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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Question: How do I survive in office? Answer: Don’t befriend the West

A popular political joke doing the rounds in the Middle East these days is that leaders will stay in power longer if they are not friends of the West – like Muammar Qaddafi has proved in Libya, as opposed to Hosni Mubarak’s fate in Egypt.

Just when it appeared that Mr. Mubarak was at his vulnerable worst for the first time in three decades, the US administration’s reaction was: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things.
And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel…would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Oscillating for two weeks between “must go” and “should stay,” depending on pressure from a range of allies and the realpolitik habit of backing the winning horse, Washington finally put itself on the “right” side of history by hailing the revolution and Mr. Mubarak’s departure.

How soon the three-decade-plus-old Egyptian ally turned into an outcast is a huge lesson in Western brand of politics in the international arena. It reiterates Professor Hans J. Morgenthau’s famous line about there being “no permanent friends or enemies” in international politics, but “only permanent interests.”

In fact, the seeds of double standards were sown in the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” – Tunisia.

After enjoying the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s associates’ hospitality during the early part of the Tunisian revolution, then French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie returned home to suggest that Paris must help in suppressing the unrest.

It is perhaps this blooper that later strengthened President Nicolas Sarkozy’s resolve against Mr. Qaddafi. Or is it a counter-offensive against his own poor domestic ratings in the face of elections less than a year from now?

How else can the Western switch against the Libyan leader be explained.

A sponsor of terrorism, Colonel Qaddafi became a Western ally in 2003. The Libyan leader renounced weapons of mass destruction, owned up the Lockerbie bombings and paid massive compensation to the victims, as well as agreed to share intelligence about West’s “enemies.”

The United States, Britain, France and Italy, among others, immediately warmed up to Tripoli.

In 2004, Tony Blair became the first British prime minister to visit Libya in more than six decades. Over-riding objections from politicians and relatives of some 270 people killed in the Lockerbie bombing, Blair became a party to what has been dubbed as “deal in the desert,” and announced that the whole world would benefit from Libya becoming a “strong partner of the West.”

While Mr. Sarkozy received Colonel Qaddafi in a specially-erected Bedouin tent near the Elysée palace in 2007, trade between Italy and Libya increased eight-fold between 2003 and 2010. And, Washington resumed full diplomatic relations in 2008, even permitting Mr. Qaddafi to address the United Nations General Assembly in 2009.

The speculative reasons for the sudden switch hinge more on business rather than ideological interests.

First, with nearly 45 billion barrels of proven reserves, Libya is the most oil-rich country in Africa – four times as much as Britain and Norway combined. This was, and still is, a major attraction both from the oil consumers and oil companies’ perspectives.

Second, the attraction of the Libyan Investment Authority, a sovereign wealth fund estimated to be worth nearly $100 billion, was too much of a temptation to resist.

Either way, the flip-flop distancing-cozying-distancing policy smacks of hypocritical inconsistency.

If the current wave of protests and revolts are against authoritarianism and corruption, how does one explain protests in West-liberated-and-designed democratic Iraq? By the same measure, how could it justify backing corrupt – both democratic and authoritarian – regimes around the world, of which there are so many?

The West is keen to interfere in Libya on behalf of the rebels because Qaddafi forces are targeting them. Why did the West not react when Qaddafi crushed a prison uprising in Tripoli by massacring about 1200 inmates in 1996? Or, why has the West not shown the same keenness when Israel has been targeting innocent Palestinians for several decades?

While deaths caused by government forces are labeled “murder,” the Western coalition-caused civilian deaths in various hotspots around the world are termed “unintended” and “inevitable” collateral damage.

Support for rebels in Libya could be justified if they can guarantee a switch to democracy if and when Colonel Qaddafi quits. But the fact is that the rebels would be able to form only an exclusive and not an inclusive government, thereby marginalizing a large section of the Libyan population.

The West’s Libya policy also highlights another dilemma.

Iran would be inclined to draw lessons from the current experience. Given Mr. Qaddafi’s fate post-surrendering of weapons of mass destruction, what kind of confidence is the West offering the Iranian regime while seeking the renouncement of its alleged nuclear weapons program.

The question that arises then is how could the regimes trust the West as their sole defence mechanism. Apart from leading or backing efforts to oust governments, the West has also blocked or seized the foreign-stashed wealth and assets of several leaders, which should be worrying the region’s regimes that have invested trillions of dollars in the West.

It is also time for the governments in the region to internalize the fact that while they required military protection from external foes, their biggest foes now lie within.

Neutralizing this threat does not require Western security guarantees. In fact, such threats cannot be defused by external military action, but only by political accommodation.

Even though accommodation is likely to fuel more demands, it at least provides the possibility of the governments choosing their friends over foes in the domestic arena, rather than the West making that choice on behalf of the region’s regimes and people.

(Dr N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst and author of “Boom Amid Gloom – The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf” (Ithaca Press, 2011)

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