As was explained in part one of this post, following what is said or written about American politics is often difficult for Americans who are actually used to all the dissembling, spinning, deliberate misconstruing, hyperbole and other nonsense that is to spin facts and lies into glittering campaign finery.
But if you are not from the U.S., it's next two impossible to know what's important or what's not. Given the central role America still plays in the world -- G-zeroists notwithstanding -- cutting through the headlines and the soundbites to get to the core truths about what's happening in the world's highest-priced democracy is essential.
That's why I've tried to pick out a few terms and explain what each party means by them. Earlier this week, I visited the Republican lexicon. Today, we'll take a look at a handful of key illustrations of the quirks and curiosities that comprise the Dem dialect, with a special focus on a few that pertain to foreign policy.
The 1 Percent -- This is a perjorative term of art for every rich, spoiled, corrupt, indolent, exploitative millionaire in America who is not a donor to the Obama reelection effort or the Democratic National Committee. Donors are referred to as hard-working, job-creating illustrations of the enduring power of the American dream. (Also understood to refer to those who should be shouldering burden for balancing U.S. budget by paying "their fair share" of taxes.)
The 99 Percent -- This refers to the disenfranchised, struggling victims of Wall Street and corporatist exploitation. All these people deserve tax cuts, to be funded by the 1 percent. The fact that there is no way to address the deficit without a bigger burden falling on most of the members of the 99 percent, too, is just not something that should be discussed in public until we are in the midst of robust recovery lest the truth and arithmetic derail everything.
Bush Tax Cuts -- Source of all problems in the U.S. economy, even though President Obama celebrated extending them as a canny political victory in the middle of his first term. (Also known as the biggest political issue of December 2012.)
Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- The Holy Trinity of American politics. They are sacrosanct and must never be touched -- even if major surgery is the only way to actually save their lives.
Financial Services Reform -- A political mirage allowing the president to seemingly take a tough stand against the 1 percent while not alienating too much the fat cats who are needed to pump money into Dem coffers. Advocate it, sign it, but don't really overdo the enforcement side of it.
Campaign Finance Reform -- Something that is absolutely essential for restoring democracy in America, and which should be implemented just as soon as every currently serving Dem leaves office.
The President's Healthcare Victory -- Shhhh. Please don't mention this. Despite the fact that it actually benefitted millions, it is the Voldemort of Dem politics, "the policy whose name must not be spoken."
Romneycare -- Shhh. Please don't mention this either. Because as Dems, we'll be forced to admit we kinda like it.
The Unemployment Rate -- The president's true running mate (sorry, Joe.) If it dips to around 8 percent or below, the president wins re-election. Interesting fact: the president has almost no ability to impact this outcome and bares only a very limited responsibility for fluctuations in U.S. employment one way or another.
Europe -- Dem heaven. An ability to balance the love of good cuisine with the love for a well-constructed government bureaucracy. Topless beaches. The fact that the eurocrisis probably will have more to do with whether Obama wins reelection than anything he or anyone in the U.S. might do compromises this love affair somewhat.
China -- Growing up, most Dem policy wonks wanted to be European, today they want to be Chinese. And we hate them for that.
India -- China with democracy … really fractious democracy at that, and crazy, over-the-top, outspoken media chaos. A fast growing developing country with an important strategic role and a historical past that gave us Ben Kingsley. In other words, for visionary Dem foreign policy types, even better than Europe or China. The ultimate destination/partner for the Dem wonkocracy.
The Middle East -- Er, nice to know ya, time to go, "yay, democracy," "boo, Iran," "love ya, Israel" ... we're out of here.
"Barack Obama has a good working relationship with Bibi Netanyahu" -- Ha.
"It would be wrong to politicize the successful results of the Bin Laden raid" -- Let's play up this big success at every opportunity that arises. Wanna bet the story of the Navy SEAL who pulled the trigger leaks closer to election day? Best illustration of Dem cojones since Madeleine Albright first raised the possibility they might exist.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
I'm still waiting for the phone to ring and the editors of Time Magazine to ask me who the pick should be for Person of the Year. This will be one of those years when it's a concept choice, of that I'm certain. You know what I mean, when the choice is a group of people or a home appliance rather than one big name recipient. The only question in my mind is whether you call 2011 "The Year of the Mob" -- which is a bit uncharitable to some of the public demonstrations that championed important values with great courage...or "The Year of the Masses" or "The Year of the Street." That covers everything from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, from demonstrations in Athens against fiscal mismanagement and the burdens of austerity to those in London against raised tuitions, from the truckers strike in Shanghai to the mobs in State College Pennsylvania protesting the ouster of Joe Paterno or, one hopes, protesting the university looking the other way against charges of child abuse.
And of course, the ultimate example of mob mentality would be the performance of world markets, stampeding as though they were not on Wall Street but in the streets of Pamplona, rampaging from one crisis to another with precious little regard for facts, the long-term, fiduciary responsibility, or anything but the trade of the moment. As a consequence of this phenomenon and with an eye toward the uncertain outcomes of some of the other public demonstrations of the year, this might also be the year the editors run a thought provoking sidebar headlined "RIP: The Wisdom of Crowds." Because comforting as that notion was, crowds are only wise if all in them have equal access to the same information, have equal capacity for evaluating that information, have equal ability to move at the same speed, are playing on a level playing field. And as we know, they don't which is why the only people who still believe in efficient market theory are the ones who are peddling the old textbooks and academic papers they wrote about it. I certainly don't know a single major investor who believes in the idea.
Sadly, of course, we don't get to pick the winners of such illustrious prizes here at tiny FP. So, we have to make up our own awards that capture the spirit of the moment. Fortunately, this gives us more latitude. We don't have to limit our choices to people. We can go deeper. And in this case, that's precisely where we will go.
And that's why I would like to take this opportunity to announce our (my) selection for FP's First Annual Gland of the Year Award. While the competition in this year of Kardashian marital hijinks, Bunga Bunga parties, and the patter of little feet in the Élysée Palace was fierce, once again the winner trumped by a wide margin the runners-up, which as usual included a variety of reproductive glands from many lands not to mention several organs that happened to get votes despite not actually being glands --including the heart and the brain. And that winner, by a wide margin, explaining everything that happened in the global street and once again dominating (and making havoc of) global affairs is ...the Adrenal Gland.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
It has been a while since the world has had a really James Bond-worthy villain. But thanks to his announcement this weekend that he intends to publicly reassert his control over Russia, all Vladimir Putin needs at this point is a purring white cat in his lap and we will all know where 007's next assignment will take him.
Of course, Putin's decision to once again become Russia's president after four years in the less powerful role of prime minister should hardly come as a shock to anyone. That he is likely to swap jobs with current President Dmitry Medvedev only confirms suspicions experts have harbored about Medvedev since he assumed office -- that he was less a genuine political leader and more like one of those inflatable dummies people buy to ride next to them in their cars so they can drive in HOV lanes.
That may be a disappointment given Medvedev's occasional displays of independence that gave rise to the hope that perhaps he might be a counterweight to the oversize influence of Putin in Russian politics. It certainly seemed to be to Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who boldly did what has become an anachronism in Moscow politics and took a dissenting stand by saying he would not serve in the new government, which is slated to take office after "elections" in March. But it seems unlikely that many other notable voices will join those of Mr. Kudrin in protesting Putin's decision to hammer a stake through the hearts of those who still felt democracy had a chance in Russia.
For the United States and the West, the situation presents a problem. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously offered up that reset button in the early days of Barack Obama's administration, she certainly did not expect that when hitting it Putin would reset the relationship back to its Cold War depths. And while we are nowhere near there yet, trashing any remaining illusions of political reform certainly does not improve matters. In fact, given Russia's adventurism with its near neighbors, its regular embrace of international stances in opposition to those of the U.S., and its saber-rattling and strengthening of its military capabilities, it doesn't take someone with the acuity of M to recognize that this is potentially going to be a much more problematic relationship for the United States going forward.
Given Russia's nuclear arsenal, 11 time-zone dimensions, and enormous natural resources (that have resulted in increasing European dependence on Russian energy), it is not a stretch to see Putin solidifying his role as the first really big-league bad guy of the new century, a corrupt, scheming, megalomaniacal, major-power leader to force the demented heads of rogue states and terrorists living in Pakistani suburbs into the background of our geopolitical imaginations. That Putin's eccentricities -- his fondness for going shirtless, ideally while killing large animals with his bare hands -- are so colorful will only serve to make it easier for screenwriters and Tom Clancy to turn him into a full blown on-screen baddy.
In fact, there is only one really major problem that Putin poses for those who see his becoming the Goldfinger of the 21st century as the natural next step for him after coming out of the closet this weekend as Russia's near-dictator. And that is that by far the best actor to play him on-screen is … Daniel Craig.
Then again, there's a twist neither Ian Fleming nor Cubby Broccoli could have imagined. Just the shot of life the old franchise needs. The best Bond ever vs. his greatest adversary, both played by the same guy. Sounds pretty compelling … though it is unlikely to be sufficient to distract us from the really dark doings at the Kremlin and their ominous real life implications.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
While President Obama's comments on the debt ceiling standoff on Friday morning were pretty much a non-event, there was one thing he said that was so dead on target it is likely to live on. When -- and I don't think it's "if" -- the U.S. gets downgraded, it will not be because the United States does not have the ability to meet our obligations it will be because the U.S. does not have a AAA political system.
While the president meant this as a commentary on the current situation, the more disturbing element of the comment is that the flaws to which he was referring to are likely to endure and exacerbate the economic problems already burdening the nation. It would be a mistake to think that those flaws are simply a matter of the misguided views of one party or another or even the extremism of one wing or both.
The system is fundamentally structurally damaged. While we would benefit from having a third party, plans to introduce a third party candidate for president ignore the fact that our more urgent need for a third party is in the Congress. Further, adding parties won't address the money cancer that has corrupted the system and which is getting worse with each passing election's growing demands for more and more cash.
In addition, the structural problems are more deeply ingrained in the processes that drive the political system, such as having an upper house of Congress that requires supermajority votes to get almost anything done and yet also allows individual senators to hold up nominations for critical offices indefinitely without rationale. Budget problems are associated with Byzantine collection of appropriating and authorizing committees and made worse by the self-interested behavior of chairs and ranking members who see the gavel as an ATM card that enables them to fund campaigns and stay in power.
No, as President Obama rightly observes, when the downgrade comes it is likely to be less due to the size or cost of our government than it is its shape, structure and the personalities of those who are mismanaging it. But we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook so easily. Those personalities serve at the behest of the American people and to the extent those people do not demand productivity and reason from their representatives then ultimately the downgrade is a verdict about the judgment of the U.S. electorate.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does seem the direction events are now headed.
Judging from developments throughout the Middle East, it seems quite possible that the primary outcome of the "Arab Spring" may be the reinforcing of the power of the old guard.
In Egypt, recent reports such as David Kirkpatrick's in the New York Times this weekend suggest that the military is working tirelessly to retain its traditionally dominant behind-the-scenes role in that country's political life even after any further reforms are implemented. In addition, political candidates -- like former foreign minister Amr Moussa -- with close ties to Hosni Mubarak's regime may fare well in upcoming elections.
In Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia, promises of reform have thus far outnumbered any substantial steps in that direction. (See, for a thoughtful analysis, my Carnegie colleague Marina Ottaway's "Tunisia: The Revolution Is Over, Can Reform Continue?")
In Syria, while Bashar al-Assad regime has been weakened by protests, even weaker has been the international response to its brutality. The regime could well survive. Perhaps more importantly vis-à-vis the region at large, take how it has thus far faired compared with toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and the message to autocrats threatened in the future may be: strike hard, strike without mercy, the worst you will have to contend with from the rest of the planet is a flurry of diplomatic wrist-slaps. The fact that similar crackdowns in Iran and Bahrain were also effective only underscores the point.
In Bahrain, the formula is a little more pernicious. It suggests for regimes lucky enough to be located in the Gulf -- because of the oil, because of America's desire to contain Iran, because of old friendships -- you can get away with virtually anything. See today's article in the Independent titled "Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal." It is a credible account of just one more ugly dimension of a protracted repressive episode that the United States and the rest of the world effectively chose to ignore … which in such cases is much the same thing as complicity.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere,
We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize.
We know what is happening in the one-time capital of the Free World now is ugly and demoralizing and no doubt has many of your supporters wondering if democracy is really worth its costs. Are you fighting for freedom of speech and assembly and representative government, those supporters must be asking, or is it inadvertently a fight that will ultimately bring you your own versions of Tea-Partiers and gridlock and the complete sacrifice of national interests on the altar of cheap political showmanship?
We are sorry our display of the spineless, visionless, shrill, embarrassing debasement of our political system is so ill-timed given your purposes ... but by now you must realize that while we are pretty good at giving speeches about democracy promotion, we've never been so great at following through with support for your efforts.
Ok, maybe that's not really the best apology ... suggesting you are to blame for believing too much in a country that almost always brings down that which it lifts up. Let me try another tack: Perhaps you can turn all this to your benefit if you simply change your perspective.
Perhaps the trick is in not looking at America as a beacon of democracy anymore but rather as a kind of a lighthouse perched up on the rocks of where not to go, of what not to be, warning you to avoid our example.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Under cover of tsunami, the Saudi military rolled into Bahrain to help secure a minority's rule over an angry, abused majority.
Under cover of a nuclear crisis, Libya's military battered brave but outgunned opponents whose only crime was seeking an end to a four-decade-long brutal dictatorship.
Under cover of an earthquake, the nations of the West dithered, threatening action in Libya … but by waiting, assuring it would only come after Qaddafi's loyalists had strafed and blasted their way to an upper hand in that country's civil war.
Japan's compound tragedies held the world spellbound, and frankly, the world seemed pretty happy with the arrangement.
There were hard questions lurking in the Middle East. Questions about whether America and its allies only supported democracy in states that didn't produce oil, whether our high values could be traded on the world's commodity markets, one full measure of national integrity for every barrel of crude. Questions about whether we only supported democracy for some in the Islamic world but, for example, not for Shiites because of their ties with Iran. Or perhaps it is that we support, it seems, rights for Shiites in Iran but not for Shiites in the Gulf.
The Japan disaster obscured the slaughter of a family of five Israeli settlers and the Israeli government's subsequent announcement of more settlement construction and then the shrill commentaries trying to equate the two. One was the murder of an innocent family. The other was a defiant if ill-considered and demonstratively unproductive policy. But the modern Middle East trades as easily in false equivalencies as it does raging hypocrisies.
Consider that this week that the world debated nuclear reactor safety in Japan while Iran worked silently to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, while Pakistan continued to build its massive arsenal.
What is happening in Japan is extremely important and it warrants the attention of world leaders and it is heartening to see global assistance flowing into the stricken nation. But it does not excuse those leaders from their responsibilities to address other urgent issues elsewhere, and yet one cannot help but feel that many are seeking cover behind these grim stories datelined in Sendai or Iwate Prefecture, an excuse for inaction or worse, for inexcusable actions.
It would be a sad irony if part of the toll of the Japanese quake included thousands more dead in Libya, or the freedom of aspirant millions from the Maghreb to the Gulf. Britain's David Cameron has said he will seek U.N. action on Libya, a resolution and a threat of a no-fly zone at some point in the future. It's an admirable ambition but poses the questions: At what point will that be? What will be left of the opposition?
The measure of Cameron's sincerity and that of the world leaders who once condemned Qaddafi or cheered on the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square is not how soaring their rhetoric is, but how swiftly and decisively they act … and whether or not they remain engaged in support of democratic reforms and the right of self-determination even in the face of other priorities, events that might offer a distraction but can never excuse hesitation from the only people who are in a position to help.
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
They are still there in Tahrir Square. Not as many as before. The energy has ebbed away. The television cameras have long-since shifted their focus elsewhere. To the fighting in Libya. To the water cannons being used against protestors by the U.S.-backed government in Iraq.
But the protestors remain where Egypt's Jasmine Revolution made its great stand against Mubarak's thugs. They are still connected with the world via Twitter and Facebook. They are not yet ready to leave and in that there is an important lesson that may offer more hope than even the jubilation that seemed to emanate from the protestors to every corner of the world when Hosni the Dinosaur finally agreed to lumber out of town.
They understand that contrary to the generally accepted understanding of the term, revolutions do not happen quickly nor do they end when the initial battles associated with them cease. Revolutions unfold slowly. Successful revolutions inevitably take years, decades or sometimes longer. Revolutions do not just require courage they require tenacity and watchfulness.
In Tahrir Square, they are watching. They are there to hold the Egyptian provisional government to their word. They were there this week to demand that Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak hold-over, resign. If he did not, they would call their brethren back to the square. Shafiq and the leaders of the military who have been entrusted with the transition understood what that meant. For the protestors, it was another step forward but it was still an early one in what they know will be a long journey.
Even should democracy arrive later this year, they know that is not enough. From Mubarak to free and fair elections is great progress, a kind of political miracle, but it is not what the revolution was about. The revolution was about what happens between elections, what leads from election to election, about a culture of transparency, fairness and opportunity. It is about being a democratic society which is very different from sporting a few of the accoutrements of democratic behavior ... like elections.
They don't have to look too far to see that elections alone do not a functioning democratic society make. They can look to Iraq, where despite elections cronyism, corruption, and ethnic and social divisions still rule. They see a country in which the United States spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defeat a despot and install democracy with its people in the street, demanding change, confronted by "security forces in black uniforms, track-suits and T-shirts" who, according to the Washington Post, "attacked protesters, rounded up others from cafes and homes and hauled them off, blindfolded to army detention centers."
The Post story quoted a human rights activist as saying, "Maliki is starting to act like Saddam Hussein, to use the same fear, to plant it inside Iraqis who criticize him. ... The U.S. must feel embarrassed right now -- it is they who promised a modern state, a democratic state."
While they may not know that Merriam-Webster defines revolution as "a sudden, radical or complete change" they understand that "sudden" and even "radical" are not enough. "Complete" is the operative word and that takes time and vigilance and the spirit of a marathon runner as opposed to a sprinter.
It's why, despite the fact that few of them may ever have heard of Benjamin Franklin, they seem to understand what he meant when, asked about what was being produced by America's revolution and the subsequent drafting of its constitution, he said, "a republic, if we can keep it."
John Moore/Getty Images
When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.
In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.
But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it's only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin's was: That it's not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy -- that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That's the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.
That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.
GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images
While it is too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the uprising in Egypt, there are nonetheless a number of important conclusions to which we can reasonably come.
First, something profound has changed. It did not change because of the uprising in Tahrir Square. It changed and the uprising was the result; the power has shifted in the region. We have passed a generational and technological tipping point. While the dinosaurs cling to the levers of power in virtually every country in the greater Middle East, the under 30 majority is now the great force to be reckoned with. While the establishment has done almost everything conceivable to keep them down from denying them education to curtailing the spread of information technologies to gutting the economies, nonetheless, new information sources and technologies and ways of connecting and collaborating seeped in to these societies through every one of the cracks spreading across the Ozymandian edifices of the elite.
These changes are irreversible. They are seen in the cell phones that even the poorest carry with them, in the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, in the burgeoning Twitter feeds, the apps young Arabs create to provide work-arounds every time a government tries to curtail Internet access, and even in the technological use of some of the region's worst players.
These changes have remade the social and political fabric of the region. What they have yet to do is what they have done everywhere else in the world and that is to fuel economic change.
That is the second inescapable conclusion we need to consider. The great challenges before this under-30 majority are economic, they are about opportunity. They are not about Israel or battles between Shiites and Sunnis or tribal divisions. Those problems still fester, but the unifying challenge for this generation is even more basic: They need jobs. They crave opportunity. And the failure of their leaders to provide them with these basic sources of sustenance and dignity is what has fueled the revolutions of 2011.
A corollary to this conclusion is that we in the United States have been sending the wrong people with the wrong approaches to solve the wrong problems in this region for decades. The problems of this region will not be solved by negotiators or generals. They require investors and entrepreneurs and educators. To the extent that we can contribute, we must do so by supporting the creation of economic opportunity. It is a massive undertaking but it is the only true peacemaker.
A third conclusion is related to the second, however. The role for the U.S. government in all this is very, very limited. We would do well to redirect what aid we provide to address this core challenge of creating jobs for the under-30s. We would do well to put our best economic minds in charge, perhaps even appointing a special economic envoy of real stature. But the only people who can ultimately solve this problem are in the Middle East. In fact, in the hierarchy of those who can help, if the people of the Middle East are first and by far foremost, it is the people of Europe, not the United States who must be second. They are the natural economic neighbors of the region and they must answer the question whether they want those under-30s employed in the Middle East or seeking employment in Europe. After the Europeans, it may even be the Chinese or Indians and others dependent on oil in the region and closer to its problems who should take more prominent roles in helping to solve the problem than the United States, which is a lightening rod and has problems of our own at home.
A fourth conclusion is that the hardest part is clearly still ahead of us. Egypt must make the transition to democracy and that means the military must really step aside after six months. Friends of mine who have met with them believe they understand the implications of the political earthquake that has taken place during the past month and that they will do so. But there are dinosaurs among their leaders so it is by no means a sure thing. Even beyond establishing a democracy is actually keeping one, and beyond that is addressing successfully the economic challenges alluded to above. Further, there are the problems of all the other countries of the region. They will be difficult to handle but we in the United States need to be confident enough in our core beliefs to let them work them out among themselves. There will be fights and setbacks and people we don't like will periodically gain the upper hand. But give me a duel between two guys armed with the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds and let one offer the people the 11th Century and another offer the 21th and I know who I will bet on.
Finally, my fifth conclusion is that of all the big challenges ahead for U.S. foreign policy associated with this period of upheaval, the greatest by far lies with Israel and the Palestinians. Personally, I am not sure why the Palestinians have not yet unilaterally declared independence. The world would surely support them. But imagine what would happen if, perhaps on the road to such a declaration perhaps following it, a hundred thousand Palestinians took to the streets peacefully demanding real self-determination. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in the minds of the world, how could the Israelis respond as they might have in the past? On what side of history would they appear to be as President Obama might put it? And in that vein, on what side of that history would President Obama and the United States want to be?
Until now, the fact that Israel was the region's only democracy was its "get out of jail free" card. It was used to excuse ... or attempt to excuse ... a multitude of sins. For this reason, no Arab military offensive could be as effective in undermining Israel's strategic advantages as real democracy taking root elsewhere in the region. The Netanyahu administration would be flummoxed if people power came to the West Bank and Gaza. They would be cast involuntarily with the dinosaurs. They would have no pages in their playbook indicating how to handle this. They would have very few good choices.
Actually, they would have only one. They would have to get out of the way. They would have to do what Mubarak did. They would have to step within the 1967 borders and let the Palestinians begin the job of building Palestine. And they would have to hope that the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world helped the Palestinians do it because once that happens, it will be of the utmost importance for Israel that its new neighbor produce real opportunity for its people ... because we have seen the alternative and it, for this generation who have both nothing and nothing to lose will not be contained by the tactics or the rhetoric of the past.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Eleven days into the upheaval in Egypt one thing is crystal clear: Almost nothing is crystal clear.
The situation in Egypt and throughout the region is so volatile, so fluid, so complex, so uncertain in its outcomes that almost nothing is worth less than the color commentary of analysts offering perspective in real time. That's not always the case. And periodically I am one of those talking heads so I am as guilty as anyone of seeking to sound knowledgeable about the unknowable. (If journalism is the first rough draft of history the live commentary of TV and blogs ... like this one ... are merely the notes for that draft ... musings at best.)
Still, there are a few things we can glean from all this:
Time to Take a Deep
Watching the uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Jordan to Syria and on across the greater Middle East we need to remind ourselves that popular uprisings are fueled by mass psychology ... and none of us are immune from it. Throughout history these moments occur ... whether with the People Power revolutions of twenty years ago, the Indian revolts that brought the downfall of the British East India Company in the 1850s or the call to the barricades so many heeded across Europe in 1848. Mass psychology can be inspiring, but it can also be deluding; adrenaline and emotion overtake reason.
That's not to say uprisings like these are not called for ... indeed, in all the aforementioned cases they were long overdue and totally justified as are those taking place across the Middle East today. But we need to be careful to confuse righteous indignation or the surge brought on by public displays of courage with clear insights into what ought to be happening. Many such revolutions produce thin results (1848 was a watershed but it would be decades before its lessons were learned, it took almost a century for the Indian Rebellion of 1857 to lead to independence and I was in Tiananmen Square weeks before that uprising was crushed, so I understand how great highs lead to shattering lows.) Many produce bad near term outcomes. (Great revolutionary leaders are seldom great nation builders.)
We need to separate our desire to cheer on the average citizens of the region seeking rights they deserve from an impulse to demand action "right now" that may ultimately put those average citizens or our own interests at risk. In the era of Twitter revolutions and instant commentary on 24-hour news stations, I sometimes think we'd be better off with the built in time for reflection that came with slower means of communications. To pick just one example, we may shrug off the idea of an Islamic state in Egypt as being contrary to the spirit we see in the streets today, but should it come and with it intolerance and other kinds of instability and new risks, we will feel very uncomfortable to have been ourselves caught up in the mass mentality of this moment. We need to be careful not confuse the experience of watching these uprisings with the Super Bowl ... in fact, we would do well to recognize the dangerous similarities between the two experiences for all of us who are primarily crowd members way up in the cheap seats. (And I include some very senior government officials in that mix.)
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
In the past several days, an Obama administration that has, for the most part, appeared to handle the Egypt uprising well has been sailing a little close to the wind. In an attempt to appear on top of events, the administration has issued statements that felt a little too much like taking credit for persuading Mubarak to leave office by September.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed they know better when he stated that there were some elements of diplomacy that best take place away from the cameras. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were right to turn to a man as experienced and gifted as former Ambassador Frank Wisner to conduct key elements of their behind the scenes communications with the Egyptian leadership. Wisner is one of the very best the State Department has produced in the past half century. But, what he did and what the president may have said to Mubarak on the telephone in private should have remained private.
That said, going forward, there is much that should be communicated to the Egyptian leadership -- quietly -- in the next day or so if it has not already been said. Paramount among these messages should be an unequivocal statement along the following lines:
While we are deeply grateful for the support and friendship that President Mubarak and the people of Egypt have shown to the United States during the past several decades, we must acknowledge what has changed in these first days of 2011 ... and what has not.
Let us begin with what has not changed. First, America continues to seek only the best relationship with the people and government of Egypt. Such a relationship is, of course, based on a foundation of mutual respect and a recognition that all nations must advance their own national interests. A reason for the strength of our relationship and the depth of our commitment to Egypt over these past decades is the degree to which these principles have been followed.
The United States' primary national interest with regard to Egypt is in preserving peace and stability in the region and in the collaboration that was possible due to our shared goals. That does not just mean peace between Egypt and its neighbors -- it means peace within Egypt and it means stability throughout the region. It also means supporting the shared values and vision that will produce greater peace, stability, and prosperity in the future.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The upheaval in Egypt has forced many policymakers to grapple with issues of political philosophy that they probably have not considered since their introductory political science courses in college. What's more, the urgency with which they are doing so has only increased with the news from Jordan that King Abdullah succumbed to pressure and replaced his prime minister and his cabinet thus indicating that the demonstrations in Tahrir Square are a symptom of a much bigger phenomenon.
The core debate thus far has circled around whether to embrace democracy even if it might bring with it instability or governments with troubling views. A related question, posed indirectly by Mubarak and King Abdullah with their government reshufflings intended to placate protesting masses, is: "How much democracy is enough to restore calm?" (This is the politics of calculated symbolism: Let them eat window dressing.)
These initial questions however are related to even more important questions going forward. Central to these is: What reforms are required if the Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Tunisian, Libyan, or other governments in the region are to actually make the great leap forward to being something more like genuinely free, democratic societies? (Are you listening in Baghdad and Kabul?)
We have repeatedly seen that elections alone are not the answer. They are too easily gamed and leaders too often use even sham mandates to then justify autocratic misapplication of power. Further, we know that in a country like Egypt one of the threats is that extremist groups seek to use the transition to a new government to promote agendas that twist religious precepts into false justifications for intolerance or worse. We have also seen in the past several weeks that the ability to use all available technologies to communicate or to convene the public is essential to an open society.
President Hosni Mubarak's speech to the Egyptian people in the wake of days of rioting was a masterpiece of insensitivity. With his citizens in the street expressing their needs, he addressed his own. He spoke of poverty and concern for his people, but his message was something far darker. He was making a stand for the status quo.
Watching him, ghostly in the stark podium lighting designed to hide what hints of his age his hairdresser and doctors could not, it was clear that this was an old man comfortable in the old ways of the Middle East. As such he was as much a remnant of Egypt's past leadership as any mummy in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, just as brittle, frail, and ready to turn to dust.
His sacrifice of his cabinet also evoked ancient practices, as well as the last ditch measures of autocrats throughout history. His ministers -- many of whom were not objects of the people's anger -- were used as cannon fodder, a way to test whether the old president's position would hold. The hours and days ahead will determine whether it was enough: whether there are real reforms he might actually entrust his new government with or whether he is betting that his lifelong ties to the military will protect him in ways that his political savvy no longer can.
He is a man out of touch with his people and his times. Like Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, he is a symptom of the greatest problem the region has faced over the past several decades: its self-absorbed, corrupt leadership. From Algiers to Kabul, an arc of autocracy extends across nearly all of the greater Middle East, denying citizens the right of self-determination, buying international favor with oil or political deals, ignoring educational needs, the rights of women, and the investments needed to compete in the global economy.
But with each starkly out-of-touch pronouncement like that from Mubarak today, the arc trembles a bit. Certainly, the fall of Ben Ali started it quivering. In Yemen and in Jordan, demonstrators tested the waters to see if progress might be made there. We have already seen the potency of the Green Revolution in Iran and recognize that even when the autocrats seem to win the day, they only postpone the inevitable. You can't keep the cell phones and the Internet and Twitter accounts off indefinitely and compete in the modern world. You can't deny a future to populations dominated by the young and expect enduring stability.
In Israel, leaders are deeply ambivalent, fearful of instability in a country that has been vitally important to the region's stability -- and even more fearful that what they perceive as an even weaker, minority regime in Jordan might totter. At the same time, on some level they cannot help but note that not only do these uprisings underscore their nearly unique role as a democracy in the region (we will see what reform in Iraq brings) but even more importantly, they illustrate clearly that Israel is far from the biggest problem the region faces.
It is tempting for "realists" everywhere to cling to stability over the questions that opening these countries to self-determination might raise. But we should all have long since passed that point of hesitation. Either we are for the principle or we are not. Either all people deserve these freedoms or they do not. Someday historians may draw a direct connection between President Barack Obama's call for reforms and a new relationship between the United States and the people of the Islamic world in his Cairo speech and the events of this winter. We can only hope that it is connection marked by U.S. actions that are consistent with the high ideals espoused by the president.
In the words of Secretary Clinton today, we have hope that will be the case. In the "Made in the U.S.A." marking on the tear gas canisters being used against the Egyptian protestors we see the potential ugliness that can come from that old-fashioned form of flawed pragmatism that is a hallmark of US foreign policy -- the form in which we make a deal for today's stability that puts us on the wrong side of tomorrow's revolution.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Scrooge. The Grinch. Critics calling out the cinematic deficiencies of "Love Actually." Christmas humbuggery is a cliché.
I however, am a New Year's curmudgeon. The holiday is a fraud celebrated by idiots. Our arbitrary slicing of time into comprehension-sized chunks and then celebrating the false distinctions between December 31 and the first of January is a big honking nonsense.
The fact that this ersatz holiday then motivates people to put on silly hats and drink to excess to celebrate the non-event event compounds the ridiculousness of it all and makes it dangerous to leave the safety of your couch. The only thing that adds any gravity to the activity at all is America's tradition of spending part of the evening watching Dick Clark slowly losing body functions on live national television. (I sympathize with the man and admire his courage. But he seems to be crowning a lifetime of cashing in on his bad taste with an ultimate grotesqueness: a multi-year, hard-to-watch reality show about his own demise.)
That said, you don't have to be a drunken lunatic who spends 10 hours trapped in the freezing cold in Times Square waiting for Snooki to be dropped in a glass hamster ball to add to the absurdity of this annual ritual about nothing. No, even very serious types like commentators and still grave but less credible types like bloggers regularly mark the holiday in ways that make them bigger laughingstocks than the insurance salesmen with lampshades on their heads who made the holiday famous: They make predictions.
Invariably the predictions do not come true. There is a charming irony in this: celebrating a non-event through the ritual listing of other soon-to-be non-events. (The New York Times has even run an entertaining discussion forum this week on why we seem to need predictions and how hard they are to make.) It is all a cousin to our penchant for marking the "new" year with resolutions to distinguish the year from that which came before it -- and which are all soon forgotten in ways that should remind us of the falseness of such distinctions.
But while I may condemn the holiday -- which is why on New Year's Eve I will sit here in Paris in our rented digs in the Sixth Arrondissement listening to the nearby revelry on the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail while quietly sipping Diet Coke and irritating my very patient wife just as I do each and every other night -- I am not so egotistical as to think my protests can undo the culturally embedded traditions of the season. I also don't think I can ignore the requests of the editors at FP any longer. So I too will now offer some New Year's predictions.
However, in an effort to avoid the kind of pitfalls of which I am critical, I will skip right over the dubious maybes of most pundits and cut right to what you want to know the most: I will list only those things that are absolutely certain to happen in 2011.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
Mario Tama/Gettty Images
The reason that I, the father of two college students, periodically lecture at universities is that I am always surprised to see what it looks like when someone of my daughters' age actually listens to me. Admittedly, the students have no choice. Still it is a refreshing change of pace from what happens around the house. (I kid. Ever since we instituted spot quizzes at home, the girls have been much more attentive.)
Also, of course, I learn far more from students than I ever did from teachers. They ask good questions. They come with fewer preconceptions. They challenge conventional wisdom. Or at least some in every class do and even those who come with a set of pre-packaged views often provoke interesting discussions.
That happened in a class I spoke to today here in DC. It was a group of visiting students from around the world and we pretty much covered the waterfront of topics. We discussed the non-scientific nature of most foreign-policy analysis and the fact that if most "experts" didn't actually explore or understand all the critical variables driving a situation that really made them more like "guessperts." We discussed the imbalances in the world and the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few -- and how the recent crisis could have remedied this but probably actually only demonstrated and increased the power of those few.
And then one student suggested that when I spoke of such concentrated power that I sounded like Karl Marx. I don't think it was a compliment. And he asked if I was a "small-'d' Democrat" and if so, didn't I believe that democracy was actually an effective way of counterbalancing the power of the few.
Kris Connor/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.