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Thursday , July 7 , 2011
 
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THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS
- International tutelage and the making of liberal states

The attitude of Western states, led by the United States of America, to recent events in Syria is eerily reminiscent of the build-up to the second Iraq War of 2003 and the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The media frenzy about deaths, demonstrations and refugees, and the remarkable ‘discovery’ of a Syrian nuclear facility dating back to 2007, call to mind the then US secretary of state Colin Powell’s power-point presentation about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations security council that turned out subsequently to be a pack of lies. The present state secretary, Hillary Clinton, now weighs in against Syria with accusations and threats, and Iran, the West’s major bogey-man, is pictured as playing a role in sustaining the despised Damascus government.

Taken by surprise with the various popular movements in the Arab world this year, Washington hopes that a transition to democracy will bring certain countries into the Western orbit. This accounts for the regime change-directed no-fly zone in Libya, which has stalled for the moment, the robust propaganda against Syria, and the transparently hypocritical silence about Yemen and Bahrain, where similar demonstrations against the pro-West regimes have been suppressed with the utmost brutality. Basing their anti-Syrian invective on social networking sites, some of which now have been unveiled as perpetrated by Americans nowhere near Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s promises to liberalize his polity have been brushed aside by the US and European Union as inadequate and non-specific.

The Syrian demonstrations began in the periphery of that country over two months after the Arab Spring started in Tunisia. It is well-established that arms have been inducted into Syria from Jordan and Lebanon, obviously not for the official security forces but for insurgents. Also well documented is that the US finances Syrian dissidents abroad, including circles linked to the Muslim Brotherhood like the London-based so-called Movement for Justice and Development, which are not aspiring to democracy but for an Islamist caliphate. All this begs the fact that the Assad regime, despite its many failings, is not unpopular and is regarded by many, if not most, Syrians as being the nation’s best hope to lead a reform programme. Assad himself has freed the internet, repealed the emergency, announced amnesties, liberated detainees and promised dialogue. But on the debit side, Assad is too cautious and surrounded by sycophants, and the Syrians have managed their public relations very badly. Assad’s initial hard-line approach was most ill-advised, and he has a reputation of non-performing on previous promises to open the political system. It was also a huge mistake not to keep Turkey closely onside. Turkey, being a moderate, secular Muslim nation, is aware of the Islamist threat, and with the Kurdish problem across both borders, Ankara was in the best position to help with good counsel. To counter the videos circulated by demonstrators, why are there no videos taken by pro-Assad people of armed attacks on Syrian security and property? Assad needs to come clean about the Islamist threat to Syria; he can no longer run with the extremist hares and hunt with the secular hounds, and speaking vaguely about “saboteurs” will not enthuse his supporters. The Assad regime may still survive, but eminent historians of revolutions all concur that an authoritarian regime is most vulnerable when it makes the first compromises. Louis XVI and Tsar Nicholas II found, at the cost of their dynasties and their lives, that their drip-by-drip concessions only emboldened the revolutionaries. As Thomas Jefferson pointedly said, “A chief magistrate, once in power, rarely leaves it willingly.”

But there is a larger issue to be discussed about the West’s attitude to the Arab uprisings. Western-led intervention in various countries during the early post-Cold War era was ostensibly for peace-building, but in essence equated to the construction of a liberal state. By 1995, the tragic happenings in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia had led to a change in the Western attitude to peacekeeping. The British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the US president, Bill Clinton, were convinced by, and underwrote, openly interventionist policies, while Western media, its aid industry and its NGOs joined zestfully in similar activism. Interventions took place in Kosovo, Eastern Slavonia, East Timor, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Iraq, where there was substantial international civilian and military presence, a foreign proconsul-type person with important responsibilities, and governance tasks performed by foreigners with only a peripheral role for local officials. Such intervention was ostensibly multilateral, with UN consent — sometimes nunc pro tunc — yet invariably under Western leadership with transformative goals as its motivation. Washington regarded these as projects of political and economic transformation that would result in market economy and a democratic political system, but fundamentally, these exercises were in the nature of establishing protectorates in the style seen between the two world wars of the 20th century. In other words, this overarching peace agenda as a political construct became the language of tutelage, and culminated in the nebulous UN ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine of 2005, in which state sovereignty’s primacy, a basic principle of the UN charter, was left open to question. This was exactly the sentiment behind the making of the new protectorates, barely a generation after the end of classical colonialism.

While there was ample evidence of the deployment of Western military power, the West, led by the US, lacked any grand strategy to make sense of the changed international situation — a lack of the “vision thing” propagated by Bush the Elder. The philosophical basis of intervention was robust humanitarianism and the underplaying of state sovereignty, and the first Iraq war led to false assumptions that US-led and UN-brokered collective security arrangements were able to regulate global strife. This conclusion was naïve and short-lived, and was swiftly eroded with the resurgence of nationalist, ethnic and religious identities, terrorist networks, refugee flows and secessionist claims. President Clinton sought to introduce the concept of “democratic enlargement”, open economies and liberal states, but this policy too went nowhere, and globalization was a process that did not in itself provide any kind of road map for liberal societies.

Now that more than a decade has passed since the neo-protectorates came into being, some stocktaking is possible. None of the new protectorates could have been established without the projection of US power or underwriting, but the US had no overall vision for management of the world order, and Moscow has turned the tables on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine by prising South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. By 2011, there is Western fatigue with such engagements and a downgrading of reformist agendas in favour of an exclusively security-related focus. The West found protectorate experiments costly and long-term and lacking in full legitimacy: even partial successes like the mini-states of Kosovo and East Timor are not exemplary, and Iraq and Afghanistan are in no way closer to being modern and cohesive liberal democracies. The new protectorates will turn out to be transient moments in the history of these societies and also of Western hegemony, belonging to the category of quixotic dreams of human improvement, with only heuristic value for understanding the period in which they came briefly into public prominence.

Acceptance in practice by the international community of such post-Cold War attempts at nation-building has not meant acceptance in theory. There is no normative consensus, and states such as China and Russia oppose the new interventionism, as does India, which is presently in the UN security council. This opposition is more pronounced as Western influence is declining, and Barack Obama himself has lately pronounced that US nation-building must start at home. The primacy of state sovereignty is re-emerging and the permissiveness of the 1990s towards the US’s democratization mission is ebbing. The zeitgeist that peace-loving democracy and market economy would come into place naturally, which was always a naïve and ahistorical concept, has come to an end. The liberal state is not a finished product that can be delivered wholesale to Delhi, Baghdad or Kabul, let alone to Tripoli or Damascus.

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