This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.
From Egypt to Pakistan, February 2011 will be remembered as a month unusually full of the embarrassments of empire. Americans were enthralled by a spectacle of liberty in which we felt we should somehow be playing a part. Here were popular movements toward self-government, which might once have looked to the United States as an exemplar, springing up all across North Africa and the Middle East. Why did they not look up to us now?
The answer became clearer with every equivocal word of the Obama administration, and every false step it took in trying to manage the crisis. A person suffers embarrassment when something true about himself emerges in spite of reasonable efforts to conceal it. It is the same with nations. Sovereign nations are abstract entities, of course -- they cannot have feelings as people do -- but there are times when they would blush if they could.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was weakened and finally brought down by nonviolent popular actions that started in Cairo and spread to Alexandria, Suez, and many other cities. At first, Mubarak took a dictator's prerogative and named his successor. Soon after, he changed his mind and declined to step down. At last, he gave in to the unrelenting demands of the people and pressure from the army.
Throughout the 18 days of upheaval, Washington spoke of the need for an "orderly transition." President Obama and his advisers seemed to side with the Egyptian demonstrators vaguely and sentimentally, yet they never sought a connection with them, not even through a figure of international renown like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency who earned a Nobel peace prize in 2005. The U.S. took extreme care not to offend Mubarak. There was a period of perhaps three days after Obama dispatched Frank Wisner (a former ambassador and personal friend of Mubarak) as special envoy to consult with the dictator when the world was given to understand that America was planning the longest of farewells.
Such was the American response to an expression of popular will that had no precedent. For in the end, the protest swept up millions of demonstrators: by some estimates nearly a quarter of Egypt's population of 81 million, in a mass action whose exhilaration could be shared by all who watched. The crowd in Tahrir Square had none of the poisonous quality of a mob. Even the most respectable citizens -- doctors, lawyers, teachers, shopkeepers, women as well as men -- were drawn in little by little, visiting the demonstrations after work, throwing in their lot, and finally staying overnight in the square.
President Obama sanctified the process only after it was sealed by success. He said, in a telling phrase, that it had been a "privilege" for him to watch "history taking place." To add, as Obama did, that the result belonged to the Egyptian people alone was fitting; yet the protestors could respond with perfect justice that they owed nothing to American help. Was this degree of detachment inevitable?
Look into the order of events a little more closely and you see a picture of the contradictions of American policy over the last half-century. On day one of the protest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced the Egyptian government "stable"; two days later, on a news program, Vice President Joe Biden refused to call Mubarak a dictator; the following day, President Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak and "urged him to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
If that sounds vague, far vaguer was to come. Having dispatched Wisner to Cairo, the president committed himself to this sentiment: "An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." A wishful commandment that read like a polite editorial. It left unclear the meaning of "orderly," the meaning of "now," and the meaning of "meaningful."
Day nine found the administration "concerned" about attacks on the protestors, but not concerned enough to do anything. Obama did, however, call Mubarak once more. In a private version of the "wishful commandment," he told him that it was time to go. Mubarak did not go.
The chaos of day 12 offers a striking reflection of the stance of the White House as spectator. Returned from Cairo, Wisner asserted that Mubarak must be allowed to stay for several months longer, since his "continued leadership is critical." In the same tenor, Hillary Clinton affirmed that any transition to democracy "takes some time. There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare." Yet the White House and the State Department went out of their way to dissociate themselves from the explicit conservatism of Wisner's injunction.
Right to the end, Obama limited himself to comforting generalities whose practical significance was obscure. On day 13, for example, he allowed that Egypt was "not going to go back to what it was." Meanwhile, the administration that went on the record in favor of "real, concrete" reforms never named one.
Stability First, Democracy Second
To say that our leaders covered themselves with shame would be melodramatic. To say that they were embarrassed by unforeseeable obstructions would be much too kind. They could not help speaking for democracy, because that is what the U.S. thinks it stands for; if our actions sometimes expose us to the charge of hypocrisy, our words have the single-mindedness of sincere belief. How then did American policy in February come so palpably untethered?
We have supported a succession of military strongmen in Egypt going as far back as 1952, when the CIA judged Gamal Abdel Nasser a plausible bulwark against Communism. The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in aid (mostly military). Of all our clients, only Israel gets more, at $3 billion annually. The view in Washington has long been that those two nations will oversee "the neighborhood" on our behalf. That is why a nonviolent insurgency on the West Bank, if it should occur, would meet as baffled a response from Washington as the February days in Egypt. The embarrassment is part of the situation.
A fair surmise is that Obama was no less confusing in private than in public; that when he spoke to Mubarak, his words were muffled and decorous: "You must begin leaving, but I will never desert you" -- something like that. The difference between Mubarak's shakiness in his first televised speech to the country and his evident composure in his second speech may well be explained by a signal that he took for an assurance.
I will never desert you, one recalls, is the message that Barack Obama conveyed to Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (when Obama was still a candidate); to the banks and financial firms (in February 2009); to Dick Cheney and the torture lawyers (in his National Archives Speech of May 2009); to General David Petraeus (in the months preceding the 2009 administration review of the Afghan War); to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (in the summer of 2009); and to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (in February 2011).
The need to give assurance seems to be an inseparable trait of Obama's character. He deals with big decisions by first moving to cement a secure alliance with the powers-that-be, no matter how discredited they are, no matter how resounding his previous contempt for them may have been. Yet this is a reflex that often prematurely cedes control to the powerful over whom he might otherwise be in a position to exert leverage. That fight, however, is not for him.
To say it another way, Obama visibly hates crisis. He is so averse to the very idea of instability that he seems unable to use a crisis to his advantage. Seldom, to judge by the evidence thus far, is he the first, second, or third person in the room to recognize that a state of crisis exists. The hesitation that looked like apathy and the hyper-managerial tone of his response to the BP oil spill offered a vivid illustration of this trait. Egypt brought out the same pattern.
How did the statements and actions of the president and his advisers strike Egyptian demonstrators who were risking their lives for freedom? A February 6th story in the New York Times by Kareem Fahim, Mark Landler, and Anthony Shadid concluded that "the moves amounted to a rebuff to the protesters," and added that this was the way things looked to those in Tahrir Square: "By emphasizing the need for a gradual transition, only days after emphasizing that change there must begin immediately, the Obama administration was viewed as shifting away from the protesters in the streets and toward stronger backing for Mr. Mubarak's hand-picked elite."
To capture the zig-zag path of American policy over the 18 days before Mubarak fell is not an easy task; but it is fair to say that the administration went from thinking the protests signified next to nothing, to pleading for an orderly transition, to emphasizing the necessary slowness of an orderly transition, to upbraiding Mubarak for so obviously standing in place, to rejoicing at the triumph of liberty. All this, in the course of just over two weeks.
Why could the U.S. not speak with a single voice? We say the word "democracy" and invoke its prestige with such careless fluency that we are surprised when we see its face. But here, the embarrassment was not only public and diplomatic, it was also personal and sentimental. A dictator through long acquaintance may become a familiar and comforting associate. In the second week of February, it emerged that Wisner's law firm, Patton Boggs, had handled arbitration and litigation on behalf of Mubarak's government, and that Secretary of State Clinton had said as recently as March 2009: "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family."
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 U.S. 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.
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 mid-term 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 U.N. 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 U.N. statement, did it have to commit the U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 25th 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 U.S. consulate, Davis was arrested by the local police.
On February 20th, the Guardian journalist Declan Walsh confirmed the suspicion which 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S., 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 3rd, the president stated that the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi 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.
David Bromwich is editor of a selection of Edmund Burke's speeches, On Empire, Liberty, and Reform, and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the Huffington Post. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Bromwich discusses how President Obama's personality affects the way he reacts to crises, click here, or download it to your iPod here.