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    Middle East
     Mar 9, 2011

Big power plays emerging
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - The geostrategic status quo in Asia is morphing quickly, and the Arab rebellions have suddenly acquired a prominent role in it. Some analysts doubted from the start that the pro-democratic uprisings were ever detached from the great power play, and accused the United States of instigating them. Whether or not this is true, large-caliber realpolitik has now firmly set in.

The United States is still the only global superpower, but it is also a superpower in decline; its economy is in deep trouble, its debt is soaring, and its military might is sapped by two quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is challenged by an informal coalition of emerging powers known as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which have frequently sought to portray themselves as champions of the Third World. It is not a very cohesive bloc, and most of what

unites the countries that are part of it often appears to be their common current status as underdogs with respect to the West.

The American world order is also challenged by a number of "rogue states", such as North Korea and Iran. These - specifically Iran, which is also of major interest with respect to the Arab uprisings - aspire to be regional superpowers, but they lack the kind of economic power that BRIC countries have, and they act independently, along a separate front against the United States.

All these international actors have metaphorically descended on the Arab uprisings, seeking to make the best out of a moment of instability that could result in major shifts in the status quo between them.

Firstly, we cannot simply ignore the hypothesis, circulated for over a month now by Russian and Chinese analysts, that the United States is behind the revolutions. "It's the Americans who're pulling the strings," Anatoly Yegorin, the deputy director of the Institute for Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Science, plainly stated in an interview on February 4.

So far, there is only circumstantial evidence of American involvement in preparing the Arab uprisings. But circumstantial evidence there is. "In short, the attempt by Washington to portray that its Libya plans are molded by events does not add up," writes M K Bhadrakumar in his story "Libya puts China in world stage spotlight (Asia Times Online, March 7). "Clearly, the US is defining a historical moment: if the Western world's vital economic interests come under threat, it is only the US that can salvage them, even when the theater is Europe's immediate neighborhood."

In Egypt, there is even more specific circumstantial evidence. In January, for example, the Daily Telegraph published a leaked diplomatic cable, written in 2008 by the US Embassy in Cairo, according to which the embassy had helped an Egyptian dissident travel undetected to the United States for important meetings with officials and activists. The dissident told the US diplomats that "several opposition parties and movements have accepted an unwritten plan for democratic transition by 2011".  

The cable does reveal that the embassy did not take the dissident's claim seriously; the American administration's confused and contradictory early attempts to handle the crisis suggest that the government didn't, either (see US caught napping, Asia Times Online February 7).

Still, the ideological DNA of the revolts, certainly of that in Egypt, is beyond doubt largely American. It came out of the theories of strategic non-violent activism for social change systematized by Gene Sharp and a group of political activists and theorists around him (who in turn see themselves as intellectual descendents of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi).

As Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Tina Rosenberg points out, the leadership of the Egyptian protest movement was trained in 2009 in Serbia by the same people who ousted former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. [1] In turn, the Milosevic opposition drew heavily on Western support and the ideas of Sharp and his cohort. "Popovic [one of the core organizers of the Serbian opposition ] was first introduced to Sharp's ideas in the spring of 2000 by Robert Helvey, a former US Army colonel who had served as defense attache at the US Embassy in Burma [Myanmar]," writes Ms Rosenberg.

What is even more intriguing is that this is a strategy intimately familiar to President Barack Obama, who frequently quotes Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr in his speeches. As a former community organizer, his strength is closely related to one of the most difficult aspects of managing non-violent movements for social change: building a broad base of support, as well as internal consensus, unity and discipline.

While none of this proves that the Obama administration started the rebellions - much less that it controls them - the US is certainly trying to make the best out of them. As Bhadrakumar observes, by now it seems to have some contingency plans ready, which it is trying to apply. And it might just reap some unusual benefits.

In his article To fly or not to fly?" (Asia Times Online March 4), Ian Williams writes that, when the Russians blocked American proposals for military action against Libya at the United Nations Security Council, they were "saving the US from itself". He adds: "However, rather than the US, a threat of Turkish, or Egyptian intervention or interdiction of the Libyan military might overcome many of the legitimate actions, and indeed would encourage the rebels while stripping Gaddafi of the last of his crew so he could go down without taking the ship with him. "

Indeed, prestigious American think-tank Stratfor has already reported the presence of Egyptian special forces on Libyan territory. Meanwhile, a new framing of the situation in Egypt has started to emerge: that after Hosni Mubarak, Egypt will assume a leadership role among Arab nations. "Unlike Persian Gulf Arab states, whose power is derived from petrodollars, Egypt has real military might and regional intelligence networks with which to assert itself," writes Stratfor.

This means that in the near future, the US may conceivably get a new source of manpower in the Middle East. For Egypt's military rulers, this would also be a way to divert public attention from domestic problems and to demonstrate competent rule in one area where they are indeed expert: military intervention. In a sense, the uprising created the ideal conditions for expanding Egypt's military role in the region. It weakened the political structure of the country while empowering the military.

Meanwhile, Egypt's resurgence would threaten Turkey's role as the leading democracy in the Muslim Middle East. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has already embarked on what many have seen as an expansionist foreign policy course, and it is quite conceivable that he might be drawn into competition with Egypt. Turkey and Egypt together could perhaps fill much of the power vacuum left by a scaling down of American presence in the region.

The United States, an argument goes, badly needs some time off. The economic crisis is simply refusing to go away. This has created increasing domestic pressure to cut down international involvement, and has brought about a sense of gloom in many parts of the country.

A prominent American journalist writes in a personal e-mail: "It makes a climate where we don't have the mobility and job opportunities we take for granted. In fact, if you work for the government, there is a good chance you'll lose your job ... Meanwhile, we know we're losing ground internationally. In Europe, people don't care. They've already lost their status as the center of the universe. But for us it's a national tragedy. And to lose our number one status to China, where civil liberties aren't respected, is just a kick in the teeth. A humiliation."

China - alongside other emerging powers from BRIC - is another reason the United States badly needs to scale back its involvement in the Middle East. In the past three years, all the BRIC countries have increased dramatically their military spending, sparking fears of a new arms race. Some statistics:

"Last week Moscow unveiled a $650 billion rearmament plan through 2020, which includes adding 20 submarines including eight nuclear submarines and more than 600 warplanes, 100 new ships and 1,000 additional helicopters," writes M K Bhadrakumar in his article "Kurils: The great game in Asia-Pacific" (Asia Times Online, 4 March 2011). "The new strategy specifically aims at regaining naval capabilities of the Soviet era and creating next-generation anti-missile defenses to replace the S-300 system."

Meanwhile, according to Defense News, "China has announced a 12.7% increase in its annual defense budget to a new high of $91.5 billion, up from $78.6 billion in 2010 ... China's defense budget rose from $27.9 billion in 2000 to $60.1 billion in 2008." The Indian newspaper Business Standard reports that India has seen a similar increase in defense spending.

None of these military budgets match that of the United States, which for the fiscal year 2010 alone was over US$660 billion, but the trend is alarming. The United States is overstretched: during the past 10 years, it spent over $1,100 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq alone, and locked hundreds of thousands of troops in these two conflicts.

According to an analyst who prefers to stay anonymous, over the course of the next decade, the American economy might not be able to keep up, and an arms race might eventually break it in a similar way to how the arms race of the Cold War eventually brought down the Soviet Union.

The intense competition between BRIC and its allies, on the one hand, and the United States and the European powers, on the other, became particularly apparent in the diplomatic arena over Libya. Muammar Gaddafi, in fact, tried to play the two sides off of each other, for example by offering China attractive oil contracts in exchange for support.

Whether or not this specific offer was taken seriously by anybody, Russia and China have so far adamantly refused to authorize military intervention at the United Nation Security Council, even as the Obama administration has started to prepare contingency plans for such a scenario. A little over a week ago, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez tried to put a spoke in the mounting international pressure on Gaddafi by proposing his own peace initiative. [2]

Meanwhile, a related but separate confrontation is emerging in the Persian Gulf. According to Stratfor:
While the world's attention is still on Libya because of the fighting over there, the slow-simmering situation in the Persian Gulf is far more important ... There is the obvious repercussion for the world's energy supply - some 40% of total global energy output via sea comes through the Persian Gulf - but it's not just about oil. Each one of those states, from Oman all the way up to Kuwait, houses major American military installations. They are very vital for US military operations in this part of the world, particularly at a time when the United States is in the process of withdrawing its forces from Iraq.... In addition to just the general nature of American military operations in the region, unrest in the Persian Gulf complicates the US-Iranian dynamic. The United States is already withdrawing from Iraq, which allows Iran to flex its muscles, and if, in addition, we see unrest destabilizing the Persian Gulf states, that gives Iran further room to maneuver and project power, not just on its side of Persian Gulf but also across into the Arabian Peninsula.
Indeed, the claims by the king of Bahrain that the opposition was trained by Hezbollah may seem far-fetched, but many analysts see Iran's hand behind the recent unrest in the Persian Gulf. The real threat of Iran, Stratfor has previously argued, is not so much its nuclear program as its ability to project influence in the region. This threat seems to be materializing for the United States and its allies.

The confrontation between the United States and Iran, however, does not overlap well with that that between the United States and BRIC. In fact, as Bhadrakumar notes, early in the crisis, the Obama administration and the ayatollahs found themselves temporarily on the same side. [3]

More recently, however, Iran took a position similar to that of Russia and China. On Saturday, the chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, issued a veiled threat that US action against Libya would lead to the destabilization of the region. "Any kind of US measure and interference in Libya will not only stabilize Islamic Revolutions in the region and further clarify their path and direction, but also cause a severe blow to the US economy," he said.

Iran is a relative lightweight economically, and has frequently been used as a bargaining chip by both the US and BRIC countries. It carries a significant threat to American interests in the Middle East, however, and by most accounts it aspires to the status of a regional superpower. Thus, it is an indelible part of the great power play.

The crisis that is going on brings with it enormous risks - not least for the global oil supply and the economic recovery - but what distinguishes it from the previous state of affairs is that it is possible to at least imagine a winning scenario for the Obama administration. Turkey could take on a wider role in Iraq. Egypt could police North Africa, and even put pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to get back to the negotiating table. Reality will almost certainly be less rosy, but at least there is a vision, and hope dies last.

Meanwhile, the Arab world will need to get used to the fact - a familiar pattern in history - that it is impossible to carry out a revolution in a vacuum. The problem is, so many different agendas have started to coalesce once again in this strategic part of the world that even if pro-democratic impulses once had a space to develop on their own, soon they might not.

1 Revolution U, Foreign Policy, 16 February 2011.
2. Libyan deputy minister says government accepts Chavez plan, Reuters, 4 March 2011.
3. Iran, US on the same side, Asia Times Online, 8 February 2011. Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Libya puts China in world stage spotlight (Mar 7, '11)

The collapse of the old oil order
(Mar 4, '11)

The end of the end of history (Mar 4, '11)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 7, 2011)


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