President Barack Obama’s Friday evening statement on the situation in Egypt reminds us of George Orwell’s comment that sloppy writing leads to dangerous political thinking.
“Good evening,” said the president (ritually, if, under the circumstances, inaccurately). “As the situation continues to unfold, our first concern is preventing injury or loss of life.” Our first concern?
Egypt has been our most important ally in the Arab-speaking world. The United States gives $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, and has given $28 billion in economic aid since 1975. We’ve done that for a reason. The Middle East is a metaphorical salad of dominoes waiting to fall and a powder keg waiting to blow. Islamist extremists plot, and live to plot, the end of the Great Satan and its consequence, chaos. Egypt has been a realpolitik force in opposition to that plotting.
But according to the president, our first concern is preventing injury (sprained ankles?) and loss of life. Maybe that’s just a sop to the vegans and animal rights folks (the 2012 election looms). But a president facing the prospects of Armageddon starting, and in the nature of Armageddon, ending, on his watch might nudge other concerns into first place.
The president called on the Egyptian authorities “to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters.” The mind reels. What could the president have meant? Had he not seen the coverage of the riots in Cairo? How do you have a peaceful riot? How do you have a peaceful riot in the Middle East? These folks are not the Women’s Christian Temperance Union — and come to think of it, there was nothing peaceful about the WCTU or its most famous member, hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation.
“At the same time,” continued the president, “those protesting in the streets have the responsibility to express themselves peacefully. Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek.” A few minutes later, the president said, “Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people.” The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had sounded the theme earlier in the day: “There’s no situation that — this is certainly not a situation that will be solved by violence.”
Where to begin? Either the protesters will succeed, however success is defined, and therefore will have succeeded by resorting to violence. Or the Mubarak regime will survive, however that is defined, because its violence was more violent than the violence of the protesters.
Whether the situation is “solved” depends on where you’re throwing your bombs from. Whoever wins this struggle will have succeeded through the use of more or better targeted violence.
“Now ultimately,” said the president, “the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people.” What did he mean by that? “Should be determined by the Egyptian people?” Maybe. But “will be”? It hasn’t been for decades — if ever. Ultimately, as Keynes remarked, we’re all dead. And for a lot of Egyptians this week, “ultimately” may come rather sooner than they had expected.
What should the president have said? There were two options. One is: nothing. Never underestimate the advisability of saying nothing. The United States has few good options in this situation. Keeping quiet may preserve whatever our best option is.
The second option would have been to teach — but the president is not good at teaching, as he demonstrated in his State of the Union speech. And teach whom? He could have outlined, for the American people, the dilemma: realpolitik vs. idealism. Kissinger vs. Bush. Perhaps Kissinger vs. Bush for Dummies. But how likely is it that that lecture would help the United States win the hearts and minds of whoever wins the tanks and guns in Egypt?
Besides, the president may not have thought through that dilemma (after all, his State Department took the wrong side in Honduras!), so he’s coasting on liberal shibboleths. Violence is bad. Violence is counterproductive. Floss after every meal. But that is dangerous thinking, which, pace George Orwell, can proceed to, as well as from, sloppy writing.
To think that violence is always bad is not to know, as American soldiers know, along with the millions of people in far off lands that their bravery has liberated down through the years, that violence can be the handmaiden of freedom.
Freedom for the Egyptians, however, is still years away, as it is for millions of their pitiful fellow Arabs, whatever is midwifed by the current violence. And however great the interest of the Egyptian people is in their own freedom and human rights, it is eclipsed, even if they don’t realize it, by the national security interest of the United States.