Project Syndicate — Column internationally syndicated
Following the death of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s interim government announced the “liberation” of the country. It also declared that a system based on sharia (Islamic law), including polygamy, would replace the secular dictatorship that Qaddafi ran for 42 years. Swapping one form of authoritarianism for another seems a cruel letdown after seven months of NATO airstrikes in the name of democracy.
In fact, the Western powers that brought about regime change in Libya have made little effort to prevent its new rulers from establishing a theocracy. But this is the price that the West willingly pays in exchange for the privilege of choosing the new leadership. Indeed, the cloak of Islam helps to protect the credibility of leaders who might otherwise be seen as foreign puppets.
For the same reason, the West has condoned the rulers of the oil sheikhdoms for their longstanding alliance with radical clerics. For example, the decadent House of Saud, backed by the United States, not only practices Wahhabi Islam – the source of modern Islamic fundamentalism – but also exports this fringe form of the faith, gradually snuffing out more liberal Islamic traditions. Yet, when the Saudi Crown Prince died recently, the US stood by silently as the ruling family appointed its most reactionary Islamist as the new heir to the throne.
So intrinsic have the Arab monarchs become to US interests that the Americans have failed to stop these cloistered royals from continuing to fund Muslim extremist groups and madrasas in other countries. From Africa to South and Southeast Asia, Arab petrodollars have played a key role in fomenting militant Islamic fundamentalism that targets the West, Israel, and India as its enemies. The US interest in maintaining pliant regimes in oil-rich countries trumps all other considerations.
With Western support, the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, have been able to ride out the Arab Spring, emerging virtually unscathed. For the US, the sheikhdoms that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman – are critical for geostrategic reasons as well. After withdrawing its forces from Iraq, the US is considering using Kuwait as a new military hub to expand its military presence in the Persian Gulf region and foster a US-led “security architecture,” under which its air and naval patrols would be regionally integrated.
NATO-led regime change in Libya – which holds the world’s largest reserves of the light sweet crude oil that American and European refineries prefer – was not really about ushering in an era of liberal democracy. The new Libya faces uncertain times. The only certain element is that its new rulers will remain beholden to those who helped to install them. US Senator John McCain has already announced that the new Libyan rulers are “willing to reimburse us and our allies” for the costs of effecting regime change.
America’s troubling ties with Islamist rulers and groups were cemented in the 1980’s, when the Reagan administration used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In 1985, at a White House ceremony attended by several Afghan mujahideen – the jihadists out of which the Taliban and al-Qaeda evolved – Reagan gestured toward his guests and declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.”
Yet the lessons of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan have already been forgotten, including the need to focus on long-term goals rather than short-term victories. The Obama administration’s current effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Taliban, for example, ignores America’s own experience of the consequences of following the path of expediency.
Another lesson that has been ignored is the need for caution in training Islamic insurgents and funneling lethal arms to them to help overthrow a regime. In Libya, bringing the myriad rebel militias under government control is likely to prove difficult, potentially creating a jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep.
Exponents of US policy argue that in war it is sometimes necessary to choose the lesser of two evils. Unsavory allies – ranging from Islamist militias to regimes that bankroll militant Islamic fundamentalism overseas – may be an unavoidable price to be paid in the service of larger interests.
Paradoxically, the US practice of propping up malleable Islamist rulers in the Middle East often results in strong anti-US sentiment, as well as support for more independent and “authentically” Islamist forces. When elections are held, it is such autonomous Islamists who often emerge as winners, as in Gaza and Tunisia.
The fight against Islamist terrorism can succeed only by ensuring that states do not strengthen those forms of Islamic fundamentalism that extol violence as a religious tool. Unfortunately, with the US willfully ignoring the lessons of the recent past, the extremists are once again waiting in the wings.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and the newly released Water: Asia’s New Battleground.