When the Arab Spring began unfolding in the Middle East, many people in the West believed that they should support popular movements aimed at toppling dictators and at promoting freedom and democracy.
On October 31, 2012, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office published a report highlighting the country’s support for democratic movements
[T]he UK is supporting those in the region to build a more stable, prosperous and inclusive Middle East. To date we have committed almost £50m in 16 different countries to support free and fair elections in Libya – a landmark moment in that country’s history, voter education for women and young people in Tunisia, support for young entrepreneurs in Algeria and the development of a free press in Tunisia.
As we reflect on the changes of the last two years, clear challenges remain, not least the economic troubles facing some countries in the region and the terrible ongoing violence in Syria. But we remain firmly optimistic about the Arab Spring.
The European Union (EU), too, enthusiastically endorsed the Arab Spring. On 27 September 2011 the European Commission proudly announced that it had adopted programmes that included support for “democracy, growth, job creation, microfinance and higher education” in North Africa and the Middle East.
We all know how the Arab Spring ended.
In Egypt the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak led to political extremism, the oppressive government of the Muslim Brotherhood and a military regime. To this day the country continues to suffer from unemployment and poor finances, as well as the threat of terrorism.
In February 2011 a popular uprising in Libya against the authoritarian rule of Muammar Gaddafi broke out. The United Nations intervened to support rebels and civilians who were being massacred by Gaddafi’s forces. After the fall of his regime, the country descended into chaos, with the emergence of various governments that are still fighting against each other. The UN-backed authorities have failed to unite the country. Besides, Libya has become a centre of migrant trafficking to Europe because there is no stable government capable of patrolling the vast desert and coastal regions.
In Syria the Arab Spring caused the deadliest civil war of the 21sy century, with nearly half a million casualties and 12 million displaced civilians. A US-led alliance backed pro-democracy groups against Syria’s Assad regime, but it failed to achieve democrratic regime-change.
Western intervention during the Arab had disastrous effects. The concept of humanitarian intervention has proven to be counterproductive as is the support for noble-sounding causes without giving much thought to the long-term consequences.
The unintended results of policy decisions made in the name of freedom and democracy have in reality harmed the causes the West was supposedly fighting for. It would have been easy to prevent those mistakes if reason had prevailed over anger and moral naivete.
The Arab Spring has arguably caused an authoritarian reaction worldwide on the part of regimes that are afraid of pro-democracy groups backed by the West.
In China the Arab Spring create a political climate favourable to Communist hardliners. In Turkey, too, the government reacted to revolutions in nearby countries by cracking down on dissent and consolidating authoritarian rule.
But it was in the West itself where the hypocrisy and shortsightedness of its interventionist policies in support of democracy and regime change abroad were most striking.
While the West was generous when it came to financing uprisings in faraway lands and helping them oust dictators, as soon as refugees escaping civil war in Syria and other areas reached Europe, the US and other Western countries, the reaction of public opinion was suddenly much less noble. Millions of people were incensed at the arrival of a large number of migrants. Xenophobia led to the rise of far-right parties which benefited from popular sentiment against asylum seekers and from widespread Islamophobia.
The Iraq War and the 2008 independence declaration by Kosovo are also examples of Western geopolitical strategies that had a negative impact on world affairs.
On November 11, 2003, US President George W. Bush told members of the Heritage Foundation:
Our mission in Iraq and Afghanistan is clear to our service members — and clear to our enemies. Our men and women are fighting to secure the freedom of more than 50 million people who recently lived under two of the cruelest dictatorships on Earth. Our men and women are fighting to help democracy and peace and justice rise in a troubled and violent region.
G.W. Bush’s argument appealed to people who thought of the US as the champion of democracy and human rights; who believed that the post-WWII experience in implementing democracy in Europe could be repeated any time anywhere in the world; and to many who advocated American supremacy, cultural and moral hegemony over different ideological systems.
Such views were flawed, shortsighted and disingenuous. The reality is that the Iraq War dealt a lethal blow to international order because it showed that the mightiest nation in the world is not accountable to international law. Russia and China took notice of that. Moreover, the US destabilized the Middle East, which led to chaos and a surge of terrorism.
Kosovo is another case in which the West “set terrible precedents that have come back to haunt” it, as The National Interest put it. In the 1990s a US-led NATO alliance attacked Serbia, although no member state of NATO had been attacked by Serbia. Moscow protested, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia was weak and its influence on the global stage had been diminished.
Some argue that NATO’s military intervention contravened its own Charter, which stipulates that its members undertake to “settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”
The US and its allies “forcibly detached the province [Serbia’s Kosovo] of a sovereign country, placing it under international control.” In 2008 the US and many – but not all – of its allies recognized Kosovo’s unilateral independence declaration despite opposition from Serbia, Russia and China.
Western hubris soured relations with Moscow and Beijing, strengthening anti-Western hardliners in both countries. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, he cited Kosovo as a precedent for Russia’s actions. Putin sought alliances with far-right parties in the West who would support Crimea’s independence referendum on the basis of the nationalist ideal of ‘self-determination’.
Despite the cases of Kosovo and Crimea being different, Russia might not have annexed another country’s region if the US-led alliance had not previously undermined international order.
The Iraq War, Kosovo and the Arab Spring show the disconnect between Western public opinion and realpolitik over the past two decades. Instead of securing stability, dialogue and international order, Western interventionist policies have sowed discord and chaos.
Toppling regimes by force, endorsing groups of citizens against others, or advocating a naive principle of self-determination that draws ethnic, linguistic and often religious lines across communities, are policies that have come back to haunt the West. If reason and sobriety had won over passion, simplistic ideals and short-term thinking, the world might have become more stable and united. If the West had promoted democracy by example and diplomacy, perhaps we would not have witnessed the global resurgence of authoritarian ideology.
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