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IDSA COMMENT

The Wages of Naivety

September 18, 2012

Shortly before the fateful US intervention in Iraq that led to the downfall and the eventual execution of the then Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, Brent Scowcroft, who had been the National Security Advisor to the first President Bush, wrote a perceptive piece of advice that was published in the Wall Street Journal on 15 August 2002. Advising against intervention in Iraq, Scowcroft wrote that this ‘would divert for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism’ and that any military campaign ‘would have to be followed by large scale long term military occupation.’ The then policy makers in the US did not pay heed to Scowcroft’s words of wisdom, with disastrous consequences both for the US as well as for the hapless people of Iraq who have suffered horrendously.

The belief then, and as it appears to be now, is that getting rid of odious dictators in the Arab World and replacing them by so-called democrats would serve the purposes of western democracies better. The belief also is that this is a better low cost option to fight terror linked regimes. This was sought to be done by avoiding ‘boots on the ground’ and by riding on the coat tails of so-called movements for democracy. When it was discovered that perhaps this might not be enough, Western intervention was secured by direct military action as in the case of Iraq or through the auspices of NATO air action as in the case of Libya. In the latter case, to give it legitimacy, a Security Council Resolution was also secured by reiterating the principle of ‘right to protect’ [R2P]. The failure to do so in the case of Syria has not deterred the Western powers from seeking the ouster of Bashar Assad through the mechanism of meddling by an assorted group of pro-Western powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the latter two are hardly paragons of democracy.

However, what is seen as a push for democracy in the Western world is largely seen as a move for grabbing the energy resources of Arab countries by large sections of people in the Arab World. That there is widespread unemployment, economic mismanagement and siphoning off of resources by a favourite few in most countries further adds fuel to the fire. Most Arab countries are largely tribal societies where loyalty to the tribe and to tribal elders takes precedence over loyalty to the state. In addition, there is always the danger, lurking not far from the surface, of the perennial Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance in the religious affairs of the Muslim World. This Sunni-Shiite tension often overshoots into what is a normal political struggle for the control of the state and its various apparatus. In such circumstances, the role played, particularly by the armed forces, assumes crucial importance.

Thus, when one ruler is ousted as Saddam was or more recently Gaddafi by foreign backed intervention, it is seen by fellow tribal members not as the removal of a dictator but as the ouster of the whole tribe from state power structures. In most Arab countries, a ruler ensures that most of the high level state jobs are entrusted only to fellow tribal members. This ensures not only loyalty but a certain sense of safety as well. Thus, in the case of an ouster from power, the more numerous the tribe that is so affected the greater will be the disaffection and larger still the propensity for violence. If Gaddafi was removed through violent military action sponsored by the West, then it becomes incumbent upon fellow tribal members to seek revenge by similar means. It is a matter of tribal honour.

Thus, on the fateful day that Ambassador Stevens and three of his colleagues were murdered in Benghazi, from where the Western sponsored ‘revolution’ began, the Libyan ruler Mohammed al Megharief was ironically visiting Bani Walid, a Gaddafi stronghold of about 100,000 people, trying to obtain the release of a man who was one of those responsible for the capture and subsequent murder of Gaddafi. In Bani Walid, even today, videos and propaganda openly blare out the virtues of Gaddafi! While the ouster of Gaddafi was still in motion, both the New York Times and the Washington Post had warned the US authorities of the infiltration of al Qaida groups within the movement. It is said that these groups provided the necessary muscle power to the ‘revolutionaries.’ But no one listened.

If there was a reluctance to heed the warning signals during the Libyan campaign, what might happen in the case of Syria? Here, not only is the fight on to remove another odious dictator, an effort that is being sponsored and abetted by pro-Western governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but this fight is openly assuming the character of a sectarian struggle. It is certainly not a struggle for the installation of democracy or ‘freedom’. President Assad by religious denomination is an Alawite, a Shiite off-shoot, but he also has on his side most of Syria’s religious minorities, including Christians, who fear a blood bath in case the Sunnis come to power. A sectarian battle for the control of Syria is on, which might one day engulf the whole of the Middle-East thus endangering energy supplies for the rest of the world. Perhaps out of spite that Assad has lasted so long, the Western backed ‘revolutionaries’ have had no compunction in accepting help from al-Qaida affiliates. The murder of the Syrian Defence Minister was attributed to al Qaida prowess in this field. It is only a matter of time that they may turn on their benefactors once the current battle is won. The Western powers are playing with fire.

The professionalism displayed in the murder of Ambassador Stevens could only have come about if it was pre-planned. It could not have been carried out in such a short time that was available soon after the release of the odious video that is roiling the Muslim word. It is hoped that regrettable as the murder of Ambassador Stevens is, those in authority in Washington might be persuaded to do their ‘sums’ once again and take a second look. Today, a single act of a misguided individual in the name of free speech has done incalculable harm to Western interests in the Muslim World. It is still not too late to do a re-think on the whole gamut of Western policies towards the Middle East.

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