Belmont Club

Soft Power, Hard Power

Recent events in Syria have showcased the application of the technique of terror.  Dozens of women and children — perhaps hundreds — were executed in a town called Houla. Gruesome videos of the serried corpses are available all over the Internet. Assad blames al-Qaeda. Opposition groups blame the government, notably executioners from a professional Allawite criminal guild called the Shabiha, who favor full beards and buzzcuts, weightlifter physiques and white shoes.

Regardless of who masterminded the attack on Houla their intentions were the same: to strike terror into the hearts of the populace in order to instill obedience.  By contrast the US seems content to  use malware to slow down the Iranian nuclear program. They also seemed content to pit “democracy training” against the Mubarak state and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The Washington Post has a long article describing the heretofore confidential operations of the International Republican Institute in Egypt. The IRI,  which funneled funds and training to pro-Democracy groups, was established in 1983 and is currently chaired by John McCain. It is a perfect example of the antithetical method to Houla: political action by persuasion.

If ouster of Mubarak was in any way related to US efforts, much of that effort was going on behind the scenes long before President Obama took office, for the subversion of the Mubarak adminstration had long been in train. “Nearly six years before the Egyptian government filed charges against the U.S. democracy workers, its leaders severely restricted the American democracy programs after a controversy over public comments by IRI’s director.” The charge of interference was raised by the Egyptian government as far back as 2006.

In 2006, Egyptian officials ordered the U.S.-backed democracy programs to scale back work in the country after a newspaper quoted IRI’s Cairo-based director in an article titled, “IRI Director Gina London: It’s Our Right to Work in Egypt Without Prior License.” The article quoted London as being critical of the Egyptian government’s democracy efforts, comments that some Egyptian leaders viewed as insults from Americans who “come here and tell Egyptians how to think,” according to a June 2006 secret State Department memo outlining reaction to the uproar.

It is interesting from a retrospective view, to note that “in the two years prior to Mubarak’s fall, the Obama administration was cutting back on training Egyptian democrats.” In fact the Left hated the IRI, accusing it of doing such evil things as undermining Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

All this changed with the Arab Spring. All of a sudden it became fashionable to declare “of course we wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East”. Shortly after Mubarak’s ouster, the Obama administration ramped up the money flow.

After the spring uprisings and Mubarak’s ouster, the U.S. piled millions more into its democracy promotion in Egypt, hoping to expand efforts with direct grants to big and small groups despite years of arguments with Egyptian leaders over the practice.

The U.S. quickly approved a one-time democracy development infusion of $65 million, drawn mostly from Egyptian aid withheld because promised improvements weren’t made. The money went directly to IRI, NDI and other democracy groups, including Egyptian organizations considered more liberal and more inclined to challenge Islamic interests.

But this came at a time when officials and parties were scrambling around for money and at a period when the administration had practically abjured any further military action in the region. What was worse, a Mubarak era official who had opposed the IRI activities survived into the new regime and America, having lost its old network of contacts in the fallen government, was left without defense. This “unexpected” development caught administration officials by surprise.

As the U.S. lined up groups to share the $65 million, Egyptian leaders bristled at how they were bypassed. Aboulnaga, the minister who regularly complained about U.S. financing of democracy groups, led the charge to shut down the effort. Egyptian officials had refused to approve licenses for IRI, NDI and other groups …

U.S. officials had no idea that Aboulnaga, their biggest critic of American-backed democracy promotion under Mubarak’s regime, would survive the uprising and the military government created in its wake, the State Department official said.

“Nobody was anticipating the resurrection of the security state,” the official said. “Nobody was fully debating the tenacity of this ministry, that she would be as effective as she was. It never occurred to anybody that this ministry was going to become the most powerful political agent in Egypt over the subsequent year.”

The results were outrage at not being handed a share of the money which poured through the IRI after the Arab Spring. It was ‘undemocratic’, according to the Muslim Brotherhood, for them not to be handed their share of the loot. Give me the money. That is democracy.

The phrase “nobody was anticipating the resurrection of the security state” should be chiseled into war memorials everywhere, as should the phrase “tyrants interpret democracy as agreeing with them”. As a result of this debacle, the Washington Post article concludes that America should never again attempt to promote democracy without getting the prior approval of the Generals and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s clear from the U.S. experience in Egypt that a growing reliance by American officials on financing democracy promotion in countries wary of U.S. interference can jeopardize American interests and the push for greater freedoms. In addition to Egypt, American-financed democracy groups also have been barred from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Say rather that American-financed democracy groups cannot flourish except in an environment where the target regimes fear the United States. What changed between 2006 and the Arab Spring was that in 2006 the regional fear of American arms was at its height while 2010 it was perfectly clear that America would do nothing much to any leader in the Middle East except those who allowed themselves to become as weak as Khadaffy or Mubarak. By 2008 Obama was dismantling the apparatus of hard power in the Middle East and that necessarily had consequences.

The consequences were predictable. The remaining autocrats in the region probably decided on two things. Never to become as weak as Khadaffy, and never to tolerate pro-democracy movements again.

Although the IRI and the Shabiha are completely different in almost every respect they can be compared as archetypes of soft and hard power. The IRI acts through nonviolent means and the Shabiha by pure coercion. Yet the distinction between them is less clear cut in this respect than one would think. For although the IRI never employs violence itself, its credibility and immunity crucially depends on the distant cover of American hard power.

There may have been no bearded, weightlifting thugs at IRI seminars, but the images of mighty aircraft carriers ploughing the seas, irresistible waves of US Marines or the specter of SEALs appearing out of the night are never far from anyone’s mind. And therefore the hard power suggested by the IRI was never likely to be actually used and the soft power far more likely to succeed.

But instead of reaching that conclusion the article seems to think the lesson is that “U.S. interference can jeopardize American interests and the push for greater freedoms”.  The better conclusion would be that soft power cannot be effective without hard power. Taken together, hard and soft power are the most effective combination. Hard power on its own is ultimately useless. Assad, for all his murderous apparatus, is doomed, Shabiha or no.

So were other totalitarians through history. That is a lesson which the President would have taken to heart if only he wasn’t muddled about “Polish Death Camps”. They and the Warsaw uprising are enduring lessons of the need to combine liberty, principle and courage with the supersonic velocity of the 30-06. One without the other is no good.

The commenters who found the thread Smersh and Memory interesting may find these two travelogs, one of Auschwitz and the other of Warsaw uprising informative. They are also a sad warning that “never again” may actually mean “till the next time.”

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