Washington Wonders What to Say About Arab Freedom
Embarrassments Are Sacrosanct
Even in the depths of mortification, a lower depth still threatens Washington, thanks to our double image of ourselves. As the sole superpower, we want to be everywhere (and everywhere in charge); but as the best hope of democracy, we must be seen to be nowhere (and nowhere in charge). You might suppose that the greatest threat to such a double image lies in the possibility of the endless documentary on American foreign policy and America’s wars being offered by WikiLeaks. In fact, the government’s reactions to WikiLeaks have posed a far greater danger—not to America the superpower but to the constitutional America in whose name it acts.
The deeper embarrassments of officialdom can easily assume the shape of patriotic outrage. Newt Gingrich, for example, has said that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, should be treated as an “enemy combatant”; Sarah Palin has claimed he should be pursued just as we pursue the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban; Peter King has recommended that WikiLeaks be classified as a terrorist organization. These statements were predictable, considering from whom they came.
It was not to be expected that an American secretary of state would skirt the edge of the same vigilante sentiments. Yet Hillary Clinton did just that when, embarrassed at the exposure of the slack security of the foreign service and the peculiar frankness of its portraits, she said that WikiLeaks had launched “an attack on the international community.” The community of the people of the world, or the community of secret governments and secret armies? To be an enemy of the latter would make Assange an honest journalist. To be an enemy of the former would make him a terrorist.
Attorney General Eric Holder, confronted by the same ferocious descriptions of Assange, and himself embarrassed—since people were looking to his department to prosecute, even though it was not clear Assange had broken a law—resolved to discover a law that could be attached to a penalty whose appropriateness he appeared to have decided in advance. “There’s a real basis,” said Holder vaguely, “there’s a predicate for us to believe that crimes have been committed here.”
Was the vice president, too, embarrassed when he spoke of Assange as “a high-tech terrorist”? He should have been. If there is a weapon of high-tech terror that is feared in the world today, it is the drones that—as part of the CIA’s covert war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands—now regularly fire missiles into houses to kill presumed enemies of the United States, along with anyone standing nearby. And if there is a world leader known for his advocacy of drone warfare, it is Vice President Biden.
We are in the second week of March, and the embarrassments show no sign of abating. On March 3, the president stated that the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi must go—or, in the preferred euphemism of the moment, that he “needs to step down”—and must do it “now.” What could that mean? How does Obama propose to make it stick?
Even for a president who, in the realms of war and peace, is apt to imagine his words weigh more than other people’s actions, there are some words that sound so much like actions you should take care not to speak them too emphatically. But never mind: officials in the State Department and at the White House, we are told, have come across a subtler way of expressing themselves than the Bush-Cheney administration which spoke so crudely of “regime change.” They now speak of “regime alteration.”
Lives and deaths may actually hang on words like these. We think of ourselves as the patron country of democracy in a world that wants to be patronized, but there are other ways of looking at the United States, and other ways of looking at patronage. Samuel Johnson completed his great Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 without financial backers from the aristocracy. When Lord Chesterfield arrived late on the scene to offer his help, Johnson replied in a letter that has become famous: “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?”
Barack Obama, Frank Wisner and Hillary Clinton were, in exactly that sense, patrons of the struggle for liberty by the people of Egypt. We embarrass other countries with our help, and it is only natural that we stumble. We are sleepwalking in someone else’s house.