14 March 2011

Libya, Bahrain and double standards

Troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council of states are entering the island kingdom of Bahrain to restore order after weeks of sporadic unrest. That is, the Persian Gulf Sunni states are supporting the ruler of Bahrain, one of their own, against a dissident population with a Shiite majority. At the same time, at the GCC's prodding, the Arab League has called for international intervention against the Libyan government, declaring Col. Khadafi's government illegitimate and urging the imposition of a no-fly zone to prevent Khadafi from suppressing the uprising in the eastern portion of the country. There's a double inconsistency at work here. Most obviously, as noted by the Financial Times, the GCC confers legitimacy upon Libyan dissidents, but not upon their Bahraini counterparts. There are plenty of reasons for this, from Khadafi's longstanding reputation as a troublemaker to the Sunnis' fear of Shiism and Iranian influence. Secondly, the GCC is willing to flex its muscle in Bahrain but wants others to wage war on Libya.

The Sunnis are simply practising realpolitik. They see instability in Bahrain as a threat to their security, while Khadafi has always been expendable and denouncing him sounds good abroad. If they manage to persuade NATO to suppress the Libyan air force, the West will be too preoccupied to notice or care about what happens to dissidents in Bahrain or in Saudi Arabia itself. Unfortunately, the GCC seems to be acting within its rights in Bahrain under its organizational charter, rather like the "Holy Alliance" of European monarchies who helped one another quash revolts in the early 19th century. In Libya, Khadafi can only depend upon himself and, according to many reports, whatever mercenaries he can hire. Judging his case in purely moral terms, he probably deserves to fall, but a similar judgment might render Bahraini sovereignty forfeit. Morality, however, only forms a basis for a foreign policy of aggression. Consistency requires respect for sovereignty across the board or support for rebellion across the board. But since it's much more difficult to argue that all rebellions are equal than that all sovereignty is equal, civilized nations should err on the side of sovereignty, even if the consequences are uncivilized within sovereign borders. The only acceptable alternative to such resignation is to establish an effective world government capable of deliberating objectively, rather than according to realpolitik, in each case of local factional conflict. The Sunni states of the Persian Gulf have shown no such objectivity or consistency. Any American who wants to cite the GCC's or the Arab League's pleas for intervention against Libya as justification for should take care not to share the Sunnis' hypocrisy as well as their alleged concern for the Libyan people.

Update: So of course Christopher Hitchens views the Arab League declaration as a blank check for Western intervention while making no mention of the GCC's repressive exercise in Bahrain. Hitchens is in a state of perpetual personal war against tyranny, though I'm sure he feels he can do tyrants more damage with words than with weapons. I hope his cancer is in remission so he can have no excuse for not putting his own life on the line before he puts anyone else's at risk.

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