For an international relations junkie, particularly one with a minor in Middle Eastern history, the events of the past few months have been interesting, to say the least. What I find most interesting however is a series of unintentional associations that my subconscious makes between what I see today and what I saw yesterday – and all of it in the framework of the American diplomatic practice.
A few nights ago, I stumbled on Cyrus Kadivar’s piece about the 37 days that preceded end of the Pahlavi Era in February 1979 . At the end of a parade of pictures, I saw a document that purported to be the declaration of the Iranian armed forces that it would be neutral in the political battle that raged at the time. In one part of the narrative, I think I read something about how the Imperial Guard folded, and in another corner of the story there was reference to a general refusing to bomb the arsenal, which eventually fell to the revolutionaries. Then I thought of the Huyser Mission which, as I recall, was sent by the United States to ensure that the Iranian military stay in one piece and, if rumors were true, to stand down and not engage the revolutionaries. Regardless, one comes away from this retrospective feeling that the military handed the country over to the Islamists and their Leftist cohorts.
When in January, 2011, the demonstrations in Cairo began to foretell the possibility of a regime change in Egypt, the Egyptian army made a brief appearance and then retreated. The United States made the point that there should be immediate reforms and no violence. There was no talk of Mubarak having to leave, but rather there was a not-so-secret wish that he would stand down perhaps by September when free and fair elections would take place. The Egyptian army took a pledge not to fire on the protestors and maneuvered Mubarak out of office and took control of the political apparatus of the country – much like Napoleon’s undoing of the triumvirate upon his return from Egypt!
Whether the Egyptian army’s conduct was on it own or at the urging of the United States is fodder for speculation.
One thing is clear – between the preservation and integrity of the military and the future of the head of state, the US chose the cohesion of the military – in Iran in 1979, and in Egypt in 2011. But why? Because of the relationship and dependence that the Iranian military had with the United States and which the Egyptian military had with the United States, the United States viewed the Iranian military and Egyptian military as an potential ally in the ensuing political order. Betting that the military would influence if not prevail in the new order, the United States too would be assured a strong footing.
This may be still the wishful thinking when it comes to Egypt. In Iran, however, the capitulation of the military showed the ayatollahs the unreliability of the military to defend the regime that it served and, consequently, the leaders of the Islamic republic were wise and quick to set up their own militia and armed forces on which they could rely for preservation. The Revolutionary Guard and the Basij are not conscripts, like the army — they are in the mold of Janissaries of the Ottomans, Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire, and the Mamluks of Egypt.
The Iranian experience taught the US one ting, if the US cajoles the ruling regime and its military for too long, the revolution tends to radicalize the streets in anti-American fervor. It was therefore just as well that President Obama began quickly to whisper sweet-nothings to the regime in Cairo and the protestors.
What this bodes for the US reaction to other uprisings in the Middle East is an interesting one. In the case of Bahrain, where the schism is sectarian as well as socio-economic, the US administration has called for nonviolence on the part of the regime. But if the regime decides to bring out the guns and decimate the protestors, the US will not call for the ouster of the ruling regime. One more Shi’ite-majority country in the Persian Gulf region is not what the US long term strategic planners can possible stomach. There will be a revision of the terms of the Fifth Fleet’s presence in Bahrain. There will be the influence of Bahraini Shi’ites on the Shi’ites of Qatif and Hasa and other oil centers along the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia. And whn you say Shi’ite, you mean Iranian influence, no?
In Libya the beans are of a different kind. Libya is important because it has oil and much investment in European countries. As a polity is still rather Bedouin; it is a tent-republic in all of its manifestations down to the surrounding where Colonel Gaddafi holds court. He is not a very likable fellow and perhaps it was this antipathy among the Amercians that prompted President Obama to utter the words that no head of state should ever utter regarding another one: “He must go,” said the president. Just as Geroge W. Bush said of Saddam Hussein. Where to though? As the tide is beginning to shift in the Libyan internecine conflict, Gaddafi may well prevail.
What scares the US administration the most is if Gaddafi prevails and quells the armed insurrection. Not because Gaddafi’s evil regime will continue to rule Libya. The fear is that if Gaddafi prevails then the rulers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia get to think that they too can survive the protests as long as they use brutal force. That scenario will complicate the US’s moral stand – how can the US not call for their departures too? And it would not – because a friendly tyrant back in the saddle is always preferable to the democratic alternative that may not be so friendly. This realization has now pushed the Obama Administration to soften its rhetoric on Libya and Gaddafi, prevaricate over the no-fly zone.
What is happening with respect to Libya is what the world experienced during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It began after a military rebellion against the de jure government. As the result of partial success of the rebellion, Spain split along territorial and political divides, with each side claiming to be ruling the whole country. The rebels continued with their war of attrition, with massive purges in every piece of territory conquered from the de jure government forces. The rebels won the war and the rest is history – General Francisco Franco established his dictatorship over the whole of Spain.
As the Spanish Civil War rages many actor in the international community took sides of with one or another. The rebels supported by Nazi Germany, Italy, and Portugal. The Soviet Union sided with the de jure government that was socialist. The US did not take sides formally, but a couple of thousand Americans fought on the side of the de jure government, while Texaco, General Motors, Ford Motors, and The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company helped the rebels with trucks, tires, machine tools, and fuel.
Who are the Libyan rebels that the international community wants so desperately to recognize as de facto or de jure governors of Libya or parts of Libya? Will the rebels end up offering the international community another Franco? And what about customary international law that forbids interference in the domestic affairs of another country? What about the United Nations Charter that forbids the UN from interfering in the domestic affair of a member state? Ultimately, one hopes that confronting Gaddafi by any member of the international community be done only with the lawful authorization of the United Nations.
The ability of Gaddafi to battle the rebellion is due to the nature of the Libyan regime that is a military dictatorship, with decentralized nodes of military power among tribes, different personalities (his sons) and so forth. That the Egyptian military could sidestep the revolution and come up on top as a caretaker government is because the Egypt of Mubarak too was a military dictatorship.
And Iran under President Ahmadinejad is lockstep marching in that direction, if not already there – with the revolutionary corps and Basij present in industry, economy, security and defense. The day the Iranian protesters find the Supreme Leader’s position no longer relevant to the future of the country, or if the position cannot be filled – guess what? The turban will be out and the cap will be in.