Tuesday, February 1

The C Word

Geoffrey Wawro, "How the US Will Lose Egypt". January 31

THEY tell me that if I turn off Wi-Fi, graphics, and all other CPU-intensive applications I can get my our used blackbook to run on battery power for six hours, and we can huddle around the LED screen for our last moments of warmth.

Y'see, there's an ice storm on the way, following last night's ice storm, and if you've ever wondered just what it would take to get your fellow citizens to resort to cannibalism, buy yourself a teevee station and broadcast two days of warnings about "the biggest ice storm in twenty years".

I always get caught flat-footed by this stuff. I went on a typical shopping trip yesterday afternoon, carefree, and it took me to the meat case before it dawned on me why they were out of everything. Everything. I suppose it's debatable whether this represents the true, libertarian, kill-your-neighbor-for-the-last-box-of-Cap'n Crunch soul of modern America, or it's just a sample of why we've been manufacturing mass-market fear since 1945, but it's undeniable. Blind lust for anything on Your Grocer's Shelves and the existential dread of being locked up with oneself for up to 48 hours. Keep this in mind the next time someone within your hearing is blathering about The Founders: modern America would be reduced to a nation of panicked five-year-olds by the prospect of two days without indoor plumbing. Five to one says the Chinese are well on their way to perfecting the Toilet Clogging Ray, right alongside the Internet Porn Disruptor.

It's not a pretty picture. One of the local channels had a camera in the hardware store up the block, and a woman was proudly--proudly--buying every emergency candle they had in stock, apparently unconcerned at just how well-armed her fellow citizens are. The owner of the joint seemed mazed by it all, and, believe me, this is a man it takes a lot to maze when his cash registers are operating at capacity. People had bought him out of ice scrapers. Who waits until a major ice storm to buy an ice scraper? The same guy whose idea of emergency preparedness is to get to the store ten minutes ahead of the emergency, and five minutes ahead of his neighbor, and buy up everything in sight. No wonder this country freaks out when some guy sets his underwear on fire.

Which I guess brings us to Egypt:
So far the Obama administration seems to be getting it right on Egypt. The president has called for an “orderly transition,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned there must not be “a takeover that would lead to oppression,” a clear reference to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

More than just the right words will be needed. The Obama team should be looking closely at Washington’s awful mismanagement of the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 to make sure they do not repeat the errors of the Carter administration.

Okay, Professor, you lost me at Hello, as the kids say nowadays; I've never been quite clear as to why, when the chips start flying, America's pundit class suddenly gets all warm n' fuzzy over Diplomatic Language, which it can't wait to ridicule at all other times. Egypt's had thirty years of repression on our ticket, and now we're worried about it? Wait, forgive me for taking things at face value. What you mean is that the most important task for any American administration in times of Middle East Crises, however defined, is to make enough anti-Arab references to keep Israel happy, right?
The revolutions in Cairo and Tehran have much in common. Both simmered under the rule of corrupt strongmen who had held power for three decades. Both were triggered by new media—audiocassettes in Iran, Twitter and Facebook in Egypt—and both exploded in major regional states, with big populations, strong internal security services and powerful, U.S.-supplied militaries. Both dynasts, Hosni Mubarak and Shah Muhammed Reza Pahlavi, were regarded in Washington as “family friends,” to borrow Hillary Clinton’s phrase. Both had complex societies, with big swollen cities like Cairo and Tehran containing both the most and least educated people in the country: a relatively narrow educated elite and a broad mass of slum-dwellers. The strategic threat of that—then and now—was outlined by the U.S. ambassador in Tehran in 1970, when he predicted, with astonishing accuracy, just how Iranian demographics would shape the coming upheaval. Since most Iranians were “poorly educated and highly ignorant,” any truly democratic movement would “be in a reactionary obscurantist direction under the clergy.”

Both involve brown people, and Mooslems, and exhale carbon dioxide.

Here's the funny thing about that: the aggregate discovery of Some Guy Who Said Something Which Later Proved Prescient has yet to give us the slightest notion of how to identify him ahead of time, or what to do if we did. The fact that Churchill warned us about Hitler does not mean his idea of tramping across Scandinavia in 1939 to aid the Finns was a good one. The fact that he warned the world about Stalin does not seem to've kept him from making secret deals with, uh, Stalin. Somehow we keep finding in History precisely the lesson we were looking for in the first place. I've got no problem with people pointing out errors, or the reason for them--do it all the time myself--but treating the past as though it should have been as keen-sighted as the present is just horseshoe. (I typed "horseshit"; my spell checker didn't like it. But I find I like "horseshoe".)
The Carter administration was as startled by the revolution in Tehran as Obama was by the wave of revolutions from Tunis to Cairo. Just before the regime began to totter in 1978, Carter’s CIA had predicted that nothing much would change in Iran through 1985: “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation.” As Carter reacted to events in Iran, rifts in the U.S. government confused and demoralized him, and prevented Washington from acting swiftly and decisively to steer the Iranian revolution in a moderate direction.

Carter's CIA? C'mon. The CIA has clearly been a right-wing kookathon since its inception. The CIA recruited William Effing Buckley, fer chrissakes. What kind of an organization thought Bill Buckley would make an effective spy? Or an effective anything, other than headmaster of an exclusive boys' school? What sort of organization employed James Jesus Angleton for a lifetime? Presidents don't own the CIA. They may or may not share its major preoccupations and pathologies, is all.

So the Carter administration was startled by the Iranian revolution. So we're startled by Tunisia and Egypt today. So fucking what? What does that amount to compared to the Really Good Reasons we've had for supporting oppressive regimes in the region? The Shah was a bulwark against the Commies? You'll notice that they fell some time after he did. Saddam Hussein was a force for moderation in the region too. Defined, of course, as "not so ideologically anti-Israel as to be incorruptible". So Jimmy Carter wasn't quite sure what to do about the Shah. Too bad that wasn't true of Eisenhower. Too bad we haven't had more Presidents lacking apodictic certainty. Too bad Carter didn't wish away the Shah, Pinochet, and Marcos. Too bad the US can't do so, even if it ever finds the moral courage necessary. It's not the fucking way things work. Either we excuse the questionable ethics required to operate this sort of "real world" diplomacy, and we take the lumps when it goes wrong, or we speak out forcefully for international justice. Playing both sides is strictly for domestic consumption. For the “poorly educated and highly ignorant.”

Supposing it was simply a matter of Carter giving the nod to the Iranian army. What is that supposed to have accomplished? Thirty-five years of universal brotherhood? Bullshit. In the postwar period, when it had something approaching the half-global economic and military hegemony it has come to hallucinate as its birthright, the United States installed that sadistic inbred on the Appropriate Peacock Throne for the sake of Standard Oil, and out of nostalgia for what was left of the Great Game. That was a fucking mistake. The fact that it went on, somehow, for twenty-five years is not Jimmy Carter's fault.

Supposing that Jimmy Carter didn't know just what to do? What he didn't do is send the Marines, the way his five immediate predecessors did. Funny how History remains so silent about the efficacy of that little program, when she's got so many bad examples to choose from.


KWillow said...

News readers, pundits and various politicians really seem to believe that the US government is in control of everything; that we can "shape" how things work out in Egypt or anywhere else.

All we really do is give criminals and thugs billions of dollars and hope they'll be on our side. That's our foreign policy. Not much better thought out than shoppers buying up all the ice scrapers and candles just before the storm.

Brendan said...

... the aggregate discovery of Some Guy Who Said Something Which Later Proved Prescient has yet to give us the slightest notion of how to identify him ahead of time, or what to do if we did.

In fairness, discoveries of this nature do give us the opportunity to promote an erstwhile unknown to the well-compensated pundit class, from which said Guy is given ample opportunity to demonstrate that further predictions will turn out to be true no more often than anyone else's. Except as his head inflates, in which case, he'll be worse.

Not sure why we need to keep re-running the experiment, though.

KWillow said...

Then again, the people who actually do make the correct prognostication, and have their warnings repeatedly proven by events, such as those who claimed the N.O. levies wouldn't hold and are now warning us about other levies & damms at risk ... are ignored at best, ridiculed for "fearmongering" at worst.

What our TV Nation seems to want is a graphics intensive narrative; a heart-poundingly gripping story of danger and suspense, with plenty of cleavage.

Uncle Omar said...

Sort of like the former Ambassador to Somalia who said in late 1992 as BushI, Powell, and Cheney were invading Somalia "If you liked Beirut you're going to love Mogadishu." Or me who said in 2002to those few who listen to cranky old peaceniks "If you liked Mogadishu you're going to love Baghdad." And they did. Love it, that is. And so, here we are in 2011 and those who liked Baghdad are going to love Cairo if they have a chance. We're looking at you Warbloggers.

Brendan said...

@KWillow: Good point. It's a measure of how widespread that phenomenon is that the pejorative "shrill" has been appropriated as an ironic compliment.