A Chess Game To The Death

I am back to writing for the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel, which since my hiatus has found an additional home at Voice of Russia. The latest topic was on whether Russia, China, and the West could find a common approach to the challenges of the Arab Spring. My response is pessimistic, as in my view Western actions are driven by a combination of ideological “democracy fetishism” and the imperative of improving their own geopolitical positions vis-à-vis Iran, Russia, and China. This makes it difficult to find any middle ground:

It is true that many Muslims in the Middle East want their aging strongman rulers out, and democracy in. Even Osama bin Laden, who purportedly “hates us for our freedom”, once mused that the reason Spain has a bigger economy than the entire Arab world combined was because “the ruler there is accountable.”

And this is also part of the reason why we should refrain from fetishizing “democracy” as the solution to all the region’s ills.

That is because liberal democracy as we know it in the West, with its separation of powers – in particular, that of the Church and state – isn’t at the top of most locals’ priority lists. It only really concerns the liberal youth who initially headed the revolt, while the other 95% of the population is concerned with more trivial things, like unemployment and food prices. As per the historical pattern with the French and Russian revolutions, the Arab Spring happened during a period of record high grain prices. And now as then, a revolution won’t magically create jobs or fill bellies.

In today’s Egypt, it is not foreign-residing technocrats like El Baradei, with his 2% approval ratings, who become President; nor is the cultural discourse set by young Cairo women who strip nude against patriarchy. Remove a secular, modernizing dictator from a country where 75% of the populations supports stoning for adultery, and sooner rather than later you get restrictive dress codes for women (de facto if not de jure), attacks against Christian minorities, and bearded Islamists worming their way into power.

As for Syria, the biggest practical difference is that the liberal minority in the opposition was sidelined even before the fall of the dictator, as it is the Islamists who are now taking the lead in the fighting against Assad.

Will the new regimes that emerge out of the Arab Spring be anywhere near as accommodating with the West as were the likes of Mubarak, or even Assad – who, as Putin reminded us, visited Paris more times that he did Moscow? Will religious fundamentalists be able, or even willing, to build up the (educational) human capital that is the most important component of sustained economic growth?wahh Will they even be able to regain control of their borders, or will they end up like Libya, an anarchic zone disgorging Wahhabi mujahedeen into neighboring countries that don’t really want them?

Western policy-makers do not seem all that eager to consider these questions. Maybe they think they can manipulate the Arab Spring to serve their own interests – after all, Assad’s Syria is an ally of Iran, supplies Hezbollah, and has security relations with Russia and China. They may be calculating that the geopolitical boon from removing the Alawites from power outweighs the costs of Islamists taking over in Damascus. Certainly there are grounds to doubt that genuine concern for democracy explains French, British, and American actions: After all, the two dictatorships friendliest to the West, Bahrain and Yemen, were actively supported in their crackdowns.

If the above interpretation is anywhere near true, there can be little hope for Russia and China finding common ground with the West. It would imply that the Middle East is a chessboard for Great Power games – and chess isn’t a game that you typically play to draw. The one thing everyone should bear in mind, though, is that no matter a man’s ideological leaning, he resents being a pawn. This is a life truism that was demonstrated in the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, that is being played out today in Mali, and that will continue to reverberate so long as the crusaders – for they are widely seen as such – remain in Dar Al-Islam.

US-Russia.org, New Site For Russia Watchers

It’s been a few months in the building, since the decision to launch it at the WRF 2012, and I feel it is now developed enough to make it more widely known. I hope it will become as prominent as the current best specialized English-language Russian politics resource on the Internet, Russia: Other Points of View.

US-RUSSIA.org will also have regular discussion panels featuring short commentaries on topical issues of the day by members of its think-tank, moderated by Vlad Sobell. The very first one will be out soon and will focus on the assaults on the US’ Middle East embassies and what it implies for US relations with Russia.

It is the brainchild of Edward Lozansky, Soviet dissident turned promoter of US-Russian cooperation. (He also has an excellent restaurant in Washington DC which I highly recommend you visit anytime you’re there; it’s on the pricey side, but service, atmosphere, and – unusual for traditional/”Soviet” Russian eateries – the food itself are all top notch).

Assange @RT: Russia Provides A Platform To Western Dissidents

As I noted before, the symmetry is amusing to say the least. Anti-regime characters such as Nemtsov and Navalny, who are marginal in Russia (both in popularity and media presence – as is logical, nothing undemocratic about that), are treated as Genuine Voices of the Russian People by the Western media. In its turn, Russia has wised up and returns the favor by providing a platform to Western dissidents such as Julian Assange, who by any halfway objective standards meets the definition of a political prisoner.

As of today, he has begun a 12 part series of interviews hosted by RT (the first one, an interview with Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, is linked to above; Kevin Gosztola provides an excellent summary). Whatever one’s personal attitudes towards Wikileaks, Hezbollah, Israel, the US, etc. it is beyond dispute that this is of public interest and as such, valid journalism. No wonder then that Independent Western Journalists (who as Greenwald repeatedly shows are nothing of the sort, being consistently deferential to state power in the West) and assorted blowhards like the plagiarist hack Luke Harding, Konstantin von Eggert, and the SWP Hive are all doing double time to condemn Assange, and RT for daring to give him a voice.

That is of course their prerogative, but it does cast a very unflattering light on their self-appointed status as champions of universalist dissidence and free speech. Obviously RT isn’t quite that either, but then again, it doesn’t claim to be. In other words, it has enough decency to avoid Western-style moralistic hypocrisy.