Specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” despots

Thursday, April 7, 2011

West is on a slippery slope

Japan Times

From initially seeking to protect civilians to now aiming for a swift, total victory in Libya, the mission creep that has characterized the Western powers’ military attack raises troubling questions about their Libyan strategy and the risks that it could end up creating — however inadvertently — a jihadist citadel at the southern doorsteps of Europe.

After having tacitly encouraged and endorsed the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to crush peaceful protests against a totalitarian monarchy, the military intervention in a tribally divided Libya indeed has helped highlight a selective approach to the promotion of freedom and the protection of civilians — an approach reinforced by these powers’ continuing support to other Western-backed Arab regimes that have employed disproportionate force to quell popular uprisings or unrest.

The Western powers must be applauded for enunciating the goal to prevent civilian slaughter. The free world cannot stand by while tyrants use military forces to massacre civilians. But any intervention — whether military in nature or in the form of economic and diplomatic sanctions — must meet the test of impartiality, if despots are to be stopped from unleashing untrammeled repression.

Ivory Coast — where rampant abuses and widespread killings have led up to one million residents to flee Abidjan, as strongman Laurent Gbagbo openly defies the international community — was clearly a more-pressing case for international intervention than Libya. But because it lacks strategic importance or oil, the exodus of Ivorians into Liberia and the influx of Liberian mercenaries have continued unchecked.

The political upheaval in the Arab world is tectonic in nature, with the potential to transform the Middle East and North Africa in the same way that the 1989 Berlin Wall’s fall fundamentally changed Europe. Indeed, 1989 was such a watershed in world history that the most profound geopolitical change has occurred in the period since in the most compressed historical time frame. Yet, with the same regimes and practices firmly entrenched for decades, the Arab world had escaped change.

Now, the tumult in the Arab world represents a belated reaction — a yearning for change that signals a grassroots democratic awakening. But will this awakening lead to democratic empowerment of the masses? After all, there is a wide gulf between democratic awakening and democratic empowerment.

The air of expectancy in the Arab world today parallels the new hope that emerged in the East bloc in 1989. Yet history rarely moves in a linear or predictable fashion. While it is now clear that much of the Arab world is in transition from the present order, it is not clear what it is in transition to.

In 1989, an American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, smugly claimed in an essay that made him famous that the Cold War’s end marked the end of ideological evolution, “the end of history,” with the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Yet two decades after the Cold War’s end, the global spread of democracy is still encountering strong head winds, with only a small minority of states in Asia, for example, being true democracies.

In fact, a new bipolar, Cold War-style ideological divide has re-emerged in the world. The rise of authoritarian capitalism — best symbolized by China but embraced by countries as disparate as Malaysia, Singapore, Kazakhstan and Qatar in different forms, soft or hard — has created a new international model that competes with (and openly challenges) liberal democracy.

Latest developments indeed are a reminder that democratic empowerment hinges on complex factors in any society — both endogenous and exogenous. Internally, two factors usually hold the key: the role of security forces, and the technological sophistication of a state’s repressive capacity.

In recent weeks, security forces have helped shape developments in different ways in three Arab states. While the popular uprising in Yemen has splintered the security establishment there, with different military factions now in charge of different neighborhoods in the capital San’a, the Bahraini monarchy has employed foreign Sunni mercenaries that dominate its police force to fire on the predominantly Shiite demonstrators.

In Egypt, it was the military’s refusal to side with Hosni Mubarak that helped end that ex-air force commander’s three-decade-long dictatorial rule. The military, long part of the political power structure, had become increasingly wary of Mubarak’s efforts to groom his son as his successor.

Today, the heady talk of freedom cannot obscure the reality that the people’s revolution in Egypt thus far has spawned only a direct military takeover, with the 30-year emergency law still in force and the country’s political direction uncertain. Although the ruling military council has scheduled parliamentary elections in September, the fact is that is no country has the military voluntarily ceded power without mass protests or other pressures.

As for the second key internal factor, an autocracy’s ability to effectively police cell-phone calls, electronic messages, e-mail and access to the Internet has become as important as a well-oiled security apparatus. The use of social networking sites and instant messaging to organize mass protests has made national capability to enforce stringent, real-time censorship of electronic communications critical.

Take China: its internal-security system extends from state-of-the-art surveillance and extralegal detention centers to an army of paid informants and neighborhood patrols looking out for troublemakers. In response to Internet calls for people to gather on Sundays at specific sites in Shanghai and Beijing to help launch a jasmine revolution, China has bared a new strategy: pre-emptively flood the protest-designated squares with police to leave no room for protesters.

As the world leader in stringent, real-time censorship of electronic communications, China appears strongly placed to block the contagion from the Arab world reaching its shores.

External factors are especially important in small or internally weak countries. Nothing illustrates this better than Bahrain: The House of Saud sent forces into that nation under the Gulf Cooperation Council banner to crush peaceful protests, yet it is civil war-torn Libya that became the target of an international military attack.

The blunt fact is that no nation has contributed more to the spread of global jihad than Saudi Arabia. Indeed, this terror-bankrolling state’s military intervention to prop up the Bahraini regime parallels the 1979 Soviet intervention to bolster a besieged Afghan regime in Kabul — an invasion that led to the multibillion-dollar, CIA-scripted arming of Afghan rebels and the consequent rise of transnational Islamic terrorists, including al-Qaida.

Yet, as the CIA conducts covert operations in Libya to aid rebels, Washington is in danger of coming full circle and spurring the rise of a jihadist haven at Europe’s southern gates.

The broadening of the Libya intervention from a limited, humanitarian mission to an all-out assault on the Libyan military suggests that this war is really about ensuring that the Arab world does not slip out of Western control. The intervention has seemingly been driven by a cold geopolitical calculation: to bottle up or eliminate Moammar Gadhafi so that his regime doesn’t exploit the political vacuum in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

Yet few have examined the costs the free world is made to pay — in the form of rising Islamic extremism and terrorism — for the overpowering U.S. intent to have only puppet Arab regimes, an objective that has fostered an alliance with inimical Wahhabi forces.

At a time when America needs comprehensive domestic renewal, it has slid — under a president who won a Nobel peace prize in his first year in office — into a third war when the other two wars already carry an aggregate $150 billion annual price tag. A quick military victory in Libya is what President Barack Obama badly needs to reverse his declining popularity at home and win re-election.

But even if the Gadhafi regime collapses quickly under the mounting military attacks, re-creating a unified, stable Libya free of Islamist groups may prove difficult. Saddam Hussein’s ouster by the invading U.S. forces did not yield the desired results. Instead, a once-stable, secular Iraq has been destabilized, radicalized and effectively partitioned.

With Libya set to become Obama’s Iraq, a plausible scenario there is a protracted stalemate, coupled with a tribally partitioned country. The paradox is that while aiding Libyan contras even at the risk of creating another Afghanistan, the U.S. is desperately seeking a deal with medieval forces — the Taliban — to stave off certain defeat in the decade-long Afghan war.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently rebuked allies for effectively abandoning the Afghan war. Why blame allies when the U.S. itself has abandoned the goal of victory and now seeks only a face-saving exit? And even as the U.S. fires hundreds of missiles at Libyan targets, its policy on Pakistan — the main sanctuary for transnational terrorists — is unraveling fast, with Washington clueless on how to stem the rising tide of anti-Americanism in a country that is now its largest aid recipient.

In fact, with popular revolts sweeping much of the Arab world, the White House has concluded that the Arab monarchs are likely to survive but the Arab presidents are more likely to fall and, therefore, it is OK for the U.S. to continue to coddle tyrannical kings.

The effort to draw specious distinctions between “good” or valuable despots and “bad” or discardable despots is redolent of the manner in which the arming of “good” contras has exacted heavy international costs.

The resort to different standards and practices in the name of promoting human freedom, unfortunately, sends the message that democratic empowerment in any society is possible only if it is in the great powers’ geopolitical interest. This also plays into the hands of the world’s largest, oldest and most-powerful autocracy, China, which has long accused the West of using promotion of democracy as a geopolitical tool.

More fundamentally, the issue is whether there should be a rules-based international order or an order pivoted on military might and driven by the narrow interests of the most powerful.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (Harper Paperbacks) and “Water: Asia’s New Battlefield” (Georgetown University Press, forthcoming).

The Japan Times: Thursday, April 7, 2011