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[Brahma Chellaney] The geopolitical message from Libya’s upheaval

NEW DELHI ― Will “mission creep” in the West’s intervention in Libya end up creating, inadvertently, a jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep?

Of course, the Western powers must be applauded for their efforts, with the support of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to prevent a slaughter of Libya’s civilian population. The democratic world should never stand by idly while a tyrant uses military force to massacre civilians. But, if despots are to be deterred from untrammeled repression, any intervention ― whether military or in the form of economic and diplomatic sanctions ― must meet the test of impartiality.

The current political upheaval in the Arab world could transform the Middle East and North Africa in the same way that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 fundamentally changed Europe. Indeed, 1989 was a watershed, producing the most profound global geopolitical changes in the most compressed timeframe in history. But, in the decades since, the Arab world’s rulers, regimes and practices seemed to have remained firmly entrenched.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama claimed in a famous essay 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 on, the global spread of democracy has been encountering increasingly strong headwinds. Only a small minority of states in Asia, for example, are true democracies.

In fact, a new bipolar, Cold War-style ideological divide has emerged. The rise of authoritarian capitalism ― best symbolized by China, but also embraced by countries as disparate as Malaysia, Singapore, Kazakhstan, and Qatar ― has created a new model that competes with (and challenges) liberal democracy.

The popular upsurge in the Arab world shows that democratic empowerment hinges on two key internal factors: the role of security forces and the technological sophistication of the state’s repressive capacity. In recent weeks, security forces have shaped developments in different ways in three Arab states.

Yemen’s popular uprising has splintered the security establishment, with different military factions now in charge of different neighborhoods in the capital, Sana. In Bahrain, by contrast, the monarchy has used the foreign Sunni mercenaries that dominate its police force to fire on demonstrators, who are predominantly Shia.

In Egypt, it was the military’s refusal to side with former President Hosni Mubarak that helped end his 30-year dictatorship. Long used to wielding power, the military had become increasingly wary of Mubarak’s efforts to groom his son as his successor. Yet today’s heady talk of freedom cannot obscure the reality that the people’s “revolution” has so far led only to a direct military takeover, with the decades-old emergency law still in force and the country’s political direction uncertain.

As for the second key internal factor, a state’s ability to police mobile and electronic communications and Internet access has become as important as jackboots and truncheons. China, for example, is a model of despotic efficiency: its internal-security system extends from state-of-the-art surveillance and extralegal detention centers to an army of paid informants and neighborhood patrols that looks out for troublemakers.

In response to calls by some overseas Chinese for people to gather on Sundays at specific sites in Shanghai and Beijing to help launch a molihua (jasmine) revolution, China has revealed a new strategy: preemptively flood the protest-designated squares with police to leave no room for protesters. More importantly, as the world’s leader in stringent, real-time censorship of electronic communications, China is strongly placed to block any Arab contagion from reaching its shores.

External factors are especially important in smaller, weaker countries. Nothing illustrates this better than Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia ― which has contributed more than any other country to the spread of global jihad ― sent forces under the Gulf Cooperation Council banner to crush peaceful protests. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s effort to prop up the Bahraini regime parallels the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 to bolster a besieged allied regime ― an invasion that led to the multibillion-dollar, CIA-scripted arming of Afghan rebels and the consequent rise of transnational Islamic terrorists.

Libya, too, is a weak, divided country. Indeed, with the CIA conducting covert operations inside Libya and aiding the rebels there, the danger is that the West could be creating another jihadist haven. After all, the broadening of the NATO-led mission from a limited, humanitarian goal to an all-out assault on Libya’s military signals to some Arabs that this war is really about ensuring that the region does not slip out of Western control. The intervention has seemingly been driven by a geopolitical imperative to bottle up or eliminate Col. Moammar Gadhafi so that his regime cannot exploit the political vacuum in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

While it is now clear that much of the Arab world is in transition, the end point is not yet clear. But Barack Obama’s administration apparently has concluded that Arab monarchs are likely to survive, whereas Arab presidents are more likely to fall, and that it is acceptable for the United States to continue to coddle tyrannical kings.

Unfortunately, this double standard sends a message that democratic empowerment in any society is possible only if it is in the interest of the great powers. No one has a greater interest in broad acceptance of this noxious idea ― that promotion of human freedom is nothing more than a geopolitical tool ― than the world’s largest, oldest, and most powerful autocracy, China.

By Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan.” ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)