Bashar’s blood brothers


Among the more dismal displays in recent weeks has been that of governments openly expressing their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria—or simply refusing to blame it for the savage, months-long repression of domestic dissent.

More remarkable still, most of the governments adopting such an approach lean politically to the left and claim to be sympathetic to popular aspirations. Several have suffered from domestic repression in their modern history. These states include Brazil, India and South Africa, who abstained recently in a vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria; but also Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, who sent representatives in a delegation to Damascus last weekend to give confidence to Syria’s leadership.

The old concept of “Third Worldism” was for a long time shorthand for anti-Americanism. But what we are witnessing today is something more complex. When Brazil, India and South Africa refuse to condemn the manifest thuggery of a Syrian regime whose crimes can be readily called up on the BlackBerrys of their United Nations ambassadors, they happen to be sending contradictory messages.

They are saying, first, that the balance of power in the Security Council has changed, and it has changed in that the three states are no longer willing to docilely toe the line set by the United States and the Europeans. This is an act of affirmation, not displaced inferiority, a consequence of these states’ growing regional and international influence, thanks in large part to their economic successes.

But the reaction is also one that incorporates resentment of a Western-dominated international order. It is even, to an extent, an illustration of lingering sentimentality for Third World causes. That the particular “cause” in Syria happens to be mass murder is irrelevant. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, like President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, comes from a leftist tradition, where the default setting was once to align with regimes from the developing world. India, with its history of nonalignment, is no different.

South Africa has been equally ambiguous on Libya, backing Moammar al-Qaddafi despite his declared intent to crush his opponents “like rats.” For Zuma, Qaddafi defended the African National Congress in a time of need, earning such solidarity. Yet there is a problem when solidarity is expressed for individuals at the expense of democratic ideals. What kind of hypocrisy is it for a government dominated by the ANC, which spent decades fighting against an oppressive, discriminatory political system, to now side with the oppressor in Libya—and by omission in Syria?

One expects less discernment from the likes of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. The principal prism through which they consider Syria, or Libya, is that of hostility toward the United States and inherent sympathy for America’s enemies. Cuba and Venezuela are effectively led by dictators, so they have no profound philosophical difficulty with Assad, or with Qaddafi. But it must have been disheartening indeed for the average Syrian to observe this exotic deputation of Latinos, thoroughly illiterate in the ways of Syria or its uprising, disembarking in Damascus to defend a homicidal autocrat whom most of them know next to nothing about.

The duplicity of the so-called “people’s republic” of China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is well established when it comes to covering for the abuses of foreign governments. Moscow and Beijing have always been realists to the core, pursuing their interests regardless of the transgressions of their overseas partners. China sold weapons to Qaddafi even as his regime was collapsing, while Russia has intervened brutally too many times in the Caucasus to readily set a new precedent against such behavior by condemning Assad.

What conclusions can we draw from this catalogue of insincerity? The most obvious is that Western democracies, for all their own insincerities, have tended to be more consistent in bolstering humanistic values than much of the rest of the world. The Obama administration was initially disinclined to get involved in Libya, and took far too long to demand Assad’s departure. But when the decisions were taken—and the United Kingdom and France were instrumental in leading on the Libya and Syria fronts—the diplomatic or military machinery, or both, kicked commendably into gear.

The template of a naturally domineering, exploitative West facing off against a vulnerable, victimized South is utter nonsense. This characterization may sound like an exaggeration, but it is far less so than you might imagine. The romance of revolution (for many of the governments backing Qaddafi and Assad somehow perceive themselves to be revolutionary, or on the side of revolution internationally) is often made doubly powerful by its imprecision. Only such imprecision, the imposition of a black-or-white reading of Syria’s standoff against Europe and the United States, can induce governments to take the side, explicitly or implicitly, of a leader who merits a seat in the dock at the International Criminal Court.

I will wager you an all-expenses trip to Managua, Havana or Cape Town, that the cynical reckonings of Assad’s new international comrades will prompt no invitation for us to reinterpret the current state of international relations. That countries arousing so many positive expectations in the past should somehow find themselves protecting, essentially, criminal enterprises, is a sign of moral and ideological bankruptcy. And yet those countries will continue to elicit warm feelings worldwide for allegedly challenging the global status quo. Few will see this impression for the lie that it is.

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