Cario Ironies: Same Cast of American Characters, Different Play

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The United States’ public position on Egypt is “flexible.” That in and of itself is not surprising, given the ambiguities surrounding the Cairo uprising. Mubarak’s Egypt originally offered the United States a continuance of Anwar Sadat’s Cold War anti-Soviet alliance, and later provided a relatively stable strategic partner in the increasingly terror-ridden Middle East. Mubarak’s own escalating authoritarian tendencies were mostly ignored by successive administrations — at best, because he appeared less murderous than the usual Middle East authoritarians and postured as an opponent of the radical Islamists who would otherwise ostensibly rise to power, and, at worse, because realists worried only about how Egypt figured into US strategic objectives, without much concern for the human rights of its citizenry. In any case, a cumulative $50-billion-plus in aid was felt to have given the United States some influence in Egyptian governance, should Mubarak have deteriorated into something akin to Saddam Hussein.

When the protests in Egypt followed the Tunisian unrest, it was hard to discern the breadth of support of the dissidents or exactly what their anti-Mubarak demands boded — anarchy, eventual secular constitutional government, Islamist democracy in the fashion of Turkey, the emergence of another strongman, or a pathway to theocracy in the manner of Iran. But it was easy to see that a return of Egypt to its hostile, anti-Western posture of 1952–1973 would be a strategic disaster to the United States and its allies.

Moreover, the US has always been aware of the disturbing contradiction that Arab authoritarians such as Mubarak were in some sense more liberal than the constituents whose rights they so shamefully abused — at least in matters of anti-Westernism, anti-Semitism, and adherence to sharia law. Plebiscites without true constitutional government and an independent judiciary most likely would lead to a Hamas-like one-vote, one-time climate of terror, not a society like Switzerland’s. Moreover, Westernized Arab elites who talked eloquently about human rights often did so from abroad, failed to represent a majority of their countrymen, or located their idealism in the easy landscape of anti-Americanism.

In other words, all that history and ambiguity might have prompted American officials to maintain a solidarity and uniformity in careful and guarded public commentary, and to consistently stress constitutional principles and legal processes — offering support for steady but careful transition to consensual government, and skepticism of the Muslim Brotherhood — rather than to give wildly erratic assessments of the main Egyptian players. But that was not to be.

If we were to collate all the pronouncements of Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, and President Obama, the administration believes that Mubarak is a dictator and not a dictator, a strategic ally and an embarrassing liability — and that he must leave immediately, soon, perhaps as soon as possible, but he should also transition Egypt into a constitutional state right now, this summer, next fall, but then should leave if he is somehow not already gone.

We can glean from all this that there is no official policy spokesperson. We can also conclude that the administration’s private conversations with Egyptian officials will be explained to the press in a way that makes Obama, Biden, and Clinton seem decisive, wise, and formidable — and increasingly unreliable to their Egyptian counterparts. And we will be told that the Obama administration — which on coming into office jettisoned the entire Bush approach to human rights in the Middle East (“reset”) as hopelessly neoconservative — was all along a strong promoter of freedom and consensual government and is in some way to be credited for the protests (but only if they do not descend into permanent chaos). What is going on here?

To get some idea of how politics trumps principles with these three players, go back to the September 10–11, 2007, “General Betray Us” congressional hearings. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker presented an entire corpus of data that supported the success of the surge in Iraq. Petraeus finished with an upbeat summation: “Our country’s men and women in uniform have done a magnificent job in the most complex and challenging environment imaginable. All Americans should be very proud of their sons and daughters serving in Iraq today.” Ambassador Crocker shared this appraisal of the surge’s effects, albeit with a disturbing warning to the wavering Congress: “I cannot guarantee success in Iraq. I do believe, as I have described, that it is attainable. I am certain that abandoning or drastically curtailing our efforts will bring failure, and the consequences of such a failure must be clearly understood.”

No matter. On the day before the hearings even began, Democratic senator Joe Biden — who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and who had voted to authorize the war in October 2002 — had assured the country that Petraeus was “dead flat wrong.” During the actual proceedings, Biden implied the general’s statistics were irrelevant, provided his own ad hocanecdotes about the impossibility of traveling in Iraq, and promoted his own plan to set up independent Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni enclaves — a proposal that he would soon push through the Senate on a nonbinding resolution, but that was thankfully otherwise ignored. After his advice was rejected, the surge worked, and he became vice president, Biden breezily announced that a stable Iraq might well become one of the Obama administration’s “greatest achievements.”

At the time, Sen. Hillary Clinton (who also had voted to authorize the war in October 2002) in most polls led all her Democratic rivals for the 2008 nomination. After Petraeus finished his testimony, she grilled the general, essentially calling him a liar: “I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief. Any of the metrics that have been referenced in your many hours of testimony, any fair reading of the advantages and disadvantages accruing post-surge, in my view, end up on the down side.”

It was hard to tell whether Clinton was accusing Petraeus of cooking the books, or simply of offering a disingenuous and false analysis of the otherwise reliable data. In any case, her venom apparently reflected her fear of her chief Democratic rival, Barack Obama, who — while he had not been a senator in 2002 when Congress authorized the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein — was trumpeting his longtime opposition to the war.

Senator Obama lectured Crocker and Petraeus for seven minutes without pausing for a reaction from either or posing a single question. Then he concluded, “We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006, is considered success, and it’s not. This continues to be a disastrous foreign-policy mistake.”

In fact, candidate Obama’s assessment was mild compared to his earlier assertions. In January 2007, he called for all American combat forces to be removed from Iraq by March 31, 2008. Later that month, he greeted the announcement of the Petraeus surge with an especially pessimistic forecast: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” Four days later, he said, “I don’t know any expert on the region or any military officer that I’ve spoken to privately that believes that that is going to make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground.” Even as the surge progressed, Obama declared it a failure. While campaigning in New Hampshire in July 20, 2007, he said, “Here’s what we know. The surge has not worked.”

By the time of the hearings, it was essential to candidate Obama’s budding foreign-policy reputation that he stand by these pessimistic appraisals. On national television he, like other senators and the pack of presidential candidates, was not about to let the general get away with the impression that the surge was working. All this posturing was quietly scrapped from the Obama campaign websites and literature in mid-2008, when it became indisputable that the surge had, in fact, secured Iraq and would lead a President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to adopt the Bush-Petraeus plans of stabilizing and withdrawing from Iraq in their entirety.

I could go on, but one gets the picture that the three senators had no idea of actual events on the ground in Iraq, but understood the political calculus of pro forma denouncing the surge, and sometimes Petraeus along with it, in their shared race for the presidency.

Today, mutatis mutandis, the same is generally true: All three in their new roles are searching in the same old manner for the politically proper response without any deep reflection about or study of what the turmoil in Cairo represents. They sound as confused and political as they did in 2007, but unfortunately, this time around they are no longer blustering senators with presidential ambitions and without responsibility for the implementation of US foreign policy.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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