NEW DELHI – When Libya’s interim government announced the “liberation” of the country Oct. 23, it declared that a system based on the Islamic Sharia, including polygamy, will replace the secular dictatorship that Moammar Gadhafi ran for 42 years.
“We, as a Muslim nation, have taken Islamic Sharia as the source of legislation; therefore, any law that contradicts the principles of Islam is legally nullified,” declared interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
Swapping one evil for another may seem a cruel political comedown after seven months of relentless NATO airstrikes in the name of promoting democracy in Libya — an air war, with special-forces support, that enabled the ragtag rebel militias to triumph but left a vast trail of death and destruction.
The Western powers that militarily effected the regime change in Libya have made little effort to stop its new rulers from establishing a theocratic system founded on Islamic jurisprudence.
For the United States, Britain and France, such a political turn is an unavoidable price to pay to have their own men in power. The Islamist embrace indeed helps protect the credibility of men who otherwise may be seen as foreign puppets in their society.
This is the same reason why these powers have condoned the rulers of the oil sheikdoms for their long-standing alliance with radical clerics.
For example, the U.S.-backed House of Saud not only practices the century-old political tradition of Wahhabi Islam — the source of modern Islamic fundamentalism — but also exports this fringe form of Islam, with the result that the more liberal Islamic traditions elsewhere are being gradually snuffed out.
Yet when the Saudi crown prince died recently, Washington did not seek to encourage a more reform-oriented replacement. Now named as next in line to the king is Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, seen in Washington as a dependable ally despite his close ties with jihad-extolling clerics and his role as the head of the kingdom’s well-oiled security apparatus, which routinely carries out beheadings, floggings, and eye-gougings. Nayef has been dubbed the new “crown prince of darkness.”
So critical have the Arab monarchs become to U.S. interests that Washington has failed to stop these cloistered kings from continuing to fund Muslim extremist groups and madrasas in other countries. From Africa to South and Southeast Asia, Arab petrodollars have played a key role in fomenting militant Islamic fundamentalism that targets the West, Israel, and India as its enemies.
In fact, U.S. policy winked at this year’s Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to help crush the prodemocracy movement of the majority Shiite community. The Saudi intervention actually paralleled the 1979 Soviet intervention to bolster a besieged regime in Kabul — an invasion that led to the multibillion-dollar, CIA-led arming of Afghan rebels and the consequent rise of transnational Islamic terrorists, including al-Qaida.
The plain fact is that the U.S.-led regional strategy, far from being forward-looking, is driven by narrowly defined geopolitical interests. The imperative to have pliant regimes in oil-rich countries trumps other considerations and concerns, including political repression and the costs that women pay in Islamist-oriented states.
As a result, the U.S. still props up the Wahhabist monarchs in the Arab world, even as the relatively secular Arab states — Syria, Libya and Iraq — have fallen victim to U.S.-sponsored regime change or sanctions. The absence of oil resources in another more-secular Arab state — Egypt — made its long-standing ruler, Hosni Mubarak, dispensable for U.S. policy when he came under a popular siege domestically.
With the U.S. support they enjoy, the most-tyrannical regimes — the oil monarchies — have been able to ride out the Arab Spring, emerging virtually unscathed. For the U.S., the six monarchical states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman — are also critical for strategic interests.
After withdrawing its forces from Iraq, Washington plans to use Kuwait as a new military hub to expand its military presence in the Persian Gulf region and foster a U.S.-led “security architecture,” under which its air and naval patrols would be regionally integrated.
NATO’s regime change in Libya — which has the world’s largest reserves of light sweet crude, the top-notch oil that American and European refineries prefer — was clearly not about ushering in an era of liberal democracy.
Having been born in blood, the new Libya faces uncertain times. The only certain element is that its new rulers will remain beholden to those that helped install them.
U.S. Sen. John McCain has already announced after meeting the new Libyan rulers that they are “willing to reimburse us and our allies” for the costs of effecting the regime change. Given that the U.S. Treasury Department alone holds $37 billion worth of frozen Libyan assets, paying the estimated $1.2-billion bill for the NATO military mission may seem a small price for Libya.
More fundamentally, America’s troubling ties with Islamist rulers and groups were cemented in the 1980s when the Reagan administration openly employed Islam as an ideological tool to spur the spirit of jihad against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
The blatant use of Islam for geopolitical aims fostered a series of developments that have come to haunt the security of the free world, including the rise of the mujahideen, or “holy warriors,” the inculcation of a jihad culture in Pakistan by a U.S.-backed military ruler, Zia ul-Haq, and the birth of the Pakistan-fathered Afghan Taliban in which the CIA served as the midwife.
It was at a White House ceremony attended by some “holy warriors” from the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt in the mid-1980s that President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the mujahideen as the “moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.”
Two such moral equivalents, Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, later became America’s nemesis.
Whereas the U.S. finally killed bin Laden in a daring raid deep inside Pakistan this year, it is still seeking to cut a deal with Mullah Omar and his Quetta Shura to help secure a face-saving exit from the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Make no mistake: International terrorism and the modern-day Frankenstein monsters are the haunting by-products of the war against atheism and communism that the U.S. was supposed to have won.
Yet the lessons from that war have already been forgotten, including the need to keep the focus on long-term goals and not be carried away by political expediency and narrow geopolitical objectives.
The current attempt to strike a Faustian bargain with the Taliban, for example, ignores the very lesson from the creation of this evil force.
Another lesson that has fallen by the wayside is the need for caution in training Islamic insurgents and funneling lethal arms to them to help overthrow a regime. In Libya, bringing the myriad rebel militias under government control is likely to prove difficult, potentially creating a jihadist citadel at the southern doorsteps of Europe. Yet the regime-change success in Libya is likely to encourage greater Western indirect military support to Sunni rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian but secular regime, which has banned face veils in universities.
It has been argued by exponents of the U.S. policy approach that because a war runs on expediency, with strange bedfellows involved as partners, unsavory allies are unavoidable — ranging from Islamist militias to regimes that bankroll militant Islamic fundamentalism overseas. After all, to get rid of Nazism, the allies needed Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
However, these advocates overlook the fact that Stalin did not create Hitler or foster Nazism; nor was Stalin’s removal necessary to eradicate Nazism.
Paradoxically, the U.S. practice of propping up malleable but Islamist rulers in the Middle East creates a street-level situation not only laden with strong anti-U.S. sentiment but also support for more authentically Islamist and independent forces. So, if elections are held, it is such autonomous Islamists that often emerge as winners, as the diverse cases of Gaza and Tunisia attest.
This trend, in turn, encourages U.S. policy to back rulers that espouse Islamist beliefs as the legitimating credo of their hold on power.
Let’s be clear: The global fight against terrorism can succeed only by ensuring that states do not contribute in any way to the rise of virulent Islamic fundamentalism extolling violence as a sanctified religious tool. Yet today, history is in danger of repeating itself.
The brutal killing of Gadhafi by his NATO-backed captors and the macabre public display of his body for several days in another city populated by a rival tribe were redolent of the manner in which former Afghan President Najibullah was dragged out of the United Nations compound in Kabul by the Taliban in 1996, beaten, shot dead, and hung from a traffic barricade.
What followed was unending bloodletting that has turned Afghanistan into an open sore for regional and international security.
In this light, will Libya become another jihadist haven?
Brahma Chellaney is author of “Asian Juggernaut” (Harper, 2010) and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2011).