Karl reMarks has written an essay describing the Arab uprising as a missed opportunity for self determination. I agree with him that there is a serious lack of historical context and political understanding when it comes to analysing and understanding the Arab spring, but I think his conclusions are, on the one hand, premature when it comes to judging some aspects of this spring a failure, and on the other, inaccurate when we come to the question of interventionism and the role played by outside countries in these national struggles. It is premature to say that any of these struggles has "failed" any more than it would be to proclaim that one has succeeded. After all, what does a "successful" revolution look like?
This is not a trivial question, but a very serious one. There is today a constant barrage of academics and journalists who talk about revolutions as if they were some kind of a project to be completed with tangible milestones and clear targets. And yet, if we look at the history of revolutions, we find them to be just as messy and chaotic as what we are seeing in the Arab world. Not only that, but almost all of these revolutions unleashed consequences and actors that none could have foreseen before they commenced. Karl argues that the Arab revolutions represented a real opportunity for change, albeit one that has now been missed. He pins this failure on a twin dynamic: The failure of the domestic political opposition to seize this opportunity; and the intervention of outside powers. And yet we are reading his words only three years after the first protests began in Tunisia. If a commentator were to have written similar arguments three years after the Russian, French, or even English, revolutions would that not also have been considered equally premature?
None of these revolutions could have been considered a "success" three years after their eruption, nor were they free of outside intervention. Even during the American revolution, the Founding Fathers did not think it beneath their principles to accept assistance from France in their struggle against King George III. And none of these revolutions lacked failed political leaderships and lost opportunities. So why are we constantly expecting so much from the Arab revolutions? And why is the concept of national sovereignty only invoked when a foreign country is about to intervene but not when it comes to tyrants usurping the state and subverting the laws of the land. Is the Assad regime's bastardization of Syrian law and his emasculation of Parliament no less an infringement on Syrian national sovereignty? And is that not worthy of the outrage of foreign and domestic commentators alike?
Furthermore, and to use the "language of humanitarianism" as Karl described it, is it not just as legitimate to draw parallels between Hitler's hijacking of Germany in the thirties and the Assad regime's hollowing out of the Syrian state today? And can we not see in the regime's systematic brutalization of Syria's Sunni hinterland the same sectarian ferocity of a Milosevic? I disagree strongly with Karl in that the Holocaust and Bosnia are not tired cliches that have been misused but important lessons from the past that tell us what happens when "The State" goes insane. It is only when we move beyond this triviality that we can see national sovereignty for what it is, a privilege and not a right, and it is based upon these valuable lessons that doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect have arisen.
Should we dismiss this doctrine simply because it has been cynically used by some countries for their own interests? Certainly not. The fact that the intervention in Libya or in Sudan was triggered by Western interests and not a genuine humanitarian concern should not detract from the very real crisis faced by the Libyans and Sudanese, and continues to be faced by Syrians today. Karl refers to the Western intervention as somehow denying a national Libyan expression from coming into its own as it fought Gaddafi's brigades, but it is difficult to see how anything could have grown under the withering brutality of that tyrant. In the early days of the Libyan revolution, as would be echoed in the Syrian town of Deraa, the regime used anti-aircraft guns to fire rounds the size of Coca-Cola bottles at unarmed protesters. That a national opposition with principles that Karl can approve of could emerge under such difficult conditions is extremely doubtful. The sad fact is that the modern means at the disposal of "states" makes it all but impossible for the kind of national resistance movement we saw in Algeria and it would be simply impossible for such movements to ever come into existence through their own efforts. If such an endeavor was ever attempted seriously today the consequences on the civilian population would be far greater than what we are seeing in Syria or what we ever saw in Libya.
Viewed in this light, the "competition to gain victim status" as Karl so derisively puts it, is nothing more than the sheer desperation of people who are looking directly into the abyss. In such a situation who could be blamed for wanting any other country to come and assist, and at any cost? And who are we to insist that they die for the principles of self determination? I refer here to the example of a Syrian woman reported to have crossed the borders into the occupied Golan Heights to give birth in an Israeli hospital. Was she in contravention to the principles of self determination that would make a revolution legitimate and successful? Are we to tell her that it would be far better to risk her and her child's life by giving birth in a ditch somewhere whilst under shelling? Have we become so crass? I should hope not, and I will not be the one to rebuke her brave decision or even question her judgment.
To choose inaction against regimes that fire rounds the size of Coca Cola bottles at unarmed protesters and drop barrel bombs on their own citizens is to turn a blind eye to it under the pretext of respecting a non-existent national sovereignty. The reality that has never changed is that we do live in a world where states meddle in the affairs of other countries, and where non-state actors will constantly try to subvert law and exist in conditions of lawlessness. Karl's description of al Qaeda as the Syrian opposition's scapegoat for its own failures is at best disingenuous. We should not dismiss the "vacuum theory" of extremist groups in Syria lightly, in the same way that we cannot blame the existence of al Qaeda in Iraq on the American invasion in 2003, regardless of its legality. Can we really claim that it was only Western intervention which turned Iraq into a "disaster" ignore over thirty years of Saddam's rule that scourged an entire generation of Iraqis and Iranians in a needless ten year war? That states cynically play games with each other is not news, nor is it only something that Western governments do. In Vietnam, Chinese support was essential to the North Vietnamese. The "catastrophic" intervention in Afghanistan, as Karl puts it, was nowhere near as controversial in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 as people might think today. And missing in this revisionist narrative is that the collapse of Afghanistan as a state was directly precipitated by a Soviet invasion. Furthermore, the rise of the Taleban after the Soviet withdrawal came about precisely because Western assistance was pulled back as a result of that withdrawal. So it is puzzling why people insist on portraying only half of the story when it comes to Afghanistan, ironic in that Russia today is playing a similar role in Syria.
The world has moved on from the days of the United Fruit Company and Guatemala, and believe it or not it has also moved on from the Iraq invasion of 2003. There have been numerous foreign interventions in many countries that have been illegal, catastrophic and immoral, but there have also been interventions such as in Kosovo and Bosnia where many people are alive today as a result. And, to be fair, let us not forget the invasion of Cambodia that put an end to the butchery of the Khmer Rouge, a butchery that had no end in sight were it not for outside intervention, even if it was by Viet Nam. It has not been Western foreign meddling which has escalated the war in Syria, but the Assad regime and its allies. Answering unarmed protesters with live ammunition and tanks in the streets represents a pretty significant escalation, in my opinion. And when we consider the paucity of Western aid to the rebels, especially in the early days when one could still speak of a nascent Free Syrian Army espousing a moderately secular vision of Syria, the idea that Western "meddling" has somehow provoked Iran and Hezbullah to escalate their support for the regime, as if such allies needed this pretext, detracts from the very real advances made by the Syrian rebel groups in the early days, advances that came about mostly because of their own ingenuity in stealing, bartering and buying the weapons that they needed to advance and hold ground. In effect it was the kind of self determination that Karl laments today and which was in fact crushed by the one-sided foreign assistance given to Assad. The only foolish meddling the West can be accused of has been in its amateurish diplomacy with Russia and Iran, rather than any kind of material support for the Syrian people.
**Correction: The original post had incorrectly stated that China had invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge. In fact it was Viet Nam that invaded and dislodged the Khmer Rouge, and China invaded Viet Nam in retaliation. Apologies**