Playing the Terrorism Card

Paul Pillar

It hasn't taken long since Wednesday's bloodletting in Cairo for the regime there to make clear that it will rely heavily, as a rationale for its actions, on the idea that it is holding a line against international terrorism. "Egypt is facing terrorist acts aimed at government institutions and vital installations," declared the military's hand-picked interim president in a statement that responded to President Obama's comments about Egypt. Actually, except for the semi-lawless Sinai, there hasn't been much terrorism in Egypt since the Mubarak regime crushed the violent campaigns in the 1990s of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama'a al-Islamiyya. After those campaigns failed, the EIJ's Ayman al-Zawahiri went off to South Asia to throw in his lot with Osama bin Laden, and what was left of the Gama'a announced that it was renouncing violence. The actions of the current Egyptian regime are likely to hasten a resurgence of true terrorism in Egypt, however; the official line has just gotten a little ahead of the reality that the regime's actions will help to bring about.

Playing the terrorist card as a justification for actions that on their own terms would appropriately be seen as harsh, intolerant, and even brutal is hardly unique to Egypt. Over the past decade we have seen numerous instances of it, from Russians dealing with Chechens to Chinese suppressing Uighurs. In the Middle East, it is certainly not limited to Egypt and Israel. Take Iraq, where there is plenty of real terrorism these days and where the political system can be described as a U.S. product since we bought it with an investment of trillions of dollars and many thousands of our own casualties. The increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Sami Moubayed of the Carnegie Middle East Center describes as a “lighter version of Saddam Hussein,” hardly seems like an asset to the United States as he cozies up to Iran and is not very forthcoming about policy toward Syria. But the terrorism issue is his trump card. Moubayed observes that although Maliki “has clearly positioned himself in the Syrian-Iranian orbit,” he “might still win the blessing of the U.S., marketing himself, yet again, as the man combating al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

Of course, many dictators and crackdown artists would shout the T-word as a justification for their actions regardless of what the United States does or says. “Terrorist” is an all-purpose pejorative. But the fact that the United States has made the subject such a preoccupation following one event twelve years ago has unquestionably increased the value of this particular card. Anything that is an obvious preoccupation of the superpower lends credibility to others claiming the same priorities. Invoking the issue also can serve as an appeal for support or at least tolerance from the superpower itself.

The playing of the terrorism card in this manner is in turn but one of the many ways in which the drastic swing of the pendulum of American political priorities in September 2001 still confounds much else the United States is doing, or trying to do, both foreign and domestic. Domestically, we are seeing this in the hullabaloo, which is generating more heat than light, caused by the post-9/11 demand for aggressive counterterrorist intelligence collection, followed by a tacit decline in this demand as time has gone by without a major anti-U.S. terrorist attack, followed by consternation as the public is confronted with the fact that the aggressive collection is still taking place.

This kind of domestic political dislocation in turn can affect foreign affairs. A leaker of information about the collection programs defects to Russia, which tips the balance in favor of canceling a U.S.-Russian summit meeting. That can mean a slowing, although it had slowed a lot already anyway, of work on issues such as possible further reduction in the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals.

This process may make it seem as if terrorism is a more important topic than Cold War-style arms control or anything else on the U.S.-Russian agenda. The driver here, however, is not terrorism but instead our reaction to it. Strip away the reaction, and terrorism itself is not really the global game-changer it came to be perceived as. It is not really so much more important than a still nuclear-armed Russia, and it does not affect global affairs and U.S. interests as profoundly as a powerful China does in so many ways, beyond what it does to the Uighurs. But when we give dictators a card to play, we should not be surprised when they play it.

Image: Flickr/Senor Codo. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsArms ControlHuman RightsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsChinaRussiaEgyptIraqUnited States

Our Restrained Great Powers

The Buzz

Paul Kennedy, the dean of great-power historians, has a very good op-ed in Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune in which he attempts to put our current crop of leading nation-states in perspective. After running through some of the spats currently consuming world leaders—from the U.S.-Russian fracas over Edward Snowden to the U.K.-Spanish feud over Gibraltar—he asks:

To historians of world affairs, including this one, the only proper response to this litany of spats, pouting and injured pride is to ask: “Is that all?” Are these the only issues which divide and upset the Great Powers as we enjoy the second decade of the 21st century? And, if so, shouldn’t we count ourselves lucky?

The answer, of course, is yes, as he goes on to explain. He reminds us that it wasn’t all that long ago that the great powers of the twentieth century plunged the globe into two devastating world wars, each resulting in millions upon millions of casualties. The second killed a jaw-dropping 2.5 percent of the total world population at the time. In contrast, he writes, today’s great powers—consisting of the United States, China, Europe, Russia, Japan, India and Brazil, in his mind—are not the world’s real “troublemakers.” That is, none of them wishes to undo the basic nature of the international system. The real dangers to peace and stability, he says, lie elsewhere:

in the unpredictable, overmilitarized lunatic asylum that is North Korea; in an Iran that sometimes seems to be daring an Israeli air strike; in a brutal and autistic Syrian regime; in a Yemen that both houses terrorists and pretends to be killing them off; and, far less purposefully, in the conflict-torn, crumbling polities of Central Africa, Egypt and Afghanistan, and many nations in between. Here are the world’s problem cases.

If there are neurotic Kaiser Wilhelms or bullying Mussolinis or murderous Stalins around today, they are not — thank heavens — to be found in Beijing, Moscow or New Delhi.

It’s possible to quibble with Kennedy’s piece around the edges. Is Brazil really a great power right now? Is Europe a single, unitary actor in global affairs? And might China, as its economic and military strength increases over the next several decades, develop correspondingly more expansive aims as well? But the core argument is sound: none of today’s great powers, however one defines them, currently appear to be revisionists in the sense of seeking broad territorial conquest or seeking to change the rules of the liberal international order.

Kennedy doesn’t say this explicitly, but his piece serves as a direct rebuttal to the threat inflation that often comes from Washington’s leaders of both parties, many of whom often declare breathlessly that we live in a uniquely dangerous world. Senator Lindsey Graham is perhaps the best example, asserting just a few weeks ago that “we live in the most dangerous times imaginable.” We don’t. In fact, these are far from the most dangerous times imaginable—they’re not even the most dangerous times in recent history. Nor, for that matter, did the annals of ancient history represent a particularly safe, peaceful era, as Steven Pinker shows in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

This is a point that’s easy to dismiss or even mock when any day’s headlines might contain news of a foreign tragedy like the ongoing and horrific mass killings in Egypt. Obviously, it’s of no comfort to Egyptians, Syrians or others suffering elsewhere around the world. Nevertheless, it’s an essential fact for trying to make sense of the threats that the United States and the world face today. None of the “problem cases” that Kennedy highlights, and that dominate international news coverage on a day-to-day basis, are threats of the magnitude that a truly revisionist power would pose.

What this situation requires from the big powers, Kennedy observes, is “self-restraint, year after year, decade after decade.” It doesn’t represent an end to war, but it means that the great powers work to ensure that the conflicts that do occur—whether involving themselves or their client states—remain local. No doubt “Comparatively Less War Now” doesn’t make for an inspiring bumper sticker. For the moment, however, it’s a slogan that appears to be true, and we should hope it stays that way.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Van Howell. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsHistoryGreat Powers

Obama's Egypt Address: A License to Kill

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama's pallid audio address this morning from Martha's Vineyard made it sound as though he regarded the events in Egypt as a rude imposition on his vacation. Instead of enunciating a firm and clear policy, he moved from banality to platitude before veering off-course with a disquisition about the struggles America had before it came a full democracy.

The only listeners who derived satisfaction from Obama's talk must be the Egyptian generals whom Obama mostly referred to in elliptical terms. Ending a biannual military exercise is supposed to cow the junta in Cairo into refraining from massacring Egyptians? No word about a coup in Cairo? Obama said continued "engagement" with Egypt will help create a democracy, but he himself barely appears engaged with the upheaval taking place. The most he could do was announce that his "national security staff" the problem some more.

If he was ever apprehensive, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can relax. Obama spoke but he did not speak a language that the generals will interpret as anything but a license to kill. So much for Obama's lofty expressions about a new beginning in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009.

Obama was vague about the history of what has taken place in Egypt over the past year. He referred to the "complexity of the situation." But it isn't really all that complex. A power struggle betwen two sides, neither of which is particularly appealing, has been taking place. The longer it continues, the more radicalized the Muslim Brotherhood will become. This is neither in Egypt's nor America's interest.

Obama began by referring to the several decades of ties between American and Egypt, but this was not based on true friendship. Instead, it amounted to Washington bankrolling an authoritarian regime that was easily toppled during the Arab spring. It is unlikely that many Egyptians regard those decades of eleemosynary aid to the Mubarak regime with particular pleasure. Obama further tried to console Egyptians by making it clear that the "United States strongly condemns" what is taking place. Big deal. It is Obama's passivity that deserves condemnation. A forceful move would have been to suspend aid to Egypt's military. So far, Washington appears to have derived zero leverage from continuing aid. Until Obama acts, Egypt's military will interpret his inaction as acquiescence to its brutal measures.

What Obama's foreign policy appears to amount to is abdication, a passive surrender to events. Egypt is not Syria. America has long been directly, intimately engaged in its affairs. But Obama is acting as though he's an innocent bystander, wringing his hands over the terrible things he's witnessing but incapable of actually trying to influence events. No doubt Obama was right to state "America cannot determine the future of Egypt." But this is a straw man. Who said America could determine its future? What it could have attempted to do was nudge Egypt toward compromise. Now it may be too late. Obama may have acted like he was putting Egypt on notice, but the only thing the generals will end up noticing is his passivity.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsEgypt

Cultivating Extremists in Egypt

Paul Pillar

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.

There are many plot lines and accompanying explanations that can be applied to the current mess in Egypt, but one does not have to be a Middle Eastern conspiracy aficionado to look in particular at how the Egyptian generals and their shades-of-Nasser leader, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, may be doing what they are doing as a way of staying within the embrace of the West and especially the United States. One of the most prominent things they have been doing over the past couple of months is to motivate Egyptians and especially Islamists to turn to extremism and violence. First there was the slamming of the door in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood, incarcerating its leaders and making it very clear the Brotherhood would not be welcome to participate in any new and purportedly democratic political process. Most of the Brotherhood's supporters were not ready to abandon the peaceful ways that the organization had followed for decades, but their dismay and anger made the protests and the camps inevitable. Now there is the bloody and brutal destruction of the camps, and at least some of those supporters are surely concluding that there is no method left to them but violence.

Wouldn't the breeding of more Egyptian terrorists be a bad thing from the viewpoint of Egyptian military leaders? Not if they wish to present themselves as a bastion against terrorism and to lay claim as such to American support. The brass may be more comfortable with this sort of claim than with one based on shepherding the introduction of true democracy—given all the uncertainties democracy is apt to pose for the highly privileged position of the Egyptian military and its officer corps.

The cultivation of more extremists and terrorists may be necessary to sustain any claim based on an Egyptian Islamist bogeyman. Mohamed Morsi's presidency certainly was not sufficient; it did not come close to realizing the old Islamophobic scenario of one man, one vote, one time. One of the most distinctive aspects of Morsi's one year in office was how he was not able to take control of the organs of state even though he supposedly was the chief executive. He came nowhere close to taking control of the all-important security forces. One of the bevy of army and police generals who have just been installed as provincial governors had earlier, when Morsi was still president, been demonstrably open about his intention not to take any action when a mob was ransacking offices of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The technique of following policies that cultivate more extremists and terrorists and then laying claim to a special relationship with Washington as a bastion against extremism and terrorism is not one that the Egyptian generals necessarily thought up themselves. They could have learned it from the masters of the technique next door in Israel. They are even collaborating with Israel in practicing the technique, as punctuated the other day by an Israeli drone strike, evidently condoned by Cairo, against oppositionists in the Sinai.

If the Egyptian generals have not seemed very worried about jeopardizing their one and a half billion in annual U.S. aid, maybe it is because they see how Israel gets twice that much, not to mention all those vetoes at the United Nations and other political cover, despite the Israelis repeatedly sticking their thumbs in American eyes. The latest thumb-sticking has been this week, with an announcement of more expansion of settlements in occupied territory just as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are getting under way.

Secretary of State Kerry reassures us that this was not a surprise because Prime Minister Netanyahu had been “upfront” with him about the latest settlement expansion. Evidently even thumb-sticking is acceptable if those doing it are brazenly “upfront” about it. General el-Sisi looks like he has this kind of swagger.

Image: Flickr/Mohamed Adel. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsUNForeign AidReligionTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited States

Is Obama An Enabler of Tyranny in Egypt?

Jacob Heilbrunn

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,

It is difficult to imagine how the assault on the Brotherhood, which won multiple elections and is still supported by millions of Egyptians, can be followed by a credible transition to democracy. More likely, it will lead Egypt toward still greater violence. It may be that outside powers cannot now change this tragic course of events. But if the United States wishes to have some chance to influence a country that has been its close ally for four decades, it must immediately change its policy toward the armed forces.

If a serious case could be made that Egpyt is headed towards stable, authoritarian rule, it would be one thing. In that instance, it might be plausible to invoke Henry Kissinger's famous comment about Chile and add that a country shouldn't be allowed to go hardline Islamist. But the problem is this: Is Obama being a realist when it comes to Egypt? Or is he being utterly unrealistic about what the future holds for Washington's ties with Cairo? America's track record, when it comes to supporting corrupt and authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Middle East, is a mixed one. Obama, you could even say, is inadvertently doing what he said he wanted to end in his Cairo speech: "empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and...promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity."

For Egypt appears to be headed toward, at best, an armed truce, and, at worst, a civil war. The Islamists are being further radicalized. America will be blamed. How does this end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" that Obama identified and lamented in June 2009?

Indeed, it may well be that the conflagration that the neoconservatives hoped would erupt in the Middle East is indeed erupting. Syria is already in flames. Now Egypt may be engulfed. How long can it be before Jordan is afflicted by the tumult?

Obama, aloof as ever, wants nothing to do with foreign policy. But a renewed debate is going to erupt in America over continuing aid to what amounts to an armed junta in Egypt. Senator Rand Paul was widely ridiculed when he proposed an amendment ending aid to Egypt, but perhaps he no longer looks so ridiculous at a moment when the Washington Post is calling for suspending it until the generals move to restore democracy. At a minimum, Obama should threaten suspension. Surely he does not want to go down in history as the enabler of tyranny?

There may not be much that America can do to calm Egypt, but Obama doesn't even seem to be trying. Leon Trotsky once remarked, "You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you." Obama could be about to learn that he may not be interested in foreign affairs, but foreign affairs is interested in him.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States