The brutal killing of the US ambassador to Libya and three of his diplomatic staff in Benghazi is a major human tragedy. It reminds us that in our troubled world, there is no sanctity attached either to a diplomat’s person or to diplomatic premises. Nor is there necessarily a link between cause and effect. In our digital world, even the most distant and tenuous link to individual provocation is sufficient to turn entire nations into targets of senseless and consuming rage.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens was an accomplished professional who had assisted the opposition forces in Libya in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi. He had reportedly won the respect and confidence of several leaders of Libya’s new government. Yet this did not protect him from the rampaging mobs that saw him only as a representative, and even accomplice, of those who had denigrated Islam and its revered Prophet. Any lingering notion that aligning with the forces of revolutionary change would provide a degree of immunity from the politics of intolerance and hate, lies buried forever. What the US has suffered is not exclusive to that country, though it presents a bigger target than most. It could well happen to any country — and India, with its ethnically, culturally and denominationally diverse society, is particularly vulnerable. The unfolding events in West Asia hold lessons we must learn to be able to cope with dangers that may lie ahead.
To begin with, how do we assess the “Arab Spring”? An important dimension of this political upsurge has been the unleashing of long-suppressed popular aspirations and demand for human dignity and rights. As a democratic country, we find it easy to sympathise and support this political transformation sweeping across West Asia. However, we need to acknowledge that there is also a much darker and destructive aspect to this political transformation. The unfolding political evolution in several countries is being dominated by often well-organised and highly motivated elements who do not share our own liberal values, are hostile to the very notion of secularism and are willing to use violence to achieve their aims. Even if, in the early stages, as in Egypt, the movement may have been led by liberal and educated elements, they were quickly marginalised in the subsequent jockeying for power. One also needs to acknowledge the sometimes inconvenient truth that in several of these countries, a large segment of the population is deeply affected by sectarian attitudes and prejudices, which have surfaced alongside more properly democratic sentiments. There is a latent hostility to the “other”, whether this is a different religious denomination, a different ethnic group or a different nationality. Recognising this dichotomy, while India should welcome and support the democratic awakening and the legitimate assertion of popular aspirations in our West Asian neighbourhood, it must not shy away from speaking out on the parallel threat posed by the growing and often violent sectarianism spreading across the region. The reluctance to confront this darker side of the Arab Spring for fear of being seen as being unsympathetic to the positive aspects of political change is a mistake, and it may endanger our own and other plural democracies across the world. Sectarianism, even if dressed in democratic colours, is a threat to our values of toleration and inclusive and liberal society.
Seen against this perspective, it is short-sighted, indeed futile, to actively encourage and even lend material and military support to patently sectarian forces, in the mistaken belief that this would earn their goodwill and eventual political alignment. The tragedy that struck the US in Benghazi is testimony to this fallacy. After all, the earlier and even current experience with the Afghan Taliban should have driven this lesson home, but obviously has not.
Part of the reason may be that short-term calculations often trump any lesson from history. It is evident that in certain Western and Arab capitals, there has been a cynical calculation that ignoring, when not actively encouraging and supporting, Sunni sectarianism may serve to isolate Shia Iran and its allies. The deliberate escalation of violence in Syria by arming the most fanatical among anti-Assad elements both from within and outside that country appears driven by the same motivation. The humanitarian purpose has long been overtaken by the more urgent objective of depriving Iran of its valuable ally. In this effort, even the most fanatical Al Qaeda elements are being treated as temporary allies in the wholly mistaken belief that they could be dispensed with once Bashar al-Assad has been disposed of. There is every reason for India to reject such dangerous tactics precisely because our own plural and secular democracy is under threat. We should not fall prey to the patently dangerous myopia that some of our friends appear to suffer from.
Finally, we often hear the argument that isolating Iran through whatever means possible is essential to deter it from pursuing its nuclear weapon ambitions. An additional argument points to the constant drumbeat of war from Israel, which says that Iran’s nuclear weapon capability poses an existential threat to its existence. If Iran is not deterred, it is said, then Israel would attack Iran and there could be grave consequences for the region and the world.
Firstly, an Iran acting rationally – as it has so far – is likely to aim for a capability as close to “break out” as possible, without having to take the final step except in extreme circumstances. That gives it sufficient deterrence in the current security landscape. If its weaponising sets off, as it inevitably will, a nuclear domino effect among major Arab states, any Iranian advantage would be short-lived. An Israeli air attack is unlikely to eliminate Iranian nuclear capabilities, which are spread out and well-protected. On the other hand, such an attack may just be the circumstance in which Iran sees its security safeguarded only through an overt weapons capability. For these reasons, I do not believe that Israel would launch an attack on Iran — but this constant barrage of threats serves the purpose of deflecting attention away from what is a crucial domestic political compulsion for it, that is, expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories unfettered by Arab hostility and international public opinion. For the past year, has anyone paid any attention to Palestinian rights? What could be better from Israel’s point of view?
Except that this, too, is a short-sighted policy. An Israel marooned in an eventual sea of Sunni fundamentalism may find it may have a better shot at long-term peace by accommodating a still secular Palestine Liberation Organisation than by acquiescing in the dangerous polarisation that is sweeping across West Asia. India’s voice should be one of reason and of caution. Because this is in our interest.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman of RIS and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi