In late hours of 17 March 2011, the United Nations made history, not only etching into international law the “responsibility to protect” principle, but putting Arab and western armed forces into notionally joint action for the first time in two decades. How long this unity of purpose lasts and how the Libya intervention plays out domestically for each of the countries remains to be seen.
First, the war is suggestive of a new Western perception of how Arab opinion – whether popular or governmental – matters. Arab governments' support was the sine qua non of American backing for the resolution that acknowledged "the importance of the League of Arab States in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region."
Thus far, Arab support has involved nothing more than a handful of Qatari fighter planes. Qatar is a tiny Arab state – 1.4 million people of which 20 percent are Qatari. Its absolute monarchy furnishes the intervention with much less legitimacy than a proud democracy-in-waiting as Egypt would have done had it not abstained. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, issued the hardest blow to that legitimacy when he claimed that “what we want is the protection of civilians and not the shelling more civilians.” This was, at the very least, disingenuous: Moussa had attended the Paris meeting at which military action was discussed, and made the opportunistic comments with an eye at the Egyptian presidency.
This highlights the second point: how multilateral ambitions can flounder on domestic political imperatives of other states.
Where domestic imperatives do not clash with intervention, support has been forthcoming. Qatar hosts the US Central Command (CENTCOM), a mainstay of recent US wars, and correspondingly adheres to a largely pro-American stance. Its public, who enjoy roughly the highest per capita income in the world, are not unduly vexed at this.
But where domestic pressures are less straightforward, Arab regimes will happily jettison the responsibility to protect and fight hard against what they decry as foreign aggression – just as Syria's government fought against the Arab League's support of UN action for fear of a precedent.
Bloody protests in the Syrian city of Daraa, and the international opprobrium Syria’s crackdown has earned, suggests the fear is not unwarranted. As in Libya, violence against the demonstrators will certainly breed defiance, not quiescence.
Third, Arab hostility to outside intervention, as much as it can gauged from the media, is not indicative of Arabs' indelible anti-Americanism, but instead relates to the perceived legitimacy of such intervention. Even where regimes are hesitant to throw their weight behind the campaign, public opinion is largely supportive, to the extent that such judgments can be made about closed societies.
However, the acceptance of foreign intervention is not unconditional. As a frustrated coalition is tempted to expand its target list to include Gaddafi's forces in built-up areas like Misurata, Arab opinion will move in unpredictable and volatile ways. It’s irresponsible to invoke Arab support for intervention without noting the spectrum of action that encompasses and the deeply-felt antipathy to anything approaching the “foreign occupation force” specifically proscribed by UN Resolution 1973.
In recent days, the Sunni-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council marched thousands of troops into Bahrain to support the latter government's brutal quelling of largely Shia protesters. The Saudi monarchy was already deeply angered by President Barack Obama abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a perception of reckless US scorn for regional allies that disregarded resurgent Iranian influence and Islamic extremism. Riyadh correspondingly withheld support for intervention against Libya and the UAE, which had indicated it would send military hardware, withdrew its offer.
The absence of two strong US allies, both of whom backed the UN resolution, suggests that regional uprisings will – far from proceeding in simple sequential or self-reinforcing fashion – interact in complex and frustrating ways.
The notion of self-reinforcing revolutions raises the question of whether unrest in one country operates, via a demonstration effect, to foment uprisings in another. Contagion is undoubtedly present. Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya are all Arab countries but their societies, economies, political systems and public spheres differ radically. Nonetheless, Tunisia's initial convulsion and Egypt's powerful aftershock have galvanized embryonic protests in ways that cut across the regional variations.
Intervention in Libya does not feed into this process in a straightforward way.
On the one hand, intervention sends a signal. When Benghazi's rebels teetered on the edge of collapse, it looked as though Gaddafi’s counter-revolution had stopped the Arab spring in its tracks. Now, leaders of Syria, Yemen and Iran are forced to re-evaluate the relative merits of reforms and crackdowns. They will not suddenly capitulate, of course, but may hesitate before ordering security forces to unleash large-scale violence on protesters.
But perhaps the most troubling unintended consequences of intervention run in the opposite direction.
Finally, the ambivalence of Arab partners and the complications arising in the Libya operation may end up offering insulation to some regional autocrats.
If Saudi Arabia was pressured further over its policy in Bahrain, it could use its diplomatic influence over smaller regional powers, like the UAE or Qatar, to further fracture the UN coalition and eliminate the residual Arab role in military operations. This, in turn, would undercut the support of key European states like Italy and Spain, putting intolerable pressure on the US to isolate France and Britain. This is a greater concern now that NATO, a body that acts by consensus, is the vehicle of intervention. Saudi Arabia has been granted breathing space.
The onrush of events and the media’s inability to focus on more than one dramatic action at a time have shielded other Middle East countries from international scrutiny. The distractions benefit the Egyptian junta, presently overseeing a rushed and deeply flawed transition to civilian rule. Egypt's military will be relieved that global attention has shifted from Tahrir Square, the harsh treatment of protesters in the weeks since Mubarak's departure and efforts to preserve economic and political privileges. Bahrain is likewise absolved.
Media organizations have limited resources, and Western audiences – sometimes pivotal actors in the drive for intervention – have limited attention. A new war in the Middle East now dominates the narrative, marginalizing the no-less-significant uprisings that continue to be met with grave human rights abuses. Whether or not Libya is liberated, the effort to intervene is not without consequence for the neighbouring proto-revolutions.
Those who feted UN Resolution 1973 were justified in invoking its far-reaching implications. The reaction of the Arab world has been remarkable, for it was inconceivable that Arab publics might, in the shadow of Iraq, actually celebrate another transatlantic intrusion into this part of the world. But Arab reactions cannot be captured in polls or anecdotal snapshots. The responses of governments and populations hinge on domestic conditions and are vulnerable to small changes in how the war is prosecuted.
In an increasingly multipolar world, the allure of multilateralism will only increase. The customary great powers are therefore obliged to pay greater heed to the targets of their interventions. They ought to tread carefully, sensitive to local nuances and wary of attributing ideological coherence to a region in ongoing flux.
Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University's Department of Government, and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. His research interests include Indian foreign policy, security studies and civil-military relations. Rights: Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization YaleGlobal Online