Condoleezza Rice, the then US Secretary of State, speaking in Cairo, once said, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
Though she did not go on to unwind - that ‘stability’ for the U.S. has meant the stability of her own geo-political and economic agendas, but, the speech did underline a genuine reality of ‘third world’ politics - In the political arena of Global South, we face strange paradoxes – between despotic dictators and organized mobs, non-state actors who can function better than state institutions and an ever-increasing bureaucracy whose prime skill lies in corruption, progressive slavery and non-progressive freedoms; with the Middle East being a quintessential case in point.
While some contend that the Assad regime is a brutal dictatorship, willing to go to any length for keeping a hold on power, the opposition argues that most of the rebels in Syria are neither moderate nor democratic; rather zealots who wish to enforce anachronistic doctrines through the barrel of their guns. I am afraid to say – both are right! And that is, wherein lays the political paradox.
Going not very far from Syria, in the bordering states of Lebanon and Iraq, one finds similar dilemmas. When ‘ISIS’ smashed its way into Iraq, capturing vast swathes of territory– the Iraqi forces, despite having been the recipient of huge amounts of arms and training from the US, fell like a pack of cards; leaving open ground for ‘ISIS’ to rule and operate from.
The fate of the country might not have been very different from that of Afghanistan, had the advance not been halted and reversed by volunteer forces; broadly referred to as 'Hashd al Shabi' or the Popular Mobilization Forces; considered close to Iran and its Revolutionary Guards. As the US insists on disbanding these units, what alternative does it offer for Iraqi defense; knowing both the threat, as well as the capabilities of the regular army? Somewhat a similar story we get out of Lebanon – Principally speaking, there cannot be a private army in a democratic country, which runs an independent foreign policy and declares its own wars.
The logic is sound. But, history again confronts us with a paradox – Hezbollah, which emerged as a resistance movement in the 1980s, has been far more effective in deterring Israel; which had invaded and occupied parts of Lebanon, than its National Army. And, its effectiveness shall cease to be, if it is subsumed. From Lebanon, let us come back to Syria; to its northern parts – where the vacuum created by the civil war, has been filled by Kurdish fighters, who not only defeated ‘ISIS’ –taking its capital Raqqa, but have also been able to run an efficient administration in its cantons – commonly referred to as Rojava – under a variant of Socialism; rightfully allowing us to draw parallels with the Spanish civil war and Catalonia. Its Kurdish counterparts in Iraq – Peshmerga – have also fought effectively, and run a better administration, than those usually recognized by the international community, as legitimate governments and its legitimate armed wings. In the above cases, one finds himself caught between constitutionality and reality.
Coming back to what Condelliza Rice was referring to - the US has propped up dictatorships, because the alternative has not been to its favor – Whether the FIS in Algeria or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, when the iron fist of dictatorship has been let loose, the result has neither favored US interests, nor the progressive forces at large. One prominent reason being that the crushing of dissent, does not allow for progressive forces to organize and spread its message, while traditional groups have traditional vehicles of communication, which cannot be routed completely, even under totalitarian regimes. And, even when relatively progressive forces have emerged, many a time they have been subdued by the US itself, take the CIA orchestrated coup against Mossadeq in Iran, as an example. So it seems - some of these paradoxes lie at the doorstep of history, while others are outcomes of ill thought geo-politics. But, paradoxes they are – blurred regions of political theatre; hard to bracket in the simplistic dichotomy of Right and Wrong.
While a nuanced understanding of political events may intrigue us - political history, in itself, is not averse to such paradoxes. While historians discuss and disagree on what kind of an impact the British had in India. Karl Marx seems to have captured the picture right, halfway through the ‘Raj’ – In his article in the New York Tribune, 10 June 1853, he sums it up; after lengthy deliberation, ‘England, it is true, in causing Social Revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them.’
Marx was pointing to a similar paradox - The British did become a historic vehicle for Social and Administrative change in India, even though their intentions may have been of sheer economic exploitation and power grab. The former effects even if purely incidental, did, nonetheless, catalyze some very prominent and irreversible socio-economic developments in India.
These historic and contemporary events bring forward a strange, also equally true, picture of politics. We may be eager to take sides and to see events in black and white. We may have a proclivity of making truth a monopoly of the party we prescribe to, and see historic righteousness exclusively in the ideology we adhere to. But, political history unfolds in a different way – In which there are numerous shades of grey in between the usually visible spectrum of black and white. While we should certainly support a more progressive side – in conflict, the lines are often blurred. And as such, what must be made sure, and also known, is that principles, and not parties – are held supreme. Particularly for the scholarly class, issuing carte blanche, under whatever rhetorical fancies, is nothing but preparing grounds, not only for historical misunderstanding, but also, eventually, for gross human rights violations.