The King’s Speech
As California’s sun came up this morning, I had to turn off Al Jazeera’s livestream or I wouldn’t be able to keep writing. Today is my birthday. I was born thirty two years ago, on February 2nd, 1979. Coincidentally, that’s also the very day that the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from France, after 15 years of exile. I discovered that fact when, two years ago, I worked with an Iranian who had served as part of the Shah’s government and he told me the story of what had happened on the day I was born, from his perspective (at the time, a military jail cell in Tehran). He told me that Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, had engineered an agreement between Khomeini, the Savak, and the Iranian military to allow Khomeini’s return: the US needed someone to keep the communists out of power in Iran, so they chose Khomeini, choosing — as they did in Afghanistan — to use theocrats as a weapon against the godless Soviets. We know, or think we know, what happened next.
Officially, I suppose, the US was not involved. Officially, the US was calling for restraint and stability and democracy and all that. Is it true? I don’t know. Do you? Certainly it’s plausible; our ambassador to the UN suggested that once we got over our panic, Khomeini would someday be regarded as a saint. You can find other such quotes from high Carter officials — as well as official repudiations of them — but that’s not the point. It’s clear that Carter’s cabinet was divided over how to respond to the collapse of the Shah’s regime, and my Iranian friend’s account of how Cyrus Vance wanted to throw his weight behind Khomeini, while Zbigniew Brzezinski — his National Security Advisor — wanted to stage a military coup, is fully plausible. Perhaps historians of the period can tell me what really happened. And then, again, perhaps histories of the period tell an American version of the story, and to get the truth you’d have to talk to someone like my friend, someone who witnessed what happened from a peculiarly close angle. Or somewhere in between.
I want to talk about how we know what we know, or think we know, about what it is our government does. How involved has Obama been in what is happening in Cairo? Which side has he been on? And how? This morning, as pro-government thugs attacked peaceful anti-Mubarak protesters, Obama released this press release:
The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators. We repeat our strong call for restraint.
At best, these are simply empty words. The “violence that is taking place in Egypt” is taking place because someone ordered it, because someone needs it to be “taking place.” That someone is Mubarak. Do we not “know” this? Officially, I suppose, we do not. And so, officially, Obama can say nothing meaningful about what is happening, nothing more than the same empty and impotent gestures towards what should be happening, and no concrete steps to make it come about. We wouldn’t want to get involved in Egyptian business, would we? That would be imperialism. We wouldn’t want to tell the Egyptians how to go about democratically choosing their leaders. Publicly, anyway. Secretly, on the other hand, though — we are reassured by people who claim to know — Obama is doing more. He is using diplomacy.
For many, after all, the existence of — or the idea of — secret diplomacy allows us to not only entertain the possibility that Obama is secretly working for democracy, but to become strangely convinced of it. It has become something close to a certainty for a variety of commentators, something that “realistic” people know, while only only the naïve among us would demand that more be done publicly, openly. Max Bergmann, for example, wrote this yesterday, one of many such statements of deep confidence in things we are ignorant that I could have cited:
Yet, the cautious public statements likely camouflage an Administration that is very active and influential behind the scenes…I bet in a few years, when the documents are declassified or when WikiLeaks dumps another tens of thousands of pages of State Department documents, the role of the US and the Obama administration will likely be seen by historians as much more transformative and influential than it is perceived currently.
Where does Bergmann’s confidence come from? On what basis would he make that bet? He uses the word “likely” twice to cover over the fact that he is basically describing what President Bartlet would do, and assuming that Obama is playing from that script. But at most, we have only the Obama administration’s word for it that they are doing anything at all. From where, then, comes the certainty?
It’s a dynamic that has become very familiar, and I want to flag it here. When we need them to, the things that we don’t know come to seem like something other than an absence or lack of information. When their are stories we need to tell ourselves in order to maintain our self-image, when it comes to the beliefs we need to hold in order to see ourselves as the people we want or need to be, we cling to the things we don’t know as a way of disbelieving, tempering, mitigating, and overlooking the things we do know. Sure, everything we can see indicates that Obama is staying uninvolved as an authoritarian dictator uses violence to suppress popular protests for democracy. Sure it looks like we’re standing idle while Hillary Clinton’s old family friend clings to power. But that’s just for show! There’s all sorts of stuff going on that you and I don’t know about!
Maybe Bergmann will have changed his tune this morning. Of course, by the time we actually know the facts, the conversation will have moved on. No one will care anymore whether or not Max Bergmann was right; those facts will have been superseded — as they are being superseded right now, whenever you are reading this — by fast moving events. If Bergmann is wrong, he will shrug his shoulders and get back to the business of opining on current events.
I am not trying to attack Bergmann personally here; I could have picked on a variety of different people. Because what we are seeing is a liberal version of what Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style”:
Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, [paranoids] find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.
Only these are not the bad kind of paranoids, the conservative tea partiers who see only dark machinations in the secret workings of the state. These are the good kinds of paranoid, who see only benevolence in the things their state is doing that they know nothing about. Their original conception that the world of [Democratic] power is far-seeing and wise is fully confirmed by their lack of access to political bargaining and the making of decisions. What they do not know fully confirms what they desperately need to know: that Obama is “Handling Egpyt Pretty Well,” as Marc Lynch put it, five days and an eternity ago. I wonder if he still thinks that?
I don’t, and didn’t then. And the reason is that nothing in history leads me to suspect that Obama and his government are doing or would ever do anything but maintain Mubarak’s legitimacy as long as they can, and that, failing to keep him in power, they would work to engineer his replacement by someone who will do the same things he did, or as close as they could manage. The United State has always cared less about democracy in the Middle East than they have for every and any other consideration. We have always, for instance, thought it was more important that Israel have the kind of government in Cairo that they liked than that it be democratic. Why would that change now? We have always preferred to have a government that would give us access to the Suez and Egyptian airspace, that would crack down on “Islamists,” that would torture terrorist suspects for us when we needed them to. These things have always outweighed the US’s nominal advocacy for democratic reforms.
To think that anything has changed here, that Obama is doing anything but following the path taken by his predecessors — and him, right up until a week ago — would require some kind of evidence, right? But nothing I’ve seen disproves my presumption that the US’s goals in the region remain, as they always have, on the side of continuity. Bergmann and Lynch and company assume that, behind the scenes, the Obama administration is quietly pressuring Mubarak to step down. I want to be proven wrong, of course; I want Obama to step up and prove them right in their faith in him.
The events of this morning indicate, to me, the crushing and complete failure of whatever it was that Obama was supposed to have been doing behind the scenes. Last night, after so many days of secret negotiations behind the scenes, Obama spoke about how:
…my administration has been in close contact with our Egyptian counterparts and a broad range of the Egyptian people, as well as others across the region and across the globe [and] we have spoken out on behalf of the need for change. After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place. Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people. Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation. The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.
Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear — and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak — is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.
Obama has emphasized, over and over again, that the US will not take action; maybe that’s changing. But until now, the only honorable action has been inaction. He has praised the “professionalism” of the military, which has done no more than make sure none of the peaceful protesters were armed (a function it has strangely not carried out with respect to the pro-Mubarak mobs). He talks about how no other country should determine Egypt’s leader, by which, he means, the US will not lift a finger to liberate Egypt from the despot it worked very hard to keep in power for decades.
It is far, far too late for US inaction to be anything but complicity. I’m not sure what Obama should do. I’m not sure what he can do. But this is Obama’s mess. Whatever happens in Cairo will be on him, and on us. Obama said these words yesterday:
“I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place.”
In response to a speech in which Mubarak declared his intention to serve for the last eight months of his term:
My primary responsibility now is security and independence of the nation to ensure a peaceful transfer of power…I am now absolutely determined to finish my work for the nation in a way that ensures handing over its safe-keeping and banner … preserving its legitimacy and respecting the constitution. I will work in the remaining months of my term to take the steps to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
In other words, after Mubarak publicly insisted on overseeing the transfer of power, Obama publicly proclaimed that he had spoken to Mubarak, and that they had come to an understanding. And now, this morning, as pro-Mubarak thugs attack peaceful demonstrators — as Mohamed ElBaradei demands that the army intervene to protect protesters — we’re hearing the same thing from Obama, that “restraint” is necessary. But, of course, no one is listening to him. And that’s the point: these are just words for us.
What words did he use with Mubarak? We don’t know. It’s a secret. But I think we would be living in a different world if, instead of pretending to be a moral authority, instead of “standing for” principles he declined to lift a finger to support, he had reminded Mubarak of the things he left out of his speech, and had said what Mohannid Ali said:
Emergency law is still effective, which means oppression, brutality, arrests, and torture will continue. How can you have any hope for fair democratic elections under emergency law where the police have absolute power?
Internet is still not working, no talks of lifting censorship.
No talks of allowing freedom of speech, freedom to create political parties, freedom to participate in politics without the risk of getting arrested. FYI to start a political party you need the government’s permission. How do you expect democracy to come out of this?
He said he will put anyone responsible for corruption to trial right? What about putting the police who killed 300+ to trial? What about members of NDP who are the most corrupt businessmen/politicians in the country. Do you think he’ll put those to trial? Think again.
He didn’t even take responsibility for anything that went wrong in the last 30 years. Not even his condolences to the martyrs who have fallen in this revolution.
And if Obama had, publicly, made all future support to the military — all 1.3 billion that the military gets from us a year — contingent on something like this scenario:
The ousting of the regime entirely: President, government, and parliament [and] Establishing an interim (transitional) government representing everyone across the spectrum, chosen by the people, to make the necessary constitutional changes and prepare for fair democratic elections in 6 months while providing the necessary guarantees. There are lots and lots of names who can fill this interim government but everyone is concerned about the president of that transitional government, and to those I say:
Enough with the centralization of power. Its seems we can’t think out of the one-man-ruling-the-country box.
We are a country of 80 million people. Any honest decent Egyptian, who isn’t part of the current regime, could be the head of this interim government.
What’s wrong with ElBaradei? If you know anything about me I’m not exactly a fan of his, but we just need an honest man, who knows the necessary processes, constitutional changes and legislative changes required to establish the basis for democracy. I wouldn’t want ElBaradei or any of the current opposition leaders to be president for a full term, but ElBaradei has what it takes to put down the ground work for fair and democratic elections after 6 months. Some people say he’s too “soft” to handle the tough reality of Egypt, well you have to keep in mind a leader is only as strong as his supporters, so whichever whoever leader the people stand behind will have the necessary strength to lead this transitional phase. The circumstances of an interim government are different from a normal government. Think of it as a committee temporarily running the country with the primary focus being elections in 6 months.
Finally given 6 months of political freedom, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, no emergency law, and with constitutional and legislative changes, not only will we have one strong candidate for presidency, we’ll have dozens.
To add to that, here are Yasser El-Shimy (Underreported)’s suggestions for the “five steps Washington should take to expedite the Mubarak regime’s inevitable demise, and allow a transitional government to lead Cairo into democratic elections,” (via Tom Ricks):
1) Declare America’s unconditional support for the demands of Egyptian protesters, and recognition of a transitional national unity government to-be set up by the opposition. Mubarak is a dead man walking, and the sooner America sides with the winning side, the better it serves its own interests, and realizes its actual ideals. The United States must unequivocally side with the Egyptian people in their revolt. If this revolution fails, Mubarak will rule Egypt a la Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his influence and that of his state will be substantially diminished. It will not be long before another revolution or coup, perhaps less secular and less democratic, overthrows him or his successor from office.
2) Suspend all aid that directly benefits Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, while offering shipments of medical aid through the Red Crescent to all the injured protesters. This step should further weaken the Egyptian dictator, and offer an olive branch to the Egyptians who are currently suspicious of Washington’s duplicity in keeping Mubarak in power.
3) Declare Washington’s interest in forging a special friendship with the Egyptian people, offering to advise on (and potentially fund) education, infrastructure, technology, research and development, healthcare, etc. Egypt will be in a very grave economic condition, when Mubarak leaves, and will be grateful for all the help it can receive. The police force has reportedly orchestrated widespread acts of vandalism of public and private properties to spread panic among the population. The Egyptian stock market and many foreign investments are doomed for a few years to come. The government will be hard-pressed to meet the expectations of the population in light of the damage the Mubarak regime inflicted on the country prior to its departure and the flight of foreign capital.
4) Offer a free three month supply of wheat. Bread to Egyptians is the essential food staple that they cannot do without. Egyptians will be grateful if Washington helps stabilize food supplies at this critical juncture.
5) Warn regional governments against intervening in Egypt’s domestic politics on the side of the Mubarak regime. Arab dictatorships are invested in Mr. Mubarak’s survival, as they fear a democratic wave that could sweep them from power as well. Israel is also worried about the future of its peace treaty with its southern neighbor. Of the two, Arab capitals have a stronger cause for concern.
These measures should not only ensure a friendly Cairo-Washington relationship for the foreseeable future, but should ensure the establishment of a sustainable alliance that serves both countries’ interests.