Unintended Consequences: Gaddafi's Death and the Arab Spring

JURIST Guest Columnist Jordan Toone, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Class of 2012, has spent over two years working and studying in the Middle East, including six months as an embedded civilian social scientist with the First Armored Division in Baghdad, Iraq. He writes about some of the unintended consequences Muammar Gaddafi's death may have on the Arab Spring and US foreign policy in the Middle East...


The death of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's longtime strongman, was a startling end to his 42-year rule and a poignant punctuation to the region's ongoing revolutions. The death of Gaddafi — the Arab world's longest-serving leader and self-anointed "King of Kings" — not only constitutes a major victory for the people of Libya, but serves as a graphic reminder that no Arab leader, regardless of power, prestige or resources, is immune to the wave of discontent that has rippled across the region.

Yet, as with most recent socio-political developments in the Middle East, the effects of Gaddafi's death are not as black and white as many observers are likely inclined to conclude, and, for several reasons, it may ultimately work to stifle the Arab Spring and further complicate US efforts to promote stability and peace in the region.

To begin with, Western intervention introduced a foreign dimension into what was otherwise an Arab-only, grassroots demonstration of popular will — an unprecedented development in modern Libyan history. Much has been written surrounding the controversial decision by the US and NATO to intervene militarily in Libya. To be sure, Gaddafi may still be in power had Western powers refrained from intervening militarily; and, by the same token, the argument can be made that the threat of Western involvement — military or otherwise — has facilitated and will continue to facilitate other revolutions in the region. Yet, even if it is accepted that Western intervention was necessary to depose Gaddafi, such intervention can be seen as truncating, or at least corrupting, a manifestation of the very thing Western intervention was meant to protect — namely, self-determination via popular will leading to a representative government. No doubt such trade-offs were contemplated in Brussels, Paris and Washington, DC leading up to the decision to intervene in Libya; yet, for better or worse, the upshot of Western intervention in Libya is that the Arab Spring is no longer totally Arab.

While time will tell whether the introduction of foreign elements into Libya's national liberation process will impact Libya's constitutional, political and socioeconomic development, one thing is certain; the effects of Western intervention in Libya and the resulting death of Gaddafi will be felt across the region. Most scholars writing on Western intervention and Gaddafi's death have warned of the dangerous precedent that Gaddafi's death — facilitated, if not caused, by US and French military intervention — will set in an ever volatile region. While no doubt a dangerous implication, this argument misjudges the reality on the ground, which is that not only is it highly unlikely that the US public would be able to stomach another intervention, but the likelihood that Russia and China, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, would consent to such intervention is next to impossible, as they have made clear in the UN Security Council negotiations surrounding possible intervention in Syria. The danger arising from Gaddafi's death is that given the global controversy surrounding Western intervention in Libya and Western powers' role in the death of Gaddafi, additional intervention is in fact less likely. This thereby emboldens remaining dictators in their quest to hang on to power. Iran and Syria, for example, know that Gaddafi's death and the circumstances surrounding it simply add to an already long list of barriers that work to significantly diminish the likelihood of further Western intervention in the Middle East, giving both countries additional leverage in their confrontations with the international community.

The more proximate danger associated with military intervention in Libya and the resulting death of Gaddafi is that it fosters the false impression among Arab protesters in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere that their efforts may always be supplemented by Western force. Such an expectation is understandable. After all, if the US is willing to intervene in Libya, a country that had actively sought to improve its relations with the West in the previous two decades, then why would the US not also intervene in Syria, home to an anti-Israel, pro-Iran, Arab strongman intent on developing nuclear weapons? For American observers, the answer is complicated, but nonetheless legitimate and understandable: intervention would be difficult to obtain due to lack of international support; intervention in Syria would implicate far more dangerous scenarios, possibly including Israel and Iran; the opposition in Syria is not as organized or well-equipped militarily; and intervention in Syria could have dangerous spill-over effects in Iraq. Nonetheless, such answers are unsatisfactory to the Arab street, and add to the long list of "double standard" allegations already hampering US efforts in the region. In this sense, US intervention and Gaddafi's death may actually work to diminish the influence of the US on the Arab Spring.

Whether or not further Western intervention in the region is likely, Gaddafi's death will also work to embolden remaining dictators — in the Middle East and elsewhere — in their quest to hold onto power. In the minds of regional dictators, if Gaddafi — the "mad dog of the Middle East" who, since the Lockerbie bombing and the Reagan administration's hardline stance on Libya, had transformed himself into the poster child of carrot-and-stick diplomacy — could be taken out, then what would prevent the US from targeting less cooperative regimes? No doubt the images and videos of a bloodied Gaddafi — harassed and abused by Libyan rebels — that were broadcast around the world struck a chord with the region's dictators. This fact is especially troubling in regards to dictators with nuclear aspirations or capabilities, including, presumably, the theocratic regime in Iran and the Alawi regime in Syria. Gaddafi's death has reinforced these dictators' beliefs that nuclear technology is a deterrent, especially in light of how poorly Gaddafi fared only a few years after succumbing to Western pressure to abandon his nuclear program. Alternatively, dictators or theocrats such as Assad or Khamenei who, intent on holding onto power, will increasingly look to China and Russia to fortify strategic relations. Suffice it to say, Gaddafi's death has added several daunting sand traps to the stifling par five being played by US policymakers trying to navigate the always-difficult Middle East course.

Following Western intervention in Libya, the regimes in Damascus and Tehran are also eager to criticize Western intervention in Libya as a violation of Libya's sovereignty, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did recently in an interview with CNN. This is worth noting only because prior to Western intervention in Libya, many of the Arab World's dictators seemed much more inclined to respond to their citizens' demands and, in fact, encouraged other Middle Eastern leaders to do likewise. During the height of the Tahrir demonstrations in Cairo, for example, President Ahmadinejad, presumably speaking on behalf of the Iranian regime, urged Mubarak to respect the demands of his citizens. King Abdullah recently instituted notable steps to further women's rights in Saudi Arabia, in addition to announcing $37 billion in benefits to low and middle income Saudis. President Assad has also made conciliatory gestures to his people during the Syrian demonstrations of the past few months. Today, however, following Western involvement in Gaddafi's death, the rhetoric coming out of Tehran, Damascus and, to a lesser extent Riyadh, has returned to its familiar tune with its focus on the misdoings of the West rather than the plethora of problems facing them at home. The tragic upshot of all of this is that public discourse, at least in the Arab world, has turned from the remarkable and ongoing achievements of the Arab Spring to Western interventionism, thereby working to truncate, or at least distract from, the revolutions currently taking place in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.

Another unsavory consequence of Gaddafi's death is that it comes at a time when the US is quietly navigating a labyrinth of weighty foreign policy decisions, all of which seem, in one way or another, to involve Iran. Placing Gaddafi's death in the context of these increasingly complex regional developments highlights several difficulties facing US policy in the region.

First, Gaddafi's death coincides with international attempts led by the US to pressure Iran into abandoning its quest for weapon-grade nuclear technology. The UN-approved, US-NATO intervention in Libya does nothing to strengthen Iran's relationship with NATO, which is already rocky due to NATO's missile shield plan in Turkey. Nor does Western intervention in Libya and the resulting death of Gaddafi work to foster trust between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If anything, Gaddafi's death encourages Iran to further limit its cooperation with the international community. Western intervention in Libya and the resulting death of Gaddafi, also coincide with Ayatollah Khamenei's recent announcement that the position of the president in Iran is indispensable. While no doubt a result of ongoing hostility between President Ahmadinejad, the Parliament and the Supreme Leader, Khamenei's announcement in the days before Gaddafi's death raises the question of whether he is simply attempting to remove what would otherwise be one of the few legitimate targets for public dissatisfaction in Iran in the manner witnessed in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. If this were true, Gaddafi's death would only fortify Khamenei's thinking.

With regard to regional politics, Gaddafi's death comes at a time when Iranian influence in the Middle East has reached unprecedented levels. Iranian influence has never been stronger, not only in the so-called Shi'a Crescent (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Bahrain), but, increasingly, in traditionally Sunni territory, including Gaza, Qatar and Oman. Former foes of Iran have either been toppled or are facing domestic unrest. Unlike years past, the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are "in play" for Iran. Iran's principle antagonist in its quest for regional supremacy is, of course, Saudi Arabia. Although both countries have experienced recent episodes of domestic unrest, both find themselves relatively unscathed by the Arab Spring and eager to exert their influence on the region in what is essentially a "proxy war" between the two adversaries. As the US has failed — again — to initiate any meaningful developments in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and as new or recently established governments feel less inclined to affiliate with Washington, Iran eagerly attempts to fill the void. Nowhere is this more evident than in Iraq, where the Iranian-backed factions of the Iraqi government continue to exert remarkable influence, evidenced most recently by the Government of Iraq's refusal to extend the timeframe for the withdrawal of US troops from the country.

So how does the Arab Spring and, specifically, Gaddafi's death play into all of this? President Obama recently stated that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and killing of Gaddafi signify a resurgence of American leadership. At least for many Arabs, President Obama is mistaken. If anything, Gaddafi's death reinforces long-held inclinations among Middle Eastern leaders that Washington cannot be trusted. The old regimes have become wary of Washington, while the new governments want to start on their own two feet, free from foreign intervention. For leaders in the Middle East, the death of Gaddafi stands as a cogent reminder that cooperation with the West does not guarantee anything. Such a reality opens the door to increased Iranian influence in the region, and does little to diffuse the increasing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The result may well be that the Arab Spring will take back seat to the Saudi-Iranian dispute with Iraq — much to the fear of the US — being the principal pawn.

Overall, besides being a historic achievement in the history of Libya and, indeed, the Arab World, Gaddafi's death introduces several challenges that may ultimately work to undermine the development of the Arab Spring and US policy in the region. The Obama administration can mitigate some of these challenges by continuing to support — economically, politically, and diplomatically, as opposed to using force — the Arab Spring, while concomitantly seeking to reevaluate aspects of US policy in the Middle East that, unfortunately, overshadow the otherwise positive, commendable and meaningful contributions made by America in the Middle East and throughout the world.

Jordan Toone began his studies of the Middle East as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University. He completed the Arabic program at the American University of Cairo Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, and went on to receive a master's degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford.

Suggested citation: Jordan Toone, Unintended Consequences: Gaddafi's Death and the Arab Spring, JURIST - Dateline, Oct. 29, 2011, http://jurist.org/dateline/2011/10/jordan-toone-gaddafi-death.php.



This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Hand, associate editor of JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at studentcommentary@jurist.org

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