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March 22, 2011

On Precedents and Double Standards in Libya and the Wider Region
Posted by Eric Martin

A few days back, Shadi Hamid made an interesting argument in favor of intervening militarily in Libya that I would like to revisit:

One of the main sources of Arab antipathy toward America is our long, tragic history of supporting repressive dictatorships in the region. This five-decade-long bi-partisan policy gave us the self-destructing Arab world that we have now (and also contributed to the rise of Arab terrorism as Steven Brooke and I argue here). The "stability paradigm," - which is just about as "realist" as you can get - has proven a failure.

Let's grant Shadi's premise for the sake of argument: US support for brutal autocratic regimes in the region has fostered resentment and, at times, a virulent strain of anti-Americanism that has produced violent manifestations. 

But if that's the diagnosis, how exactly would launching military attacks on Libya provide the cure?  After all, Qaddafi's is most definitely not one of the autocratic regimes that the US has funded, armed and otherwise helped to maintain power. Quite the opposite. 

A similar argument was made in anticipation of the invasion of Iraq, with a similar logical disconnect separating premise and conclusion. Again, Iraq's was not a regime supported by the United States (at least, not since the 1980s, after which the US fought a war and maintained a no-fly-zone and other punitive measures), so how would its ouster convince denizens of the Middle East that the United States was not conspiring with autocracies when it suited US interests?

If anything, it reinforced this notion by stressing the disparate treatment certain regimes received (Iraq) under the putative justification of spreading freedom and democracy, while US client-states remained in good favor despite their blatant disregard for human rights and democratic norms (not even so much as a reduction in aid or other forceful ultimatum requiring reforms).

Similarly, our muscular action in Libya, while we turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's activities in Bahrain (at the Bahrain regime's request and with its assistance), and events in Yemen, will drive home the point that "friendly" dictators will continue to receive US support, even if less accommodating regimes will be targeted in furtherance of our highly malleable and selective (though universal?) support of "freedom and democracy."

As the New York Times notes (via Matt Yglesias), the intervention itself might be serving to further entrench those autocrats that we find strategically appealing:

With his brutal military assault on civilians, and his rantings about spiked Nescafé, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi handed many leaders across the Arab world what had otherwise eluded them: A chance to side with the people while deflecting attention from their own citizens’ call for democracy, political analysts around the region said. And they really do not like him. Even Arab leaders most critical of the United States’ intervention in the Middle East have reluctantly united behind the military intervention in Libya. That has given a boost to Arab leaders in places like Saudi Arabia who are at the same moment working to silence political opposition in their backyards. [emphasis added]

Interestingly, Zalmay Khalilzad fully endorses the implementation of this type of double standard.  Here is Khalilzad's description of the underlying dynamic:

...[T]he dysfunction of the Middle East today generates the most threatening challenges to the international community. The largely peaceful, youth-oriented, democratic revolutions across the region present an opportunity to catalyze a fundamental transformation.

Yet he argues that the US should only take vague steps to apply some undefined "pressure" on "friendly authoritarian" regimes, but, on the other hand, utilize military assets (in one form or another) to oust those regimes hostile to US interests (Libya, Syria, Iran). He argues that if we fail to act in Libya:

Other dictatorships would then be emboldened to squelch their democratic opponents and resist liberalization.

But he fails to mention what lessons will be drawn from Bahrain and Yemen.  In that sense, Khalilzad is not so much endorsing a regional transition in support of broad-reaching democratic revolutions, as he is recommending using the spread of freedom and democracy as a pretense to help unseat US adversaries (sound familiar?), while engaging in the same toothless goading of the "friendly authoritarian" regimes. 

There may be sound strategic reasons to follow the advice of Khalilzad or Hamid, but disabusing the Arab public of the notion that the US supports friendly autocratic regimes despite their brutality and anti-democratic tendencies should not be one of them.


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In 2004, Colonel Qaddafi was accused of being directly involved in a plot to assassinate King Abdullah, who was then the crown prince. Then in 2009, Colonel Qaddafi embarrassed the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and infuriated King Abdullah, during an Arab summit meeting in Doha, Qatar.

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