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The “Arab context” argument

Marc Lynch, professor at George Washington University and blogger for Foreign Policy, is one of the more thoughtful commentators. He has expressed reservations about the West's intervention in Libya, but ultimately supports it.

In his post today, Lynch highlights the "Arab context", which he says "is essential for understanding the logic and stakes of the intervention":

Libya matters to the United States not for its oil or intrinsic importance, but because it has been a key part of the rapidly evolving transformation of the Arab world.  For Arab protestors and regimes alike, Gaddafi's bloody response to the emerging Libyan protest movement had become a litmus test for the future of the Arab revolution.  If Gaddafi succeeded in snuffing out the challenge by force without a meaningful response from the United States, Europe and the international community then that would have been interpreted as a green light for all other leaders to employ similar tactics. The strong international response, first with the tough targeted sanctions package brokered by the United States at the United Nations and now with the military intervention, has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war and to encourage the energized citizenry of the region to redouble their efforts to bring about change.

Some arguments in support of the intervention have appealed to the past (it's another Bosnia; or, we can't allow another Rwanda); and some arguments in opposition have also relied on historical analogy (it's just like Iraq again). The "Arab context" argument is noteworthy because it says there is a new factor that we need to take into account - the uprisings across the region, or "Arab spring" - and, as such, probably has more potential to be persuasive.

Of course, I don't buy the argument. Lynch says that if Gaddafi succeeds, it would give a green light to other leaders to use force; but the other leaders are already using force to crackdown in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere - they don't need Gaddafi to show them how. Lynch also says the military intervention will restrain the regimes, but the focus on Libya is providing a useful distraction for the autocrats to get on with the repression right now.

There's no denying that in many Middle East countries, the masses face a major obstacle in the form of violent regimes. But as history has shown, rulers need more than arms to rule, and revolutions are possible. The main driver behind the changes we're witnessing across the region is the exhaustion of the Arab regimes, rather than inherently strong opposition movements. The fall of  Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt somewhat concealed the fact that the Middle East opposition movements are generally not well-developed in political terms. In struggling against oppressive regimes, and in arguing among themselves about the best way forward, these movements have the potential to mature and create democracy organically. Forging a democratic civil society can only come about through internal political struggle, but Western intervention short-circuits that necessary process.

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