Turkey and Iran may be winners, and the US a loser in the end – but first Arab societies must 'win' by making revolution work
David Cameron's suggestion that Britain may arm Libyan rebels opposed to Muammar Gaddafi vividly illustrates the dangerously fine line western leaders must tread as revolutionary unrest sweeps the Arab world. Despite recent violence, Libya is not yet in a state of civil war. But arming the opposition is a sure way to guarantee it soon will be. Thus a forcible intervention designed to help may have the opposite effect to that intended.
Cameron's ingenuous ideas about ending the Gaddafi era, outlined to the House of Commons this week, were prompted in part by a desire to ensure Britain is on the "winning" side when the history of the 2011 Arab awakening is written. This echoes the fatuous debate in Washington over whether Barack Obama "lost" Egypt when he abandoned HosniMubarak. Through their latest statements, the US and Britain are trying to assure, among other things, good post-revolution relations with successor regimes.
But it's clear, with the upheavals that began in Tunisia in December still spreading, that western military intervention in specific countries to hasten that end could be both hazardous and counter-productive. On the whole, affected populations say they do not want it, or only in very limited form. Gaddafi, for example, claims the US and Britain are bent onrecolonisation and stealing Libya's oil. He would like nothing better than to portray the rebellion as a western-inspired, anti-Arab plot.
In terms of "winners" and "losers", the US and close allies like Britain and Israel are already firmly positioned in the latter category. Washington has lost, or is losing, key alliances with pro-western leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and some Gulf states. Where autocracies remain entrenched, as in Saudi Arabia, confidence in the western allies has been badlyshaken, not least by the way they dumped Mubarak and suddenly ramped up the rhetoric of "universal values".
Successful revolutions will not guarantee a return to cordiality. "If democracy does take root in the Middle East – and the jury is still out – the regimes that emerge may well be much tougher customers than the autocracies they replace," said Charles Kupchan of the US Council on Foreign Relations. "Western observers and policy-makers had better stop operating under the illusion that the spread of democracy to the Middle East also means the spread of western values." The twin forces of political Islam and nationalism would wield ever greater clout in more open, post-revolutionary Arab states, he suggested. In short, the strategic outlook has changed permanently.
Nor will it be clear, for a considerable while, who western governments are dealing with. "The regimes that emerge may call themselves democracies and the world may go along with the lie, but the test of a system is how the power relationships work behind the scenes" US analyst, Robert Kaplan, said. "The Arab world must create from the dust of tyrannies legitimate political orders. It is less democracy than the crisis of central authority that will dominate the next phase of Middle Eastern history."
If there are any state "winners" so far in this rapidly shifting geo-strategic chess game, they are Turkey and Iran, Saudi and other analysts suggest. "Viewed through the prism of a zero-sum conflict between a US-led alliance of Arab autocrats and Israel against an Iran-led 'resistance' camp, the Arab rebellion has been nothing short of catastrophic for the anti-Iran forces, " Tony Karon wrote in The National. But this conclusion, he warned, was "based on the flawed premise that a setback for the US is automatically a gain for Iran. The Arab declaration of independence from Washington is anything but a declaration of loyalty toTehran" – despite Iranian claims.
A more comfortable thought, for western leaders at least, is that moderate, secular, neo-Islamist-led Turkey may provide a paradigm for emerging post-revolutionary Arab societies. Turkish commentators certainly see it this way. Turkey's reform experience "could assist them in building a platform for channelling the aspirations and expectations of people to reflect better governance and transparency", Abdullah Bozkurt said in Today's Zaman. "Turkey can certainly be an inspiration for a lot of people in these countries."
Such sentiments reflect the newfound confidence of a former Middle Eastern empire that has successfully reinvented itself, one century on, as an ambitious and supposedly benign regional power. But even help from such a quarter may initially be too much for the Arab world's opposition forces and successor regimes at this delicate moment. First and foremost, they themselves must "win" by making their revolutions work – for it is they, more than any outsiders, who will suffer the consequences of failure.