The mission creep in the western military intervention in Libya shows how narrow geopolitical interests, even at the risk of creating another Iraq or Afghanistan, are driving a professed humanitarian campaign.

From initially seeking to protect civilians to now aiming for a swift, total victory in Libya, the mission creep that has characterised the western powers' military attack raises troubling questions about their Libyan strategy and the risk that it could end up creating a jihadist citadel at Europe's southern doorstep. After having tacitly encouraged and endorsed the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to crush peaceful protests against a totalitarian monarchy, the military intervention in a tribally divided Libya indeed has helped highlight a selective approach to the promotion of freedom and the protection of civilians — an approach reinforced by these powers' continuing support to other western-backed Arab regimes that have employed disproportionate force to quell popular uprisings or unrest.

Ivory Coast — where rampant abuses and widespread killings have led about one million residents to flee Abidjan city alone — was clearly a more pressing case for international intervention than Libya, given strongman Laurent Gbagbo's months-old defiance of the United Nations writ. But because Ivory Coast lacks strategic importance or oil, the exodus of Ivorians into Liberia and the influx of Liberian mercenaries continued unchecked, triggering civilian massacres.

The political upheaval in the Arab world is tectonic in nature, with the potential to transform the Middle East and North Africa in the same way as the 1989 Berlin Wall's fall fundamentally changed Europe. Indeed, 1989 was a watershed, producing the most profound global geopolitical changes in the most compressed timeframe in history. But the Arab world, with the same regimes and practices firmly entrenched for decades, had escaped change. Now, the tumult represents a belated reaction — a yearning for change that signals a grassroots democratic awakening.

But will this awakening lead to the democratic empowerment of the masses? After all, there is a wide gulf between democratic awakening and democratic empowerment. The air of expectancy in the Arab world today parallels the new hope that emerged in the East bloc in 1989. Yet history rarely moves in a linear or predictable fashion. While it is now clear that much of the Arab world is in transition, the end point is not yet clear.

In 1989, an American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, smugly claimed in a famous essay that the Cold War's end marked the end of ideological evolution, “the end of history,” with the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Yet two decades after the Cold War's end, the global spread of democracy is still encountering strong headwinds.

Latest developments indeed are a reminder that democratic empowerment hinges on complex factors in any society — both endogenous and exogenous. Internally, two factors usually hold the key: the role of security forces, and the technological sophistication of an autocracy's repressive capacity.

In recent weeks, security forces have helped shape developments in different ways in three Arab states. While the popular uprising in Yemen has splintered the security establishment there, with different military factions now in charge of different neighbourhoods in the capital Sanaa and the United States seeking to replace the Yemeni President with his No. 2, the Bahraini monarchy has employed foreign Sunni mercenaries that dominate its police force to fire on the predominantly Shiite demonstrators.

In Egypt, it was the military's refusal to side with Hosni Mubarak that helped end that ex-air force commander's three-decade-long dictatorial rule. The military, long part of the political power structure, had become increasingly wary of Mr. Mubarak's efforts to groom his son as his successor. Today, the heady talk of freedom cannot obscure the reality that the people's revolution in Egypt thus far has spawned only a direct military takeover, with the 30-year emergency law still in force and the country's political direction uncertain. Although the ruling military council has scheduled parliamentary elections in September, the fact is that in no country has the military voluntarily ceded power without mass protests or other pressures.

As for the second key internal factor, an autocracy's ability to police cellphone calls, electronic communications and Internet access has become as important as jackboots and truncheons. The use of social networking sites and instant messaging to organise mass protests has made a nation's capability to enforce stringent, real-time censorship of electronic communications critical.

External factors are especially important in small or internally weak countries. The House of Saud sent forces into Bahrain under the Gulf Cooperation Council banner to crush peaceful protests, yet it is civil war-torn Libya that became the target of a western military attack. The blunt fact is that no nation has contributed more to the spread of global jihad than Saudi Arabia. Indeed, this terror-bankrolling state's military intervention to prop up the Bahraini regime parallels the 1979 Soviet intervention to bolster a besieged Afghan regime in Kabul — an invasion that led to the multibillion-dollar, CIA-sponsored arming of Afghan rebels and the consequent rise of transnational Islamic terrorists, including the al-Qaeda.

Yet today, with the CIA conducting covert operations inside Libya and aiding rebels, Washington is in danger of coming full circle, having failed to learn from past mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq, where quick initial military victories proved deceptive.

The broadening of the Libya intervention from a limited, humanitarian mission to an all-out assault on the Libyan military suggests that this war is really about ensuring that the Arab world does not slip out of western control. The intervention has seemingly been driven by a cold geopolitical calculation: to bottle up or eliminate Muammar Qaddafi so that his regime doesn't exploit the political vacuum in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia. Yet few have examined the costs that democracies are being made to pay — in the form of rising Islamic extremism and terrorism — for the overpowering U.S. intent to have only puppet Arab regimes, an objective that has fostered an alliance with inimical Wahhabi forces.

At a time when America needs comprehensive domestic renewal, it has slid — under a President who won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office — into a third war when the other two wars already carry an aggregate $150-billion annual price tag. A quick military victory in Libya is what Barack Obama badly needs to reverse his declining popularity at home and win re-election.

But even if the Qaddafi regime collapses quickly under the mounting military attacks, recreating a unified, stable Libya free of Islamist groups may prove difficult. Saddam Hussein's ouster by the invading U.S. forces did not secure the desired political objectives; rather a once-stable, secular Iraq has been destabilised, radicalised and effectively partitioned. With Libya set to become Mr. Obama's Iraq, a plausible scenario there is a protracted stalemate, coupled with a tribally partitioned country.

The paradox is that while aiding Libyan contras even at the risk of creating another Afghanistan, the U.S. is desperately seeking a deal with medieval forces — the Taliban — to stave off certain defeat in the decade-long Afghan war. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently rebuked allies for effectively abandoning the Afghan war. Why blame allies when the U.S. itself has abandoned the goal of victory and now seeks only a face-saving exit? And even as the U.S. fires hundreds of missiles at Libyan targets, its policy on Pakistan — the main sanctuary for transnational terrorists — is crumbling, with Washington clueless on how to stem the rising tide of anti-Americanism in a country that is now its largest aid recipient.

Still, with popular revolts sweeping much of the Arab world, the White House has concluded that Arab monarchs are likely to survive, whereas Arab Presidents are more likely to fall, and that it is acceptable for the U.S. to continue to coddle tyrannical kings. The effort to draw specious distinctions between “good” or valuable despots and “bad” or discardable despots is redolent of the manner in which the arming of “good” contras has exacted heavy international costs.

If tyrants are to be stopped from unleashing untrammelled repression, any international intervention — whether military in nature or in the form of economic and diplomatic sanctions — must meet the test of impartiality.

The resort to different standards and practices in the name of promoting human freedom, unfortunately, sends the message that any society's democratic empowerment is possible only if it jibes with the great powers' geopolitical interest. The fundamental issue is whether there should be a rules-based international order or an order pivoted on military might and driven by narrow, politically expedient interests of the most powerful.

(Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut (Harper Paperbacks) and Water: Asia's New Battlefield (Georgetown University Press, forthcoming)).

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