One Swallow Does Not An [Arab] Spring Make

Forgive me for injecting a note of realism, but as much as Western leaders seem in thrall to the prospect of democracy sweeping the Arab world, I am filled with dread at what the future holds. There is much heady talk of the benefits of the Arab Spring, from drastically reduced numbers of refugees fleeing repressive regimes, to a welcome boost to global trade as free enterprise takes off across the region, as well as genuine pleasure on behalf of the soon-to-be-liberated masses and the happiness in store for them. If only.

History tells us it will be different. In too many cases, sweeping away a despotic regime has resulted in a long period of turmoil at least, and bitter civil war at worst. The stages are clearly defined: a population lives under the thumb of a ruthless regime; the regime is removed, peacefully or otherwise, with or without external help; then after a brief honeymoon period they descend into factional fighting over the future of their newly liberated country. It is sometimes a long and painful period before peace arrives.

The scars have barely started to heal in the Balkans after Marshal Tito died and Yugoslavia fell apart, giving us the most graphic example of this process from recent times. Within a decade of his demise, we saw vicious intercommunal wars and the spectre of ethnic cleansing, leading to the fracturing of the country into smaller independent states. So bad were the atrocities, there and in Rwanda, that the international community was moved to establish a criminal court to pursue justice for those who suffered. (Update: Ratko Mladic, accused of orchestrating the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre, has just been arrested. Daily Telegraph, May 26, 2011)

We saw the same pattern in Iraq. Bush and Blair led us into war to remove Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people. Once liberated, Iraq descended into bitter sectarian conflict stoked by al-Qaeda and Iran. Only now is a truly democratic government beginning to take shape, after countless billions of US dollars expended, thousands of US and allied lives lost, and untold thousands of civilian deaths. Bush was blamed for not having a post-Saddam strategy, we must not make the same mistake again.

But it looks like we are making the same mistake again.

The Egyptian people threw President Mubarek out of office in an amazingly peaceful revolution, however, the cracks are already showing and sectarian violence is rearing its head. What can the West do to prevent an all-out civil war? We already have a particularly bloody civil war taking place in Libya where Colonel Gaddafi is clinging to power by turning his heavily-armed army against what at first was an unarmed civilian population. Charges of war crimes have been filed against him at the International Criminal Court, as they have also against President Assad of Syria who has turned his security forces against his own population. Similar upheavals are taking place elsewhere, in Yemen, and in Iran where the Green Revolution was ruthlessly crushed. Some of the Gulf states too are simmering with discontent.

When you look across the region as a whole, calling it an “Arab Spring” is perhaps naive.

Instead of patronising words, the West needs a strategy for helping the Arab world transition from dictatorship to democracy and fending off those forces that would destabilise it. In other words, we need a Marshall Plan for the Arab world. We need clear goals, and a clear process for achieving those goals.

What we don’t need is to clumsily stitch this together with the Israeli/Palestinian problem and I believe that President Obama is seriously mistaken in trying to do that. The problem, the imperative and the solution are entirely different. Leaving aside Gaza which has its own added complications, both sides already have functioning democracies; both sides are – off and on – engaging in peaceful discussion; neither side is ruled by a dictatorship. The occasional outbreaks of violence are triggered more by outside agents and causes than from within the two sides. Any updated Marshall Plan for the Arab world which aims to facilitate peaceful change, promote democracy and encourage free enterprise is not going to be relevant to Israel and the Palestinians, and including them will simply complicate the matter and alienate the rest of the Middle East.

A Comfortable War in the Middle East

The problem with where we are in the Middle East peace process is that both sides are still operating within their comfort zones. The situation can be contained. A peace flotilla here, a rocket attack there, and activists on both sides have something to shout about. It keeps them happy; they feel they have something to do. Add in a bit of global condemnation and give the bloggosphere something to rage about too. Then, six months later, mix the ingredients and repeat the process.

Abbas and Netanyahu can carry on with this game indefinitely, and it’s easy to understand why. The reward for bringing about a lasting peace is not worth the pain of bringing their own extreme elements face to face with reality. It’s just too difficult. Netanyahu is dependent on his settlement-building religious right, while for Abbas, Hamas are about as hostile towards him as they are towards the Israelis, so he’s going to get precisely nowhere with them. In fact, Hamas are in their own comfort zone too. They have a low-key war to manage, with ample money and weapons coming in from their friends in nasty places. “Managing” the situation is easier than fixing it.

All that leaves Obama high and dry. He can say all he wants to say to the Israelis about the settlements, which is the issue of the moment, but to them it is all just so much noise, and compared with Hamas’ rockets, it’s not much noise at all. Obama needs to move all parties out of their respective comfort zones because none of them have a vested interest in ending the stalemate. If Obama fails to stir them to action, then sooner or later the Iranians will. That’s the real danger. It’s like that urban myth of the frog in a pot of cold water, remaining there while a fire underneath raises the temperature to boiling point. It doesn’t realise the danger until it’s too late. Doing nothing in this situation is not an option.

However, doing nothing is precisely what they’re doing, and settlement building is being used as an excuse by both sides with well-briefed media teams spinning the story and keeping their own supporters on-side. Netanyahu and Abbas are not partners in peace, they are partners in a charade. If they really want peace, they have to negotiate, they have to get out of their respective comfort zones.  They cannot hold each other responsible for extremists they cannot control.