31 January 2011, by
"Watching and responding."
That was the phrase used by PJ Crowley, the US state department spokesman, in his recent interview with Al Jazeera.
In the midst of the startling and compelling events taking place in the Middle East since the advent of Tunisia’s ongoing "jasmine revolution", with people taking to the streets in Algeria, in Yemen, in Jordan, and, most importantly, shaking the foundations of the Mubarak regime in Egypt - the US, he said, is passively "watching and responding".
It all reminds me somehow of my poor old headmaster. A tall, unbending, flinty New Englander, he had presided over my boarding prep-school - what the British would call a "public school" - since 1949.
One sunny spring Sunday in 1970, while delivering a routine lecture at chapel services, he must have sensed something amiss. Pausing from his text to peer out over his spectacles, he was nonplussed to see that all the boys had stood up in unison, and were silently filing out.
Not sure what else to do, he meekly fell in behind, following as they marched up Main Street. The student ringleaders, seeing the angular, loping figure of the headmaster tagging along behind, sent word to ask if he would like to join them at the front.
He complied. The next day’s headline in the local newspaper read: "Headmaster leads students in anti-Vietnam War protest." To my knowledge, it was the beginning and the end of Mr. Stevens’ career as a political agitator.
This mildly humorous episode merely underscored what we had already known. It was not that the headmaster was a bad man, or uncaring, or hostile to student sentiments: Much the contrary.
It was simply that he had become irrelevant. His mental architecture was adjusted to a world which had long since faded.
He could hardly comprehend, much less constructively engage on the questions and challenges of a new time. And so it is with America.
Events in the Middle East have slipped away from us. Having long since opted in favour of political stability over the risks and uncertainties of democracy, having told ourselves that the people of the region are not ready to shoulder the burdens of freedom, having stressed that the necessary underpinnings of self-government go well beyond mere elections, suddenly the US has nothing it can credibly say as people take to the streets to try to seize control of their collective destiny.
All the US can do is "watch and respond", trying to make the best of what it transparently regards as a bad situation.
Our words betray us. US spokesmen stress the protesters’ desire for jobs and for economic opportunity, as though that were the full extent of their aspirations. They entreat the wobbling, repressive governments in the region to "respect civil society", and the right of the people to protest peacefully, as though these thoroughly discredited autocrats were actually capable of reform.
They urge calm and restraint. One listens in vain, however, for a ringing endorsement of freedom, or for a statement of encouragement to those willing to risk everything to assert their rights and their human dignity - values which the US nominally regards as universal.
Yes, it must be acknowledged that the US has limited influence, even over regimes with which it is aligned and which benefit from US largess. And yes, a great power has competing practical interests - be those a desire for counter-terrorism assistance, or for promotion of regional peace - which it must balance, at least in the short term, against a more idealistic commitment to democracy and universal values.
But there are two things which must be stressed in this regard.
The first is the extent to which successive US administrations have consistently betrayed a lack of faith in the efficacy of America’s democratic creed, the extent to which the US government has denied the essentially moderating influence of democratic accountability to the people, whether in Algeria in 1992 or in Palestine in 2006.
The failure of the US to uphold its stated commitment to democratic values therefore goes beyond a simple surface hypocrisy, beyond the exigencies of great-power interests, to suggest a fundamental lack of belief in democracy as a means of promoting enlightened, long-term US interests in peace and stability.
The second is the extent to which the US has simply become irrelevant in the Middle East. It is not that US policy is intentionally evil: After all, regional peace and an end to violence against innocents are worthy goals.
Instead it is that, like my old unfortunate headmaster, the US’s entire frame of reference in the region is hopelessly outdated, and no longer has meaning: As if the street protesters in Tunis and Cairo could possibly care what the US thinks or says; as if the political and economic reform which president Obama stubbornly urges on Mubarak while Cairo burns could possibly satisfy those risking their lives to overcome nearly three decades of his repression; as if the two-state solution in Palestine for which the US has so thoroughly compromised itself, and for whose support the US administration still praises Mubarak, has even the slightest hope of realisation; as if the exercise in brutal and demeaning collective punishment inflicted upon Gaza, and for whose enforcement the US, again, still credits Mubarak could possibly produce a decent or just outcome; as if the US refusal to deal with Hezbollah as anything but a terrorist organisation bore any relation to current political realities in the Levant.
Machiavelli once wrote that princes should see to it that they are either respected or feared; what they must avoid at all cost is to be despised. To have made itself despised as irrelevant: That is the legacy of US faithlessness and wilful blindness in the Middle East.