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Egypt Again

See the Aardvark's basketball analogy since I love basketball (and Arab reform):

What does this mean for American foreign policy? I've been mulling over a basketball analogy for Bush's foreign policy. The US is basically a very strong team, with great players and an appealing style. In the first half (Bush's first term), due to astonishingly atrocious coaching and poor execution, the team dug itself into a big hole and went into halftime trailing big. Now, the US has come out in the second half and is playing a bit better - executing more crisply, running basic plays, and is starting to score some points. It's still in a big hole, but a few minutes into the second half its fans are starting to get excited, while the other side is starting to get restive. As anyone who's ever seen this kind of game knows, things could break in a couple of ways at this point: the other team could begin to feel the pressure, the US could gather real momentum, and the big deficit could fade away so that by the ten minute mark (I'm thinking college ball here) it could be anyone's game; or the other team could buckle down, slow the game down, absorb this first flurry and then grind out a victory over its more talented rival. Which way will it break? Too soon to tell. But Egypt and the other Arab dictators are old hands at playing tough, physical defense and frustrating more talented rivals. Is Mubarak's multiparty gambit another basket for the Americans... or a tough defensive gambit which will ultimately bog the Americans down and let the old professionals survive and advance?
More below.

The Aardvark later semi-retracts the analogy on the grounds that "it accepts the frame that equates Bush with Arab reform . . . The essence of my critique, and many other peoples' critiques, has always been that we don't think that Bush is serious about Arab reform, that he doesn't really want Arab democracy, and that his means of achieving such Arab reform and democracy are misguided and counterproductive." This has been my official view from time to time, but I think it needs to be revised. Looking at the Bush administration in its totally, the president has pursued this goal with at least as much seriousness of purpose as he's pursued anything other than winning elections. Which is to say, with only a limited amoutn of seriousness of purpose. And yet, not with none. He's not "not serious" in the sense of only pretending. He's "not serious" in the sense of generally not being a very serious person about policy.

The problem here is that what he's trying to do is very tricky and there's lots of nuance and double-dealing about. Take the al-Jazeera/al-Arabiya thing. Al-Arabiya wants Americans to believe that it's a proponent of liberal reform. And al-Arabiya tends to take a more favorable line to the US government than does al-Jazeera. Since Americans (like all people) like people who like us, this makes us -- especially those of us who don't pay close attention -- inclined to believe them. In fact, however, al-Arabiya is a tool of the Saudi government. We're getting played.

To make a long story short, I think the initial basketball analogy is right. Bush does seem to want to do the right thing. But he's up against a very complicated situation, an American security/diplomatic establishment that doesn't necessarily share his goals and isn't getting clear direction about what he wants in particular, some very canny players in the Arab regimes, and some core ideological commitments about Israel and Iran that aren't necessarily helpful in advancing his big picture goals. It's a situation that has the potential to become a mess. But also one that could work. I would say that, so far, the post-November Bush foreign policy has been a big improvement. We may run off the rails with Iran, or we may continue improving.

I hardly think Bush needs more cheerleaders, so I'll continue to focus more on booing what needs to be booed than on cheering what's worthy of cheers. But it's not an all-or-nothing situation, and the purpose of criticizing really is to encourage the administration to show us more of the good things it does.

February 27, 2005 | Permalink


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Matt Yglesias has two good posts, here and here, on the latest moves by Mubarek. [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 27, 2005 6:36:14 PM

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A little pressure is exerted, and all of a sudden some people want to play ball: The Iraqi government said... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 27, 2005 9:05:58 PM


ok, well this is just the situation as I see it. I'm not a foreign policy wonk or hooked in or anything, I just think I know peope & I definitely know how very cynical, pragmatic & deceptive people work, and this is just what I think I see going on:

1) The "democracy" thing is a stick,and it's sort of a code-word. For example, Bush makes clear in his inaugural address that he's willing to come after nations that won't practice "freedom," etc. This lets other countries know that if Bush is going to come after you militarily, like he did w/ Iraq, he's going to say that it's all about freedom & democracy.

2) In Russia, talking on Iran, he leans on Putin pretty heavy about the "democracy" stuff. It's the veiled threat: do what we want, or we'll start talking about "democracy" around you. After all, we've already indicated that "democracy" and "freedom" are what's going to motivate our military endeavors.

3) So it works basically like a veiled threat. Bush and his people have other, more materialistic interests in foreign lands and foreign regimes, but if they say "democracy," you know they're unhappy w/ you, and you're on notice that you can acquiesce privately on the more material point (the actual point of contention) while putting through some pro-forma "democratic" reforms.

This way Bush's crew and foreign regimes get to go about their business of strategy revolving around access to oil in the middle east, while giving everything the appearance of something much more benign as the public face. It's like Victorian morality.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 27, 2005 2:39:43 PM

The analogy is inapt. The US has a very good professional team, with Shaq in his prime dominating in the middle. The rest of the world has college players. Not professional, no Shaq.

When Bush took over coaching the team, he was lazy and inattentive and they scored some points on us which humiliated Bush so for revenge he had Shaq (John Chaney-style) break an opponents arm.

The second half starts, and we will win easily, but we got them so pissed at us that when we get in our cars to go home we will see the tires are slashed.

Oh please, George W. Bush, and John Chaney too, please just go home.

Posted by: epistemology | Feb 27, 2005 2:41:32 PM

I don't know, I just think you're being naive if you think any of this has anything to do with democracy.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 27, 2005 2:42:32 PM

Of course it has nothing to do with democracy. Bush wants fewer Americans to vote than the Democrats do, and Bush wants Americans to have less civil liberty than Democrats. And Bush wants war more than Democrats. Now you can argue security concerns, or whatever, but the facts aren't much in dispute.

Bush just has it backwards: abroad, where peace matters, he preaches civil liberties; and at home where civil liberties matter, he preaches peace. We get the worst of both worlds.

Posted by: epistemology | Feb 27, 2005 2:52:03 PM

If the ruling class in America really cared about promoting democracy abroad, there's really a lot more we could have done all along to meet those ends- funding and encouraging the UN and pertinent NGOs. Congress could have provided big federal subsidies for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

I think you try to not be too tinfoilhattish, but when you make that a big guilt or whatever that you have, you can end up buying some of these songs from people- which are 100% charm, all lies.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 27, 2005 3:07:29 PM

Yeah, epistemology, well my 2:42 comment was meant for Matt Y, not for you, just in case you thought otherwise...

I really think we're talking about abroad, not home, here, though.

I'm not sure I exactly agree with this formulation:

Bush just has it backwards: abroad, where peace matters, he preaches civil liberties; and at home where civil liberties matter, he preaches peace. We get the worst of both worlds.

but I don't have the time to split hairs here right now. I guess maybe I get this idea of what you're saying, but think it's a little off how you wrote it.

Of course, I myself pull off a lot of sloppy writing when I'm not wary to be precise...

Posted by: Swan | Feb 27, 2005 3:13:46 PM

What Swan said. 'Democracy' in newspeak = 'you must do what the US government tells you or else'. Replaces what previously had been known as 'anti-communism'.

Y'all behave yourselves, be goodthinkers now.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 27, 2005 4:32:56 PM

Y'all are a cynical bunch, which is fine because you live in America. In Egypt, where they're getting their first real elections, inshallah, cynicism isn't so hip.

Posted by: Judah | Feb 27, 2005 5:41:50 PM


I'm all for free and fair elections, but show me the evidence that these are real elections. Coming out of the background we have in that country, it's a pertinent question. Show me, and then I'll drink some champagne out of a slipper.

I think cynicism has been pretty hip in Mexico, for example, while they had fixed elections and actual one-party rule- you know, fascism- for decades and decades.

If I've got reason to think someone's screwing me, I'm not pooping the party by not smiling my ass off just because he's telling me he's not screwing me.

Matt Y, I'm very sorry to be climbing all over this thread-- maybe no one feels they can answer my concerns in a way that will add to this discussion, becuase it seems I'm the only one here...

This will be the final word on this one from me...

Posted by: Swan | Feb 27, 2005 6:00:44 PM

For all the "nuanced" thinking that some of you are so proud of, it just amazes me how you can't understand that every major situation in the world has numerous motivations, developments, costs and benefits that are not all mutually exclusive.

Did we bring democracy to Germany after World War II solely out of the goodness of our hearts and for no other reason than it was the morally right thing to do? Did we conquer Germany solely to benefit ourselves and take what we wanted regardless of the consequences for the lives of the German people ? The answer to both questions is an obvious no, just as it is in the case with Iraq. When we conquered Japan and Germany there was no law that said we had to leave behind, or even try to leave behind, a democracy. The Soviet Union certainly didn't make any such effort in the places it conquered. Yet we did it, for a complex mixture of reasons that benefited both the Germans and us. Because we saw benefits from our actions doesn't make our actions, ipso facto, immoral. And just because part of our actions were based on our self-interests doesn't mean the German people didn't derive great and lasting benefit from the policies we implemented. It was a win/win situation. In comparison, ask the people in Poland how they enjoyed their 40 years of life under the protection of their socialist comrades.

Again, the real world is more complex than you seem to be able to grasp. This black and white thinking you fall prey to doesn't speak well for your ability to participate in a "reality-based" commmunity. Blanket statements, such as "I just think you're being naive if you think any of this has anything to do with democracy," speak more to the limitations of your analysis and imagination than to any existing nature of the situation. If you want to argue what percent has to do with democracy, and whether it's a sufficient amount to make the enterprise worthwhile, then that would show some sophistication in your argument and be a basis for discourse. But you're obviously more interested in sticking to your conspiracy theories, ignoring the complexities of human interaction, and letting the facts on the ground be damned.

Whether you've come by your cynicism honestly or not I can't say, but I can say that if you take that attitude you're much like a broken clock that can still be right twice a day but isn't much good at telling you the true story the rest of the time. Again, the real world is about nuance. You might benefit from finding some.

I believe Matt can show you the path if you let him.

Posted by: kcom | Feb 27, 2005 7:18:39 PM

Oh, give me a break. You're comparing apples and oranges. You're way out in left field with the Germany and Japan stuff, because we're talking about countries that we haven't conquered but that we supposedly are in favor of promoting democracy in, such as Egypt- an Iraq is a whole other bowl of potatoes.

The question isn't what Germany and Japan say for the sincerity the Bush administration's interest in promoting democracy (Ha! How would that follow?) or even America's interest under various administrations over the past decade or two (although I admit I was going so far to look to their practice as a point of perspective- and of course, it is telling).

The question is what does our practice towards the numerous states that are not democratic at all say about our commitment to democracy? And what about our practice to undermine democracy? Indeed, the US has funded terrorist death squads that mutilated, tortured, and disappeared thousands of individuals in countries where our administrations didn't appreciate the political sentiments of the people living there. The victims were men and women of the cloth and human rights activists. I think this well-documented record of US funded and directed terrorism on a scale and a level of brutality exceeding anything insurgents have accomplished in Iraq so far goes along way towards mitigating the shining examples of Germany and Japan that you're caressing yourself with.

Read the history that's there, not just the bits and piece you like to pick up.

As usual, you're a conservative conflating very particular liberal arguments on specific issues into wholesale indictments of everything that America's ever done, and that simply isn't the case. That's where your "arguments" start to fall apart, but it's not at all where their flaws end. Not by a long-shot.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 27, 2005 8:12:26 PM

So, basically what I'm saying is-

The slurping noises from your fellating sicken me, Mr. Gannon-

sicken me, sir!

Get your little lips off of the rich man's dick, and use your brain.

And this isn't some kind of nuanced or specialized thinking, it's just facing up to facts and applying common sense.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 27, 2005 9:12:21 PM

Point taken on the apples and oranges thing. I didn't realize you were referring specifically to the cases beyond Iraq, which I grant are in a different class. I still think you're evidencing a lack of nuance, though, and looking for all-or-nothing positions.

Just one example: "The question is what does our practice towards the numerous states that are not democratic at all say about our commitment to democracy?"

I'll follow that up with an analgous hypothetical question. Let's say you donated $1000 to tsunami relief that you knew went to help a specific family of five. What does the fact that you donated nothing to the other two million people affected by the disaster say about your commitment to tsunami relief?

By your reasoning above, it means you have no real commitment to tsunami relief. I think another perfectly reasonable explanation is that you're doing what you can where you can. How do you decide where you can? That's where other factors come into play. That's where, dare I say it, "reality" comes into play.

In a perfect world of unlimited resources and instant results we might conceive (or the UN might conceive) of freeing and democratizing every country on earth simultaneously. Just as you might conceive of helping every last tsunami survior yourself simultaneously. Since that's not realistic, more mundane factors come into play and sometimes only halting baby steps are made. But that doesn't make the goal or the vision invalid. As the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Just because one cannot reach a state of perfection with the first step does not mean one should not take that first step in the direction of perfection.

It took fifty years to democratize Europe after World War II. Does that mean in 1960, when only 1/3 (or whatever the percentage was) of Europe was democratized, that we were lacking a commitment to democracy? Of course it doesn't. But real world constraints dictated what we could do at any given time. However, the end results speak for themselves.

The same is true today. I know you don't want the US to invade 100 different countries simultaneously in an attempt to bring democracy, or at least the opportunity for democracy, and I seriously doubt you think it's realistic. And yet you use that all or nothing stance to argue that we shouldn't even try with one country because we can't try with all 100. Where's the nuance? Where's the analysis based on specific circumstances and factors in a given situation? No, you have a one-size-fits-all solution. You either do it all or you do none of it. Again, that's hardly a sign of living in a reality-based community.

Posted by: kcom | Feb 27, 2005 10:29:42 PM

One more quote from you: "And what about our practice to undermine democracy?" So we have a history of undermining democracy at specific times in specific places. I'll grant you that in a New York minute. It's definitely not something to be proud of it and if I could change it I would. But the essence of that argument, an essence that I see in so many other arguments, is laughable. What it basically says is, "Because we've done something bad in the past we should make no effort to do something good in the future." You should be making exactly the opposite argument. Because we've done bad things in the past we should have an obligation to do good things in the future. Especially in those cases where we might have helped to create the situation in the first place. The only thing worse than doing something bad is not lifting a finger to atone for it. Rather than working toward that goal, you'd rather just be cynical and criticize. It's obviously your right but it's hardly admirable.

If you don't feel you can support the U.S. government for whatever reason you can still do something useful. Pick one of those non-democratic countries you mentioned. Make it your life's work to see the people there fulfill their destiny and become free men and women. Write petitions, picket at the United Nations and at their embassy, speak wherever else you can garner attention. Travel to that country and present a petition in person to the powers that be. Try to make those people's lives better.

What was sadly, sadly lacking before the Iraq war was anything along those lines from people who should have cared about the Iraqi people and should have supported them in their harrowing ordeal of living under Saddam Hussein. Where were the protestors outside the Iraqi embassy, where were the human shields standing between the Iraqi people and Saddam Hussein's thugs, where were the petitions for free elections to give hope to the people of Iraq? Why the defeaning silence from the defenders of humanity? It's pretty hard to claim the moral high ground with a record like that.

Here's Norm Geras, a Marxist professor no less, addressing the issue: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/02/cooking_it.html

As I said, I don't believe the U.S. is blameless in all it's actions the last 50 years. But there's plenty of blame to go around.

Posted by: kcom | Feb 27, 2005 10:48:55 PM

Again, the real world is more complex than you seem to be able to grasp.

No it's not. In the real world national governments (including the US government) are advancing interests of their constituency. It's as simple as that, no more no less.

In the abstract, a national government (including the US government) wouldn't give a shit of whether foreigners have democracy or schmonacracy or they're all dead. Consequently, when the US government tells foreign governments 'we want you to have democracy or else', it means precisely this: 'we want you to do everything we tell you or else'.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 28, 2005 3:37:21 AM

Again, where is the nuance? Your reduction of complex world problems to simplistic assertions like that only reinforces my point. This is a "reality-based blog" according to the legend at the top and your comment doesn't seem to touch on reality. Motivations, actions, and policies are all much more complex than that. An important part of that complexity is that all these policies are decided and implemented by a wide range of people each with their own thoughts, biases, goals and values. That's where the nuance comes in. There is no 100% this or that in any human activity but you wouldn't know that from reading your post and some of the other posts above.

Posted by: kcom | Feb 28, 2005 12:28:41 PM

Kcom, you're just making analogies that are too broad and that don't apply. The burden's really on you, here, and you haven't shown why I shouldn't be skeptical.

You're basically arguing that if I was a battered wife, I would be unreasonable not to take my husband back the day after he battered me, when he was saying, "I promise I'll never batter you again," because it's merely possible that he could in the future not batter me any more.

None of what you say follows logically, and merely saying that my logic isn't good or isn't "nuanced" doesn't show how it doesn't work.

These are merely conclusory, contentless statements from you. There's no point in continuing the argument until you present something that actually challenges my concerns in a substantive way. You haven't moved me anywhere.

Also, it's merely a strawman to say that liberals don't want to advance democracy if they are not conviced that a claimed attempt to advance democracy is sincere.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 28, 2005 2:08:21 PM

I agree I'm not arguing specific facts. But my point is to ask whether there's a reason to argue specific facts or whether you're only amenable to black and white interpretations of events. If you refuse to see any shades of gray, any argument that has something to do with the real world is pointless.

All national policy is formed from a complex interaction of events. But you have a wonderful ability to boil policies down to single explanations. To wit, quoting from your posts above:

- 100% charm, all lies
- I just think you're being naive if you think any of this has anything to do with democracy.
- If the ruling class in America really cared about promoting democracy abroad...

It's all absolutist stuff. I just wonder why and wonder if your framework even allows for understandings that have some subtlety to them and take the real world into account. Do you comprehend that there are various shades and varieties of overlapping human motivations that drive events? Or is everything a black and white, Manichaean world for you?

Posted by: kcom | Feb 28, 2005 7:35:59 PM

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