Tag: Mubarak

Fortune-Tellers of Foreign Policy

 Congressional hand-wringing over America’s inability to forecast the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts is unsurprising given the foreign policy hubris that dominates in Washington today.  How can it be, the cry goes out, that America, was blindsided by these earthshaking events?  Doesn’t “exceptional” America see further and act more wisely than other nations? 

Sadly, that arrogant and delusional mindset is unlikely to be changed even by this latest “intelligence” failure.  Rather than questioning whether anyone could have predicted this kind of event—let alone whether we should be trying to control the future of other societies—the response is likely to be:  let’s throw more money at the problem! 
In fact, this “failure” is part of a broader, failed effort to know and control the foreign policy future, led by groups like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS).  As Noah Shachtman points out (h/t Dan Nexon), this project has gobbled up hundreds of millions of dollars.   Yet its predictions are no better than those of a handful of area specialists—or, probably, a cup of tea leaves.
In that light, ICEWS and DARPA are useful primarily to keep Defense Department and “intelligence” budgets growing.  What better way to generate a constant flow of dollars than having not only trumped up “threats” like terrorism–but also ” crisis forecasts” that would require immediate, costly “readiness” efforts?
Consider, for instance, what might have happened if ICEWS had in fact foretold Mubarak’s resignation a year ago?  What could the U.S. have done with that information?

First of all, unless the system was 100% accurate, it would no doubt have been dangerous or at least unpredictable to do anything.  In any case, doing something would no doubt have screwed up the model itself.  But leave aside that trifling matter.  Better yet, invent a technological fix, a feedback factor!  If the seers of DARPA can predict the future, let’s also allow them to feed any reaction into their computers and predict how it would affect the model, again with 100% accuracy.  
A year ago, our good ally and Hillary Clinton’s dear friend, Hosni, seemed untouchable.  Autocratic “stability” reigned supreme in the Middle East–just as America has long preferred.  In that case, top U.S. officials, perhaps Hillary herself, would no doubt have tipped him off to his predicted end.  Yet I somehow doubt that Mubarak would have taken the news submissively, cowed by some pointy-headed modelers.  Rather, he would have unleashed a wave of additional repression against those he deemed likely to foment unrest. 
What if we’d kept the prediction to ourselves?  Would the U.S. have started quietly pulling diplomatic staff from Egypt, discreetly advising tourists to head to Cancun rather than Cairo, or at least tipping off the hotheads in Congress who are desperate to be ahead of the curve?  Perhaps. 
But one thing is certain:  There would have been a large uptick in defense department contingency planning and spending—justified by “science,” but to little useful purpose.
What about a seemingly beneficent example of forecasting the future—to take the most extreme one, predicting when genocide will occur with the idea of preventing it?  Certainly, that would be a wonderful thing and could save countless lives—if, again, it could be done with 100% accuracy. 
But, just as in the Egyptian revolt case, there are far too many unknowns to predict this kind of result far enough in advance to prevent it.  Certainly, there may be  “warning signs”—like a repressive government suddenly issuing cards identifying all members of a nation by ethnicity, or preparing a plan to systematically slaughter them.  But do we really need massive computer programs to pick these things up? 
Our tools for doing anything in the face of these signs are in any case crude—though peaceful conflict prevention measures would probably be worth trying in some cases.  But what about a massive military intervention before a genocide had started?  This seems infeasible—and in fact likely to trigger the very thing it is aimed to halt.  Milosevic’s reaction to the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 after the Rambouillet ultimatum is a case in point—perhaps not genocide, per se, but certainly mass expulsions prompted by international actions against him.
Major events like the fall of a government or genocide are highly unpredictable beyond a very short time frame.  And, if one does not have 100% certainty, taking any action pre-emptively will often make matters worse. 
In short, programs like ICEWS are yet another case of spending huge amounts on efforts whose overt benefits are questionable—even if the covert benefits, for the government contractors and military, are huge.  Whether for good or ill, godlike efforts at predicting the future are sinkholes of squander.  Admittedly, they are small-scale in the deeply cratered landscape of wasteful defense department spending.  But wouldn’t it be refreshing if a few Congressional gadflies critiqued such programs not for their failures to predict the future–but for their very conception?
The underlying mindset is even riper for critique.  The self-styled deities of our foreign policy establishment do not rest content with predicting the future.  Their real intent is to play God—to control the future.  Consider just one irritating example, Aaron David Miller, on NPR yesterday morning.  (I do not know Miller and use him only as an example from among many possible figures who have made similar statements in recent weeks.)
In his view, the U.S. is “in the worst of all possible worlds with grand expectations and supporting very important values, but without the capacity and leverage to implement a preferred American outcome or even an outcome in Egypt that we can control.”  According to NPR, Miller believes this is a part of a long-term trend in which U.S. credibility is reaching all time lows. “We are neither admired, respected or feared to the degree that we need to be in order to protect our interests, and the reality is — and this is just another demonstration of it — everybody in this region says no to America without cost or consequences [Afghanistan’s] Hamid Karzai says no, [Iraq’s] Maliki on occasion says no, [Iran’s] Khamenei says no, [Israel’s] Netanyahu says no. Mubarak says no repeatedly.”
How shocking!  The leaders of independent states, even our own client states, say No to us!  Our vast “hard power” doesn’t put the “fear” of God into our enemies—or our friends.  The “very important values” we supposedly support don’t generate respect.  (Remind me by the way, what those values are, given likely extension of the Patriot Act, continuing detentions at Guantanamo Bay, rampant drone strikes, etc., etc.)  If only we had the right DARPA model!  Maybe then the people and the leaders of other countries would do our bidding.   
In fact, the idea that the Gods of Government can control the politics of other lands, when they can’t even control our own, would be laughable if it weren’t so costly in dollars and lives.  And that conceit, unfortunately extends well beyond the Beltway to the broader foreign policy “elite” in our country, as I’ve written about and critiqued before.
Don’t get me wrong.  As a social scientist, I think it makes sense to do research to understand and explain the world.  Public policy should be based on the best available information, and in some cases, it may be wise to make large public expenditures on the basis of predictions.  But controlling and even predicting human societies except in the broadest of generalities is a fool’s errand.
So, today, notwithstanding my happiness at Mubarak’s resignation and my admiration of the protesters, I can only hope–but certainly not predict–that Egypt will in fact develop a more democratic government in the future.  I can say that the Egyptian army, like militaries around the world including our own, is not exactly know for its democratic values.  I can say that “people power” may be able to keep the trend toward democratization going.  But in the end, the next stages of the Egyptian revolution are as unpredictable as any major social phenomenon–notwithstanding the fond dreams of the wannabe DARPA deities and their avaricious acolytes. 


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Mubarak’s Ceausescu Moment?

Marc Lynch calls Mubarak’s speech “The Worst Speech Ever.”

His assessment:

With the whole world watching, Mubarak instead offered a meandering, confused speech promising vague Constitutional changes and defiance of foreign pressure. He offered a vaguely worded delegation of power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, long after everyone in Egypt had stopped listening. It is virtually impossible to conceive of a more poorly conceived or executed speech.

Maybe, but watching Mubarak tonight reminded me of watching the delusional Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in Nicolae’s last speech on December 21, 1989. Apparently they thought increasing wages by a 100 lei/month (less than $10 bucks was all that was needed to avoid the revolution). The disconnect from what’s happening in the streets coupled with the vapid bureaucratic language was eerily similar in the two speeches. The crowd turns on Ceausescu at the 2:30 mark leaving both he and Elena stunned:

Don’t know what will happen to Mubarak, but it didn’t end well for the Ceausescu’s….

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Egyptian “People Power,” Civil Society, and the U.S.

 The prospect of a new government in Egypt opens huge uncertainties for the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East.  At this point, no one can predict what that new government will be.  But it is clear that there will be substantial change, even if Mubarak hangs on.  A military regime is possible.  A transition government, perhaps led by Mohamed ElBaradei, leading to democratic elections also seems possible–and would be the best outcome.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties, it is worthwhile to think more about the implications.  In the long term, the events of last week would seem to mean more democracy or at least more democratic input into government in Egypt.   Regardless, any new government will likely mean leaders less willing to do the bidding of the U.S., whether because of their own beliefs or because of the force of popular sentiment.  (Certainly an important undercurrent in the journalistic reporting has been strong anti-American sentiments expressed by many of the protesters.)  It is good that American policymakers seem to realize this.  President Obama is quoted as stating several times at a high level meeting yesterday that “the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events”–or, in my view, much influencing them.

In the longer term, the U.S. needs to accept the likelihood that a new Egyptian government might be  “anti-American” and anti-Israeli.  Certainly this is likely if elected democracy eventually ensues.  Given huge, decades-long U.S. support for the unpopular and illegitimate government, it would be surprising if Egyptians felt differently.  The result is likely to be an Egyptian government which–surprise, surprise–does not share American foreign policy preferences.  Whether or not this is a more Islamically-influenced government matters less than the fact that it could better reflect popular sentiment in Egypt.

The U.S. has had a difficult time accepting the possibility that “Islamist” or even radical governments might actually be put in office by free and fair elections–by thinking people who see no better alternative in their societies.  U.S. opposition to the duly elected, Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority in 2006 is an obvious case in point.  But it is not necessarily the case that Islamist governments are so hostile to democratic values that after winning election they would destroy democracy.  Nor is it the case that, faced with the reality of governance, they would be unwilling to compromise.  Leaving aside the irony of such views when the U.S. has long supported our own set of Arab autocrats like Mubarak, experience in other parts of the world suggests that governments influenced or run by Islamically influenced political parties are not necessarily hostile to democracy and can be pragmatic.  Turkey is an obvious case in point.

Overall, the fact that soon we may no longer have pliable, autocratic clients in Egypt, Tunisia, and possibly other North African and Middle Eastern countries is, on balance, a good thing notwithstanding risks of short-term violence.  First, a more autonomous Egypt–or even simply a more unstable one–could exert greater pressure on Israel, expressly or tacitly, to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.  Added to American presidents’ ineffective “good cop” pressure on Israel will be another neighborhood “bad cop” that might help change the calculus of negotiation even among the Israeli right.  It is of course unclear how that might play itself out.  But a more democratic or more Islamically-influenced government will not necessarily mean war in the Middle East—and might even add pressure on Israel that would help promote peace.

Second, this and the Tunisian revolt once again demonstrate the force of “people power” seemingly untied to strong civil society associations.  Although the power of “spontaneous” nationwide popular revolts, whether made possible by new or old media, is ephemeral, it can of course have great effect—as centuries of revolution attest.

But the lesson for students of civil society—and for the American and other governments that seek to foster civil society–is broader.  When revolutionary moments end, civil society organizations probably will play an important role.  But in Egypt and other Islamic countries, a freer civil society is unlikely to look much like America’s.  

This seems to trouble U.S. policymakers. Consider this recent remark of Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security advisor:  “We should not press for early elections.  We should give the Egyptian people time to develop non-Islamic parties. The point is to gain time so that civil societies can develop, so when they have an election, they can have real choices.”  Hadley tacitly acknowledges that there are civil society groups in Egypt already—only, problematically in his view, they and opposition political parties are often tied to Islam.  That is in part a reflection of real sentiments on the ground, although in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been caught flat-footed by the popular revolt.  It also reflects the kind of regime the U.S. has helped maintain in power with billions in aid for decades—one that has repressed much of Egyptian civil society, notwithstanding American lip-service favoring democracy.  

A revived Egyptian civil society will not be wholly or perhaps even predominantly secular.   Islamic organizations are likely to hold considerable sway.  But there is no reason to fear or denigrate religiously-based civil society organizations.  American civil society is of course replete with religious groups, and they exert great influence in politics.  The fact that in the Middle East and North Africa these will inevitably by Muslim organizations is not necessarily problematic either.  As long as they are willing to play by democratic rules, their presence should be welcomed.  And many Islamic movements are willing to do so.  

Finally and most broadly, an Egyptian transition unexpected by American officials would reinforce the need to curb American hubris about its role in the world.  Too much of the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment believes and acts as if the U.S. has the right and the ability to manipulate other countries’ political systems, “in our favor.”  This has created vast distortions in our own political system, starting with grossly outsized defense budgets completely disproportionate to the threats we face.  For all that, we have never been able to “control” events overseas, as the Iranian revolution against America’s good friend the Shah demonstrated decades ago.

Leaving aside moral issues of America’s acting as if we are the world’s “indispensable nation,” the events in North Africa should again emphasize that we see no further into the future, and stand no taller than other nations–notwithstanding Madeline Albright’s delusions of grandeur.  And because we cannot control events in other countries, we should curb our penchant for trying to do so.  

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