The Economist magazine debate on Western interventionism

The Economist magazine debates whether the West should keep out of the Arab world’s revolutions, expert insight from Ranj Alaaldin, Senior analyst, Next Century Foundation

Click here for the debate in full

The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa necessitate a re-examining of the way in which we approach and engage with this debate on interventionism. The revolutions, and protests in general, have been wholly indigenous and executed with the active support of the vast majority of citizens in the states in which they took place and continue to take place. They are, therefore, unprecedented and consequently require us to reassess our position in these unique circumstances, just as much as the Arab people have dramatically changed and re-examined their position in the balance of power between state and citizen.

Both participants provide traditional perspectives that have shaped the debate on Western involvement in the affairs of the Arab world. They are representative of a much broader audience currently engaged in the debate unfolding here. Sir Menzies Campbell is right to point out that we share the same principles and objectives as the people of the region and that this, combined with our experiences in the nation-building process, should compel us to assist our counterparts in the Arab world. Nevertheless, as As’ad AbuKhalil points out, our track record in this endeavour has not been consistent and the people we seek to assist have generally regarded our intentions with suspicion.

I propose here a different perspective that bridges the two. The West can and must intervene in the Arab revolutions not necessarily with the aim of implementing and forcing through revolution, reform or regime change, but, rather, to ensure that their proponents and architects, the Arab people themselves, are protected from being maimed and massacred by governments that have the capacity and willingness to indiscriminately and brutally suppress legitimate demands for freedom and human rights.

The democratisation protests in the Arab world can be divided into three groups: first, those that can lead, and have led, to revolution through relatively peaceful means; second, those that are unlikely to lead to revolution without some form of violence or violent uprising; third, those that are more likely to lead to reform, rather than revolution.

These scenarios do, of course, have the potential to morph into one or the other. The West must, consequently, measure its response according to how things stand and develop on the ground. To adopt a single position and approach would be counter-intuitive, reckless and morally reprehensible.

Western intervention in any instance can be peaceful and/or forceful; and both can have the same capacity to positively influence and assist.

In Egypt, for example, Western inaction ensured the revolution remained indigenous and, therefore, impossible to undermine by the Egyptian regime and other anti-revolutionary state and non-state actors, both within and beyond Egypt. At the same time, and in line with the objective outlined above, it was Western action behind the scenes, diplomatically and in the form of leverage over the Egyptian military, that ensured the revolution was achieved peacefully. Contrary to expectations, including my own, former president Hosni Mubarak, even with his back to the wall, was unable to reverse his misfortune by viciously clamping down on the protests. The West’s role is often understated in this context; it was not the most crucial element but it was, nevertheless, crucial in saving lives and facilitating the revolutionary process.

Unlike the Egyptians, the Libyans have not been so lucky. Muammar Qaddafi will not crumble under international pressure. Unlike Mr Mubarak, Mr Qaddafi is not willing to maintain ties with the West at the expense of his own survival; there is no red line for the dictator and everything and everyone were and remain dispensable. Hence, what started off as a movement on the ground that later turned into a violent uprising that looked set to defeat Mr Qaddafi, without outside assistance, became an enterprise that, but for Western involvement, would have led to the massacre of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Libyans.

Western military intervention, had, therefore, become a necessity in Libya and returned the momentum to opposition forces. Yet it was a necessity dictated by the Arab people themselves with indifference to the involvement of the UN and the ineffective Arab League. For once, the moral imperative to act has been determined not by Western policymakers, Western adventurists or non-representative Arab leaders, but by the Arab people.

It is on this basis that the Libyan crisis and the Arab people have set a precedent and a firm basis on which military intervention is necessary, right and should be welcomed. That precedent provides as follows: that military intervention should take place first, where there is a possibility that thousands are at risk of being killed; second, where the target regime has no intention of ceasing violence and heeding the demands of the people; and third, where the people of the target country itself demand it, though this may not always be easy to ascertain.

These conditions are not so much centred on whether we should militarily intervene but, rather, when to militarily intervene. What form this military intervention should take—for example, whether we should enforce a no-fly zone or commit ground troops—depends on the circumstances of the day and the capabilities of the opposition forces themselves. This may at times prove challenging, particularly when considered within politically restrictive parameters, but the revolutions and protests so far have made this a relatively straightforward task.

Nor are these conditions for intervention unique, given previous calls throughout history for Western military intervention by the oppressed. But what makes circumstances different this time round is that the call for intervention by the people of the region is combined with a broad-based, concerted and active effort, by the same people, to unite and act against dictatorship. It is against this backdrop that our approach to military intervention and, as I have outlined above, intervention in general, must be re-examined.

The people of the Arab world have, so far, largely determined whether we should intervene in the revolutions and what form this intervention should take, as they take hold of their destiny. We should stick by them.

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