Demise of the Dictators
In lands that have been plundered and tyrannized, the Arab Revolution of 2011 has been smoldering for decades. What finally turned resignation into rebellion.
Historians of revolutions are never sure as to when these great upheavals in human affairs begin. But the historians will not puzzle long over the Arab Revolution of 2011. They will know, with precision, when and where the political tsunami that shook the entrenched tyrannies first erupted. A young Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the hardscrabble provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after his cart was confiscated and a headstrong policewoman slapped him across the face in broad daylight. The Arab dictators had taken their people out of politics, they had erected and fortified a large Arab prison, reduced men and women to mere spectators of their own destiny, and the simple man in that forlorn Tunisian town called his fellow Arabs back into the political world.
From one end of the Arab world to the other, all the more so in the tyrannies ruled by strongmen and despots (Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, and Tunisia), the Arab world was teeming with Mohamed Bouazizis. Little less than a month later, the order of the despots was twisting in the wind. Bouazizi did not live long enough to savor the revolution of dignity that his deed gave birth to. We don’t know if he took notice of the tyrannical ruler of his homeland coming to his bedside in a false attempt at humility and concern. What we have is the image, a heavily bandaged man and a tacky visitor with jet-black hair, a feature of all the aged Arab rulers—virility and timeless youth are essential to the cult of power in these places. Bids, we are told, were to come from rich Arab lands, the oil states, to purchase Bouazizi’s cart. There were revolutionaries in the streets, and there were vicarious participants in this upheaval.
Denial puts U.S. deeper in debt
The national debt has grown by $3 trillion since President Barack Obama took office, the most rapid growth under any president since FDR’s war-time defense buildup. Federal government spending — now at 25 percent of GDP — is crowding out private investment. Worse, liabilities of Social Security and Medicare are now cash-flow negative, threatening to add hundreds of billions to the debt each year. The Cato Institute estimates that unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities now exceed $115 trillion.
The American people are looking for leadership. Most don’t buy into Washington’s illusion that the nation can spend its way to prosperity, and they are ready to tighten their belts. People sense that deficit spending and printing money, which may help them feel better in the short run, is like a narcotic. In the long run, it becomes addictive — requiring ever larger doses for the same effect — and it leads to disaster.
It borders on denial, when today the U.S. is supposedly in economic recovery, yet the CBO projects a record high deficit of $1.48 trillion for 2011 — with more near trillion dollar annual deficits ahead.
Sustainable growth cannot be based on a course of excessive deficit spending, maintaining abnormally low interest rates and flooding the world with cheap dollars — a path that adds to an already perilous financial condition. Official government statistics that portray consumer inflation at bay also foster denial.
The reality of rising food and energy prices are all around, and servicing the federal debt becomes more costly when interest rates rise in response to that inflation.
Last year saw the doozy of all denials when the Democratic-controlled Congress refused to consider simple fixes to reduce Medicare costs, but instead pushed yet another health care entitlement program. No one knows just how costly this will be. But at 17 percent of the economy, the U.S. health care sector is massive and this new entitlement that empowers a dizzying number of new bureaucrats is bound to blow out the deficit.
Obama said that “the new rules of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act would prevent another financial crisis.” Denial again. The new law does little to end bailouts. Worse, it provides a false sense of security by deflecting attention from fiscal and monetary policies being pursued today that are paving the way for the next financial crisis.
Excessive debt and easy money facilitated the financial crises of the past 12 years: In 1998 it was long-term capital management that melted down; in 2000-2002 the dot-com bubble burst; and starting in 2007 the housing and mortgage market collapsed — leading to the current predicament. The debt dynamics that underlay these crises are alive and well today, only larger and more fundamentally systemic. Risk has now shifted from the private to the public sector, with the U.S. government debt market being the new bubble.
Even after wake-up calls emanating from last year’s riots and near collapse in Greece and the November 2010 U.S. election results, Obama and much of Washington and the media elite remain in denial about the urgency of entitlement reform and the need for radical reduction in government spending.
A collapse in the dollar and the global U.S. Treasury debt market is now a very real risk, requiring proactive leadership.
Leadership requires getting out of denial and making tough decisions. The risk factors that could trigger a crisis of confidence in the dollar and U.S. Treasury debt are many. It’s no time for delay and half-measures.
Scott S. Powell is a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a managing partner at Alpha Quest.
The old bromide that citizens elect presidents for protection from other people's congressmen was reversed last November when a Congress was elected for protection from the president. This week House Republicans have been debating how to cut the ballooning budget. After ramming through an expansion of federal spending to levels not approached since World War II, President Obama is now calling for still more spending, with a renewed emphasis on infrastructure, that he claims will create jobs and economic growth.
Let's put this in perspective: With the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) now projecting a federal budget deficit this year of $1.5 trillion, Mr. Obama is on course to add as much debt in one term as all 43 previous presidents combined. Not surprisingly, the rating agency Standard & Poor's is warning of a Treasury downgrade.
Yes, the president is calling for a freeze on nondefense discretionary spending (18% of the budget). But this would leave that spending more than 20% higher than already- elevated 2008 levels, where Republicans would like to return. The freeze also cements in place a huge expansion of government originally sold as a temporary, emergency response to the economic and financial crisis.
Mr. Obama's Budget Director Jacob Lew asserts that the president has made tough choices, pointing to $775 million of proposed cuts—but that's one-tenth of 1% of nondefense discretionary spending. The Obama administration and its supporters dubiously claim higher spending will quickly strengthen the recovery and generate jobs, and that any "draconian" cuts would derail the recovery. Higher spending, deficits and debt are future problems, they argue, and even then higher taxes (especially on "the rich") won't harm the economy.
But government spending generally does little to boost the economy. Exhibit A is the failed 2009 stimulus bill, the president's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
The strongest case for stimulus is increased military spending during recessions. But infrastructure spending, as the president proposes, is poorly designed for anti-recession job creation. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has shown, the ARRA's transportation spending was not directed to areas with the highest unemployment or the largest housing busts (and therefore the most unemployed construction workers). Indeed, last September Wendy Greuel, the City of Los Angeles controller, shocked the country when she revealed that the $111 million in ARRA infrastructure money her city received created only 55 jobs—that's a whopping $2 million of federal stimulus per job created.
Why is this so? Modern, large-scale public infrastructure projects use heavy equipment and are less labor-intensive than they were historically (WPA workers digging ditches with shovels in the 1930s). Federal transportation stimulus spending was $4 billion in 2009, leaving two problems with claims of "shovel-ready" projects: shovels and ready.
The nation certainly has public investment needs, but federal infrastructure spending should be based on rigorous national cost-benefit tests. Most local officials are happy to have the rest of the country pay for spending on virtually any project, however modest the local benefits. Even so, several states have rejected high-speed rail subsidies as requiring unwise state spending despite the subsidies. California's estimates, for example, have soared.
Moreover, how will we pay for all this new spending? The CBO's 10-year projection sees the possibility of the debt-to-GDP ratio rising to an astounding 100%. Several recent studies (detailed on these pages in my "Why the Spending Stimulus Failed," Dec. 1, 2010) conclude that: 1) such high debt would severely damage growth, so fiscal consolidation is essential; 2) fiscal consolidation is likely to be far more effective on the spending than the tax side of the budget; and 3) substantially higher tax rates and spending cause permanent drops in income that are many times larger than the temporary fall caused by the recession. Thus, spending control is vital before debt levels or tax increases risk severely damaging growth for a generation.
In the 1980s and '90s, federal spending was reduced by more than 5% of GDP to 18.4% in 2000—a level sufficient to balance the budget at full employment and allow for lower tax rates. It was a remarkable period of growth, and there's no reason we can't repeat that success. In addition to rolling back ObamaCare and rolling up remaining TARP and stimulus funds, spending control should include these major reforms:
• Consolidate, eliminate, defederalize and, where feasible, voucherize with flexible block grants. I pointed out in 2007 that 42% of federal civilian workers were due to retire in the coming decade. Replacing half of them (with exceptions for national security and public safety) with technology could improve services and save hundreds of billions of dollars. Beyond the savings, it would make necessary services more efficient. For example, the federal government's many separate job-training programs should be consolidated and voucherized to enable citizens to obtain commercially useful training.
• Adopt successful business practices where possible. For example, consolidating IT infrastructure, streamlining supply chains, using advanced business analytics to reduce improper payments, and switching from expensive custom code to standardized software applications could save more than $1 trillion over a decade while upgrading and improving federal support and information services.
• Gradually move from wage to price indexing of initial Social Security benefits. This would eliminate the entire projected Social Security deficit without cutting anyone's benefits or raising anyone's taxes. Also, raise the retirement age over several decades, preserve early retirement and disability, and strengthen support for the poorest. On Medicare, former Clinton Budget Director Alice Rivlin and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan propose gradually moving to fixed government contributions to purchase insurance, for large savings and more informed care.
The immense growth of government spending and soaring public deficits and debt are the major sources of systemic economic risk, here and abroad, threatening enormous costs by higher taxes, inflation or default. The problem is not merely public debt. A much higher ratio of taxes to GDP trades a deficit problem for sluggish growth. In recent decades, the large advanced economies with the highest taxes have grown most slowly. And the high-tax economies did not have smaller budget deficits. Rather, higher taxes merely led to higher spending.
Elected officials too often ignore long-run costs to achieve short-run benefits. But government policies can neither revoke the laws of arithmetic nor circumvent the laws of economics. The time to start reducing spending is now.
Mr. Boskin is a professor of economics at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President George H.W. Bush.
Afghan Government Says Prisoner Directed Attacks
By ROD NORDLAND and SHARIFULLAH SAHAK
KABUL, Afghanistan — A cell of suicide bombers active in Kabul was run for three years by a Taliban commander operating from the city’s main prison, Afghan officials said Thursday.
Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press
Another suicide bomber cell recruited young men from religious schools, and got them high on a drug that made them enraptured by the handlers who were trying to persuade them to commit mayhem.
Those were among the highlights of an extraordinary news conference held on Thursday by Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. It was meant to expose the workings of the two cells, but raised nearly as many questions as it answered.
Not least of these was how Talib Jan, the jailed Taliban commander, was able to run his network from Pul-e-Charkhi, a maximum security prison in Kabul, which is staffed by Afghan police and military officials with American trainers and advisers.
“From inside the Pul-e-Charkhi prison he was appointing people and giving them targets and instructions: do this, and do that,” said a National Directorate of Security spokesman, Lutfullah Mashal.
“Most of the terrorist and suicide attacks in Kabul were planned from inside this prison by this man,” he asserted.
Mr. Mashal played a videotaped confession of Mr. Jan admitting as much, and saying that he had organized the suicide bombing of the Finest Supermarket in Kabul on Jan. 28, which killed 14 people. His confederate, Mohammed Khan, who was said to have visited Mr. Jan in prison to take his orders, confessed in person at the news conference to his part in the bombing.
There was no way to independently verify the confessions. Confessions obtained by coercion or torture are common in Afghanistan. A request to interview the would-be suicide bombers was turned down.
The authorities’ investigation of that case led them to a second suicide bomb cell, this one with eight bombers being readied to attack American bases in Kabul and Logar Provinces. Five of its members, including a safe house operator, a transporter and two youthful would-be bombers, confessed to their roles at the news conference.
Both cells, the authorities said, were part of the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied group based in Pakistan.
The two would-be bombers, both Afghans, one 20 and the other 17, said they had been recruited from madrasas, religious schools where their families had sent them to study in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where extremists are active.
Mahmadullah, the 17-year-old, from Logar Province, related his recruitment at a madrasa in Miram Shah, in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. He said he and three other recruits were given a succession of injections in both arms of a drug that was red, but of unknown composition. “Whenever we got these injections, whatever they said we felt happy and loved to hear what they said, loved to listen to them, and swore we would do whatever they said to do.”
What followed was a succession of trips from one mullah to another in Pakistan, where they were shown Taliban propaganda videos of fights with Americans, in between religious indoctrination featuring long recitations from the Koran, Mr. Mahmadullah said. Like many Afghans, he has only one name.
One reporter asked him if all the students at the madrasa were recruited. “No, they just picked and chose among us,” Mr. Mahmadullah said.
“You mean they just picked the stupid ones,” an Afghan reporter said, to laughter.
“Yes, only the fools like these two,” Mr. Mashal said.
The second would-be suicide bomber, Lal Mohammad Khan, 20, from Spinbaldak in Kandahar Province, was also recruited at a madrasa, in Chaman, just across the Pakistani border. He was less garrulous than Mr. Mahmadullah, despite Mr. Mashal’s effort to prod him into talking. “I want to go home and surrender myself to my family,” he said.
When an Afghan reporter from the Voice of America asked him, “People say you should be hanged as a lesson to others, what do you say?” Mr. Khan just hung his head.
Mr. Mahmadullah was more forthcoming.
He described in great detail the final days of his training, in which he was taught how to make a suicide vest, with sticks of TNT interwoven with Primacord — a detonating cord with high explosives — and with one strand of the cord extending down his right sleeve to a button to be held in his wrist. The National Directorate of Security then raided the cell’s safe house and arrested them.
“When we were arrested, we were very happy,” he said. “Thank God for N.D.S. — my life has been rescued. It is only because of God and N.D.S. that I have survived; otherwise I would be dead by now.”
In the case of Mr. Jan, who was said to have run his suicide bomber cell from inside prison, the deputy director of security at that prison, Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim Rahmani, reached by telephone, was unsurprised by the claims.
While prisoners are allowed visitors and phone calls three days a week, they are supposed to be monitored by guards. General Rahmani noted, however, that Mr. Jan had briefly escaped from the prison a year ago, but was recaptured. Related to that escape, 18 prison officers, one of them a colonel, were arrested on suspicion of corruption and taking bribes from detainees. General Rahmani said all 18 were themselves now prisoners there.
Separately, a district governor was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber in northern Kunduz Province on Thursday, a day after the governor of the province publicly boasted that Kunduz had been completely cleared of insurgents.
The bomber detonated a suicide vest at the office of the district governor of Chardara, Abdul Wahid Omar Khail, killing him and six others, according to Gen. Abdul Rahman Aqtash, the deputy police chief of Kunduz Province.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Crowds in Tahrir Square await military's next move
Video: Triumph in Egypt
In Egypt, the faces of protestors said it all: they had won. US President Obama also commented on this historic day. (February 11, 2011)
CAIRO—Egypt’s military says it will not act as a substitute for a “legitimate” government after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and transferred his power to the armed forces.
A military spokesman, in a brief televised statement, said the armed forces would later announce measures and arrangements to introduce the changes Egyptians want.
He also praised Mubarak for his contribution to the nation.
Politician Ayman Nour, who came second to President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election, said on Friday that the nation had been reborn and the army understood its mission to prepare for civilian rule.
“This is the greatest day in the history of Egypt that will not be repeated. This nation has been born again. These people have been born again, and this is a new Egypt,” he told Al Jazeera television after Mubarak ended his 30-year rule.
“We look forward to the transition period which is a period that will take us to a civilian state that will meet our legitimate demands of having a civilian free country,” he said adding that the nation would be based on human rights.
“I believe the army is aware of its mission in preserving the situation until we move to the civilian period,” said Nour, who came a distant second to Mubarak in the 2005 race, the only multi-candidate presidential election to be held in Egypt.
Mubarak resigned as president and handed control to the military on Friday, bowing down after a historic 18-day wave of pro-democracy demonstrations by hundreds of thousands.
A massive crowd in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square exploded into joy, waving Egyptian flags, and car horns and celebratory shots in the air were heard around the city of 18 million in joy after Vice-President Omar Suleiman made the announcement on national TV just after nightfall.
“In these grave circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic,” a grim-looking Suleiman said. “He has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the state. God is our protector and succor.”
Egypt’s higher military council will sack the cabinet, suspend both houses of parliament and rule with the head of the supreme constitutional court, Al Arabiya television reported on Friday.
The army statement was expected to be delivered later on Friday and followed Mubarak’s dramatic resignation after 30 years in power.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, whose young supporters were among the organizers of the protest movement, told The Associated Press, “This is the greatest day of my life.”
“The country has been liberated after decades of repression,” he said adding that he expects a “beautiful” transition of power.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday that the world had witnessed a true moment of history, after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak departed from office in the face of mass protests to his 30-year rule.
“Egyptians have inspired us,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
News was just starting to filter out of Egypt that Mubarak had stepped down then Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke Friday about what’s in store for the country.
“We are all seeing what’s happening,” Harper told a news conference in St. John’s, N.L., moments before it was confirmed that Mubarak had handed power to the military. “Transition is taking place in Egypt.
“I think the old expression is: ‘They’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube on this one.”
Harper said Canada would like those in power in Egypt to lead change.
“Get in front of it,” he added. “Be part of it, and make a bright future happen for the people of Egypt.”
Harper stressed as he has since the protests began 18 days ago that Canada wants free and fair elections in Egypt, respect for the rule of law and for human rights.
Harper also said the federal government wants Egypt to respect peace treaties it has signed, and to pursue peace in the Middle East.
The prime minister stopped briefly in St. John’s to tour one of two vessels being added to Marine Atlantic’s ferry service between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Friday the change of power in Egypt was a “pivotal” moment in history for that country and the Middle East.
He said the transition in Egypt must be one of “irreversible” change.
The European Union saluted the courage of the pro-democracy protesters who forced the resignation of Mubarak.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that, by standing down, Mubarak “has listened to the voices of the Egyptian people and has opened the way to faster and deeper reforms.”
Ashton says that “it is important now that the dialogue is accelerated leading to a broad-based government.”
EU Parliament President Jerzy Buzek says the Egyptian people now want the old regime to be completely dismantled.
He said Friday, “Europe will measure the next steps in the fulfillment of the people’s demand by repealing the emergency laws and by ending all intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders or political dissidents.”
Moments after Egypt’s Suleiman made the announcement, fireworks lit up the sky Friday night in Beirut, Lebanon. Celebratory gunfire could be heard in the Shiite dominated areas in south Lebanon and in southern Beirut.
On al-Manar TV, the station run by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah faction, Egyptian anchor Amr Nassef cried emotionally on the air and said: “Allahu Akbar, the Pharaoh is dead. Am I dreaming? I’m afraid to be dreaming.”
Meanwhile the Qatari government said it regarded Egypt’s transfer of power to a military council on Friday as a positive step.
Mubarak’s Norma Desmond Moment
Mubarak the madman? -- "I'm ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille!"
The much-anticipated speech by Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, in which he was widely expected to step down, has had the opposite of its intended effect: instead of placating the protesters, it has enraged them. Mubarak had only gotten halfway through his speech when the crowd in Tahrir Square starting hooting and booing. They held up their shoes – a gesture that our President Bush should understand the meaning of – and the roar nearly drowned out the speech (I was listening live on Al Jazeera). What Mubarak has done is thrust his hand into the hornets’ nest – and now we can expect the hornets to fly out, angry beyond measure….
Many Western commentators, falsely believing the tides of Egyptian protest are ruled by the news cycle, expected the movement to die down. Instead, the protests swelled, with crowds in Cairo and across the country achieving a heretofore unprecedented scale. Mubarak’s non-resignation speech will further grow the protest movement: where this ends, nobody knows, but the breakdown of Egyptian society is occurring at a rapid pace – and this could provide a pretext for the military to come in, clamp down, and “restore order.”
I live-blogged the Mubarak speech, which I transcribed, somewhat intermittently, but the faster I typed the more it seemed to me that this was a speech delivered by someone completely out of touch with reality. While he was going on about how many provisions of the “constitution” were going to be revised, how many committees he had set up, and how much he had sacrificed to “exhaust” himself for the good of the nation, millions were in the streets cursing the day he was born. To top it off, he said the emergency law will not be lifted until “order” is restored – and he was followed by vice president and torturer-in-chief Omar Suleiman telling people to go home.
My favorite line: “I feel your pain.”
Most significant line: “I will not leave this country until I am dead and buried in its soil.”
Most ominous line: “It will end with a situation where the youth will be the first victims.”
The fate of the nation is now in the hands of the military council, set up to secure the “transition”: if they issue a statement mollifying the people, reassuring them that Madman Mubarak is not at the helm, the crisis could be avoided. Failing this, the situation is open-ended, and increasingly dangerous. The very “orderly transition” that everyone seems to want is being up-ended. The only question now is whether this speech was a deliberate provocation, delivered as a prelude to a crackdown, or the last gasp of a doomed dictatorship.
It’s worth asking to what extent the US government – the power standing behind the dictator – was instrumental in fashioning Mubarak’s defiance. The Obama administration has been consistently calling for precisely what the regime has been calling for, which is an “orderly transition.” They have refused – rightly, in my view – to openly call for Mubarak’s ouster, but the real question is what they’ve been pushing for behind the scenes. In public, they’ve been supporting just what Mubarak announced: delegation of presidential powers to Suleiman, Washington’s reliable servitor.
In short, this administration has been tailing events, rather desperately, without making any friends either among the protesters or the Mubarak dead-enders. With CIA chieftain Leon Panetta’s testimony before Congress today [Thursday], to the effect that we should not necessarily expect Mubarak to step down, it appears that the administration was clued into their client’s stubborn defiance.
Tomorrow [Friday] is going to be a critical moment. The protesters are calling for a march on the presidential palace in Heliopolis – with some advancing on the palace even before Mubarak had finished his speech. That palace is being defended, not by the army, but by the presidential guard: this is significant, because it indicates a split in the military, with the regular army not being trusted to guard the seat of power. The guard is also ringed around the state television building, another hint of a split in the military.
All eyes are now on the army, because it’s not clear who is in control. Mubarak delegated his powers to Suleiman, the “vice president,” and he is unambiguously telling the protesters to “go home,” as he put it, and get back to work. We also have a statement from the “Supreme Military Council” to the effect that they will be in continuous session in order to take “necessary measures to protect the nation” and “support the legitimate demands of the people.”
So who’s in charge?
When you have to ask that question, you know that the days of the regime are numbered. The military “Supreme Council” labeled their announcement “communiqué no. 1,” with the clear implication that there will be more to come. Will “communiqué no. 2″ announce that Mubarak is on a plane to the French Riviera, Suleiman is in “protective custody,” and a military junta with a civilian face is at the helm?
What is clear is this: the protesters are becoming more assertive, moving out of Tahrir Square, and moving toward government buildings such as the presidential palace at Heliopolis and the state television station. The anti-Mubarak student-led movement is forcing a showdown, posing the question of state power pointblank, confident that the army won’t shoot them down in the streets – and hopeful that, as the Marxists used to say, they’ll “turn the guns around.”
The problem is that the Egyptian army is not a unitary organism. It is divided into three basic forces: the army, the “central security forces,” i.e. secret police, and the Presidential Guard, which is tasked with defending government buildings in Cairo and is directly responsible to Mubarak. A firefight between army units commanded by the “Supreme Council” and Mubarak loyalists of the Guard is a real possibility. If government buildings in Cairo are besieged by the protesters, and the Guard opens fire as the crowds surge forward, the fate of the revolution hangs in the balance: will the army defend the people, or stand idly by as Mubarak’s thugs exact their bloody revenge?
All signs point to a military takeover – in the name of “democracy,” naturally – with the “Supreme Council” appending to itself an appropriately civilian face, including Mohamed ElBaradei and other elements of the traditional opposition. The “patriotic democratic revolution” will be proclaimed in very short order. Make no mistake, however: the military will retain control, as it always has, well after the September “free” elections. With its longstanding ties to the Pentagon, as the most loyal and most richly rewarded of our Arab satraps, the Egyptian military will make sure the country stays in America’s orbit. The Turkish example prefigures the Egyptian future – that is, if everything goes according to plan.
Revolutions never go according to plan, however: that’s why they’re … revolutionary. We are at what the smart alecks of the world call a plastic moment, a strategic conjuncture, a critical turning point. Because no one’s in charge. The Egyptian people could rise up, as one, tomorrow, in their multi-millions, and crush Mubarak and Mubarakism into dust, if they chose. This is the great fear that all rulers, no matter how popular at the moment, have nightmares about, a terror that pervades and motivates their every action while in office: a sudden and massive uprising.
It is a fear rooted in history, and in the reality that their rule is subject to the consent of the governed. If, as in the Soviet Union and its satellites, the people suddenly stop obeying the government, it’s all over for the rulers. When the army stops obeying orders, and won’t fire on their own people, the jig is up.
Mubarak, as I said a while back, is finished. His Norma Desmond moment has come and gone – and it looks like he wasn’t all that ready for his close up. The question now is what – or who – comes after: and now is precisely the moment when we can expect the US effort to influence events to go into overdrive. Whatever the Egyptian military command decides, you can bet it isn’t without input from the Pentagon, which is even now communicating with their Egyptian counterparts. They are no doubt pushing the US line, which is, as the State Department has made all too clear, that we’re sticking with our man Suleiman. This is unacceptable to the crowds in the street, however, and we’ll see how long it is before Washington throws him overboard, too, just like they did Mubarak. And so let the lesson of the Egyptian events go out to the rulers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states: it doesn’t pay to be an American servitor.
By the way, there are US troops stationed in Egypt, some 900 in the Sinai peninsula. Perhaps they’ll be given the dubious honor of escorting Mubarak out of the country. Or perhaps the Egyptian dictator will meet a Ceausescu-like fate, living up to his stated intention of dying on Egyptian soil.
Listening to Al Jazeera’s live coverage, I heard commentator after commentator – Egyptians – all wondering if Mubarak had gone crazy. The general view among Egyptians seems to be that the dictator is living in a fantasy world, disconnected from what’s happening in the country, unaware that his time is over and so is his regime. This is madness of a peculiar sort – the kind inflicted on anyone vested with inhuman power, a kind of curse that goes with the “job” of dictator, or, indeed, any high office. The Greeks called it hubris – a pride so vast and unthinking that it offended the gods themselves. To the ancients, hubris was the worst of sins, a curse that always ended in the destruction of the sinner.
The lesson of Egypt is one that our global elites fail to learn at their peril, for they are cursed in the same way and for the same reason: hubris is their peculiar occupational hazard, and here in the West we are far from immune. Indeed, Washington, D.C. is particularly rife with this affliction, but I fear the infection is too advanced for even the strongest antibiotic to do much good.
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However the impending power shift in Egypt plays out, one can already hear the simplistic charges that Obama lost Egypt — as if it were America’s to lose. Eddie Goldberg argues these charges say more about America’s failure to appreciate the new global landscape than about anything the Obama Administration did or did not do.
merica did not lose Egypt. Rather, China — and what China represents — gained Egypt.
China and Egypt, arguably the two oldest countries if not nation-states in the world, have a broadly similar history: Both were major empires in ancient times, and both were able to stay geographically and somewhat culturally intact over the centuries.
Equally important is the fact that, although both countries were severely manipulated by colonial powers, neither country during the last 200 years fell completely under colonial rule for any long period of time.
And finally, both had uprisings led by politically frustrated young people, China in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Egypt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square today.
But the key difference between Tiananmen Square and Tahrir Square is how America has changed in the eyes of the world. At Tiananmen, America was the ideal, the Statue of Liberty the unofficial symbol of the demonstration. In Cairo, America is not the hope for tomorrow — but the overly pragmatic broker, playing an overly cautious “Old World”-type game.
Of course, since Tiananmen Square, China has developed into the second-largest economy in the world, while Egypt, with its almost Brezhnevian-style leadership, continues to wallow in the past.
And that difference — the fact that a non-western country, a country more economically despondent than Egypt was 40 years ago, can now successfully challenge the West economically — is the siren song that Egyptians are now listening to on the Internet.
In business school, students are taught about the value proposition: Value = Benefits/Price (with “price” taking into account such things as money, time and effort). As Warren Keegan, author of the leading textbook on global marketing, states, “For any organization operating anywhere in the world, the essence of marketing is to surpass the competition at creating perceived value for the customer.” Technology, particularly the Internet, has expanded this concept by creating a Greek chorus around the customer.
Technology and globalization have also made the understanding of the value proposition, along with the concept of a surrounding chorus, a key component of a nation’s foreign policy.
Successful foreign policy is no longer just about building coalitions of like-minded states or playing one nation against another for the benefit of one’s home country. The Internet, in its ability to radically democratize everything, to take decision-making away from leadership, has forced governments to more closely define the benefits and values they offer to the citizenry of other countries.
China’s value proposition — its “Internet message” — is clear-cut: You might not have the liberties as described by the Enlightenment philosophers, but that is a small sacrifice (according to the Chinese value proposition) when weighed against the economic dynamism of China's autocapitalism.
In essence, China has taken Emma Lazarus’ poem from the base of the Statue of Liberty and reinterpreted it to say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be rich. I lift my lamp above the non-western door.”
Ironically, faux communist China, with its successful mix of capitalism and autocracy that stresses economic development and societal stability while severely limiting civil liberties, has been able to do what Stalin and Khrushchev only dreamed of: becoming a successful model for other countries.
The value proposition the world sees on the web today from America is more diffuse. By definition, the United States has a more difficult message than China’s. For America’s message is not only prosperity, but also prosperity with democracy, prosperity that includes individual rights and liberties. To market this message successfully, both parts of the equation must be in sync.
In the 22 years since Tiananmen Square, America’s value proposition, like its politics, has failed to keep up both as a realistic symbol of a better world and as an economic engine that represents that ideal. Our foreign policy has swung between the realpolitik of George H.W. Bush to the overly simplistic “let’s invade to create democracy” policy of George W. Bush.
We have purposely looked the other way as our one truly democratic ally in the Middle East, Israel, ignores our values and acts like the post-war Soviet Union in keeping and settling on lands won in war. This feeds the impression in the rest of the Middle East that the United States does not represent democracy, but an indirect form of imperialism.
At the same time, our economic model that we so proudly boasted about has been diminished by the recession. Simultaneously, our political inability to see as a people the need to invest in our own future — whether in education, infrastructure or any public endeavor save for defense — calls into question whether our system has been so encumbered by tradition and special interests that it can no longer represent the commonweal.
Sadly, totalitarianism won over Lady Liberty 22 years ago in China. And although there is an amorphous call for freedom as part of the Cairo demonstration, it is not necessarily a call to be identified with American values of freedom.
America must be perceptive enough to make the necessary changes both at home and abroad so that it can re-assert its true value proposition, so that once again the symbol of the demonstrators is the Statue of Liberty.
Without these changes, America will grow more and more isolated within a world of newly empowered global techno citizens.
By Ted Galen Carpenter
Though the spectacular events in Cairo have ended with Hosni Mubarak stepping down, pundits on both the left and the right increasingly chide the Obama administration for not being more supportive of popular movements challenging authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, proponents of a more high-profile U.S. role on behalf of democracy in the Muslim world cite Washington's strong (and ultimately successful) support for Poland's Solidarity movement and other anti-Soviet campaigns in the latter stages of the Cold War.
But with the uprising in Egypt likely to embolden other democratic movements in the region — and with pressure sure to remain on the Obama administration to openly support them — Beltway types would do well to keep in mind the very different perception of the U.S. in Eastern Europe circa 1989 versus the present-day Middle East.
Why less is more
In the face of an intense media appetite for sweeping White House pronouncements about events in the region, the administration's best course is to resist temptation, and embrace a policy of saying and doing less instead of more.
To most people residing in the Kremlin's empire, the Soviet Union was a meddling, imperialist oppressor. America's moral support was welcomed because they saw the U.S. as the USSR's principal adversary. Even if America had not been a beacon of freedom and democracy, there would have been positive feelings toward the avowed enemy of their imperial overlord.
The situation in the Middle East is vastly — and depressingly — different. Populations in that part of the world generally view the U.S. with great suspicion. Indeed, all too many Middle Easterners regard Washington as the meddling, imperialist power that is responsible for their unsatisfactory lot in life. A succession of U.S administrations has reinforced that negative image by backing corrupt, authoritarian regimes that looted and brutalized their people.
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The result is a deep reservoir of hostility toward Washington. A June 2010 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of respondents in Egypt had an unfavorable view of the United States, and 79% in Jordan did so. That negative assessment is not confined to the Arab portion of the Muslim world. In Pakistan, the unfavorable rating was 68%, and in Turkey 74%.
Such pervasive animosity makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for Washington to play a major constructive role in the political transition that we're now beginning to witness in the Middle East. Put bluntly, even if U.S. officials profess to support the goals of democracy and liberty, those statements have very little credibility with populations in that part of the world.
Even if Washington's pro-freedom sentiments are genuine, the U.S. cannot overcome the reputation it has acquired from decades of support for autocratic regimes. It would be as if a reformist Soviet regime had belatedly backed free elections and other features of democracy in Eastern Europe. Such a change in policy would have been seen as much too little, much too late.
The danger of meddling
U.S. policymakers understandably want to see secular, democratic forces emerge victorious from the current turmoil and see the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces marginalized. But embracing secular factions could easily backfire. Anti-American factions would almost certainly cite such support as evidence that Washington is continuing to meddle in their country's internal affairs, and they would use it to discredit their secular opponents.
Even democracy-promotion efforts by American non-governmental organizations could prove counterproductive. Although officially such organizations are private sector ventures, most overseas populations do not make a distinction. And the often cozy cooperation between some NGOs and the U.S. government contributes to the perception that they are merely extensions of the White House, the State Department, or the CIA.
Ostentatiously endorsing secular democratic factions in revolutionary settings in the Middle East could be the kiss of death for those movements. Like it or not, the United States needs to adopt a low-profile role during these turbulent days.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.