Saturday, March 26, 2011

The West is Bad. Now Can We Move On?

What’s extraordinary about the constant back and forth on double standards in this region is that it is taking place at all.

Regrettably, moral high grounds are too often claimed by many and almost always owned by none. To be lectured by Nicola Sarkozy or Barack Obama about the supremacy of Arab humanity’s quest for freedom and dignity is no more asinine than listening to Ali Khameni or Hassan Nassrallah pounding the lecterns in its name. Tyrannies are constantly giving each other passes and alibis in the Gazan, Syrian, Iranian and Sudanese barracks as they do in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and every other wretched system in the Western camp.

Certainly it is tyranny that makes one of clashing regimes and betrays with such vehemence their shared love of hypocrisy. Here, on the reactionary side, is Saudi Arabia supporting the no-fly zone in Libya while issuing Wahhabist fatwas against popular discontent in the kingdom itself; and there, on the revolutionary side, is the Iranian clerical order celebrating rebellion everywhere around it but warning its own citizens that protesting price increases would be nothing short of treason.

The diehards on both sides, obviously, have their bones to pick in this fight; for the rest of us, the argument is very distracting and all the more annoying because of it. This is not to say that the damned moot point doesn’t belong anywhere in our spats. It does, right at the very beginning of the conversation, so that we can quickly get it out of the way, or at the tail end of it, so that we don’t have to sit through yet another harangue about how everyone wants a piece of us and the beauty of just saying no.

There are, it goes without saying, very grey areas of serious consequence in, say, today’s squabble over Libya, including the selectivity of blunt Western action there. Our fingers have been pointing at countless cynical motivations, from that fat, old fart, greed, to the more interesting one of fear: fear by a West that understood almost immediately after Gaddafi bared his teeth that it would not be easy to recycle him this time around, and so all too quickly declared against him. However, when the maniacal dictator appeared to regain momentum, the West had to move lest he soon enough direct his wrath against them.

Fine! Each reason has its ardent followers and an army of experts to egg them on. Along with rigorous political analysis that is paying due respect to uniqueness of location, the presence of human agency and its fallibilities and possibly employable tensions between the interests and tactics of longtime friends, we have, Oh, woe is me, it must be the oil, a one-liner that always wants to play the ode.

The basic truth is that the West is not (and has never ever been) here to do us Arabs any favors. And while, as a matter of principle and law, we have the perfect right to insist (always) on non-interference in our affairs, we also have the basic wits—and certainly the experience--to know that this right roams our earth an orphan.

We also have enough sense in us to admit that temporary marriages of convenience between the worst of friends happen all the time here. We surely have enough intelligence to appreciate that mining openings and opportunities goes both ways, and being the victim is not the only role at our disposal. Mistaking deep convictions for sound reasoning has no place in serious debates about paths forward.  Not unless we want to kick ourselves out of this round of history as well.

However cynical its long term intentions in Libya may be, this much is stark clear about the West’s current military operations in it: they did help avert a bloodbath and they did stop Gaddafi in his tracks. Because of it, Libya is still in play and change in the Middle East can still savor yet another victory. 

Some of us on the outside can afford to quibble with these facts, but the Libyans themselves, including Gaddafi, are dead sure about them.

There is much that Western intervention will not solve and much it no doubt will complicate, none more important than the shape of a Libya(s) free of Africa’s king of kings, but there is quite a bit in it for rebelling Libyans to exploit, most crucially the breather it is giving them to regroup and tip the balance in their favor.  

It’s not neat, it’s not pretty, but it’ll have to do for now.
We are a well-endowed, strategically located region forever exposed.    

No matter!

For the West, the most screaming of the past two months’ realizations is that the Arab people do have a say. Had not enough Tunisians and Egyptians made their stubborn stand, Sarkozy’s henchmen would still be tipsy at sea with Tunisia’s Trabelsis and the White House would still be all tangled up explaining why Husni, for all his blemishes, is not Ben Ali.

Here’s another realization for us Arabs to keep close by as we plow ahead: the West’s eternal love of stability can be just as much a push for change as against it. Even conspirators listen when they’re made to.

Frankly, the uprisings are haggling in high stakes, chaotic, unpredictable, dead serious times. A few years from now, we could well be looking at completely new geographies and living in totally different political climates, some imaginably sunny, others possibly still grim and damp. Crying foul is good and right, but to those who are always itching to vent, think overture and not an entire symphony, so that we can get on with the very messy business of wringing out of these changes a more promising life.

Already in Egypt, counterrevolution is in overdrive. Already malicious intent is conspiring with business as usual to pick on women, belittling the revolution and making a mockery of its nascent achievements. Mubarak is gone, but deep in the well of the system are cliques of bureaucrats, thugs and army men working hard to paint on the same old ugly legacy a fresh face.

And since we’re on the subject of foreign busybodies and rabble-rousers, watch how this neighborhood’s old hands, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, rev up their energies and deploy their resources as trouble ups its tempo in the Levant. There is plenty for them to spoil in this upheaval, at times hand-in-hand, at others at loggerheads. Looking for interesting scenarios? Watch how they all—each for their own reasons—come together for the Assads in Syria and battle it out in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.  

This is the test that is before us, and it is about to get much harder. But, as a good woman from the human rights community put it to me the other day, “Democracy is as strong as the people force it to be.” Similarly, the West is as amenable as we force it to be.

Yes, the West may be bad. Get over it! We need to move on.