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    Middle East
     Mar 22, 2011


War stalks revolution in Middle East
By Sreeram Chaulia

Historically, there is a strong sequential correlation between revolution and inter-state war. Radical overhaul of a country's socio-economic or political system rarely remains confined to that state and often triggers a wider regional or international conflagration. This is because revolution is a volcanic phenomenon that knows no artificial borders. If ideas cannot be imprisoned the way bodies can, then revolution is the most exhilarating or pernicious idea, depending on where one stands.

The mobilization of counter-revolutionary forces to restore status quo ante in a society undergoing revolution, or to "teach a lesson" to other revolutionaries in the region and beyond that their emulative efforts will be crushed, is a time-tested tactic of conservative powers who have everything to lose if the revolutionary fervor snowballs. In tumultuous times, decisive show of strength and pre-emptive violence is viewed by counter-revolutionary powers as necessary to quell the spreading unrest and secure themselves from the rushing tide of their own people.

This is exactly what occurred after the French Revolution, when perilously threatened monarchies of Britain, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Prussia and Austria acted collectively on behalf of the dynastic principle of rule and declared war on France in the 1790s. Western allies of World War I ganged up against revolutionary Russia from 1918 to 1923 in order to "strangle Bolshevism in its cradle" (Winston Churchill). The covert overthrow attempts and long undeclared war unleashed by the US on Fidel Castro's regime after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 were classic acts of offensive defense to roll back "the rising din of communist voices in Asia and Latin America." (John F Kennedy) The war imposed by the then pro-Western Saddam Hussein of Iraq against revolutionary Iran from 1980 to 1988 fell into the same pattern of trying to catch the genie and shove it back into the bottle.

In all these cases, the wars that followed revolutions in teleological fashion sowed chaos, destruction and destabilization on regional and meta-regional scales. They did not succeed in unseating the targeted revolutionary regimes, but exacerbated crippling spirals of divisions and internal war within societies that just experienced revolution. Counter-revolutionary wars, even the largely domestic ones like the Cristero War of the 1920s in Mexico, become internationalized and succeed in the sense of creating a yearning among sections of population to return to or sustain the repressive but orderly past. The inherent chaos and uncertainty of revolutions are magnified and laid bare due to counter-revolutionary wars, paving the way for Napoleon-like dictatorial figures to usurp authority.

The current strategic environment in the Middle East bears resemblances to the above scenarios from the past. Saudi Arabia, the staunchest bastion of monarchical and religious conservatism in the region, has just taken the first military steps that portend a deepening inter-state war through proxies. By dispatching heavily armed platoons of over 2,000 troops, 800 of which are from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), into Bahrain to shore up the protest-besieged al-Khalifa dynasty, Riyadh has immediately stirred up a hornet's nest. Iran, the self-appointed worldwide guardian of Shi'ite interests, has immediately slammed the Saudi move as "unacceptable" because the revolutionary uprising of Bahrain's Shi'ites for majority rule against the Sunni Khalifa regime was seen as strategically welcome in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia's open resort to sending its armed forces to prevent revolution in Bahrain comes after weeks of tacit supply of weapons through the 25-kilometer-long King Fahd Causeway that borders the two countries. The Saudi monarchy and its sister royals who head governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) waited to first see if the standard authoritarian responses of carrot-and-stick by the Khalifas of Bahrain would work in calming the turmoil. But the revolutionary fever and inspiration from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Jordan was so infectious that the marginalized Shi'ite majority of Bahrain kept returning to Pearl Square in Manama despite the crackdowns.

For the GCC, much like the paranoid European alliance that waged war on France in the 1790s, overt military intervention by Saudi and UAE troops is the last throw of the dice to stop the upending of the old order on a continental basis. Given that Bahrain under the Khalifas has an apartheid-like polity with Soviet-era totalitarian dimensions, the GCC's military plunge into Bahrain has shades of the brutal counter-revolutionary invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) by the USSR. With Soviet tanks and boots patrolling the streets of Budapest and Prague, the ancient regimes were reinforced and saved.

However, the Iran factor places limits on this comparison. As long as Tehran is outraged and capable of mounting a "counter-counterrevolutionary" response, there is no guarantee that Saudi and UAE armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery will end up protecting the Khalifas and squashing Bahrain's pro-democracy ground swell. The ironies are compounded here because Iran is itself long past its revolutionary self and is using all means to crush its own pro-democracy activists at home.

An Iranian counter punch to the GCC in Bahrain through proxy warriors or by stirring up Shi'ite rebellion in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Shi'ite-majority Eastern Province threatens escalation into a major Middle Eastern inter-state war, the likes of which has not been witnessed since the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

In the fog of full-fledged war, transnational revolutions become secondary and status quo powers can divert people's attentions through appeals to narrow nationalism or sectarianism. If there is one actor that can disentangle the poisonous web that could turn Bahrain into another Nicaragua (where US-trained and armed Contras were inserted to topple the leftist Sandanista regime in the 1980s), and render the broader Middle East into the centerpiece of a world war, it is the United States.

Bahrain is host to the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy and a vital lynch pin of the US military's Central Command. The Barack Obama administration should drive sense into the Saudis and the GCC to withdraw from Bahrain before it becomes a deadly war zone like Libya. Technically, the GCC's troops have crossed into Bahrain upon the invitation of the ruling Emir, Shaikha Salman al-Khalifa. But in the eyes of the discriminated Shi'ite majority of Bahrain, foreign Sunni forces entering their country in the name of restoring "stability" are invaders to tilt the scales against democratization currents.

Washington cannot be short-sighted by nodding at the Saudi-led intrusion, because history shows how horrific the consequences of counter-revolutionary wars are. Too often, the predicament of the Barack Obama administration since the pro-democracy spirit burst out in the Middle East has been touted as a choice between values and strategic interests. The crisis in Bahrain challenges this dualistic interpretation, because the removal of the hated Khalifas in that country through peaceful endogenous means, as in Tunisia and Egypt, is strategically more beneficial to Washington than the onset of a hot war between Saudi Arabia and Iran whose flames will take down the whole region.

The real choice is between myopic interests (as defined by Washington's inability to distance itself from tails like the Saudi monarchy and Israel, both of which are ‘wagging the dog') and farsighted interests that avoid catastrophic infernos. Obama need not be a revolutionary to discipline Riyadh. It just takes some commonsense and a deeper reckoning with the disastrous historical ramifications of allowing counter-revolutionary wars to metastasize.

Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the author of the forthcoming book, ‘International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones' (IB Tauris).

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