I beg to differ

by zunguzungu

Alex Pareene, who I am normally much more accustomed to agree with about stuff, wrote these words:

The media is biased in favor of American action. People on CNN and people on Twitter both demand that Barack Obama and the State Department “do something” about the demonstrations. Announce our support for democracy! Use diplomatic voodoo to make Mubarak step down! Prop up a new Egyptian leader and somehow make this revolution spread to Iran! It’s understandable: It goes against the nature of the medium to suggest that we just watch and analyze the events of a far-away nation and examine America’s role only in a historical sense. But our national narcissism is infecting every corner of the debate, from all sides

I think supporting Mubarak for 30 years was a bad idea, if also an understandable one based on how we’ve conducted our foreign policy for 100 years, but I can’t imagine what moves the administration could make now that would improve the situation in Egypt for anyone.

He is, it seems to me, conflating neo-con saber rattling with those of us who want the US to unambiguously say something along the lines of:

Any military violence against protesters will result in a complete cut-off of military aid and we look forward to working with the future leadership of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak.

Because we’ve been up to our eyebrows in support for this corrupt, authoritarian, repressive dictatorship for decades — and still are, right now — the US does not have the option to “just watch and analyze the events of a far-away nation.” Egypt is very close. And using the phrase “examine America’s role only in a historical sense” is infuriating: our hand-in-glove relationship with Egypt’s corrupt, authoritarian, repressive dictatorship didn’t magically end the moment protesters started demonstrating, however nice it would be for our leaders if it had. There is simply nothing “historical” about it. It is going on right now. As I tweeted to @pareene a few minutes ago,

Given the way the Egyptian military is wavering, and how many of them were trained by the US (and work closely with American officers), it is bizarre to think the US doesn’t have any leverage here. The US gov is already in this up to its neck. Inaction is just quiet intervention on the side of the status quo we’ve supported for decades.”

To which he responded:

“right, but I’m talking more about our public “response” than about what our government is probably quietly/frantically doing”

And, to which, I responded:

You use the phrase “diplomatic voodoo” to describe the thing people are demanding. There’s nothing hard to understand about using the leverage we have from supporting Mubarak’s officer corps for decades. And expecting the US gov to do anything absent public pressure seems, to me, to be bizarrely naïve. I say this as someone who respects your work and is surprised to find myself disagreeing so vehemently.

Part of the problem is, of course, that our media is not talking much about the close military relationship between the US and Egypt. They should read this diplomatic cable for details, but I suspect that Pareene is responding to the fact that most of the people talking about what the US should do are scrupulously careful never to mention ugly little facts like the ways we fund Egypt’s military, or train the same police force that uses casual and routine and indiscriminate torture and violence against Egyptians. See this cable, for instance. And in that sense, he has a point: most of the big media people who are calling for actions do seem to be narcissistic neo-con types. But the fact that the nattering neo-cons of narcissism are calling for “action” and voodoo diplomacy doesn’t mean that the US is, for that reason, excused from the responsibility to be on the right side on this one.

To me, it seems, the obvious first step would be to work with the military, since, as Ellen Knickmeyer reported,

…in many ways, the armed forces rule Egypt, says analyst Daniel Brumberg at the U.S. Institute for Peace. Mubarak, himself a former Air Force commander, has deftly used American taxpayers’ dollars to underpin not just the military but his entire government. Egyptian generals are a privileged elite, enjoying weekends and retirements in breezy villas by the sea. They make clear that they expect a say in who rules the Arab world’s most populous country once Mubarak leaves the scene. Keeping the U.S. military aid flowing dominates Mubarak’s foreign policy, defined first and foremost in the region by its cold peace with Israel. After all, the annual influx of U.S. military aid ranks up there with tourism and Suez Canal tolls as Egypt’s main sources of revenue.

While this, from Ha’aretz, seems to me to be the most obvious reason why Obama has not taken those steps:

Israel called on the United States and a number of European countries over the weekend to curb their criticism of President Hosni Mubarak to preserve stability in the region. Jerusalem seeks to convince its allies that it is in the West’s interest to maintain the stability of the Egyptian regime. “The Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren’t considering their genuine interests,” one senior Israeli official said. “Even if they are critical of Mubarak they have to make their friends feel that they’re not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the reactions in the West, how everyone is abandoning Mubarak, and this will have very serious implications.”

I find nothing in that paragraph even remotely convincing (and columnists in Israeli papers are saying much more openly anti-democratic things). But I fear that our foreign policy apparatus is incapable of not being convinced by such arguments, of being too realistic and serious to listen to anything so patently absurd as mere “public opinion.” Such a thing has no place in modern democracies.