In his recent inauguration speech, Barack Obama pledged to "support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East." Since he did not mention Russia or Europe, can we safely assume that America has decided to stop promoting democracy on Russia’s European territory and limit the process to Siberia?
Speaking about values, it was the former (and most likely future) Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, who openly stated that the removal of the Libyan dictator Qaddafi had to do less with democracy than with French President Nikolas Sarkozy’s belief that under Qaddafi Italy controlled more Libyan oil and gas than did France.
Of course, Berlusconi is known for his eccentric statements, but I feel there is an element of truth in his words.
In any event, the results of the Arab Spring are certainly no cause for euphoria. Despair over the resulting chaos in the region is a much more fitting response.
While the US Congress is still debating who to blame for the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and four other diplomats in Benghazi, European governments have urged their citizens to leave the Libyan city in response to what is described by Britain as "a specific and imminent threat to Westerners” in the wake of the recent deadly hostage siege at a gas facility in Algeria. Washington followed this up with its own statement that “the potential for violence and kidnappings targeting Westerners in Benghazi is significant."
The popular revolt that began in Cairo's Tahrir Square two years ago was portrayed in the West as the most inspiring event of the Arab Spring. What has followed has proved to be something entirely different: chaos with indiscriminate rampage and killings. Just tune in to what is going on in Cairo and in Port Said right now.
Some of the things happening in Egypt would be funny if they were not so depressing. When the US gave Egypt more than $60 million for (guess what?) “democracy promotion” (of course!), the local response was to prosecute both the American donors and Egyptian recipients of those funds, forcing Washington to pay a ransom to the Egyptian government to free the American hostages.
It is also fitting to recall that the most trusted and important Western allies in the Arab Spring revolt are Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the two “greatest regional democracies”, as everyone knows. Meanwhile, in Syria, the most active of the so-called “rebel fighters” supported by the West are those trained and armed by Al Qaeda. One of these groups, the Nusra Front, numbers among the most effective anti-Assad organizations. According to many observers, this group most likely will hijack the revolution and emerge as the dominant force in Syria after President Assad is ousted.
One wonders, what conclusions are to be drawn from all this? Should America, as President Obama pledged, continue to support “democracy” and human rights in the region with even greater vim and vigor? Or should it take a deep breath and think about the likely consequences?
The overriding question here is this: did the overthrow of Middle Eastern dictators – Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, and Mubarak – with Western moral, financial and often military support benefit the people in these countries or, on a larger scale, world security? Will the most likely overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the region?
Unfortunately, at this point, the answer is negative, despite the huge human and material losses incurred both by America and its allies and by the Arab countries themselves.
It may sound uncomfortable to many, but unfortunately the following conclusion is inescapable: democracy has no universal meaning; its role may vary from region to region depending on history, culture, religion and even climate, as well as many other factors that may be unique to a particular nation and culture.
All this makes sense, of course, if we are indeed talking about democracy and not about geopolitical gains or, as Silvio Berlusconi claims, about more mundane matters like oil and gas.
President American University in Moscow
Professor of World Politics, Moscow State University