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Neither realism nor idealism; only freedom

Kissinger is wrong to think the Syrian struggle is a struggle for dominance between Al Assad’s Alawites and the Sunni majority

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Henry Kissinger
Gulf News

Henry A. Kissinger, who served two American presidents as National Security Council advisor and Secretary of State, identified Realpolitik as diplomacy based on power and on what were practical concerns. He rejected ideological notions, dismissed moral considerations and derided ethical premises in the conduct of foreign policy. His latest rant, published over the weekend in The Washington Post under the title ‘Meshing realism and idealism in the Middle East,’ offers a carefully laid out variation. What stand out are the octogenarian’s oft-repeated arguments that Washington ought to remain focused on its core interests in the region, even if he now colours his classic comments with a remarkable assertion that the US ought to embrace “intermediate stages.”

To his credit, Kissinger opined that revolutions are primarily judged “by what they build, not what they destroy,” which was a fair assertion. In fact, events that followed the four classic revolutions (British, French, American and Russian) changed humanity as we know it, although a fifth must now be added to this list; Mao’s revolution, which completely redesigned China even if that experiment was a work in progress and transformed the Middle Kingdom into the rising power it is. Lest we overlook particularly violent chapters, revolutions almost always destroyed at first before embarking on various corrections that allowed for emancipation and progress. Kissinger and many others who focus on the Arab world routinely reject this premise, pointing out how little has changed since 2010, although two years was hardly enough time to provide an accurate assessment of the level of destruction under way, or of the potential for reconstruction.

Kissinger rejected the premise that the Syrian Revolution — and it might be useful to refer to events throughout that hapless country as a fully-fledged revolution — was a struggle for democracy. Though he welcomed the removal of President Bashar Al Assad from power, the former Secretary of State was utterly mistaken when he claimed that the real concern in Syria was the nascent “struggle for dominance between Al Assad’s Alawites, backed by many of the other Syrian minorities, and the Sunni majority”. This is a largely incorrect reading of what is under way even if religious overtones cannot be ignored. In fact, Damascus has unleashed its fury against all Syrians, shelling Latakiyah from the sea, bombarding Aleppo from the air, and otherwise running its tanks through most cities without asking whether its victims are Sunnis, Shiahs, Druzes, or Christians.

Yet, by underlining the religious equation in the Syrian Revolution, Kissinger wanted to prepare public opinion to the “day-after” when, presumably, Alawites could engage in a long-term “struggle for physical survival”. While it is impossible to predict whether Syria will break into component ethnic and sectarian entities, with grave repercussions in a sustained civil war as well as serious consequences to neighbouring countries, chances are excellent that this wishful thinking will not occur. Indeed, today’s belligerents were more likely to quickly embark on democratising values, precisely to maintain the unity of the country but without its dictatorial anchor. Like Cairo under the current Tantawi/Mursi duopoly, Damascus will also go through a transition period, and though few can accurately predict what its ultimate outcome may be, relative success stood as much of a chance as gloom and doom scenarios.

Suffice it to say, Syrians of all ethnic and religious groups are loyal to their country, and history demonstrates that a century of Sykes-Picot-led, British-inspired, French-administered and Baath-dominated power centres did not prevent the rise of true revolutionary spirits.

Of course, Kissinger’s primary audience was the Boston-New York-Washington corridor elite, though it was interesting to note that he formulated the US goal that any new regime in Damascus will end the Syria-Iran alliance. It was Tehran that stood out on his radar screen, precisely as Israel has been clamouring for years, and it was important to highlight that Kissinger had nothing to say about the influence of Israeli politics on everything that Washington contemplates in the Middle East.

Be that as it may, Kissinger knew that the Israeli-American record in the Middle East was rather poor, with wars galore, double, triple, quadruple, and even quintuple standards applied by the veto-yielding super-power against 375 million Arabs. What befell the Palestinian nation, and continues to harm generations that will never give up, cannot but be self-evident, though only for the foresightful.

The confirmation that Washington undermined democratically elected governments — Islamist or otherwise — since the 1950s, stretching from Algeria to Iran, can no longer be denied. Thus, although it may be accurate to state, as Kissinger does, that Islamists have a poor record of democracy in the Middle East, he simply chooses to overlook the causes for that failure.

Perhaps the day will come when Westerners, Americans in particular, will not conclude that Arabs espouse hard-line Islamism because that is part of local “culture”. All Arabs, the Muslim majorities as well as the Christian minorities, desire the same things that people everywhere hope for: freedom. They neither want blatant consumerism nor the more extreme application of laws designed centuries ago. It is worth repeating, Arabs want to be free, and it remains to be determined whether Islamist governments or more enlightened rulers will ensure that people re-discover their dignities at a time of great hostility towards them.

Every conflict cannot be framed in ideological terms to serve intrinsic interests, affirmed Kissinger in his essay, even if that is precisely what he did in Vietnam, Chile, Cambodia, and so many other places. In the past, he projected American power and exceptionality, even if these were implemented through raw force. He called for the development of strategic interests in the Arab world, but now wants to embrace “intermediate stages”, which was clever since reconciliation between realism (interests) and idealism (values) prolonged Western hegemony. Still, his audience may be better served if it understands that the “Arab Spring” has permanently changed this part of the world, and while it might take several decades or even a few centuries to sort everything out, there simply is no going back.


Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia.


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