Carpenter Discusses Unrest In Libya

Host Melissa Block speaks with J. Scott Carpenter — former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs — about the unrest in Libya and how the uprisings in the Middle East could continue to spread across the region — and well beyond.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The turmoil in Libya, of course, follows popular uprisings that toppled autocratic rulers first in Tunisia and then Egypt. And the waves of discontent continue to ripple through other countries across the Middle East, including now Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Middle East watchers are trying to calculate which regime might be the next to fall. That question is much on the mind of J. Scott Carpenter, a former State Department official who was in charge of encouraging political and economic reform in the region. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. J. SCOTT CARPENTER (Keston Family Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Thank you, great to be with you.

BLOCK: And, Scott, you and I spoke last time, two weeks ago, when you were in Tunis and you at the time, talking about Libya, said that of all the countries in North Africa, that was the one where you would most like to see freedom come. But at the time, you were also cautious about the likelihood of that happening, right? Let's take a listen to what you said then.

Mr. CARPENTER: I think you'll see pockets of resistance against the regime primarily in Benghazi, which has been a seat of resistance to Gadhafi in the past. But it's unlikely that there's a broad revolution. But, again, in these circumstances where these forces have been unleashed, it's uncomfortable to make very strong predictions.

BLOCK: Uncomfortable, and here we are two weeks later.

Mr. CARPENTER: Luckily, I'm protected myself in that way.

BLOCK: And you gave yourself an out.

Mr. CARPENTER: Yeah.

BLOCK: What do you think happened in those two weeks?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, the reason why I thought it was so unlikely that this would spread in Libya was because of the violence that Gadhafi would use against the people. And he tried and it failed. And once that fear barrier is broken in any country in which it is the primary instrument of coercion, all bets are off against the regime. And that's what I think you've seen in Libya.

And I think that this is probably not just a regional phenomenon anymore either. I think that this is going to be something that's going to spread across the world, much as the revolutions of 1848 changed the way Europe evolved.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about that in a second. But first, on Libya, are you assuming that the Gadhafi regime is teetering now on its very last legs?

Mr. CARPENTER: I think it's becoming increasingly geographically isolated in and around Tripoli. Pushing Gadhafi into a corner where he may use - unleash whatever force he has left against the people. But I do think that his days are now numbered.

BLOCK: In the last couple of days we've been seeing violent protests in the Persian Gulf state of Oman. Now and all of a sudden, the sultan there inspired to create jobs and hand out cash to job seekers, what do you think happens in the Gulf?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, again, I think the monarchies have a different basis for legitimacy than the secular republics do. And so I think that from that point of view, they have a better chance of taking care of some of these economic issues. They're also much wealthier.

However, in Bahrain and Oman, there is not a whole lot of money to be spread about. And so in these two countries, there could be a little more social unrest. I am much more worried about the situation in Bahrain, frankly. Why Bahrain matters, really, is because what the impact on Saudi Arabia is going to be.

If a Shia majority unseats a Sunni minority, what are the implications for the Eastern province?

BLOCK: And it's interesting if you look at what is going on in Saudi Arabia right now, you have a large group of academics calling for sweeping reforms and a constitutional monarchy.

Mr. CARPENTER: Right. And the prism through which the king is seeing this is purely economic. But I think that there are real political, again, social demands that people have. So seeing this as a purely economic phenomenon, I think, is a mistake.

BLOCK: Getting back to your analogy about the revolutions of 1848, when you look, when you step back and look broadly at what's going on across North Africa and the Middle East, are you seeing seams that unite all of these uprisings, or do they seem to you that each country is unhappy in its own way?

Mr. CARPENTER: I think the main drivers of this, of course, is economic. But it goes well beyond that. There's social and political dynamics that are involved as well. And why I equate it with the 1848 revolutions is this is really about ideas and the ability of free people who are living freely on the Internet.

And that's why I also don't think that it's going to stop at the borders of the Arab region. I think it's going to spread because the Internet is a global phenomenon and people who are living on the internet live there in a free world. And whether that's in Belarus or China or Burma, the same challenges, I think, are going to be felt.

BLOCK: You do see it spreading that far?

Mr. CARPENTER: I see it spreading that far.

BLOCK: Scott Carpenter, thanks for coming in.

Mr. CARPENTER: Great to be with you. Thanks.

BLOCK: J. Scott Carpenter was in the State Department during the Bush administration. He's now Keston fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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