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.


  1. Democracy and secular liberalism are not the same thing. The classic mistake liberals make is to confuse the democratic process with liberal outcomes. When democracy leads to illiberal outcomes, the liberals start screaming about “populism” and demanding that liberal outcomes be imposed from above.

    So, do you stand for democratic process or liberal outcomes?It does pose a terrible dilemma for those who think it’s the job of imperial armies to go around setting up liberal democracies in every corner of the world.

    Absolutely true about grain prices. If a fragile democracy doesn’t put food on the table it’s more than likely that the masses will support a Bonapartist figure who promises to sort the problem. In the 2009 Iranian Green rising it’s more than likely that Ahmadinejad did win the election because he stood for economic policies that promised to maintain a safety net for the poor and crack down on corruption. Musavi promised to liberalise dress codes but also proposed to cut welfare spending and end overmanning in the bonyad sector which would have cost a lot of people their jobs. Unsurprisingly Ahmadinejad won more votes among the working class. Interestingly Mousavi was responsible for mass executions during the early years of the Iranian revolution. This didn’t prevent the Western media supporting him as a reformist as against the bogeyman Ahmadinejad.

    • “Democracy and secular liberalism are not the same thing”

      I don’t see the difference by definition the US is supporting and exporting liberal democracy and whether it be Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative based NGO’s they are exclusively liberal in nature supporting and promoting Frankfurt School Professor Karl Poppers notion of an Open Society like open immigration, greater minority rights, rights for sexual minorities, multi-cultural societies, etc.

      • Dear Robert,

        I completely agree. It is a persistent liberal assumption that democracy automatically results in a liberal outcome. There is always disillusion and anger when it doesn’t together with a strong tendency to say that the system which has failed to produce such an outcome is not a democracy at all.

  2. Dear Anatoly,

    I agree with your article. I think your analysis is correct. I don’t think there is any possibility of common ground being found between the US and China/Russia over the Middle East or with respect to the Arab Spring. Besides the whole thrust of US policy ever since the 1950s has been to keep Russia (and China) out of the Middle East and as we have repeatedly seen the US considers this objective so important that it is even prepared to cooperate with its jihadi enemies to achieve this objective in spite of all the other problems this causes. What is astonishing is that this remains so even after the USSR’s collapse and even after the debacle of 9/11.