The Embarrassments of Empire

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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."