Note March 2016: I am considerably more sceptical about the independent nature of the “Arab Spring” revolts now than I was then.
The “Arab Spring” is becoming rather wintry. I foresee three end states, varying by country: return to the status quo of military-based kleptocracies tinctured this time with Islamism rather than national socialism; full Islamist takeovers; continual chaos. The revolts are responses to the failure of the “Arab socialism” of Nasser’s coup in Egypt in 1952 and the Baath coups in Syria and Iraq and Gaddafi’s eccentricities in Libya a decade later. Despite the customary fly-blown promises of future happiness, the realities were military dictatorships, corruption, injustice and hopelessness. Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Tunisia lit the fuse.
Outside powers had no causative responsibility: it was a combustible mass awaiting the unpredictable event that would spark it off. The speed of development outpaced all Western reaction and there was nothing Western capitals could do either to speed or slow the flames.
In Libya the “West” (but note that Germany kept out of the operation) was animated by reports of humanitarian outrages, most notably that “Gaddafi is bombing his own people”. (But was he? “No confirmation” agreed US Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen. So what was a no fly zone supposed to achieve?) But the pressure “to do something” grew and, after seven months and an ever- escalating intervention, Gaddafi was killed: “we came, we saw, he died”. Cynics say oil was the “real” motive, but it would be absurd to argue that Libyan oil exports are more secure today. What national interest was there in overthrowing the eccentric, cruel but harmless (to us) dictator of Tripoli? What motive but transient humanitarian hysteria? That the intervention might make Libyans more miserable; that Libya might remain mired in devastation for years; that turmoil might spread are consequences no one considered in the passionate desire to “do something”. Now we hear similar reporting on Syria and the same demands to “do something”. But what if there is nothing any outsider can do but make it worse?
Moscow and Beijing take a more rational and self-interested position. Moscow is an intensely status-quo power: not only does it need peace and quiet to reconstruct but a historically-grounded pessimism tells it that much change is only change for the worse. China has few interests and has no desire to parade humanitarian pieties. And it too, has seen advertised better futures turn to dust.
The truth is that, short of picking a side and helping it win (something that did not work out well in Libya and would surely be worse in Syria) there is nothing outsiders can do to stop the fighting. Irreconcilable ends are struggling: the regimes are fighting for their lives and the jihadists for their Caliphate; neutrals are ground between these millstones.
Public opinion in the West is easily swayed by biased and hysterical reporting and Western governments feel compelled to “do something” (even without the licence to interfere everywhere given by the “smart power” theory). NATO has now accumulated several “humanitarian interventions” with bad results. Not that the excitable Western media remembers Somalia or Kosovo, let alone Libya. But Russian and Chinese public opinion is not so easily swayed and Moscow and Beijing have a more realistic view of national interest. Thus there will likely not be a meeting of minds on a common approach other than anodyne (and unheard) calls for ceasefires.
And, I can’t help thinking, especially now that intervention in Mali has passed from possibility to actuality, that many a Western government is secretly relieved that it can blame Moscow and Beijing for blocking it from committing to another ill thought out “something” that will create another “something” later on.