There were other ways of dealing with the camping-out protestors in Cairo. The ministry of interior had even talked about other ways—about some combination of tear gas and leaving open an exit route so the protestors could disperse. And surely it must have occurred to the Egyptian generals that the action they in the end took, just like the event in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that this week's event so readily evokes, would leave a lasting bloodstain on their legacy. The casualty total of what happened in Cairo Wednesday is uncertain, just as the toll of what happened in Tiananmen Square still is, but it is possible the numbers are of similar orders of magnitude.
When President Obama visited Cairo on June 4, 2009, he made a special point of declaring that he had come to establish a new beginning between the United States and the Arab world. This beginning, he said, would be based "upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive...they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." Now, in Egypt, an authoritarian government, headed by the military, is slaughtering followers of Islam, and what does Obama have to say?
Not much, it appears. What is emerging from the president and his advisers is a few worried murmurs of protest, coupled with studied indecision. Where are the human-rights activists such as UN ambassador Samantha Power? Where is national-security adviser Susan Rice who vowed to stick up for the oppressed after she remained silent during the genocide in Rwanda? Do they agree with Secretary of State John Kerry's earlier assessment that the military is "restoring democracy" in Egypt?
Instead of protesting the Egyptian military's actions, or even threatening to cut off military aid, the administration is refusing to deem the events in Egypt a coup. The Washington Post editorial page says that the administration is "complicit" with the military's actions. It adds,
Psychologists today say that children as young as six months can make moral judgments between right and wrong. While life undoubtedly grows more complex as we age, we all weigh various factors in our struggle to lead a good life. Money, comfort, convenience, family, consequence and a host of other elements figure into every decision we make. Some choices are risky. Some have concrete consequences. Simply put, Milton Tepeyac—the veteran subject of Kevin Sullivan's front-page piece in yesterday's Washington Post—doesn't seem like a bad man. But he is a man who made a bad choice. He is now facing the consequences of his actions. Is that wrong? Mr. Sullivan's overly rosy portrait would lead you to think so.
Here are the facts: U.S. Immigration law says that noncitizens (including green-card holders) who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to stay in the country. Milton Tepeyac was a green-card-holding U.S. Marine. He served in Kuwait and Iraq. After his service he began a seafood business in Phoenix as a civilian. The business hit a rough patch, and he needed money. He was offered $1,000 to help with a drug deal, which landed him four years in prison. When his prison term ended, he was deported to his native Mexico, as was consistent with his felony conviction and temporary status.
“O-M-G.” These were the opening words—letters?—of Samantha Power’s first major speech as America’s permanent representative to the United Nations. It was an appropriate reaction—Power had just walked out onto the stage at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit to screams and adulatory applause, moments after a slick video introduction had lauded her achievements. She’s something of a rock star in liberal-interventionist circles, and on Saturday she looked the part, working the cheering crowd like a pro. No UN ambassador has likely ever enjoyed such a reception, at least not since Bill Richardson’s baseball days.
Complaints have been heard that members of Congress are not sufficiently informed by the executive branch to conduct properly oversight of secret programs, such as those NSA collection activities that are the subject of much controversy. The complaints are misplaced. A bigger factor is the chronic attention deficit disorder afflicting most members of Congress, in which they pay disproportionate attention to flaps and controversies because they are flaps and controversies, and Congressional time and attention is not apportioned according to the intrinsic importance to the nation of each subject. In short, if there is insufficient oversight of some of those secret programs, it is less because information is not being made available to members than because members do not take the time and trouble to use the information already available to them. The Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, says that “very few members” take advantage of his invitations to receive staff briefings on counterterrorist operations or the NSA surveillance activities.
He may have just been crazy. Garry Davis’ stump speech in his 1988 campaign for the presidency of the United States—he was running on the ticket of the World Citizen Party—begins:
I want you to know from the outset that I am a Leo with Gemini rising and the moon in Aries.
It had, on the day of that speech, been nearly forty years since Davis walked into the U.S. embassy in Paris, raised his right hand before an official, and taken a formal oath renouncing his American citizenship. He declared himself to be a “world citizen,” and shot to international notoriety several months later when, his French visa nearly up, he camped out on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, which had been declared international territory to host the Secretariat of the new United Nations. Davis requested recognition of his world citizenship, arguing that without documents he’d be imprisoned if he remained in France, and imprisoned anywhere the French sent him. “On the seventh day,” wrote Davis,
I received my answer. I was expelled forcibly. The U.N. Secretariat, not having any police, requested the French Ministry of the Interior to please "invade" their so-called international territory and remove this piece of international flotsam. So on Sept. 17th about 50 French policemen, wearing their sternest looks, came in, took me against my will and deposited me in France again, a distance of about 10 yards.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin slouches like a "bored schoolboy in the back of the schoolroom"? That was just one of the feisty and rather undiplomatic statements that President Obama made during his press conference made today. It must have made Putin sit bolt upright. Obama did everything but call Putin a lout. As the Washington Post notes, it isn't even true. Putin is about as buff as it gets. With all the crunches and judo he practices, his posture is great. Engaging in a smackdown of Putin's figure is about as low a blow as Obama could deliver. So who was being childish?
Maybe Obama was channeling the spirit of George W. Bush. Obama wasn't willing to concede much ground to any of his questioners. He did come close to admitting that he made a mistake when it came to talking about surveillance programs, then drew back and simply said that the virulence of the public debate showed that his take had been "undermined." Yes, it has. Obama's response to the uproar over surveillance was to offer a few token concessions. When it comes to surveillance, he announced that he would back tweaking the way the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates, create a few safeguards. But that was about it. And when the matter of Edward Snowden was raised, Obama bristled. He didn't say Snowden slouches but he did declare that the former National Security employee was no "patriot." OK. But it remains the fact that he triggered a debate about something that Obama doesn't want to be debating. Obama announced,
As the Syrian civil war spun up and drew in radicals on the anti-government side, worries mounted in the West, to the point now of front-page attention in the New York Times, about a new extremist haven being established in Syria. How should we approach this problem? One way we definitely should not approach it, which unfortunately has been all too common in overall discourse about the Syrian civil war, is to feel we must “do something”—anything—in response to our concerns. A more sober approach is to break the problem down into some constituent parts, each with an associated question.
One question concerns exactly what is the danger we are worried about. The concept of a physical safe haven is one of the more overrated components of a presumed terrorist threat. In a globalized era, a patch of physical real estate has not proven to be one of the more important variables determining the degree of such a threat—and is less important than exploitable grievances in a target population. Preparations for significant terrorist attacks—including the big one, 9/11—have not been confined to such a patch or depended on control of one.
Lots of people have been been extracting and propounding lots of conclusions about terrorism and counterterrorism from the warnings and closures of diplomatic missions the past few days. That's probably inevitable; the story commands attention. It's not every day, or even every year, that several U.S. embassies get closed like this, perhaps for as much as a week. But the factual basis for most of the extracting and propounding is exceedingly thin. All that those of us outside the government have to go on are a few backgrounded or leaked morsels, as well as cautiously worded official statements and the public comments of members of Congress who have been briefed on the matter. The episode is another instance, which has been seen repeatedly before, of over-interpretation of terrorist incidents or other scattered data points having to do with international terrorism.
Let us review some of the principal ways in which commentary stimulated by this latest episode has gone way beyond the publicly available evidence.
President Obama prides himself on being cool, calm, and collected. But his latest move—cancelling a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin—suggests that he is having a hissy fit, succumbing to peevishness. It's wholly counterproductive. In attempting to cow Russia into releasing Edward Snowden, he isn't showcasing American power but its limitations. The more Obama seeks to challenge Putin, the stiffer Russian resistance will become. Obama's persecution of Snowden is singlehandedly transforming him into a Russian hero.
From the outset, Obama has bungled the Snowden affair. He elevated a minor National Security Agency employee into a worldwide hero by pulling out all the stops to capture him even as he proclaimed that he would not. This turned out to be malarkey. The president who said he wouldn't scramble jets after Snowden then scrambled them in Europe to ground the Bolivian president. In his contempt for Bolivian sovereignty, Obama's actions were more reminiscent of the old Soviet Union than American democracy. But it is Obama, more than any president since George W. Bush, who has displayed palpable contempt for American freedoms. Perhaps the former constitutional-law professor is afraid of being deemed weak by the military and intelligence establishments. Or maybe he truly believes that it's necessary to curb freedoms in order to protect them. Either way, he himself appears to have become a hostage of the intelligence agencies, which will relentlessly attempt to expand their reach as they seek what Admiral John Poindexter once termed total information awareness.