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The Embarrassments of Empire

Washington wonders what to say about Arab freedom.

| Thu Mar. 10, 2011 4:49 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

From Egypt to Pakistan, February 2011 will be remembered as a month unusually full of the embarrassments of empire. Americans were enthralled by a spectacle of liberty in which we felt we should somehow be playing a part. Here were popular movements toward self-government, which might once have looked to the United States as an exemplar, springing up all across North Africa and the Middle East. Why did they not look up to us now?

The answer became clearer with every equivocal word of the Obama administration, and every false step it took in trying to manage the crisis. A person suffers embarrassment when something true about himself emerges in spite of reasonable efforts to conceal it. It is the same with nations. Sovereign nations are abstract entities, of course—they cannot have feelings as people do—but there are times when they would blush if they could.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was weakened and finally brought down by nonviolent popular actions that started in Cairo and spread to Alexandria, Suez, and many other cities. At first, Mubarak took a dictator's prerogative and named his successor. Soon after, he changed his mind and declined to step down. At last, he gave in to the unrelenting demands of the people and pressure from the army.

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Throughout the 18 days of upheaval, Washington spoke of the need for an "orderly transition." President Obama and his advisers seemed to side with the Egyptian demonstrators vaguely and sentimentally, yet they never sought a connection with them, not even through a figure of international renown like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency who earned a Nobel peace prize in 2005. The US took extreme care not to offend Mubarak. There was a period of perhaps three days after Obama dispatched Frank Wisner (a former ambassador and personal friend of Mubarak) as special envoy to consult with the dictator when the world was given to understand that America was planning the longest of farewells.

Such was the American response to an expression of popular will that had no precedent. For in the end, the protest swept up millions of demonstrators: by some estimates nearly a quarter of Egypt's population of 81 million, in a mass action whose exhilaration could be shared by all who watched. The crowd in Tahrir Square had none of the poisonous quality of a mob. Even the most respectable citizens—doctors, lawyers, teachers, shopkeepers, women as well as men—were drawn in little by little, visiting the demonstrations after work, throwing in their lot, and finally staying overnight in the square.

President Obama sanctified the process only after it was sealed by success. He said, in a telling phrase, that it had been a "privilege" for him to watch "history taking place." To add, as Obama did, that the result belonged to the Egyptian people alone was fitting; yet the protestors could respond with perfect justice that they owed nothing to American help. Was this degree of detachment inevitable?

Look into the order of events a little more closely and you see a picture of the contradictions of American policy over the last half-century. On day one of the protest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced the Egyptian government "stable"; two days later, on a news program, Vice President Joe Biden refused to call Mubarak a dictator; the following day, President Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak and "urged him to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people."

If that sounds vague, far vaguer was to come. Having dispatched Wisner to Cairo, the president committed himself to this sentiment: "An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." A wishful commandment that read like a polite editorial. It left unclear the meaning of "orderly," the meaning of "now," and the meaning of "meaningful."

Day nine found the administration "concerned" about attacks on the protestors, but not concerned enough to do anything. Obama did, however, call Mubarak once more. In a private version of the "wishful commandment," he told him that it was time to go. Mubarak did not go.

The chaos of day 12 offers a striking reflection of the stance of the White House as spectator. Returned from Cairo, Wisner asserted that Mubarak must be allowed to stay for several months longer, since his "continued leadership is critical." In the same tenor, Hillary Clinton affirmed that any transition to democracy "takes some time. There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare." Yet the White House and the State Department went out of their way to dissociate themselves from the explicit conservatism of Wisner's injunction.

Right to the end, Obama limited himself to comforting generalities whose practical significance was obscure. On day 13, for example, he allowed that Egypt was "not going to go back to what it was." Meanwhile, the administration that went on the record in favor of "real, concrete" reforms never named one.

Stability First, Democracy Second

To say that our leaders covered themselves with shame would be melodramatic. To say that they were embarrassed by unforeseeable obstructions would be much too kind. They could not help speaking for democracy, because that is what the US thinks it stands for; if our actions sometimes expose us to the charge of hypocrisy, our words have the single-mindedness of sincere belief. How then did American policy in February come so palpably untethered?

We have supported a succession of military strongmen in Egypt going as far back as 1952, when the CIA judged Gamal Abdel Nasser a plausible bulwark against Communism. The US gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in aid (mostly military). Of all our clients, only Israel gets more, at $3 billion annually. The view in Washington has long been that those two nations will oversee "the neighborhood" on our behalf. That is why a nonviolent insurgency on the West Bank, if it should occur, would meet as baffled a response from Washington as the February days in Egypt. The embarrassment is part of the situation.

A fair surmise is that Obama was no less confusing in private than in public; that when he spoke to Mubarak, his words were muffled and decorous: "You must begin leaving, but I will never desert you"—something like that. The difference between Mubarak's shakiness in his first televised speech to the country and his evident composure in his second speech may well be explained by a signal that he took for an assurance.

I will never desert you, one recalls, is the message that Barack Obama conveyed to Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (when Obama was still a candidate); to the banks and financial firms (in February 2009); to Dick Cheney and the torture lawyers (in his National Archives Speech of May 2009); to General David Petraeus (in the months preceding the 2009 administration review of the Afghan War); to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (in the summer of 2009); and to the US Chamber of Commerce (in February 2011).

The need to give assurance seems to be an inseparable trait of Obama's character. He deals with big decisions by first moving to cement a secure alliance with the powers-that-be, no matter how discredited they are, no matter how resounding his previous contempt for them may have been. Yet this is a reflex that often prematurely cedes control to the powerful over whom he might otherwise be in a position to exert leverage. That fight, however, is not for him.

To say it another way, Obama visibly hates crisis. He is so averse to the very idea of instability that he seems unable to use a crisis to his advantage. Seldom, to judge by the evidence thus far, is he the first, second, or third person in the room to recognize that a state of crisis exists. The hesitation that looked like apathy and the hyper-managerial tone of his response to the BP oil spill offered a vivid illustration of this trait. Egypt brought out the same pattern.

How did the statements and actions of the president and his advisers strike Egyptian demonstrators who were risking their lives for freedom? A February 6th story in the New York Times by Kareem Fahim, Mark Landler, and Anthony Shadid concluded that "the moves amounted to a rebuff to the protesters," and added that this was the way things looked to those in Tahrir Square: "By emphasizing the need for a gradual transition, only days after emphasizing that change there must begin immediately, the Obama administration was viewed as shifting away from the protesters in the streets and toward stronger backing for Mr. Mubarak's hand-picked elite."

To capture the zig-zag path of American policy over the 18 days before Mubarak fell is not an easy task; but it is fair to say that the administration went from thinking the protests signified next to nothing, to pleading for an orderly transition, to emphasizing the necessary slowness of an orderly transition, to upbraiding Mubarak for so obviously standing in place, to rejoicing at the triumph of liberty. All this, in the course of just over two weeks.

Why could the US not speak with a single voice? We say the word "democracy" and invoke its prestige with such careless fluency that we are surprised when we see its face. But here, the embarrassment was not only public and diplomatic, it was also personal and sentimental. A dictator through long acquaintance may become a familiar and comforting associate. In the second week of February, it emerged that Wisner's law firm, Patton Boggs, had handled arbitration and litigation on behalf of Mubarak's government, and that Secretary of State Clinton had said as recently as March 2009: "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family."

Our Empire and Our Election Cycles

If American officials looking at Egypt felt themselves "cabined, cribbed, confined," anyone who knew the history of our Middle East policy could see the immediate cause. There was also a mediate cause, so ubiquitous as to be easily forgotten. This was, of course, Israel and the constant presence of Israel in American politics. In the last three months alone, Sarah Palin made public plans for a trip to Israel, and the Christian Zionist Mike Huckabee said that the US ought to "encourage the Israelis to build as much as they can and as rapidly as they can" on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Nor has Barack Obama been indifferent to such pressures. In earlier years, he expressed unmistakable sympathy for the cause of Palestinian independence; but the story changed in 2008, as he entered the last leg of the race for president. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in June of that year, Obama made an astonishing pledge with religious overtones: the American commitment to Israeli security was, he said, "sacrosanct." On his way to the White House, Obama purged his advisorate of figures like Robert Malley and Zbigniew Brzezinski who were deemed unsuitable by the Israel lobby.

Then, in June 2009, he made his celebrated Cairo speech, with its message of hope and sympathy for the progress of a liberal Muslim society. There at Cairo University, Obama called for a halt both to Palestinian terror and the Israeli occupation. Soon after, Hillary Clinton reiterated the demand that Israel enforce a complete stop to the building of settlements, with no exceptions for "outposts" or "natural growth."

Benjamin Netanyahu simply defied these grave utterances; and he soon found he could do so with impunity. By the end of that summer, Obama had been persuaded to let pass in quiet disapproval anything Israel chose to do. The mid-term elections were now drawing close; and Obama apparently judged it expedient to have his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and family photographed on a visit to the Golan Heights.

Yet the ascent of the administration to that perfection of embarrassment was gradual and its stages deserve to be remembered. When, in March 2010, Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to Israel (saying "It's good to be home"), he was greeted by an announcement from the interior ministry that it had approved the construction of 1,600 new building units for Jews in East Jerusalem: a calculated insult to President Obama. This led Biden to issue a public rebuke of Netanyahu, and Hillary Clinton to restate the administration's anti-settlement policy. A request by Netanyahu to visit the White House was subsequently refused.

Netanyahu, however, realized that such embarrassment would eventually work to his advantage. By the end of May, thoughts of the mid-term election were coming to the fore in Washington. Without Israeli policy having changed in any way, the Obama administration began to warm up. The election-sensitive nature of this thaw was borne out by the revelation, in January 2011, that the White House had been dealing with Ehud Barak in preference to Netanyahu; that it had been charmed by his competence, seduced by his promises, and was now "furious" at his non-performance in the peace process.

So the pattern has been: a step toward pressure on Israel, followed by a step back into the arms of the Israel lobby—the second step coinciding with an upcoming election cycle. The 2012 election and its financing are already much on Obama's mind. Unhappily for him, Turkey, Brazil, and other countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause chose this moment to put forward a U.N. resolution condemning the Israeli occupation of conquered lands and designating Israel's settlements there "illegal."

Again, there was an embarrassed phone call from Obama, this time to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Could the PA put off the vote? Or, if there had to be a U.N. statement, did it have to commit the US to a legally binding resolution? But Abbas himself had lost confidence in Obama and his own reputation had recently been badly tarnished by WikiLeaks revelations of the PA's capitulation to past American requests. The settlements were in any case in violation of international law, specifically article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Abbas accordingly rebuffed Obama's entreaty for a milder resolution and the American president suffered the embarrassment of issuing his first veto in the U.N. in utter defiance of the hopes expressed so eloquently in his Cairo speech.

But the interlude was not over. For Obama could not bear to stand as the sole obstacle (alongside Israel) to a unanimous vote in favor of the resolution without making it clear that he did so with a bad conscience. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, offered the explanation in public in a speech that managed to concede almost every particular the resolution had specified: "Continued settlement activity violates Israel's international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace."

If there is any precedent for such an "Explanation of Vote," the precedents must be few. The only difference between Obama's position and the U.N. resolution was that the resolution would have backed such words by enforceable action. "Set honor in one eye," says Brutus in Julius Caesar, "and death i' th'other, and I will look on both indifferently." The embarrassment of the U.N. vote was that Obama set justice in one eye, and a presidential campaign in the other, and the world was in a position to see which way he turned.

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