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Egyptians Have Politics Too

Paul Pillar

A downbeat report in the Washington Post about events in Egypt starts by observing: “Egypt’s disparate opposition groups remain so divided that analysts and activists say they risk losing the last major decision-making body in the country to Islamists when the country votes in upcoming parliamentary elections.” This message, and the consternation that seems to go with it, says at least as much about our own way of looking at domestic divisions and political competition in a country such as Egypt as it does about how the people in those countries look at those things. The Islamist-vs.-secular dimension has become for us an all-purpose lens through which we seem to view just about everything going on not only in Egypt but also in several other Middle Eastern countries, especially ones buffeted most by the turbulence of the Arab Spring.

Yes, the Islamist/secular dimension is salient for many Egyptians, but it is only one dimension of many. The Post article describes various other ones, which account for that intra-opposition division that is the subject of the article. There are differences over economic policy, for example, with leftists being opposed to a loan from the International Monetary Fund (presumably because of the conditions that would be attached to the loan) and free-market liberals having different views. Americans differ over economic policy all the time; why can't Egyptians?

One could just as easily use the same lens—but generally we don't—in viewing political competition next door in Israel, where they just had an election. There is a religious/secular divide in Israel, too, with the political religionists there having some remarkable similarities to their Islamist counterparts in Egypt and other nearby Muslim-majority countries. This is not the only political divide, however, that matters in Israel. Some of us viewing Israeli politics from afar might want to use a different lens, colored in terms of things that concern us such as policy toward the Palestinians or toward Iran. But those issues appear to have played even less of a role in the just-concluded Israeli election campaign. Relying solely on either of these lenses would preclude a good understanding of Israeli politics.

In Egypt there are legitimate concerns about some of what President Mohamed Morsi has done and thus concerns about opposition to him being divided, but this is not just an Islamist-vs.-secular thing. One should be concerned about some of his moves that appear to be in an authoritarian direction, but there is nothing specifically Islamist about those moves. (They resemble some of the tactics used by his predecessor, the very secular Hosni Mubarak.) There also is Morsi's past objectionable language about Israel, but again there is nothing Islamist about it. (One can hear similar invective about Israel from most parts of the Egyptian political spectrum.)

It is true that in some circumstances, given how some electoral laws work, divisions of the sort the Post article describes can have major consequences for who rules a country and for that country's stability and welfare. One of the leading examples in modern times was a presidential election in Chile in 1970. Probably the most salient political division in Chile at the time was between Marxists and non-Marxists. The non-Marxist camp was divided, and the election was a three-way race among the Marxist Salvador Allende, a Christian Democrat, and a conservative. Probably either of the latter two candidates would have defeated Allende in a head-to-head race, but in the three-way contest Allende barely got first place with less than 37 percent of the vote. The election was sent to the Chilean legislature, but it simply followed its tradition of awarding the presidency to the first-place finisher. So Allende became president, and the rest—including Augusto Pinochet's coup and rule by a military junta—is history.

Similar circumstances are not prevailing today in Egypt, but the main point is that we cannot understand well what is going on there, and anticipate what can go well or poorly there, by reducing everything to a struggle between Islamists and secularists.

Nor should we necessarily be unhappy about the sorts of divisions described in the article. Political scientists have a word for those sorts of cross-cutting divisions in which people may be natural allies on some issues but opponents on others. It's called pluralism. And it is generally considered to be a good thing, as it helps to form the basis for a stable democracy that does not get torn apart by a citizenry that all lines up on one side or the other of a single great divide. Egypt has yet to demonstrate, of course, whether it has enough of the other ingredients for a stable democracy. But we should be neither surprised nor upset that everyone in Egypt who is not an Islamist is not working in unison against those who are.

Image: A party conference in Egypt. Wikimedia Commons/Mayooshy. CC BY 3.0.

TopicsDemocracyPolitical TheoryPolitical EconomyReligion RegionsIsraelEgyptChile

Obama's Radical Inaugural Speech

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama, long reviled by the left as a trimmer and the right as a socialist, delivered one of his most impassioned and liberal speeches at the inaugural, a fiery exhortation that sought to shift the cultural ground of America. He made explicit what has always been implicit in his improbable odyssey—his drive to unite America around a new credo of unification, based, in part, on a conception of the federal government itself as a unifying force to foster independent drive and initiative. It was an ambitious vision of a liberal and liberalizing and exceptional America. Obama sounded like Reagan even as he repudiated his disdain for big government. In his radical speech, Obama flung down the gauntlet to the Republican Party, defying it to defy him.

Nor did the radicalism end there. It was in foreign affairs that Obama staked out the most temerarious new ground. He made it clear that he was dispensing, more or less, with the George W. Bush era. For all his evocation of American exceptionalism, Obama essentially denied it in foreign policy. He made it clear that there will be no precipitous attack against Iran, a country that he did not even bother to mention in his speech. Instead, Obama enunciated that the age of warfare that has tormented America for the past decade will come to an end. His lodestar will be diplomacy. Liberal hawks and neocons alike will be disconsolate. The Washington Post editorial page is already decrying Obama for engaging in "wishful thinking abroad." Even "a barrelful" of it. My, my, my. Are matters really so dire? "America's adversaries," we are told, "are not in retreat; they will be watching Mr. Obama in his second term to see if the same can be said of the United States."

Maybe so. But there is a distinction between prudence—between husbanding resources and using them strategically—and promiscuous intervention abroad. Is Mali worth a fight or would it boomerang? Should America become directly involved in the Syrian civil war? What are the consequences of bombing Iran? Obama is not an isolationist. But he has no appetite for embarking upon new land wars in the Middle East in either Syria or Iran. He may also choose to pursue a more detached relationship with Israel. The results of the Israeli election today may well occasion more disquiet in the White House.

But will Obama's approach in domestic and foreign affairs be vindicated in the next four years? Scandals or an unexpected war could completely derail his presidency. His second term could lead to greatness or utter disaster, and the record of second term presidencies has been a shaky one at best. National Interest editor Robert Merry observes that Obama's biggest challenge will be reducing the federal budget deficit and entitlements over the next four years. In his speech Obama elided this problem by declaring that he would protect the elderly, the poor, and children. But there is an inevitable collision between entitlements and protecting the economy to promote greater economic growth. Perhaps Obama will elucidate his stance on the budget more clearly in his upcoming State of the Union speech. For now, he has made it clear, however, that he is in a fighting mood. The GOP has been warned. If it wants to pursue a different path, it will have to outline one rather than simply engage in noisy obstructionism. The GOP has already been caught flatfooted on taxes and on raising the debt ceiling.

But Obama, too, will have to perform a partial U-turn. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus says,

At some point, Obama is likely to need willing collaborators from the opposition—if he hopes to pass an immigration reform law, for example, or negotiate a long-term deal to reduce the deficit.

When that day comes, the president may find himself wishing he had devoted a few more words of his second inaugural address to offering an outstretched hand.

That day is coming soon.

Image: Flickr/Glyn Lowe Photoworks. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Assassination Manual

Paul Pillar

In one sense the Obama administration's reported creation of a “playbook” establishing rules for killing alleged terrorists helps to meet calls from outside commentators—this one included—to clarify the criteria that are being applied to such assassinations. Writing this kind of manual, however, has another side. It represents the institutionalization of worldwide assassinations as a regular, ongoing business of the United States government. As such it raises larger questions, which the playbook might not address at all, of how an assassination program does or does not conform with the pursuit of U.S. national interests.

Institutionalization of anything entails a bias toward its indefinite continuation, and maybe even its expansion. This tendency has often been discussed regarding other government programs, sometimes with a tie-in to what is outside government. The military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned, for example, represents a bias toward big defense expenditures and military operations to justify such expenditures. Likewise, it has often been remarked that creation of a bureaucracy to run domestic program X immediately creates a vested interest in favor of continuing and even expanding program X. Why should such tendencies not be just as likely to appear with an assassination program?

The Washington Post's story about the manual leads with the news not only that the manual is near completion but also that it will not be applied for a year or two to drone strikes in Pakistan. Thus what is considered short-term and exceptional is limited to what is going on now in Pakistan. By implication and contrast, all of the other worldwide assassinations constitute something regular and long-term, and, so far as we know, limitless in both duration and geographic scope.

Lest we forget, it was not all that long ago that Americans and their presidents considered assassinations sufficiently contrary to American values that we should rule them out, as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all did by executive order. What has changed since then to erase this determination? Oh, there's 9/11 of course, although the unraveling of the prohibition on assassinations actually began (with Osama bin Laden in particular in mind) a few years before 9/11. And even if it were all about 9/11, why should the fact that one bunch of terrorists hit a high-casualty jackpot be a reason for us to change our thinking on this subject in such an apparently fundamental way? Regarding morality, since this was originally a matter of consistency with American values, have our values really changed that much? Regarding legality, is there no limit to which that one resolution authorizing force that Congress passed in the emotional week after 9/11 be stretched in terms of either duration or geographic scope?

It is also interesting that this soon-to-be-completed document is referred to as a “playbook.” In football, a playbook is a very tactical manual that organizes the quick thinking that coaches and players have to do on each play. If you see the opponent lining up a certain way, you can draw on the playbook for a play that has a chance to work well over the next 30 seconds. But the playbook doesn't provide any help in bigger decisions with larger and longer term consequences, such as whether to leave your injured star quarterback in the game. Similarly, having a playbook on assassinations sounds like it is apt to be a useful guide for making the quick decision whether to pull the trigger on a Hellfire missile when a suspected terrorist is in the sights of a drone. But it probably will not, as far as we know, be of any help in weighing larger important issues such as whether such a killing is likely to generate more future anti-U.S. terrorism because of the anger over collateral casualties than it will prevent by taking a bad guy out of commission. By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will devote less deliberation than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual.

Criticism about the standards for conducting the drone strikes has been not just about having clear criteria, but having criteria that are known to someone other than those in the executive branch who are carrying out the assassination program. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), to his credit, has led the complaining about this subject. In a recent letter to John Brennan he noted that the legal justifications involved are still inaccessible not only to the public but even to the Congressional intelligence committees.

So we have the worst of two different directions that administration of the assassination program could go. On one hand there is an institutionalization of the program that threatens to make it as firmly entrenched a function of the U.S. government as Social Security. On the other hand is a continued opacity that precludes the kind of informed and meaningful debate that—because American values are involved—would be necessary to determine whether indefinite continuation of the program is something the United States really ought to do. 

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

Six Strategic Mistakes

The Buzz

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, a recent book by two business strategy gurus, ought to be on political leaders’ shelves as well. The Economist sums up their framework:

Many [corporate leaders] are brought down by making a strategic error, of which there are six common varieties. There is the Do-It-All strategy, shorthand for failing to make real choices about priorities. The Don Quixote strategy unwisely attacks the company’s strongest competitor first. The Waterloo strategy pursues war on too many fronts at once. The Something-For-Everyone tries to capture every sort of customer at once, rather than prioritising. The Programme-Of-The-Month eschews distinctiveness for whatever strategy is currently fashionable in an industry. The Dreams-That-Never-Come-True strategy never translates ambitious mission statements into clear choices about which markets to compete in and how to win in them.

America’s approach to the world seems to suffer from each in places, but the main problem seems to be a Do-It-All strategy. Consider the piece Christopher Preble wrote in these spaces on Monday, which argued that the Pentagon would—like a business—have to make “difficult but necessary trade-offs” as its budget comes under new constraints.

If compelled to choose between more [ballistic missile submarines], more attack submarines, or more conventional surface combatants, what would the admirals pick? . . . Likewise, the Air Force should be asked whether the marginal benefits that would accrue from retaining the bomber leg of the nuclear triad are worth having fewer F-35s, fewer tankers, or fewer bombers dedicated solely to conventional strike missions.

Making trade-offs like these requires an estimation of what sorts of missions Washington will send its military on in the future, what enemies it will confront and where it will confront them. A Navy with lots of attack submarines, for instance, will be suited for confronting an enemy that is strong enough to use and control some of the sea in spite of U.S. efforts; those attack subs will be less suited for confronting piracy. A Navy with lots of surface combatants will excel at a range of missions, yet may struggle with an enemy skilled in sea denial. A Navy with lots of ballistic missile subs might come in handy if we anticipate some new Cold War-style confrontation, but it won’t be as good at sea control or securing logistical support for land operations.

In choosing what to cut, then, military leaders will have to accept that there will be certain missions and methods of protecting our interests that we’ll have to forgo. We’ll be tying our hands. Thus, we need a robust concept of what our most crucial interests are and how we are to go about securing them, so we can determine which capabilities are least vital. The United States currently has no such robust concept, and the costs of that are visible far beyond the world of defense acquisitions. We have spent thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars propping up the government of Afghanistan, one of the world’s most peripheral countries; we are simultaneously containing and not-containing China; we responded to a civil conflict in Libya as though our own security depended on the outcome, and paid a significant diplomatic price in the process. Without a strategy, U.S. foreign policy is just a disjointed set of actions related to things we think are important.

Successful strategies, say the authors of Playing to Win, require answers to five questions: what winning is, where to compete, how to compete, what unique strengths can add to competitiveness, and what things need the most attention to get to the win. Can our foreign-policy leaders answer those questions about America in the world?

TopicsGrand Strategy RegionsUnited States

Inaugurations and Speaking to History

The Buzz

Over at the New Yorker, George Packer looks forward to President Obama’s second inaugural address next Monday. He observes that “great political speechmaking depends on turns of phrase joined to profound ideas that answer the pressures of a historical moment.” Today’s moment, he says, with the government stagnant and a number of issues competing for attention, “comes at an inauspicious moment for political rhetoric.” This “suggests that next week’s speech will be a bit of a snooze.”

Nevertheless, Packer hopes that the president will aim big:

I hope that Obama the writer finds some vivid prose for the occasion; that Obama the thinker treats us like his intellectual equals, as he did in Philadelphia and Oslo; and that Obama the man allows himself the risk of deep feeling, as he did in Tucson and Newtown. Most of all, I hope Obama the politician is willing to say things that some people might not want to hear.

But as Packer hints at, it’s not just the historical record that points toward a “snooze”—it’s Obama’s personal style as well. Obama has often been at his best when grappling with big issues, as in his 2008 campaign speech on race in Philadelphia and his Nobel speech in Oslo. An inaugural address, by contrast, does not lend itself to the kind of critical, long-form examination of a specific theme like the problems of race in America or the question of when war is justified.

Moreover, attempting to be too bold in identifying and interpreting the historical moment can sometimes backfire. Recall that our previous president, George W. Bush, used his second inaugural address as an aggressive articulation and defense of the global “freedom agenda.” In a statement that historian John Gaddis argues represents the purest statement of a “Bush Doctrine,” he declared:

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Bush went on to say that advancing this goal “is not primarily the task of arms.” But as we now know, a decision that he had already made—to promote this goal through armed regime change in Iraq—would ensure that his second term would be overshadowed by that country’s downward spiral into chaos. The result was that Bush’s gauzy rhetoric about freedom and democracy would ring hollow to many in America and around the world.

So will Obama speak to history and grand themes on Monday? It’s possible. But if he doesn’t, if he plays it safe and gives a mostly forgettable speech, no one should be all that surprised or disappointed. Indeed, as Michael Kazin points out, those presidents who have given the most celebrated inaugural addresses have generally contradicted their words with their subsequent actions anyway.

TopicsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsUnited States

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