Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade in which the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was "the war on terror." As we approach Sept. 11, 2011, it is clear that America's foreign policy priorities have changed.
Not only has the United States achieved our principle goal of decapitating al Qaeda and degrading its capabilities, we have hardened our assets, enhanced our intelligence capabilities, developed better networks of international cooperation and, above all, recognized that there are other issues of far greater importance to our national interests that should take precedence. Even the term "war on terror" has thankfully fallen into disuse, a sign that while combatting threats from extremists remains an important element of our national security mission, we no longer seek to equate tactical responses to isolated threats with past conflicts in which our strategic interests were at stake. Instead, we are now appropriately addressing such broader strategic questions such as the rise of new powers like China, India, and Brazil, collaborating to manage the global economy, and containing important regional threats that include but are far from limited to the risks associated with terror.
Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the Greater Middle East, the source of not only the 9/11 attacks but of many of the most serious terror threats of recent memory. Recent events in Libya only underscore that America's number one issue in the region is now supporting the transition of a large number of important regional governments from autocracy to more inclusive forms of government and from top-down, crony states to more open, opportunity-rich economies. In the Middle East we have gone from the war on terror to a new campaign focused not on destruction but on building, not on sidestepping our ideals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but on promoting them consistent with the spirit of places like Tahrir Square.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the individual situations are different as is our involvement, our missions are consistent and mutually reinforcing. In the near future, it is to be hoped that similar missions will exist in Syria and in Palestine. Related reforms in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and even Jordan -- no one like the other, but all sharing a need to evolve to reflect new economic, political, social, and technological realities -- are also likely to grow ever more important to our overall goals in the Middle East.
Of course, the initiatives we support -- those that enfranchise citizens and create opportunities for self-sufficiency and advancement -- are also far more effective tools to combat the spread of terror than have been many of our military and political initiatives of the recent past. That's not to say that there is not an important dimension to that on-going fight that will require swift, decisive use of force -- sometimes even unilateral use of force. But among the best elements of this new approach in the region is that it can only be done through effective multilateral cooperation in conjunction with a broad array of other supporters and international institutions.
Anniversaries like 9/11 are important because they help us remember. But they are also important because they provide needed punctuation marks, allowing us to bring to an end dark chapters like the "war on terror."
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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.
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Old Middle East hands know that when conflict comes in the region, history says that the smart money should be on David. The trick is knowing which David on which to bet.
For example, when it comes to leading America's most important initiative in the region, there might be a reflexive tendency to think that the key David is General David Petraeus, leading as he does the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. But in reality, the most important David right now may be the National Economic Council's David Lipton, the low-key, experienced, smart former under secretary of the treasury who is chairing the inter-agency working group looking at economic aid programs for Egypt.
That's because in a region full of screeching, competing urgencies, there are few things more important to the United States' interests than in making Egypt's revolution work. And to make that revolution a success -- to ensure Egyptian stability and that pluralism has a chance to take root in that country -- the key is going to be whether the next government is able to deliver jobs and opportunity for the majority of Egyptians better than Mubarak could.
There is no clarity yet in Washington -- or anywhere, I suspect -- as to what all the changes sweeping through the Middle East mean for narrow national or broad global interests. The situation is too fluid. There are too many moving parts. We cannot know whether upheaval will bring lasting change or whether change will be for better or for worse in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain or elsewhere in the region. In every instance the players, the variables and the stakes are different. And other uprisings may be yet to come whether in the Palestinian Territories, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. So, one-size-fits-all policies are impossible to fashion.
But coherent, well-focused ones are not only possible but urgently needed. That means working with the international community to embrace positive change, identify, and reduce threats, send clear messages and set sensible priorities in terms of the time and resources devoted to each situation. In turn, government limitations in terms of capabilities and political will being what they are, that means zeroing in on the most important cases, the ones with the greatest resonance and implications, and trying to ensure the best possible outcomes in each.
Given Egypt's centrality in the Arab world, its size, its political, cultural and historical roles, it is a natural choice for focus. And given that the issue in Egypt at its heart is, as it is elsewhere in the region, about creating lasting hope for the people, the success or failure of this Arab Spring will not be measured in the number of governments that fall but in the number of jobs that are ultimately created, especially for the young.
The United States and the international community can no more assure such job creation than they can any political outcome in these countries, but we can work to provide much needed aid flows, capital for infrastructure, trade deals that enable the world to have access to locally produced goods, technical assistance to ensure the right economic policies are implemented, etc.
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."
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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.
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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.
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As the jubilation spread across Tahrir Square with the announcement of Hosni Mubarak's departure, one can only imagine what was running through the mind of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he watched. Or that of Saudi King Abdullah. Or Jordan's King Abdullah. Or of any of the region's autocratic leaders. We know that over the past several days the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Jordanians had urged support for the status quo. So too, for that matter, had Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
And while the drama unfolding in Egypt today is profound and powerful, it clearly marks the end of only the first scene of the first act of what will be a long twisting drama. Many questions hang in the air about what comes next. What will the transition look like? Will the Army truly allow the emergence of a pluralistic, representative model government? Will the interim government have the savvy to present such a road map early enough to placate activists? Will the process be transparent enough? Will international observers be invited to monitor elections? Will real democracy be supported by broader changes than just in election laws?
These and thousands of other questions swirl around like the flags and cheers in the square and across Cairo. But one thing is certain: A change of this magnitude in the most populous nation in the Arab world is a devastating blow to the status quo. And given the nature of the Middle East, the troubles that have dogged the region's people for decades, and the degree of complicity their leaders have had in creating and exacerbating those troubles, that alone is something for people around the world to celebrate.
We must approach this as any other momentous transition with caution and patience and determination not to let gains slip away over time. Many with dubious motives will seek to turn this transition to their advantage. We in the United States must do what we can to support the true interests of the people of Egypt who made it possible and help them to resist those usurpers and would-be corruptors.
But those efforts are for tomorrow. For today, there is a sense that even in the place in the world that seemed most resistant to change, true, profound, and long-overdue transformation is possible.
It is tempting to write off the Obama administration's recent missteps on Egypt as classic symptoms of NPD: narcissistic policy disorder. This is a disease, common in American presidents, in which they feel that every event is about them, demands their response, always offers a starring role for them.
But the mistakes Thursday were of a more serious variety. The worst of them was CIA Director Leon Panetta's absolutely inexcusable and shockingly atypical decision to announce to the Congress that in his view Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would likely be out of office by midnight. Obviously, the agency was feeling the heat because it had failed to call the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the one region of the world to which the most agency assets are (likely) directed. So it made the classic error of overcompensating for the past failure to predict event... by predicting one that didn't actually happen.
This was a lose-lose idea. Had Panetta been right, how would it have looked if the CIA had actually been the first entity to announce Mubarak's departure? Might it have fueled perceptions that the United States was pulling the strings behind the scenes in Cairo, that Suleiman was the CIA's guy? (Not exactly a big stretch to begin with.) Who thought it was appropriate that the U.S. ought to get in front of Egypt's story?
The answer, one has to assume, is someone in the White House. It is hard to imagine that on this issue this administration would let its CIA Director make public remarks to the Congress without vetting them beforehand. Which brings us to the other two major statements made by the White House on Thursday.
The first of these involved President Obama's rather breathless assertion that we were watching history unfold in Egypt and also implying that soon Mubarak would be stepping down. Once again, who was it that suggested to the president that it was in his interest...or America's... for him to be the warm-up act for the Egyptian president's expected big exit.
It was the kind of decision that was a sure sign that the president was spending more time listening to political and press advisors than he was seasoned foreign policy professionals. It is understandable how a flack might suggest it was important to take advantage of the high press interest in the story and to "stay ahead of it" (thus avoiding the kind of criticism associated with the lagging responses to the Iranian and Tunisian uprisings). The problem of course is that revolutions don't play according to scripts and are notorious for generating rumors. And the consequence was that the president looked in the first instance like he was grandstanding and then, after Mubarak's disappointing and infuriating remarks, he just looked foolish.
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While it is often ruefully noted that you can't pick your relatives, there is an expectation in life that you can pick your partners. Barack Obama is discovering that when you are president of the United States, that's just not the case.
In fact, if there is one theme that runs through every corner of the Obama presidency it is that he has been forced into partnerships that are so complex, difficult, and undependable that it must leave him yearning for the relative simplicity of good old fashioned enmities. This was illustrated yesterday as the president made the short walk across Lafayette Park to visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, symbolic headquarters of the U.S. business community, a group with which the president has come to realize he must work more closely going forward.
But in and amid all those complicated relationships, which are the most difficult? Naturally, there are many ways to measure this but we'll stick with one: Which among the most difficult are most likely to blow up in his face during the next two years?
Here's the verdict:
This, the most important international bilateral relationship, is both difficult and likely to be relatively stable because it is so complex. There is so much economic co-dependency here that the political issues are likely to work themselves out. Over the next two years trade and currency tensions may grow, but it is unlikely that either side will flirt with a big blow up prior to the 2012 leadership change in China or the presidential elections that same year in the U.S.
China is likely to be the U.S. most important international counterpart in the decade ahead but Russia remains the wildcard among the major powers. Stephen Cohen summed it up well on "Morning Joe" this morning: Russia's the biggest country in landmass, the leader in energy output and it has all those nuclear weapons. It also has a massive Muslim population, related challenges in its near abroad, memories of empire and what might politely be called a mischievous streak when it comes to international challenges. Oh, and it is undergoing a demographic meltdown and it is suffering from a divided less-than-dependably friendly political leadership. It's at the bottom of this list primarily because of the "next two years" focus of our metric.
Israel is the United States' most dependable friend in the Middle East and a vital ally. That said it is also facing massively unsettling changes from within and without that are creating enormous pressures on its political leaders. The Bibi-Barack marriage was never exactly made in Heaven but as the Israelis face demographic pressures at home, the Hezbollah take-over of Lebanon, instability in Jordan and Egypt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, growing international pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians and seeming growing inability of the Palestinians to cut a deal due to their own internal divisions ... what was difficult is going to get any easier. While many expect Netanyahu to offer his own concessions and a roadmap to progress sometime soon, there is real concern even among his supporters whether he can go far enough to break the logjam in the peace process. If he can't, pressure will build in this already fraught partnership.
Egypt nudges out Israel only because it is so volatile right now and we don't know where the current unrest now heading into its third week is likely to head. One thing we do know, there are almost no circumstances in which the relationship will be easier for the United States. If there are massive reforms, a more pluralistic Egypt will be harder to deal with than an autocracy with a fairly dependable ally at the helm. If the current regime holds, they will never trust the U.S. in the same way as they did prior to this crisis.
6. Democrats in the Congress
Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat!" And as far as we know he never sat at a cocktail party between bickering leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. (Although, Pelosi clearly had a little celebratory sip of champagne last night to celebrate the departure of Jane Harmon, a longtime thorn in her side.) Pick an issue from fighting the deficit to rationalizing our regulatory framework to investing in energy infrastructure, you'll find both Obama's biggest supporters and some of his most difficult opponents in his own party.
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Foreign Affairs is currently running an article called "Egypt's Democratic Mirage" which begins with the following statement: "Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt's democratic window has probably already closed." The piece, by a professor named Joshua Stacher, then goes on to explain how the Cairo regime has maneuvered in ways likely to ensure its survival and the disappointment of the hopes of Egypt's protesters.
Nearing his conclusion, Stacher says, "When the uprising began in Egypt, many linked the events in Tunis and Cairo and declared that 2011 might be the Arab world's 1989. Instead, 2011 is showing just how durable and adaptable the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world truly are." He then punctuates his argument with the following: "In this latest rendering, with Suleiman at the helm, the state's objective of restoring a structure of rule by military managers is not even concealed. This sort of 'orderly transition' in post-Mubarak Egypt is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation."
While Stacher's analysis of the behind-the-scenes handling of the situation by Egypt's ruling elite raises important points, especially about the role of Vice President Omar Suleiman and some in the military, the piece suffers from a fatal defect. It is yet another effort to draw sweeping and concrete conclusions from too little data about a fluid and complex situation. Didn't any of the other analysts out there take those same standardized tests to which I was subjected as a student in which not infrequently the right answer was that there was insufficient information with which to answer the question? Or, in this particular case, did Professor Stacher's history textbooks begin with the year 1989?
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images.
How can America take a principled stand alongside Egypt's protestors and still support Hamid Karzai?
The courage of ordinary Egyptian citizens as they stand up to a corrupt regime that has denied them of their most basic rights is hard for most Americans to resist. It speaks to something that is ingrained in all of us because it so resonates with our own national story. We recognize that even though what comes next is hard to predict and change carries big risks, even though Hosni Mubarak has been a dependable ally, that we have an obligation to walk the walk when it comes to our most fundamental national principles.
Mubarak's crony state has stolen, empowered the few, imprisoned its enemies, and even while appearing to be a bulwark for our interests actually made the region much more dangerous thanks to its repeated disregard for our insistent calls for reform. They have embraced the age old hypocrisy of some of our most noted frenemies throughout history: taking American money is fine, taking American military equipment and training is fine, but taking American advice about how to treat their people? That's American meddling and they don't mind telling us to buzz off.
Now go read the front-page story of Sayed Mussa in the Sunday Times of London or the piece by Ray Rivera called "Afghan Rights Fall Short for Christian Converts" in the Feb. 5, New York Times. Mussa is now being imprisoned by the Afgahn government. He has been sentenced to death and reportedly regularly beaten and tortured while in prison. His crime, according to the Times, is that he converted to Christianity. While the Afghan constitution promises something like religious freedom, it also allows the enforcement of Shariah law by the courts. And according to the interpretation of Shariah law being used against Mussa, leaving Islam is an offense punishable by hanging. He was arrested as part of a systematic effort by Hamid Karzai to cut off what the president, our ally, the man we put in office, saw as a terrible threat: the spread of Christian baptisms. Mussa's job prior to his arrest? Rehabilitating landmine victims like himself.
According to the Sunday Times of London, Western advocacy groups have sought not to raise a public outcry because they are afraid it will inflame a government that "increasingly blames foreign interference for the country's woes." The New York Times noted that two Republican congressman have pressed the U.S. government for stronger action.
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.)
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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.
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While the political earthquake rumbling through the Middle East began in Tunisia, when the people took to the streets in Egypt, unrest became a trend rather than an isolated event. In addition, Egypt's unique role among states in the region -- historically and due to the size of its population -- amplified the importance of the demonstrations that have filled the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and the rest of the country for this past week.
Even before President Mubarak's decision to end his 30-year rule, Egypt's crisis had earned the undivided attention of leaders across the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan's sacking of his cabinet and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's announcement that he too was not going to seek to extend his three-decade-long tenure in office indicated that both men recognized the fuse that was lit in North Africa was connected to stacks of dynamite on which they were sitting.
But it could well be that the forces unleashed by these unlikely people-power revolutions are just starting to be felt. Countries and leaders around the world are wondering aloud what this means for them. Some more than others. Here are the 10 people (outside Egypt and Tunisia) most unsettled by the past week's developments.
10. Xi Jinping
China's vice president and the anointed successor to China's president, Hu Jintao, is a princeling, a son of the country's revolutionary leadership who has worked himself up through Fujian, Zheijang, and Shanghai provinces to be on the verge of taking over a rising superpower. Looking to Egypt he must wonder, however, whether that will be a blessing or a curse. Will he lead the next chapter of China's emergence, or will he be faced by popular resistance to a political structure that is incompatible with the openness and freedoms required of a burgeoning modern economy? Street demonstrations are nothing new to China … the question is whether street demonstrations plus new communications technologies plus growing aspirations are a formula for unrest in the world's most populous nation. ...
For the rest of: The Really Bad Week: Egypt Edition
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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.
Crises like the one in Egypt bring out the best and the worst in television news coverage. Twenty-four hour news, often a parade of pap and filler during ordinary slow periods, comes into its own. This is the kind of story that first sold the concept almost three decades ago. It's gripping and the news comes fast enough that at the best moments it's compelling viewing.
The problem is that when a story stretches out over the days and the "breaking news" stops living up to the breathless titles that are flashing below and atop the screen that the coverage becomes circular, repetitive and at times distorted. That happened this weekend. The distortions came as American audiences were frequently treated to American analysts talking about what America should do or what America wanted out of this revolution that was happening far far away in a place over which we have much less influence than our news broadcasts would have you believe.
That said what I found even more frustrating was that this story is full of fascinating elements that were often underplayed or ignored. Here are a few that struck me:
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.
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The Obama administration has thus far been pitch perfect in its public statements regarding the unrest in Egypt. Learning from its ill-considered silence in the early days of the Iranian protests, it has offered a balanced message. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it exactly right with "the Egyptian government has an important opportunity … to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." And Robert Gibbs's deft "Egypt is a strong ally" sent the unmistakable message that our long-term interests lie with the Egyptian people and not with any particular individual or leadership group … while at the same time reflecting an appreciation for embattled, aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's past cooperation with the United States.
That said, the uprisings in Egypt also signal a new period in the administration's foreign policy that will pose conundrums that make the riddle of the Sphinx look like a snap in comparison.
The complex challenges are, of course, hinted at in the choice the United States faces with regard to the Egyptian turmoil. The student uprisings raise the prospect of a more representative government in the country … and also the possibility that the uprisings we saw in Iran and then in Tunisia that preceded the Egyptian events might signal a moment of generational transition that could remake the region's politics. But they also raise the possibility of instability and of the uprisings being co-opted either by hard-liners who use them as an excuse to clamp down or by other even more radical, fundamentalist elements who seize on the upheaval to make their own moves.
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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.