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Dhaka Tribune

After Karzai and Chalabi, it’s now Zelensky

A brief study of recent history should be a pointer to why the West may not see its dreams realised through the Ukrainian president

Update : 18 May 2023, 12:54 AM

There was a time not very long ago when men like Hamid Karzai embodied the hope of western powers. With the retreat of the Taliban and the ejection of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York, Karzai was the man the West banked on to reshape the country. 

Indeed, George W Bush and his administration improbably propagated the idea of nation-building being undertaken in the ravaged country.

Such western notions could not have been more wrong. 

The truth in our times is that democracy, as the West sees it, cannot be applied to the rest of the world. 

And Afghanistan, underpinned by its tribal culture for centuries, was not the place for a western-style democratic structure to take root. 

Predictably, Karzai could not live up to the expectations of the men who had parachuted him to power in Kabul. After him, Ashraf Ghani proved a disappointment as well, for the West.

A rather curious aspect of modern history has been this western obsession with encouraging and building up individuals it has thought would be leaders taking their nations into a luminous democratic landscape. 

Observe the happiness with which Ukraine's Volodymir Zelensky has been feted on his trips to western capitals in this past week. He has been heralded as a crusader in defense of democratic ideals, but ignored has been the grave damage the West has been doing through supplying him with the weapons they think will enable him to defeat Vladimir Putin. 

All this talk of a new Cold War has necessarily to do with the western determination to project Zelensky as the bright new hope in Europe rather than explore the means by which diplomacy could bring about an end to the conflict which has been ravaging Ukraine all these months. 

Given the fate of all politicians in conflict-ridden or problem-tainted countries beyond the West, it is not likely that Zelensky will end up being the leader his benefactors want him to be. 

A brief study of recent history should be a pointer to why the West may not see its dreams realised through the Ukrainian president.

Back in the early 2000s, the Bush administration and others in the West were quite confident that Ahmed Chalabi would be able to rebuild Iraq in a democratic way. Chalabi turned out to be a disappointment and was pushed aside by the occupying powers. Iraq is today as fragmented as it was when Anglo-American forces marched into it to remove Saddam Hussein on the basis of patent untruths. 

And that is another instance of a western favourite not meeting the standards of leadership outlined by the West. In the very recent past, the United States went out of its way to create the conditions that would force Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power. Its open encouragement of opposition politician Juan Guaido failed to come level with its expectations.

In the days when Mikhail Gorbachev had the Soviet Union awash with talk of glasnost and perestroika, the West lionized him, for he was on his way to rebuilding his country in line with western democratic traditions. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Gorbachev lost his bearings, the West quickly latched on to the idea of presenting Boris Yeltsin as the man who would bring democratic governance to Russia. 

Yeltsin, despite rising to the Russian presidency, was never able to go beyond the parameters of the local Communist Party apparatus he had led earlier in Moscow. Devoid of the intellect which characterizes purposeful leadership, Yeltsin was a grave disappointment to his people and to his friends in the West.

The West shunned General Ziaul Haq once he seized power from an elected government in Pakistan in the 1970s. But once Leonid Brezhnev decided to have his soldiers march into Afghanistan, it quickly embraced the dictator as an ally. In the Reagan years, Washington and Islamabad went happily into the questionable business of arming the Mujahideen in their war against the Soviets. 

Forgotten by the West was the need for Zia to pave the way for a restoration of democracy in Pakistan. When Zia died in an as yet unexplained plane crash in 1988, the West quickly turned to Benazir Bhutto. She was the new hope of the West as she was of Pakistan. Meanwhile, Afghanistan was being bloodied.

A long-time favourite of the West was General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte of Chile. The Nixon administration, having made the Chilean economy scream and played its role in dislodging the Salvador Allende government in a brutal and bloody manner in September 1973, was beside itself with joy seeing Pinochet take charge. 

Pinochet remained in power till 1990 and in all that period, he was the man in whom the West pinned its hopes for Santiago. Margaret Thatcher considered him a friend. The fact that Pinochet presided over one of the most despicable regimes in the southern hemisphere, that he had his enemies despatched not only at home but also abroad did not cause any scratches on his reputation.

The West has never looked kindly on Turkey's Recep Tayyep Erdogan. Neither has it had any inclination toward reaching an accommodation with the ayatollahs in Tehran. 

For decades, the West treated the authoritarian Shah as one of its own. For the West, Mossadegh had to be despatched. And he was despatched. When the elected president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the West certainly welcomed the move in so many words and gestures. 

Morsi's sin was that he was a right-wing politician. When he was placed under arrest and died in circumstances bordering on the medieval, not a whisper of protest was heard in the West. Washington and its friends, even as they press for democratic openings around the world, remain quite happy with Sisi in charge.  

The current preoccupation of the West with Zelensky is creating a bad precedent for the future. There is little likelihood that Ukraine can defeat Russia on the battlefield and once that becomes obvious, Zelensky's backers in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington will lose interest in the whole business. When that happens, Ukraine will find itself in conditions similar to those that came over Afghanistan when the West lost interest in it.

For leaders in the West, the paramount requirement today is accommodation with countries where nationalist forces play a central role in politics. The current obsession with demonizing President Putin is leading to a point of no return. 

Likewise, every move the West makes to contain China, a nation which now straddles almost the entire globe, is folly. The provocative way in which American politicians have been demonstrating their camaraderie with Taiwan is symptomatic of a lack of diplomatic finesse. 

This is not the era of John Foster Dulles. A unipolar world is simply not there anymore. 

In the age of multipolar geopolitics, the leadership in the West needs to take stock of the new realities. Building up Zelensky is unwise. And so is this inexplicable ambition of taking NATO to the doorsteps of the Russian Federation.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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