Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Getting A Warning, Or, For Just One Day, I'll Be The CIA

We are in day whatever it is of the Crisis In Egypt, and we have now reached the part where, in the USA, we begin pointing fingers and ducking and dodging as we begin to address the question of why no one saw this coming.

Now, as Thomas Barnett would say, the race will be on inside the Pentagon and around the intelligence community to have the best explanation—and to turn that explanation into the greatest PowerPoint slide the world has ever seen.

And we all know it’s going to be the same old story: “Nobody could have anticipated this event...but if you would just give us a few billion more to develop some program or another, we, along with our contractor partners, will get a handle on this.”

Well I’m here today to break that cycle: with no PowerPoint, no contractor partners...and no fat consulting fee required...I will give the US Government all the forseeing they could ever need; that way, when the next uprising happens, no one can say “we never saw it coming.”

“...The fact that you have sent him here just goes to prove that you are the leading...asshole in the state.”

--From the telegram complaining about the new Sheriff, in the movie Blazing Saddles

So before we go any further, if you’re just coming to the story, here’s what you’ve missed so far:

Egyptians, sick of how life is, blew up on January 25th (which, if you did not know, is Police Day in that country). Massive crowds came out in the streets, protesting against President Hosni Mubarak and the National Democratic Party (NDP) apparatus that has been running the Republic of Egypt since the very day the country was born.

On January 28th it happened again, and along the way Tahrir Square was occupied. It remains occupied to this day. That’s dead downtown Cairo, with the Egyptian Museum only a few hundred feet away; the political symbolism as well as the practical effect have rocked the country.

At the same time, all over the country (including in Alexandria, Luxor, and the Sinai) there have been similarly large demonstrations—and in every case, the crowds turned their anger on the police that had been attacking them for all those decades, burning numerous police facilities and staging a standoff at the Ministry of Interior, which is essentially National Police Headquarters.

The police withdrew from the streets, with predictable consequences for basic law and order.

On Tuesday, the crowds got bigger...but there was no more violent “acting out” behavior. To combat looting, “neighborhood watch” took over, and volunteer checkpoints were set up around the city to search cars and, as best as possible, to disarm the potentially violent.

President Mubarak addressed the Nation; he announced he won’t run again, that he would appoint his “chief rendition manager” (we hire Egypt to help run our rendition program) as the new Vice President, and that only they could save the country from the instability caused by the protesters, which is why he can’t resign just now, even though he dearly wishes he could.

In the few hours after that the attacks on the demonstrators and media began, with unbelievable images of Molotov Cocktail-throwing pro-Mubarak street fighters sent out to the world via Al Jazeera and other networks.

We saw an actual charge of horses and camels, with riders bearing whips and swords, which they proceeded to use on the “Go Away Mubarak!” crowd.

Some of the pro-Mubarak attackers were grabbed up by the other side, and by an amazing coincidence quite a number of police ID cards were recovered in the process. It’s also reported that prisons were emptied to help create the looting and general instability the NDP was looking to “solve”, that workers in State-owned companies were bussed in to be part of the counter-protest, and that folks were simply rounded up off the street and given cash to disrupt the anti-NDP demonstration.

The Army, who had been present on the scene the entire time, only intervened after the pro-Mubarak folks began brandishing—and using—firearms.

All of this led to the Government, in the person of Omar Suleiman (the rendition manager turned VP), describing how he was shocked, just shocked, that such a thing could happen in Egypt and demanding that the anti-NDP folks stop instigating the violence.

He took questions from the press; one of the most bizarre moments was when he blamed camel herders who work the Pyramid tourist trade for the violence, suggesting they were so upset about the lack of tourists that they loaded up their livestock and took ‘em downtown in an apparent effort to solve the thing themselves, and then, somehow, they kind of got out of hand.

Long story short, as of right now we’re at an impasse: the protesters want the President to resign and the current Government disbanded (they claim, with good reason, that last year’s Parliamentary elections were so fraudulent as to render them moot), and they want authority turned over to a committee that would hold power for a few months, after which elections would be held to seat a new legislature.

They are also looking to bring to trial various officials who are either corrupt or complicit in violence that’s been directed against the people.

Based on the election results, someone would be empowered to form a new Government—and as you might guess, the NDP wants nothing at all to do with any part of this plan.

That said, there is a ton of speculation that some sort of exit is being arranged—but it is also fair to point out that Mubarak may be able to simply wait it out until September, when elections are currently scheduled to be held. Considering the situation in the streets at the moment, however, that seems hard to visualize.

“And nobody yet has, no body yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak and um, no, not, not real um enthused about what it is that that’s being done on a national level and from D.C. in regards to understanding all the situation there in Egypt. And um, in these areas that are so volatile right now because obviously it’s not just Egypt but the other countries too where we are seeing uprisings, we know that now more than ever, we need strength and sound mind there in the White House. We need to know what it is that America stands for so we know who it is that America will stand with. And um, we do not have all that information yet.”

--Sarah Palin, commenting on these same events, February 5th, 2011

So that’s a quick roundup of the past: now it’s time to earn my big-time fake consulting chops.

Look, my friends at the State Department and the Pentagon and the CIA and the NSC and the LMNOP-QRS-TUV or whomever, it’s a simple as this: if the people in some country are tired of being tortured or oppressed or just held back economically, and they look at their political leadership and they have the strong urge to send a telegram like the one I quoted at the top of the story, and that leadership pretty much has a monopoly on power...and they are basically being propped up by us...that country, sooner or later, is going to end up exactly like Egypt—and the people in that country are not going to forget that we were supporting the regime that caused their troubles.

To make it even simpler: if the local population can apply the word “hypocrite” to our relationship with the local have been warned.

And you don’t have to look far to see those kinds of regimes: Yemen jumps right out at us, so does Saudi, Jordan is another, same with Pakistan. The Philippines might be one of those places, and Turkey, too—and Columbia surely is one of ‘em. Israel has a restive Arab population, and someday we and they will have to face up to this same problem.

(This isn’t just a problem Americans have to worry about, either: if I were a political leader in China today...I’d be very nervous.)

So how do we, in a realpolitik world, “bridge” the relationships that we have with these regimes in a way that also bridges the relationships we have with the people of those countries and their very real grievances?

One way might be to use Egypt as an example: sit down with the leaders of some of these countries and say “Hey, look, this will be you unless something is how can we help you open up in a way that still keeps your family, or your tribe, making a good living in a growing country, as opposed to having to run out one night with whatever cash you’ve hidden or can carry, leaving your palaces and oilfields and a few heads behind?”

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this has not been our style for 150 years or so—but just as the military has had to adapt to the new reality that we are not likely to be fighting masses of Soviet armor in Central Europe, our diplomacy is going to have to wake up and realize that the best shot we have in making this transition is to actually be what we mythologize to the world that we are: defenders of freedom and promoters of Truth, Justice, and The American Way.

I’ll also quickly admit that, even in a “best-case scenario”, some of these countries are not going to have friendly relations with us going forward—but allowing that process to happen is probably the best way to establish our own credibility, and re-earning our “honest broker” status, in many cases, may be the best outcome we can hope for.

And it doesn’t have to be all bad: Vietnam, in a third of a century, went from being a country that we blew up on a daily basis to a country that has, for the most part, found its own way in the world—and we were able to adapt to that new reality just fine.

So let the warning be heard, Smart People In Power: there are a lot more countries like Egypt out there, there’s a simple test available to figure out which ones could be giving us trouble one day (the “hypocrite!” test), and we suddenly have a perfect opportunity to begin the process of “resetting” the relationships between the US and some of the most odious regimes with whom we are today doing business.

It’s gonna take some serious “tough love”, and a hard reassessment of who we are as a foreign policy “player”—but the undeniable reality is that, in the end, if we keep propping up these rulers who are working against their people’s best interests it is going to come back to bite us, over and over, just as it is in Egypt right now...and as the citizens who are supposed to be running this process while trying to avoid getting bit ourselves, we have to learn to recognize “we never saw it coming” for the giant load of hooey that it really is.

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