrogation facility to press for political reforms. It was then that the kingdom’s security forces attacked.
"I was in a group of about 11 protesters, pursued by police in their cars," Oussama el-Khlifi, a 23-year-old protester from the capital, Rabat, told Human Rights Watch (HRW). “They forced me to say, ‘Long live the king,’ and they hit me on my shoulder. When I didn’t fall, they clubbed me on the head and I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I found myself at the hospital, with a broken nose and an injured shoulder."
About a five-hour drive south, another gathering was taking place under far more hospitable circumstances. In the seaside city of Agadir, a ceremony marking a transfer of military command was underway. "We’re here to support…bilateral engagement with one of our most important allies in the region," said Colonel John Caldwell of the U.S. Marine Corps at a gathering to mark the beginning of the second phase of African Lion, an annual joint-training exercise with Morocco’s armed forces.