Friday, January 31, 2014

Bush's Freedom Agenda: Claiming Victory Without Victory

November, 2013.

The claim put forward by some (Raz, 2011; Daily Beast, 2011) that U.S. President George W. Bush’s ‘Freedom Agenda’ contributed to the ‘democratic wave’ that engulfed the Middle East and North Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring is one that is prima facie hard to prove. A deeper examination of this tall claim shows there is, in fact, little basis to support it at all. In this essay I describe what the Freedom Agenda is, who is putting forward this claim and why it should be viewed with scepticism.

President Bush followed a policy course that ignored or contradicted the tenets of his own Freedom Agenda as much as it promoted it, making any claim that it had the designed or desired effect questionable. Additionally, it is also questionable that there has been a democratic wave resulting from the Arab Spring judging by the results thus far. It is far too early to begin to make assertions about the causes or outcomes of the Arab Spring at all, let alone that U.S. policy contributed to it. The contributing factors and causes of the Arab Spring will be debated for many years into the future, but the Freedom Agenda should not seriously be considered a major factor among them.

The Freedom Agenda
According to President G.W. Bush’s White House, the Freedom Agenda promotes freedom and democracy in the world as alternatives to ‘repression and radicalism’ (White House Press Office, 2007). It asserts that besides the moral imperative to promote freedom, international democracy provides increased security for America and its allies at home. As evidence of President Bush’s support for the agenda, the White House exhibited a long list of political activists and dissidents from oppressive states Bush met with between 2003 and 2007; touts the creation of a $1 million U.S. government legal fund to support the defence of captive dissidents; a presidential ‘Freedom Defender’ award for activists or NGOs who strongly commit to ‘defending liberty and courage in the face of adversity’; and another ‘Diplomacy for Freedom’ award for the U.S. ambassador who does most to promote the Freedom Agenda (ibid.). It mentions the doubling of funding for ‘Democracy, Governance and Human Rights’ and for the National Endowment for Democracy. It includes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the struggle against anti-democratic forces, as well as diplomatic efforts to support movement toward freedom and democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (ibid.).

Bush’s 2007 Prague Speech (White House, 2007) is the President at his rhetorical best when speaking about his Freedom Agenda. Before an audience including the national leaders of several former Soviet satellite states and political dissidents from many different nations, Bush spoke about the courage of Eastern Europe facing the Nazis and enduring the ‘long darkness’ of the Soviet Union. He calls their democratisation a ‘triumph of freedom in the battle of ideas’. He claims the post-9/11 struggles of America and its allies against Islamic extremism in the War on Terror are an equal struggle in the battle of ideas and that freedom and democracy are not only a moral imperative, but also the greatest weapon in this struggle. He goes on to hold that America is pressing for democratic reform in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others. Bush acknowledges that democratic change may lead to violence, but that it is necessary and preferable to pursuing stability and asserts that fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are caused by extremists attacking democratic reform and freedom. He puts forward America’s wars in the Middle East as proof that the Freedom Agenda is eliciting a response from these extremist opponents who fear freedom and democracy.

Perhaps the greatest proponent and Bush-era official who has publicly cited the Freedom Agenda the most as a factor in the Arab uprisings is Elliot Abrams, a Deputy National Security Advisor to G.W. Bush. As early as February 2011, with the Arab Spring only in its third month, Abrams was making media rounds promoting the Freedom Agenda as a factor in the revolts and called for the Obama administration to push for freedom and democracy in the region (Raz, 2011). Abrams criticises President Obama as a state-centred Realist for rejecting the Freedom Agenda by continuing to focus on and attempting to negotiate with Middle Eastern dictators in preference to supporting a dialogue with their peoples striving for freedom and cited ‘slow and unenthusiastic’ Obama administration policy in support of protestors in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria as examples (Abrams, 2011). Abrams and his allies believe that President Obama should have supported the uprisings by seeing them as the will of the people and engaging with them, even if that means regime change, as opposed to solely diplomatically engaging with their embattled dictators (LaFranchi, 2011).

As Muammar Qaddafi’s regime was falling in Libya in October 2011 under the pressure of a NATO air campaign, President Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice held that the Bush administration, “pursued the Freedom Agenda not only because it was right but also because it was necessary. There is both a moral case and a practical one for the proposition that no man, woman or child should live in tyranny . . . In the long run, it is authoritarianism that is unstable and unrealistic.” Rice predicted a positive ending to the revolts and cites the Freedom Agenda as a contributing factor to the uprisings (Daily Beast, 2011).

In summary, the Freedom Agenda developed by President G.W. Bush and his national security team holds that pursuing international democracy, reform and freedom are a moral and security imperative for the United States and its allies in a battle of ideas against oppression and extremism and should be pursued in preference to a policy of maintaining stability by engaging with dictators and heads of state, though accepting that this course may lead to increased tensions and violence. U.S. diplomacy, accompanied by military force where necessary, is the tool to be used to pursue the agenda. From the outset of the Arab Spring, the policy’s architects have asserted that the Freedom Agenda was a factor in triggering the uprisings.

Contradicting the Agenda
The most significant evidence to undermine the claim that Bush’s Freedom Agenda contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings is that it was not adhered to as claimed. Though the Freedom Agenda can be seen as Bush’s legacy and signal foreign policy agenda (Miniter, 2007), Bush and his national security team created policy that contradicted the Freedom Agenda as much as followed it. It does not follow that the agenda was a cause of the Arab Spring if it was not followed in practice.

The administration holds out discussions on democratic reform and increasing freedoms with the leaders of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others, as proof of pursuing the agenda (White House Press Office, 2007). Pervez Musharraf seized power in Pakistan in a 1999 military coup and subsequently banned his opponents from participating in elections, initially appointed all members of National Assembly, and threatened politicians with criminal investigations if they were critical (Bennett Jones, 2002: 274). Despite continuing moves to consolidate his power and to amend the constitution, this undemocratic behaviour was met only with assurances that ‘private messages’ were being sent to Musharraf by the administration (Carothers, 2003: 85). Pakistan was given $600 million in U.S. aid by the Bush administration in 2002 (ibid.). Musharraf’s decision to support President Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq garnered a further $3 billion from the United States in 2003 (Bennet Jones, 2002: 3), with many more millions to follow until he stepped down in 2008. By way of comparison, according to a 2007 White House ‘Fact Sheet’ on the Freedom Agenda (White House Press Office, 2007), in 2008 President Bush, at the height of his Freedom Agenda legacy-building, budgeted $1.5 billion for all Democracy, Governance and Human Rights projects and $80 million for the Endowment for Democracy. If money translates into support, the administration’s support for Pervez Musharraf was almost twice as strong as its touted commitment to democracy and freedom.

Saudi Arabia provides an even clearer example of the Bush administration contradicting its Freedom Agenda. Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud (2007) documents the long, close relationship between the Bush’s and the Saudi royal family. Despite these strong ties and influence, Bush has little to exhibit as far as real freedom and democratic reform is concerned. Much as with Pakistan, the Bush administration exerted little pressure other than to privately discuss democratic change with the al-Sauds (Carothers, 2003: 87). Initially following the 9/11 attacks and terror attacks in Saudi Arabia itself in 2004 and 2005, it was argued by advisors inside and outside the Kingdom that democratic reform may be needed to quell unrest within the Kingdom (Fattah, 2007). This liberalisation fit in well the Bush’s agenda. However, only very small changes occurred: laws oppressive to women were eased a bit; half the seats in local councils were opened up for democratic elections; and restrictions on public protest were relaxed (ibid.). By 2007, the moment of reform had passed. Petitions for establishing constitutional monarchy continue to be rejected. Though royal family members often mention reform in speeches, little is actually being done (ibid.). Restrictions have in fact tightened again since the Arab Spring, especially in areas such as media and free speech (AFP, 2011). What democratic reforms have been made in the Kingdom during Bush’s era and since have been small, cosmetic and, in some cases, been fully reversed (Fattah, 2007). In fact, Saudi Arabia lands on Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst list as among the world’s most oppressive societies in every year of President Bush’s term and since, frequently receiving the lowest rankings possible in ‘Freedom’, ‘Civil Liberties’, and ‘Political Rights’ (Freedom House, 2001-2013 inclusive).

Bush has a bit more to show for Egypt, but not much. In 2002 the administration decided against increasing the massive military aid Egypt receives from the United States because of Hosni Mubarak’s persecution of Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim (Carothers, 2003: 92). Nonetheless, Mubarak still received nearly $2 billion in U.S. military aid that year, though the Bush administration did reduce annual military aid to Egypt by several hundred million dollars every year until he left office (Sowa, 2013). Egypt is yet another state that, if, as with Pakistan, money translates into support, the Bush administration supported nearly twice as much as it supported freedom and democracy. According to Pressman (2009: 162), the Egyptian regime, as in Saudi Arabia, just ‘tinkered at the margins’. The 2005 presidential election in Egypt was a democratic farce, featuring widespread vote-tampering, state media remaining a Mubarak propaganda tool, and the arrest of his main opponent, Ayman Nour (ibid.). When the Muslim Brotherhood did much better than expected in parliamentary elections, the regime responded with arrests and crackdowns on Islamist and secular parties and vote-tampering in later rounds (ibid.). Though the Bush administration did take some small actions against Mubarak’s anti-democratic excesses, in the round the United States remained his largest foreign donor and supporter.

Besides saying one thing and doing another in Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the reputation of American democracy promotion in the region as a whole suffered during the Bush administration. While America ignored the oppressive and anti-democratic policies of allied dictators and monarchs such as Musharraf, the al-Saud’s and Mubarak, it pushed democracy in states it attacked and invaded. Though Bush claimed to be for democracy in Afghanistan following the toppling of the Taliban, the U.S. campaign depended upon tribal warlords and the Northern Alliance, reinforcing Afghan tribalism to further military goals and sent the message that the U.S. would support warlords over democracy promotion (Hassan and Hammond, 2011: 537). The democratic Karzai government it built after the fall of the Taliban has little authority outside of Kabul and the diversion of resources to the Iraq effort further weakened its power and legitimacy (Carothers, 2003: 88).

Bridoux (2011: 558) points out that in Iraq, the Bush administration did not begin to focus on democracy promotion until it became apparent that the main justification for the war, Saddam’s alleged WMD, did not exist and this is exhibited by the fact that U.S. civilian and military pre-war planning and the initial interim administration in Iraq and the U.S. military command were focussed solely on immediate security and humanitarian needs, not long-term ‘nation-building’ or democracy promotion. Democracy promotion became a reserve justification when the actual security justification fell through. It also calls into question Bush’s assertion of the ‘moral imperative’ (White House Press Office, 2007) to pursue democracy when it is used for politically expedient purposes. Bush’s claim (White House Press Office, 2007) that Taliban and insurgent attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are attacks on freedom and democracy brought on by the enemy’s fear of them is also questionable. After all, the U.S. and its allies showed up in their neighbourhood and began to impose it upon them, not the other way around.

The U.S. seemed, to many, to be targeting its enemies in the Middle East with the ‘threat’ of democracy, but not its friends. The different treatment shown to friends and foes in the Middle East and North Africa generated the criticism that U.S. freedom and democracy promotion was really a tool for punishing or destabilising opponents rather than being truly concerned with granting them to local populations (Pressman, 2009: 160). Bush administration policy, in the words of Carothers (2003: 94), “wrapp[ed] security goals in the language of democracy promotion and then confus[ed] democracy promotion with the search for particular political outcomes that enhance those security goals.” The Bush administration supported the 2006 elections in the Palestinian Territories as an early show of support for democracy promotion, yet also was clear what they wanted the result to be. However, Hamas won a landslide victory, leaving Bush to attempt to put a positive spin on it (Kessler, 2006). Elections in Lebanon since the 2005 ‘Cedar Revolution’ led to more seats for Hezbollah in the national assembly (Dakroub, 2005). Democratic elections in Egypt following the Arab Spring allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to initially gain control of Egypt. The same protestors who toppled the dictator Mubarak in 2011 toppled the democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Democracy promotion and elections have not always achieved U.S. goals, created lasting stability nor made the U.S. safer as the Freedom Agenda claimed it would. It has, at times, had arguably the opposite effect.

In summary, the Bush administration pursued a policy course that was just as contradictory to its own Freedom Agenda as it was supportive of it. The relationships with some of the very states—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—that it cites itself (White House, 2007; White House Press Office, 2007) as proof of following the agenda also offer proof it did not. The unequal application of the Freedom Agenda between friends and foes also called the commitment into question and damaged the reputation of U.S. democracy promotion. A policy that was not truly followed cannot be cited as successful in achieving its goals or if it did so, it did so incidentally. Where the U.S. and its allies have established democratic governments—Afghanistan and Iraq—they also did much to weaken them and were only able to do so following military action. These governments did not come to be through indigenous agitation for freedom and democracy brought on by the Freedom Agenda. In the case of Iraq especially, the Bush administration turned to democracy promotion as a major goal only after its initial justification for the war turned out not to exist. The bases offered for promoting the Freedom Agenda—moral imperative, long-term stability, and increased security for the U.S.—have also been shown to be questionable as, when it was followed at all, it has arguably not dependably provided those things or not more so than the alternative policies it criticised and was supposed to offer improvements over.

Too Early to Predict Anything, Let Alone a ‘Democratic Wave’
It is too early to predict or draw any serious conclusions as to the causes, effects and consequences of the Arab Spring. Arguably, it is still going on. Battles in Syria are still raging. The revolution in Egypt continues with the deposition of Mohammed Morsi by the military following demonstrations as large as those against Mubarak (Maqbool, 2013). Protests may flare up again in any number of countries in the region. Any real academic analysis of the Arab Spring cannot take place until all of the facts are known or until it appears to reach some sort of conclusion. Anyone who attempts to do so prematurely risks getting it wrong and being overcome by events, as those who have been asserting since 2011 that the Freedom Agenda contributed to the Arab Spring have been. It is hard to know what next month will bring in the region, let alone claim the events have been a triumph for any policy or any party involved.

It is also too early to say that there has been a ‘democratic wave’ at all in the Arab Spring. Freedom House has called Tunisia the ‘Arab Spring’s pivotal democratic example’ (Walker and Tucker, 2011) and is arguably where the revolt began and where there have been signs of real democratic reform. However, in neighbouring Libya, it took NATO military intervention to topple Muammar Qaddafi. Some armed militias still, two years on, refuse to give up territory. Fighting still grips all of Syria where the regime and rebels are locked into an effective stalemate as foreign Jihadists join in and America and its allies wrangle with Russia, Iran and China over intervention there. Despite protests and minor concessions, there has been no real democratic change in places such as Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait. Egyptian protestors overthrew the dictator Mubarak in 2011, but then also overthrew his democratically-elected successor Morsi in 2013. The transition there begins anew with Morsi in the court dock along with Mubarak. In some Arab and North African states, there has been no change at all.

Though many protestors and activists clearly have and will continue to call for increased freedom and democracy and many who have never been politically involved before have taken to the streets to take up the cause, there has not yet been a ‘democratic wave’ if one judges that by the state-by-state results of the Arab Spring thus far. The Middle East and North Africa region is still overwhelmingly not free and democratic (Freedom House, 2013). This being the case, it is hard to argue that the Freedom Agenda contributed to a ‘democratic wave’ resulting from the Arab Spring if there really hasn’t been such a wave as yet. Nonetheless, as above, it is still far too early days to judge what caused or will become of the Arab Spring.

The Bush Freedom Agenda has not contributed to a ‘democratic wave’ resulting from the Arab Spring. The Bush administration deviated from the agenda as much as it adhered to it. Some of the same evidence it puts forward to show its support for the agenda shows equally it did not support it. The administration’s goals in applying the agenda were arguably not met in practice. It is questionable if there has been a ‘democratic wave’ at all thus far following the Arab Spring, though it is still too early to form real conclusions yet as to the causes and consequences of the uprisings. The Arab Spring continues today in many places. However it should be clear that a policy agenda that was only partially or haphazardly followed and has arguably not brought about the goals it sought to achieve in an event that is not yet over cannot be credited with achieving anything.

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Why NATO Intervened in Libya but not Syria

Authored 31 October, 2013.

Despite calls to intervene militarily in Syria, NATO has remained hesitant to do so despite surface parallels with conditions in 2011 Libya which precipitated a NATO intervention that toppled the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. In Syria today, as in 2011 Libya, much of the population is in armed revolt as part of the Arab Spring and being met by a bloody regime campaign to put down the rebellion. Despite similarities, NATO has held back despite the conflict entering its third year and the August 21st nerve agent attack on civilians in Damascus, attributed by the U.S., UK and France to the Assad government (Reuters, 2013), an event identified as a ‘red line’ that would trigger military action (Reuters, 2012).

There are many factors contributing to NATO’s decision against intervening in Syria. Despite using the same Liberal values-based rhetoric and human rights justifications, the situation in Syria has elicited a different response. Domestic politics in individual NATO states runs against it. The Syrian military is better trained and equipped and more committed to Assad than the Libyan military to Qaddafi. The influx into Syria of foreign Islamic extremist fighters on the rebel side has generated second thoughts for NATO and other actors considering the removal of Assad (Martini et al, 2012: 5-7).

The largest contributing factor—and the one I will focus on—is that the resistance to a NATO campaign in Syria would be more significant than with Libya due to the greater strength of international, regional and internal allies of the Assad regime. In the following sections I will compare and contrast the Libyan and Syrian regimes in turn in reference to their relationships with international, regional and internal allies and then show why their respective effects on NATO’s ‘Realist’ calculation has led to the choice not to act in Syria.

Libya under Qaddafi

In an Arab League conference tirade, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi called himself, ‘an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims’ before going on to insult fellow Arab leaders (Otterman and Mackey, quoting Qaddafi, 2009). From the beginning of his rule following a military coup in 1969, Qaddafi rubbed the world the wrong way. As an Arab Nationalist, he never fit into either camp during the Cold War, but also never managed to use this seeming neutrality to Libya’s advantage in attempting to take up Nasser’s mantle (St. John, 1987: 21). The lack of ability to make and maintain powerful friends to shore up his power or to properly balance allies against foes would eventually lead to his downfall.

Early in Qaddafi’s rule, the U.S. hoped to cultivate him as an anti-communist ally and wanted to maintain strategic airbases in Libya, but hopes were dashed when U.S. troops were expelled in 1970 (Zoubir, 2006: 48-9). The nationalisation of Libyan oil in 1971 and his anti-colonial agitation soured relations with Britain (St. John, 1987: 115). The Pan Am 103 bombing and other terrorist acts in the 1980s and the continued use of Libya as a terror haven into the 1990s (Church, 1992) made him a major NATO enemy in the Middle East and led to harsh UN and U.S. sanctions with severe economic consequences.

His relations were also rocky with the USSR as he ‘grouped the United States and the Soviet Union together as imperialist countries intent on expanding spheres of influence in the Middle East’ and, believing Islam was central to Arab identity, condemned the atheism of the USSR. He was not as skilled as Nasser or Assad at walking the line between Moscow and Washington and neither considered him a reliable partner (St. John, 1987: 29).

Libya was also isolated in the Middle East, with regional leaders, especially monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, viewing negatively Qaddafi’s Arab Nationalist views and misuse of Islam to meet political and policy goals (ibid.: 149). Varying relations with regional powers over OPEC and oil issues (ibid.: 107-24) and support for Iran during its war with Iraq (Associated Press, 1985) further deepened its regional problems.

In order to survive an antagonistic position toward the rest of the world, Qaddafi had to build strength at home. He purposely weakened the Libyan military to prevent any challenge while arming loyal militias and the security services (Hendawi, 2011). Though weakening the military prevented challenges, it also eventually left him virtually defenceless against more capable NATO forces. According to Mokhefi (2011), Qaddafi also consolidated internal control by manipulating the tribal system using a ‘carrot and stick’ policy of granting wealth and government positions to tribes that supported him and legally and violently repressing those that did not.

For the first 30 years of his rule, Qaddafi’s rejection of both camps of the Cold War, support for terrorism, espousal of Arab Nationalism, politicisation of Islam and continuing squabbles with neighbours turned Libya into an isolated state with no Great Power patron or strong regional friends. It was not until years after the fall of the Soviet Union that Qaddafi attempted rapprochement with the West. After years of public and behind-the-scenes diplomacy in which Britain played a large role, a deal surrounding handing over the Lockerbie bombers for trial and paying compensation to the victims’ families led to European states re-establishing relations and UN sanctions against Libya being lifted in 2003. Normalisation and lifting of unilateral U.S. sanctions did not occur until 2004 when, against the backdrop of the Afghan and Iraq wars, Qaddafi further agreed not to seek weapons of mass destruction and to cooperate in the War on Terror (Zoubir, 2006).

Libya was in a weakened state of transition from a pariah state to a full member of the international community when the Arab Spring struck in March 2011. Qaddafi responded to protests with violent crackdowns in which hundreds of Libyans were killed by the security forces, leading his newly-found Western friends to denounce him again. Qaddafi underestimated the national and international response to the violence (Buckley, 2012: 84), which undid years of public and secret diplomacy to rehabilitate his image. The Arab League, usually hesitant to endorse outside interference in Arab affairs, gave approval to military intervention (BBC News, 2011). He was denounced by the UN Security Council, which approved a no-fly zone over Libya. Before the vote and further after implementation began, the Arab League and Russia, China, India, Germany and South Africa expressed consternation with NATO’s interpretation of the UN resolution, (Buckley, 2012: 85). These objections in the UNSC and Arab League were too little, too late to save Qaddafi.

Internally, despite years of patronage, Libyan tribal leaders from the influential Warfalla and Zawiya tribes who controlled militias and the security services condemned Qaddafi for his violent crackdowns on protests in Tripoli and elsewhere (Mokhefi, 2011). With a UN resolution and the Arab League against him and support crumbling at home, they sensed the inevitability of his fall. The Libyan military was kept too weak to save him.

Qaddafi’s forces were quickly overcome by the NATO-led campaign, leading to his death in October 2011. In the end, no one but family and his own tribe stood in support of Muammar Qaddafi. He was not the ‘the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims.’

Syria under the Assads

Hafez al-Assad seized power in Syria after a 1970 coup—shortly after Qaddafi’s in Libya. As a Ba’athist and military officer, Hafez was largely influenced by the same Arab Nationalist and Nasserist sentiments and even agreed a short-lived 1971 proposal for a federation between Egypt, Libya and Syria (Hopwood, 1988: 55). Hafez al-Assad was a shrewd leader with great ability to maintain strong alliances at home and abroad, a trait passed on to his son, Bashar. Hafez was able to build an equal partnership with the USSR without becoming a satellite (ibid.: 76). The ability to balance alliances and power has kept the Assad regime in power for over forty years and is why it is still holding on despite the Arab Spring and strong international pressure.

The Assad’s are members of the minority Alawite sect of Shi’ia Islam and Hafez was the first Syrian president not from the Sunni majority. Though military officers, fellow Alawites and Ba’athists formed Hafez’s base, in power he legitimised and consolidated his rule by including elements of other ethnic and religious minority communities (including Christian Druze and Kurds) in shaping his government and improved the lot of the middle and lower classes. He co-opted and cooperated with other communist and left-leaning political parties. He pursued policy that consolidated all state power in his own hands, but went further than previous governments by legitimising his rule through inclusion of minorities (Ma’oz, 1986: 28-9).

While forming a strong base at home, Hafez al-Assad also forged international and regional alliances. According to Hopwood (1988: 72-7), Syria refused to become a satellite of the U.S. or USSR after throwing off colonial rule. However, the Soviets would sell arms to Syria with no strings attached, unlike NATO. As the USSR sought parity with the West, it curried favour in Syria before Assad took power by offering large public works projects and siding with Syria in the 1967 war as Syrian pilots were shot down flying Russian aircraft.

The relationship grew closer under Assad, with Moscow agreeing multi-million-dollar arms deals and sending thousands of military advisers. The two countries signed multiple diplomatic and trade agreements and Assad dealt with Moscow as an equal, not a subordinate. Syria fielded Soviet military tanks, missiles and other equipment, which were again replaced by Moscow after the disastrous 1973 war. By 1986, Syria had become Moscow’s largest Third World arms purchaser. Regardless of Hafez’s own opinion, America considered Syria a client of the Soviet Union (ibid.: 76).

In 1980, Syria—Arab, pluralist, Ba’athist-led, with a Sunni-majority—formed a counterintuitive alliance with Iran—a newly-formed Persian Islamic republic with a Shi’ite majority—in their war with Iraq. According to Hirschfeld (1986: 115-21), this was an act of shrewd political Realism by Assad. Despite being counter to its economic interest, Syria shut its border and blocked Iraq’s oil pipeline to the sea, costing Syria millions in oil transit fees. Hafez also turned down $2 billion from Saudi Arabia to reopen it (ibid.: 115). However, giving much-needed assistance to Iran in its early days greatly increased Syria’s influence with Khomeini and its control over Lebanon, where Iran was induced into influencing Shi’ites much more persuasively than Syria could alone. In the early years of the alliance, Syria was the dominant partner. Attacks by Iran-controlled Shi’ite terrorists in 1983-4 led to the withdrawal of Western troops from Lebanon, leaving Syria and Iran squarely in control until 2005. It also increased Syria’s independence and influence in the Middle East as a whole, as it was Syria that set its own course and became a fulcrum point deciding where the balance of regional power would lie. With one decision, Hafez had increased Syria’s influence and made it indispensable in the region (ibid.: 115-121).

This was the situation Bashar al-Assad inherited when his father died in 2000. The Soviet Union had collapsed, but Syria’s alliance carried on with Russia. Moscow, along with Tehran, continues to arm and assist Assad to this day. Nonetheless, there was early hope in 2011 that Bashar would ameliorate relations with the West. With the War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Bush administration seemed ready to roll up Middle Eastern dictators. In 2005, America approached Bashar with a ‘Libya-style’ deal similar to that offered in 2004 to Qaddafi: stop interfering in Lebanon, supporting terrorism and supporting the Iraq insurgency and receive normalised relations in return (Beeston and Blanford, 2005). They saw Bashar as vulnerable following a damning UN report blaming members of the Assad family for murdering popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Despite the blow to its influence when Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon and a Western-backed government coming to power there, Bashar al-Assad remained in power in Syria.

Internationally, Russia has stood firmly by Assad. Moscow has defended the regime before the UN and threatened to veto military action. Russia acted as Assad’s proxy in negotiations to avert a U.S. strike following the August 21st nerve agent attacks in Damascus and has offered counter-arguments to NATO assertions supporting intervention. It continues to supply Syria with arms and has even displayed a show of force by dispatching additional warships to its Syrian port at Tartus (Investor’s Business Daily, 2012). Stymying NATO efforts in Syria has reminded many of the bipolar era when Moscow was on par with Washington and has increased Russian influence and power in Syria and elsewhere.

Regionally, Iran also remains committed to Syria in the same manner Syria stood by Iran in 1980 (discussed above). There is evidence the elite Iranian Quds Force is assisting Assad in Syria (Reynolds, 2012). Lebanon-based Hezbollah, dependent upon Syria as its conduit of support from Iran (Martini et al, 2012: 3), is fighting alongside Assad’s forces. Tehran is committed to opposing NATO interests anywhere it can in the Middle East and has done so since its 1979 revolution, most recently by proxy in Afghanistan and Iraq. NATO troops or a Western-aligned government in Syria, paired with NATO’s presence elsewhere in the region, would leave Iran surrounded and isolated.

Internally, support from minority factions Hafez al-Assad cobbled together to legitimise his rule—military officers, Ba’athists, Alawites—have remained largely loyal to Bashar. There is fear by many that the tolerance cultivated by the Assad regime would disappear and the country would return to Sunni-dominated rule. There is already evidence of repression of minorities in rebel-held areas of the country (Martini et al, 2012: 5). The Syrian military, despite many defections to the rebels, remains largely loyal to Bashar. Many military officers have benefitted materially from supporting Assad over the years and they stand to lose everything and likely be branded as criminals if he falls. Other minority groups split between supporting the regime or the rebels are not enough of a factor to tip the balance to either side (ibid.: 3-5).

Unlike Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, the military and factions within Syria have not abandoned Assad, nor have allies Russia and Iran. These strong alliances have, thus far, kept Assad in power and their existence has checked NATO from taking military action.

NATO Liberalism and Realism in Libya

When considering military action against Qaddafi in Libya, NATO faced almost no opposition to intervention and was encouraged to act by initial Arab League support for a no-fly zone and Qaddafi’s loss of domestic support. The dearth of opposition and Qaddafi’s utter lack of allies meant that virtually nothing stood in the way of a NATO campaign there. Action in Libya was significantly easier to achieve.

There was no opposition to refute the case for a UN resolution. Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany abstained from voting and they and other states expressed reservations only after military action had begun, holding they had been duped by NATO as to the meaning and interpretation of the UN resolution, a criticism echoed in the Arab League (Buckley, 2012: 85-7). There was little opposition and little to lose in getting rid of a nuisance dictator murdering his own people, though arguably the feeling they had been tricked increased some states’ opposition to authorising UN action in Syria.

Conducting a Realist calculation, Libya presented no real threat to NATO interests or security since normalising relations in 2004, but some argued toppling Qaddafi would get rid of a troublesome dictator with a dirty past and grant access to high-quality Libyan crude oil, decidedly in NATO interests (Jenkins, 2011). However, NATO states predominantly used Liberal, values-based rhetoric regarding democracy, freedom and human rights to legitimise intervention. Both Realist and Liberal justifications were given to support the case for Libyan action.

NATO Liberalism and Realism in Syria

Syria presents a different case for NATO. The same Liberal arguments used in Libya are being used to justify acting in Syria. For Liberals, supporting democracy, freedom and human rights—values NATO states claim to support—for people facing violence to obtain them is right regardless of the power-political circumstances.

However, according to Coetzee (2012: 312), from a structural Realist perspective, supporting Liberal democracy and freedom during the Arab Spring has already been harmful to security interests—specifically NATO’s—as it has led to gains for militant Islamism in the region. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamist violence against U.S. targets in Libya, and Islamic militants with ties to al Qaeda operating in Syria are examples. It is the Realist calculation of balancing potential gains against potential losses that has held NATO back.

There are some gains to be made. Ending Assad rule would deprive Russia and Iran of an ally and a source of mutual support, reducing their regional influence. Iran would be isolated with the loss of its last large regional ally. Russia would lose a major trade partner, be booted out of the Middle East and may lose Tartus, its only port on the Mediterranean. These outcomes are in NATO’s interest.

Nonetheless, these gains are not worth the potential hazards. According to Martini et al (2012: 3), NATO and its allies have less at stake and Assad remaining in power does not greatly harm NATO interests. In deciding to intervene, it will face strong opposition and vetoes from Russia and likely China in the UNSC. Taking military action without a UN mandate will undermine the legitimacy of any NATO action. Iran already has fighters on the ground in Syria. Russia continues to arm Assad and has shown military support by dispatching more ‘gunboats’ to Tartus (discussed above). It is unclear how far Russia or Iran may go in defending Assad and their interests. Military action may increase violence in Syria and/or lead, at worst, to a larger, longer regional or international war. NATO does not want that and the gains are not worth risking it.

Assad has promised to confront foreign intervention with full military force. Though it recently signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to decommission its chemical weapons, Syria still has a sizeable stockpile and Assad has threatened to use them against any outside military intervention. If NATO were to intervene, it would still have to deal with post-war stability and reconstruction efforts and could face an Iraq-style insurgency, not to mention undertaking the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons itself.

Though it is a Machiavellian calculation, all that is at hazard for NATO is that the status quo will be maintained in Syria, though thousands of Syrians will continue to die and become refugees. NATO states may be seen as hypocrites for supporting Liberal ideas like democracy and human rights with military intervention in Libya but not in Syria. Russia, Iran and Assad may receive a boost in power and influence for having seen off the NATO challenge. However, none of these outcomes presents a dire, direct threat to NATO security or interests, while possibly enabling Islamists to increase their influence in a new Syria in the absence of Assad may (Martini et al, 2012: 5-7).


From a Realist perspective, for NATO the possible risks of intervention in Syria outweigh possible rewards. A comparison of the strengths of the allies—or lack thereof—of the regimes in Libya and Syria and what they stand to gain or lose in either case explains why NATO has chosen not to intervene in Syria as it did in Libya. The status quo will be maintained in Syria for now, while the jury is still out on Libya’s future.


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