Washington Wonders What to Say About Arab Freedom | The Nation


Washington Wonders What to Say About Arab Freedom

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Our Empire and Our Election Cycles
If American officials looking at Egypt felt themselves “cabined, cribbed, confined,” anyone who knew the history of our Middle East policy could see the immediate cause. There was also a mediate cause, so ubiquitous as to be easily forgotten. This was, of course, Israel and the constant presence of Israel in American politics. In the last three months alone, Sarah Palin made public plans for a trip to Israel, and the Christian Zionist Mike Huckabee said that the US ought to “encourage the Israelis to build as much as they can and as rapidly as they can” on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

About the Author

David Bromwich
David Bromwich teaches English at Yale. His most recent book is Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry (Chicago).

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To believe that our nation has always been exceptional requires a suppression of ordinary skepticism and a belief that calls for extraordinary arrogance.

Obama takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch—a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. 

Nor has Barack Obama been indifferent to such pressures. In earlier years, he expressed unmistakable sympathy for the cause of Palestinian independence; but the story changed in 2008, as he entered the last leg of the race for president. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in June of that year, Obama made an astonishing pledge with religious overtones: the American commitment to Israeli security was, he said, “sacrosanct.” On his way to the White House, Obama purged his advisorate of figures like Robert Malley and Zbigniew Brzezinski who were deemed unsuitable by the Israel lobby.

Then, in June 2009, he made his celebrated Cairo speech, with its message of hope and sympathy for the progress of a liberal Muslim society. There at Cairo University, Obama called for a halt both to Palestinian terror and the Israeli occupation. Soon after, Hillary Clinton reiterated the demand that Israel enforce a complete stop to the building of settlements, with no exceptions for “outposts” or “natural growth.”

Benjamin Netanyahu simply defied these grave utterances; and he soon found he could do so with impunity. By the end of that summer, Obama had been persuaded to let pass in quiet disapproval anything Israel chose to do. The mid-term elections were now drawing close; and Obama apparently judged it expedient to have his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and family photographed on a visit to the Golan Heights.

Yet the ascent of the administration to that perfection of embarrassment was gradual and its stages deserve to be remembered. When, in March 2010, Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to Israel (saying “It’s good to be home”), he was greeted by an announcement from the interior ministry that it had approved the construction of 1,600 new building units for Jews in East Jerusalem: a calculated insult to President Obama. This led Biden to issue a public rebuke of Netanyahu, and Hillary Clinton to restate the administration’s anti-settlement policy. A request by Netanyahu to visit the White House was subsequently refused.

Netanyahu, however, realized that such embarrassment would eventually work to his advantage. By the end of May, thoughts of the midterm election were coming to the fore in Washington. Without Israeli policy having changed in any way, the Obama administration began to warm up. The election-sensitive nature of this thaw was borne out by the revelation, in January 2011, that the White House had been dealing with Ehud Barak in preference to Netanyahu; that it had been charmed by his competence, seduced by his promises and was now “furious” at his non-performance in the peace process.

So the pattern has been: a step toward pressure on Israel, followed by a step back into the arms of the Israel lobby—the second step coinciding with an upcoming election cycle. The 2012 election and its financing are already much on Obama’s mind. Unhappily for him, Turkey, Brazil, and other countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause chose this moment to put forward a UN resolution condemning the Israeli occupation of conquered lands and designating Israel’s settlements there “illegal.”

Again, there was an embarrassed phone call from Obama, this time to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Could the PA put off the vote? Or, if there had to be a UN statement, did it have to commit the United States to a legally binding resolution? But Abbas himself had lost confidence in Obama and his own reputation had recently been badly tarnished by WikiLeaks revelations of the PA’s capitulation to past American requests. The settlements were in any case in violation of international law, specifically article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Abbas accordingly rebuffed Obama’s entreaty for a milder resolution and the American president suffered the embarrassment of issuing his first veto in the UN in utter defiance of the hopes expressed so eloquently in his Cairo speech.

But the interlude was not over. For Obama could not bear to stand as the sole obstacle (alongside Israel) to a unanimous vote in favor of the resolution without making it clear that he did so with a bad conscience. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, offered the explanation in public in a speech that managed to concede almost every particular the resolution had specified: “Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.”

If there is any precedent for such an “Explanation of Vote,” the precedents must be few. The only difference between Obama’s position and the UN resolution was that the resolution would have backed such words by enforceable action. “Set honor in one eye,” says Brutus in Julius Caesar, “and death i’ th’other, and I will look on both indifferently.” The embarrassment of the UN vote was that Obama set justice in one eye, and a presidential campaign in the other and the world was in a position to see which way he turned.

Diplomacy and Counterterrorism

Raymond Davis is the American operative in Pakistan, officially described at first as a “technical adviser,” who on January 25 interrupted a drive in the city of Lahore to shoot and kill two Pakistanis. Davis took care to photograph the corpses and called in a back-up jeep for help, which, in its rush, knocked over and killed a third Pakistani. Before he could get back to the US consulate, Davis was arrested by the local police.

On February 20, the Guardian journalist Declan Walsh confirmed the suspicion that the strange incident had immediately spurred that Davis was a CIA agent. The Pakistani government was aware of his identity, Walsh reported, and that was why it had resisted an Obama administration demand that Davis be accorded diplomatic immunity. The following day, the New York Times revealed that it had known who Davis’s employer was for some time, but—at the request of the White House and the State Department—had refrained from publishing an accurate account of the shooting and its aftermath.

Obama’s cup of embarrassment in February was close to running over, but at least he now had a newspaper to share his embarrassment. Why did the Times suppress the truth about Raymond Davis? For reasons of empire. After all, the facts were known all over Pakistan and had been published in the Pakistani press.

In obeying a White House request to keep them out of the American press, the Times (along with the Washington Post and Associated Press) was protecting not Davis himself but a government definition of “tact,” while fostering the ignorance of American citizens about the actions of our own government. The protocol of the press under imperial rules—as the British discovered in the Boer War and Americans have come to know in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—is simple and endlessly repeatable: power comes before truth except in cases where the truth is conspicuous.

Journalists are now learning what historians have known for many years—an agent like Davis is an instrument of a policy that was wrong from the start. For Pakistan has always existed in a state of deep and partly justified paranoia regarding India. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistani leaders came to consider it a requirement of “strategic depth” that Afghanistan be a reasonably stable neighbor with a compliant government. From the moment in late 2001 when, to spare an investment of ground forces, the Bush administration threw in its lot with the warlords of the Northern Alliance in its invasion of Afghanistan, that policy was sent awry. From then on, Pakistan’s leadership would regard the American presence as essentially unstable and counter it in every way consistent with simulated friendship.

Practical wisdom about these matters has never been hard to come by. It shows in the secret dispatches of the foreign service, which we can now read, thanks to another embarrassment: the release of secret diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. In a cable from Islamabad, dated September 23, 2009, for example, the US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson sent the following piece of sound advice to the Obama administration:

“In response to queries posed by the National Security Council, Embassy Islamabad believes that it is not possible to counter al-Qaeda in Pakistan absent a comprehensive strategy that 1) addresses the interlinked Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2) brings about stable, civilian government in Afghanistan, and 3) reexamines the broader role of India in the region. As the queries presuppose, the ending of Pakistani establishment support to terrorist and extremist groups, some Afghan-focused and some India-focused, is a key element for success. There is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India. The only way to achieve a cessation of such support is to change the Pakistan government’s own perception of its security requirements.”

Among the most remarkable features of Ambassador Patterson’s warning were her repeated mention of India and her allusion to the conflict over Kashmir: scarcely mentioned in official American descriptions of what the United States is doing in Pakistan. And here a further embarrassment appears in the background to lengthen the shadow of the Davis incident. The cables show that the Obama administration either is not using, or is not sharing with the American people, the most elementary knowledge of the complexity of a commitment it inherited from its predecessor and now has greatly broadened. These cables suggest that a rhetorical policy, not just of simplification but of conscious distortion, has guided Obama’s frequent iterations that “the enemy” in Pakistan is Al Qaeda. It would be as fair to say that the American enemy in Pakistan is Pakistan, and Pakistan’s relationship to India and our own relationship to both.

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