Roger’s Rules

Ouch! More Smart Diplomacy

You might have thought the big news yesterday was emanating from Cairo. That’s what I thought when I went out to McLean, Virginia, to have lunch with some friends. The television was on and the newscasters were in full emergency mode: Alert, Alert, Alert! Breaking News! One side of the screen had a camera trained on the demonstrators in Cairo, the other featured a succession of talking heads who repeated the same concerned phrases over and over. A ticker tape of text at the bottom told you that President Mubarak was just about to step down and that President Obama would address the nation within minutes.

We lingered in front of the television for about twenty minutes and then, when nothing happened, went into lunch. When we finished, we regrouped by the television. President Obama did appear. (Head faces left): The future lies ahead! (Turn head to the right): Nothing stands between us and victory except defeat! The usual enlightening sentiments.

Then someone called James Clapper came on. He, it turns out, is director of national intelligence. The director of national intelligence sat in front of a House Intelligence Committee and asserted publicly, to adults, that the Muslim Brotherhood was a “largely secular” organization:

The term “Muslim Brotherhood” …  is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam. They have pursued social ends, a betterment of the political order in Egypt, et cetera. … In other countries, there are also chapters or franchises of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is no overarching agenda, particularly in pursuit of violence, at least internationally.

Will wonders never cease? I thought the Muslim Brotherhood called itself the Muslim Brotherhood because, you know, it was a Muslim, i.e., a religious, i.e., not a secular, organization. And I thought the group did have “an overarching agenda,” namely the establishment of Islamic law worldwide. Perhaps our director of national intelligence should take time to ponder this statement from a document called Jihad is the Way:

It should be known that jihad and preparation towards jihad are not only for the purpose of fending off assaults and attacks of Allah’s enemies from Muslims, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state and strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world.

The thing I like about the Muslim Brotherhood is that you know where you stand with them. They are forthright about their goals: “Allah,” they announce in their charter, “is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!”

Someone must have brought such items about the Muslim Brotherhood to the director of national intelligence, for not many hours went by before a spokesmen sought to “clarify” his remarks, noting that the director of national intelligence “is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization.”

Well! I’m glad we got that cleared up because I can understand how a layman might, just might, conclude that when the director of national intelligence said that the Muslim Brotherhood was “largely secular”  he meant that they were largely secular — a sort of pita-pocket version of the Salvation Army, perhaps.

As I say, one might have thought that the big news yesterday was coming out of Cairo. But no. It was Washington. It involved folks like James Clapper and Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, who said yesterday that “U.S. intelligence indicates that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is on his way out.”

I have come to cherish the phrase “U.S. intelligence indicates.”

Leon Panetta told us Mubarak was going. The perky newscasters kept telling us that Mubarak was going. President Obama (head left: utter a cliché; slowly pan right, emit another cliché) thought that too. The one person not on board with this scenario was Hosni Mubarak — and his army. He let James Clapper, Leon Panetta, the whole of the Western media, and Barack Obama make fools of themselves for a few hours. Then he announced that he wasn’t going anywhere until he was good and ready, which was in September when an election was scheduled in Egypt.

There’s been a lot of talk about nascent “democracy” in Egypt. The rabble in the streets, if President Obama is to be believed, is the Voice of Freedom on the march. Maybe. But maybe it is also the voice of the rabble, the voice of a theocratic mass movement that sees in the dazzle of “democracy” a means of sweeping themselves into power. How did the Germans put it in the 1930s? “One man, one vote, once.” Isn’t that also a possible scenario that “U.S. intelligence” should take on board?

In a way, Hosni Mubarak is acting far more democratically then the protesters demanding his ouster. There is an election scheduled in Egypt for September. The democratic solution counsels patience: let the process unfold. Have the election. There is a difference, in short, between what Plato called ochlocracy, i.e., mob rule, and democracy. It’s not at all clear that the cheerleaders for the Egyptian demonstrators have taken that distinction to heart.

There were many benisons Barack Obama was supposed to usher into the metabolism of American politics — we were going to get rid of lobbyists, establish a post-racial, post partisan government that would be “the most transparent in history” etc. etc. And we were going to embark upon smart diplomacy, unlike whatever kind it was that George Bush practiced.

I’d say that Hosni Mubarak made his American “allies” (some allies!) look like fools. That wouldn’t be fair. They made themselves look like fools. That smart diplomacy, it turns out, wasn’t “smart” as in clever. It was “smart” as in how your cheek feels when it’s been slapped hard.

The bigger issue here concerns the place of the United States on the world stage. We just sent a message to our friends and allies about how they should value our professions of friendship and our commitments to help them. President Obama has mastered a certain rhetorical schtick: it revolves around the communication of a certain emotion of righteousness. You look out at a crowd, eyes raised, and turn your head slowly to the the left, then to the right, then to the left again. It requires a certain arrogance, which Obama certainly commands. To work, however, it also requires competence, an understanding of the way the world actually works, which he has once against demonstrated he lacks utterly.