U.S. News & World Report 2011-9-22 On Monday I attended a lecture given by John Mearsheimer, the eminent political scientist and foreign affairs specialist. It was hosted by a group called the Committee for the Republic, which stands in plucky opposition to American empire. It was held at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Victorian manor just off Washington's Dupont Circle, and it was attended by about a hundred concerned citizens, including businessmen, lawyers, journalists, and activists.
U.S. News & World Report 2011-9-14 Earlier this month in The Nation, blogger Robert Dreyfuss contributed to the magazine's superb meditation on the Arab Awakening with a look at how the Obama White House responded to the popular revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As opposition to Mubarak reached its crescendo in February, according to Dreyfuss, senior White House aides frantically urged military leaders in Cairo to relieve themselves of him.
U.S. News & World Report Unwittingly no doubt, the Pentagon is marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by repeating one of the mistakes that provoked The Big One in the first place.
U.S News & World Report 2011-8-25 Why are we still in NATO?" I've fielded this question a half-dozen times over the last week while on radio talk shows promoting my book about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. Listeners instinctively know, it seems, what our security fetishists in Washington do not: that America's resources at home are badly outstripped by security commitments abroad, particularly at a time of near recession and draconian spending cuts. When the subject comes up I want to turn the microphone on Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's secretary general, and let him explain to cash-strapped callers why job security is more important for alliance bureaucrats than it is for the people who are paying for this Cold War relic in the first place.
After a decade of throwing money at the Pentagon—its budget has grown at an annualized rate of about 6 percent a year over the last 10 years—it now appears the nation's defense budget is on the deficit-chopping block. Given the epic waste associated with our national security accounts, a scandal that Congress routinely abets by demanding the military purchase needless weapons for assembly in districts back home, it is high time the Pentagon establish realistic spending priorities and budget accordingly.
Read the entire post on the US News & World Report website.
After weeks of partisan sniping that made one weepy for smoke-filled rooms, Congress ended the debt ceiling debate by kicking the can of fiscal discipline down the red-ink brick road. Lucky for us the rest of the world is as dysfunctional as Washington. Read the entire post on the US News & World Report website.
As was widely covered by his adoring press, Gen. David Petraeus this week stepped down as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan to begin his new job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Petraeus is the latest in a long line of celebrity soldiers that dates back to Gen. George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln’s mercurial field marshal whose star collapsed under the burden of his presidential ambitions. Read the entire post on the US News & World Report website.
In June I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of young Egyptian activists who spoke about the revolution that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak and its impact on Egypt's politics, economics and identity. The discussion was taped and edited into four installments for The Nation by Policymic, a new social media website. They can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7DEBB1A9162F5D15.
I refer readers to a column penned by Max Boot, fountainhead for American militarism and herald of threats largely imagined, which appeared last week in the Los Angeles Times. It is a fine specimen of alarmist cant, drawn from antique and erroneous reference points and resonant among those who conflate defense spending cuts with unilateral disarmament. Read the entire post on the US News & World Report website.
As paranoics inside Washington’s Beltway agonize over the prospects of a strong showing by Islamists in Egypt’s upcoming elections, a very different reality is cohering on the streets of Cairo: the Muslim Brotherhood - historically the country’s most powerful and disciplined Islamist movement - appears to be breaking up. The Brotherhood’s youth league has launched its own party with a progressive charter that is less about religious outreach and devotion than it is about social justice. A senior leader of the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic, who has long endorsed engagement with Egypt’s secular and non-Muslim constituencies, is running for president without the group’s official blessing. A debate within the Ikhwan about its core identity, muffled for survival’s sake under despots who suppressed free thinking of any kind, is ventilating subversively in the oxygen-rich air of the post-Mubarak era.
I was recently given an insightful tour through the Brotherhood’s molten political terrain by Mohammed Al Gebba, a young Ikhwanist who joined the group two decades ago as a high school student. A native of the coastal city of Damietta but for years an urbane Cairene, Al Gabba has evolved from ardent fundamentalist to Islamist humanist. It is a not uncommon journey in a political movement that, like its secular rivals, is scrambling to find its place in Egypt’s second republic.
“Politics and outreach are not reconcilable,” Al Gabba told me in Café Cilantro, a secularists enclave just off Tharir Square, the epicenter of the revolution that consumed the world for eighteen days ending February 11. “One compromises the other. What is needed is dialogue, and there is no dialogue in the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Ikhwan is balkanized, according to Al Gabba, along ideological as well as demographic lines. Though he sympathizes with its youthful renegades, he chose to remain in the Brotherhood as a cadre to its relatively liberal wing despite the leadership’s rightward lurch in elections last year. It is the former, rather than the latter, he says, that is most faithful to the vision of Hasan Al Banna, the revivalist imam who founded the Ikhwan in 1926. “Our principals were his principals,” he said. “They are values of tolerance and dialogue.”
Al Gabba was deeply involved in the clashes between the confederation of secularists and Islamists, Christians and Muslims, and Communists and Capitalists against repeated onslaughts by regime loyalists to clear Tharir square. Having outlasted Mubarak and his hangers on, the revolution is now under threat by the proxies of foreign powers - not Israel and America, the usual suspects trotted out by demagogues of the ancién regime - but Iran and Saudi Arabia, tactical allies against the Arab world’s liberal awakening. “This is the one thing they can agree on,” says Al Gabba. “Their objective is to create chaos, to provoke the Egyptian army into oppression, to destroy the revolution.”
Conspiracy theories are as intrinsic to Egyptian politics as parsley is to Tabouleh, if for no other reason that so many of them have turned out to be more truth that fantasy. As proof of Saudi-Iranian perfidy, Al Gabba cites a seminar, to be held on July 1, on the salience and inevitability of sharia law in Egypt. A prominent Salafi sheik, he says, has declared the event to be the inspiration of Saudi Wahhabists working in tandem with remnants of Mubarak’s security apparatus.
If such intrigues do exist, according to Al Gabba, they will backfire. After nearly six decades of authoritarian rule, he told me, Egyptians will settle for nothing less than a secular republic. Candidates fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming election may do well, he allowed, but they are unlikely to capture more than a quarter of parliamentary seats. He predicts that in the next national ballot five years from now, Ikhwan members will campaign as independents whose loyalty to the state and devotion to faith are secularly distinct from each other.
Otherwise, he said, “the Brotherhood will bring itself down. It will ease to exist as we know it.”
At a time when our nation’s security apparatus is no doubt refreshing contingency plans for a war with North Korea, it’s worth noting that the North Koreans themselves doggedly persevere despite oppression from within and a militarized US foreign policy from without. For a counter-narrative to the predictable Sturm und Drang between Washington and Pyongyang, see below:
The bedlam revealed here is not a regular occurrence in ancient Sonchon, a North Korean coastal city about thirty-five miles south of the border with China. Sightings of foreigners are about as infrequent as they are anywhere else in the self-styled “Hermit Kingdom,” so it’s not surprising that a long-awaited visit from a delegation of aid workers would be celebrated with a decidedly unproletarian extravagance.
The lanky gent above toasting his bibulous hosts is Dr. Stephen Linton, who has just completed his resupply of medical goods at Sonchon People’s Hospital. The seated apparatchik with the toothy grin and heroically pomaded hair is the hospital director, and the young lady greeting Linton’s glass with one of her own is the proprietress of People’s No. 6 Diner, which apparently doubles as Sonchon’s top restaurant and unofficial greeting hall for visiting dignitaries.
I was along for the ride while reporting a profile of Linton and his work with North Korea’s tuberculosis victims. Journalists are regarded warily in the country, and I had been given the ground rules well before my arrival for the twelve-day assignment: no photographs between destinations, don’t talk politics with the minders, stick with the group at all times, don’t go near TB patients unless you’re wearing a mask, and eat and drink whatever the North Koreans put in front of you.
Hold it. Eat and drink? We were talking, or so I thought, about a famine-stricken country where people are commonly reduced to eating boiled tree bark. Could the local economy muster a selection of foodstuffs beyond the inevitable offerings of kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage that is a staple in rich South Korea and a guilty pleasure in its impoverished neighbor?
As it turned out, the delegation did not want for good eating. On the contrary, we were welcomed and provided for as honored guests while we journeyed from one rural sanatorium to the next in a convoy of SUVs. At every stop, after dispensing drugs, electrocardiographs, parkas, and stethoscopes, we were ushered into the office of the director and treated to platters of roasted chestnuts, sweet potatoes, apples, and roast chicken. On tap were bottles of beer and soju, a high-octane hooch brewed from fermented potatoes or grains. (It’s best administered as a general anesthetic, of which the country is in dreadfully short supply.) The head of a care center in Ryongsong, a northern district of Pyongyang, celebrated our arrival by passing around shot glasses of ginseng-flavored soju that had the flavor and viscosity of cough syrup. We washed the shots down with beer chasers. It was nine in the morning.
Occasionally Linton and his delegation would be fêted beyond the confines of the care center. But the saturnalia at Sonchon was unforgettable. The business of resupply done, we were escorted to the diner, where a narrow table was set for 16 guests. Within minutes, we were steeped in small dishes filled with culinary confections hauled mostly from the nearby Yellow Sea. There were fried clams in their shells, crabmeat, cold cuttlefish diced and marinated in spicy garlic sauce, whole baby squid, fried dumplings, pâté of donkey meat, green-bean pancakes with congealed pig-fat centers (good for digestion, I was told), and rabbit fricassee prepared at table on portable gas stoves.
The toastmasters came at us in human waves. The soju and the steam from the fricassee provided an illusion of ambient warmth in defiance of North Korea’s severe energy shortages, though no one removed their coats. The diner’s windows fogged up, and the feast went on for more than two hours. Reluctantly, Linton declared our need to move on, which unleashed a scramble for photographs with the exclusively female and impressively apple-cheeked staff. Heady from the attention and nearly blind from the booze, I briefly convinced myself that I had liberated North Korea.
A snap snowstorm arrived, and with it its sobering properties. We climbed into the vehicles and continued on our way.
Thus the prophet Mohammed, having encountered Jews fasting to commemorate the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, marked what would be the Day of Ashura on the Muslim calendar. The liberation of modern Egypt from thirty years of despotism is its own Exodus, the power and significance of which will not be fully appreciated for a generation. Nor is it at all clear where the journey will take a people who have known nothing but the whip hand of pharaohs, caliphs, kings, imperial occupiers and, most recently, a secular tyrant. One thing is obvious, however, though it has been drowned out by the euphoric din that radiates from Tharir Square across the Arab world: the manner, as much as the fact, of Hosni Mubarak’s departure will hasten the long recessional of American influence and authority, particularly in the Middle East. The by-now irredeemable gap between the reality of the region and the one concocted in Washington leaves little room for imagination and daring, as revealed by the cautious and equivocating way in which President Obama handled his end of the crisis. By conflating the Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda, for example, America has all but relieved itself of any credibility it may have once enjoyed among the Arabs. Brandishing the Zionist cudgel, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this week urged “the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists” in the transfer of power in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Fortunately, the capacity of Ros-Lehtinen to shape Middle Eastern affairs is as limited as her comprehension of them. But she and functionaries like her can frustrate US attempts to engage the Middle East on its own terms, a radical approach suited to revolutionary times. Appealing for a transition gradual enough to allow secular political groups to compete with the more muscular Muslim Brotherhood, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared as parochial political elites throwing rocks at a passing train.
The failure of Washington to anticipate Egypt’s upheaval is symptomatic of its gradual estrangement from the world it presumes to lead. So as not to antagonize Mubarak, the State Department after 9/11 segregated its diplomats from opposition groups, in particular the well-connected Brotherhood, effectively neutralizing its eyes and ears. The Pentagon, which enjoys strong ties to its Egyptian counterpart through officer-exchange programs that date back three decades, apparently produced little in the way of useful information about a looming succession crisis. Nor, for that matter, did the CIA.
Here was an intelligence shortage of epic proportions. For years, Egypt’s opposition leaders, intellectuals, and journalists had been warning anyone who would listen about the mortal absurdity of Mubarak’s vow to die in office even as he was grooming his son to succeed him, a prospect emphatically rejected by both the military and civil society. What did reach Washington, according to the trove of US diplomatic cables released in January by Wikileaks, was the message that the military would willingly guarantee a dynastic transfer of power. A July 2009 cable, based on an interview with an Egyptian politician, assures Foggy Bottom that a smooth transition is likely. “There would be some violence around the upcoming 2010 parliamentary and 2011 presidential elections,”according to the cable, “but…security forces would be able to keep it under control.”
The cable continues: “Widespread politically-motivated unrest was not likely because it was not part of the ’Egyptian mentality’. Threats to daily survival, not politics, were the only thing to bring Egyptians to the streets en masse.”
By ruling out relations with legitimate political movements abroad in reaction to political pressure at home, America denies itself the reference points needed to navigate competently through an unpredictable and often hazardous world. Rather than light a candle to illuminate the path before it, Washington curses the darkness of inconvenient facts. So when the dawn rose over Egypt to reveal a new age, America was nowhere to be found.
The ebullience of a near-emancipated Egypt stands in revealing contrast to the hand-wringing in Washington over its implications. Only now, as it becomes not only possible but highly probable that President Hosni Mubarak may soon be exiled to his own Elba, are America’s diplomatic and security apparatchiks allowing for a Middle East without their most dependable Arab autocrat. How, they wonder aloud, will the US impose its authority on the region if its fighter and refueling jets are barred from Egyptian airspace and its warships are prohibited from entering the Suez Canal? What chances are there for Middle East peace should a new regime open its border with Gaza? What if the Muslim Brotherhood turns the Arab world’s most vital nation into an Islamic republic? “This is a big deal with huge potential consequences for U.S. strategic interests in a vital region,” Martin S. Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, breathlessly told The New York Times. “We’re in completely uncharted territory.” True enough for the Yanks, though for previous imperial powers this is all well-worn terrain. In the early 1950s, the British and French were caught flat-footed by a barracks coup against their own Egyptian proxy, the voraciously corrupt, incompetent and rotund King Farouk. When Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the so-called “Free Officers” who brought down Farouk, emerged as president, among his first acts was to nationalize the Franco-British controlled Suez Canal. In response, London and Paris, with Israeli help, maneuvered to undermine Nassar and restore their authority by invading the canal zone. The 1956 Suez Crisis ended in ignominy for the conspirators when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower all but ordered them to withdraw, while Nasser’s credibility soared throughout the non-aligned world.
Just as London and Paris cursed Egyptian resistance to their hegemony – British Prime Minister Anthony Eden likened Nasser to Hitler, while British radio called him a “barking dictator” – American policymakers now dread the prospect of challenges to their own. Unlike Eden, however, who did little to hide his contempt for Third World upstarts, US leaders are now caught in the rip-tides of their own hypocrisy. Nowhere has America’s public embrace of human rights and self-determinism clashed as discordantly as they have in its quiet support for Hosni Mubarak, who famously cowed US officials into line with ominous talk of an Islamist revolution should he yield to any form of dissent. In late 2005, when Mubarak finally relented to President George W. Bush’s pressure for national elections, which despite gross occasions of fraud and voter intimidation resulted in a resounding triumph for the Muslim Brotherhood, Bush backed away from his “freedom agenda.” Since then, Mubarak’s despotism has only intensified.
For anyone who has followed Egypt’s political paroxysms over the last decade, the current reckoning comes as no surprise. While reporting in Egypt two years ago, opposition leaders assured me they would not tolerate another term of dictatorship. Analyst Osama Harb was most prescient. In the end, he said, Mubarak would be undone by his own legacy of corruption, malfeasance and the “miserable condition” of average Egyptians. There would be “general chaos,” he said, and “tanks in the streets.”
Predictably, such warnings were lost on the New Rome, where the imperial warrant is held in higher regard than the foreign unfortunates who stagger beneath it. Empire is the highest, and thus most pernicious, expression of militarization, and in Hosni Mubarak Washington enjoyed a most agreeable host. Like most of America’s post-Cold War partnerships, the relationship between the two parties had become an end in itself, a diplomatic compact Malthusian in its rate of diminishing returns. From a depleted US treasury, Cairo is showered with billions of dollars in subsidies to preserve its peace treaty with Israel, support of which is as much a strategic liability for America as it is for Egypt; it must concede its air and sea lanes to the Pentagon in Levantine wars of ruinous consequence; sustain an Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that achieves a mirage of deliberation but nothing of substance; and suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, the only Egyptian political party whose leaders regularly submit their authority to scheduled, transparent and democratic referendums.
If ever there was an unholy alliance in need of exorcism, this is it. Tonight, I hoist a glass given to me years ago by a waiter at Cairo Station’s main cafe (an art-deco jewel), in tribute to the legions of Egyptians who bravely reject the post-Ottoman Middle East and the western powers that usurped it.
Egypt for the Egyptians.