Friday, July 5, 2013

Some Thoughts On Egypt

Please don't ask me or anyone else what the recent developments in Egypt "means." Not even Egyptians can tell you what the two revolutions that have happened in their country in the last two years will lead too, it is simply too complicated with two many unknowns. With that in mind I noticed a few trends emerging in the past few weeks.

The Need for Narrative: The first trend I noticed is how quickly elites in America move to make the chaotic events that have been unfolding fit into a neat little narrative of what Adam Curtis calls "Goodies and Baddies." Where the complex reality of politics in a revolutionary time are turned into a simple narrative in which all the various factions in  Egypt are divided into the forces of lightness and the forces of darkness. It only took a few days for that elites from reliable font of Washington groupthink David Brooks to Eric Cantor to begin defending the coup by the Egyptian Military as a sort of democratic uprising. It will be interesting to see if anyone in the beltway changes their mind now the army is arresting all sorts of people and shooting demonstrators.

The Smart Kids Aren't So Smart: Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a column in which he managed to show how ignorant elite opinion makers can be about politics in the Middle East. He asks rhetorically "How did the US lose the Egyptian people" and then doesn't even use the word "Israel" or "Palestinian" when he seeks to answer it. Goldberg was a huge supporter of the Iraq War (I'd go so far as to call him a neo-conservative in foreign policy) but if even he hasn't sought to educate himself over basic facts about the Middle East in the last ten years I don't know what hope we have for some of our journalistic elites in this country. Goldberg showed his ignorance and/or poor analysis in another important way he claimed:
The crisis of the past few days, which may end in a military coup (which would then start the next crisis), might have been avoided had the Obama administration used its leverage — the $1.5 billion in aid the U.S. is giving Egypt this year, for starters — to force Mursi to include the opposition in his government from the outset.
That's just standard "Green Lanterism" and like all "Green Lanterism" statements it has the benefit of being non-falsifiable. Maybe a beer summit would get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a two state solution. Maybe, but probably not. Furthermore it is a pretty bizarre statement if you get down to it. The US is going to pressure Morsi by cutting off aid to the military that has been his main political enemy and then overthrew him? That's like saying if Goldberg doesn't read more books about the Middle East I'm going to force him to, by cutting the staff at the New York Time Magazine (Jeff works for the Atlantic.) This type of thing is just weird. 

Democracy Promotion has Always Been Window Dressing: I don't think Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood are nice people and I don't think they would be good for Egypt, but what kind of democracy is it if can easily be overthrown by the military once it does unpopular things? I'd agree with Obama that "democracy is more than just elections" but the corollary to that is democracy is impossible without free and fair elections. A country simply can't be called a democracy if the results of elections can be overturned by force of arms or big protests. It reminds me a lot of a point raised in Rashid Khalidi's book "Resurrecting Empire" where he argues that US policy in the Middle East, indeed all Western policy in the Middle East, has always been about geo-strategy and oil. People roll out arguments for democracy promotion to suit their domestic political concerns, but it's never been much in the way of a major goal. I've always been skeptical of this claim, but Egypt seems to add a lot of evidence to it.

The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics Is Alive and Well: A while ago Matt Ygleisas (full argument here) coined the term "The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics" as a way to criticize conservatives and other backers of the Iraq War who seems to believe that "the only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower" when it comes to foreign policy. In short the Middle East is clay in the hands of us Americans, we can make their societies into anything we like as long as we work harder or don't make mistakes. Goldberg's little post above (and a lot of his other work) is full of this. It's a remarkable terrible idea that has proven to be completely wrong by the Iraq War: nowhere since the American effort in Vietnam has an attempt to change a society via American power been more embraced, nowhere have more resources been expended and nowhere has the failure been more obvious and greater. But some of us still think an American president can change the course of a country of 85 million people by adopting better talking points.

Anyway it's a screwed up situation, and it will take a long to time to fix it and there's not a whole lot America can do.

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