Prem Shankar Shankar – The Hindu March 1, 2012
In June 1914, Serbian ultra-nationalists calling themselves the Black Hand managed to kill Archduke Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in Sarajevo and ignited the First World War. None of the Great Powers wanted that war. None expected it to last more than four weeks. It lasted four years and took 19.5 million lives. Today, three apparently coordinated attacks on Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India and Thailand, for which Tel Aviv is strenuously blaming Iran, could become the spark for a similar conflagration in the Middle East.
The comparison is not as fanciful as it sounds, for the configuration of forces in the international state system is beginning to resemble what existed in the decade before the First World War. The most striking similarities are the decline in the economic power of the hegemonic nation — Britain then, the United States today; challenges from new aspirants to hegemony, Germany then (with the U.S. lurking in the wings), China and Salafi Islam today; attempts to shore up hegemony through alliances with like-minded nations — Britain, France and Russia then — the U.S., the European Union and Israel today; the emergence of a bunker mentality that hardens stances and progressively closes the avenues for peace through accommodation; and a growing temptation to use military power to pre-empt potential challenges even before they arise.
In 1914 it was Austria, a minor player in the great power game, that lit the fuse that blew up Europe. It could have chosen to accept Serbia’s frantic efforts to make amends after the assassination. But it chose to invade Serbia in order to teach its own fractious nationalities a lesson. Serbia was allied to Russia, Russia to France and France to Britain. Austria, on the other hand, was allied to the principal challenger for hegemony in Europe, Germany. None of the great powers wanted war, but none felt sufficiently secure or had the confidence to back off from its commitments. The result was a war that wiped out the flower of a generation in Europe.
Today, it is once more the smallest and least secure member of the western alliance, Israel, that is threatening to light the fuse in the Middle East. Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make peace with the Palestinians on terms that they can accept, it now perceives the mere existence of states in its neighbourhood that are not reconciled to its existence as a threat to its existence. Iran heads the list.
Israel has given a virtual ultimatum to its partners that if they cannot stop Iran from setting up uranium enrichment plants, it will take unilateral military action to stop it from doing so. Instead of dissuading Tel Aviv in unequivocal terms, Barack Obama has dithered between privately reining it in, and publicly supporting it by sending two aircraft carrier groups into the Arabian Sea and threatening to use “other means” if Iran does not stop its nuclear enrichment programme.
Israel’s brinkmanship has come at a dangerous moment because, for reasons both domestic and international, Europe, the U.S., Russia, China (the new kid on the block), and Iran, are suffering from a crisis of confidence that makes them wary of appearing weak in the eyes of the international community and their own people. Tired of unending economic woes at home and fighting a losing battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. and the EU have seized upon the so-called Arab Spring in a desperate bid to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. To do so, they are posing as champions of democracy and human rights, who have come to the aid of the long suppressed Arab “people” in their fight for democracy against corrupt, brutal and autocratic rulers. In their eagerness to don the mantle of saviours they have not merely abandoned the secular, albeit autocratic, regimes that had kept the peace in the Middle East for four decades, but trampled upon the last remnants of the doctrine of national sovereignty upon which the international order, indeed international law itself, has been based for the last 350 years.
Thus in January last year, Mr. Obama virtually forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign; in February, the U.S. and the EU joined hands to destroy the Qadhafi regime in Libya; less than two months later, they embarked upon a campaign to oust the Baath regime of Basher-al-Assad in Syria.
Unfortunately, the Arab Spring hasn’t turned out quite the way the West had hoped, for in every country, the secular democratic elements have been swamped by an Islamist upsurge. Faced with a possibility that these governments could turn out to be far more anti-West and anti-Israel than their predecessors, the West has turned to the orthodox Wahabi establishment of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni sheikhs of the UAE to keep the Muslim brotherhood and more extreme Salafi factions in check. But these regimes too have been feeling the cold winds of the Arab Spring and have hastened to find ways of diverting them elsewhere. They have done so by reviving a far older conflict — between Sunni and Shia Islam, between Arabs and Persians.
Syria, the convergence point
Syria has become the convergence point of both this conflict and the U.S.’ and the EU’s struggle to protect Israel at any cost. This is because it is an anomaly. It is an authoritarian country ruled by a minority in which the religious majority has not shown any signs of restiveness for more than 40 years. It is a deeply religious but secular country in which men and women mingle freely in the workplace, in markets, and in restaurants; where movies are not banned and drinking liquor is not haraam. It is western enough to have a national symphony orchestra and a western music conservatoire patronised by the President of the country, but is also an unabashed champion of Arab nationalism and the rights of the Palestinians, willing to cooperate with Iran and the Hezbollah to further their cause.
In Israeli and American eyes, it is precisely Syria’s (and Libya’s) capacity for independent action, and the remote possibility that it might become a conduit for Iranian fidayeen to penetrate and attack Israel, which turns it into a threat. That is why the Assad regime must now be destroyed, much as Qadhafi was four months ago.
India has been asked to join the high table at which the U.S., the EU and Israel already sit and has so far been a none-too-unwilling guest. It has either abstained, or voted for, every resolution tabled in the U.N. by the hegemonic powers in favour of militarily enforced regime change in the Middle East. It is again faced with a non-binding resolution in the Security Council, being brought by Saudi-and UAE-dominated Arab League, demanding that Mr. Assad “move aside.” And Israel is already urging India to support a resolution in the Security Council condemning Iran for the bomb attack on its diplomat in Delhi, before its agencies have completed their investigations.
New Delhi can be forgiven if it is tempted to stay on at the high table. But it has a duty, to not only its own people but the rest of the world, to get off it and become an independent voice of sanity and moderation. It must stoutly oppose the West’s brazen effort to turn the championship of democracy and human rights into a cover for regime change. This is the most complete violation of Article 2 of the U.N. Charter that is possible to imagine. The U.S., and now the EU have decided to ignore their commitments as signatories of the U.N. Charter and have twisted the U.N. into an unrecognisable parody of itself. But for scores of small countries, its Charter remains the only refuge from international anarchy and a headlong plunge into Hobbes’ State of Nature. India must speak up for them. As the most open and democratic and the least threatening large country in the world, it has far better credentials to do so than Russia and China. It must not leave this task to them alone.
For decades, peace in the Middle East had depended on a balance between secular nations that subscribed to the ideals of social freedom and gender equality, and traditionalist emirates and monarchies, created or sustained by the western powers to safeguard their interests in Arab oil. Today, the West has all but smashed that balance. Only fools can persuade themselves that handing over control of the Arab world to the Salafis who planned, participated in, and certainly approved of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, will make terrorism go away. But only those who are fools twice over can believe that allowing Israel to trigger a ruinous war with Iran will make the world “safer for humanity.” What it will do is to unleash the fury of Shia terrorism as well on the West. One shudders to think of where that road could lead.