Argument

What Egypt's Military Doesn't Want Its Citizens to Know

Political censorship is back in the new Egypt. But hiding the truth is a losing strategy.

On Dec. 7, Egypt's largest-circulation privately owned newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, published an unsigned editorial under the title, "The British Independent Publishes a Fabricated Article About al-Masry al-Youm." In the editorial, the paper accused The Independent's Cairo correspondent, Alastair Beach, of being linked to Western intelligence agencies. It also alleged that I, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, was seeking to foment a coup d'état in Egypt.

Correspondent Beach was the target of these ludicrous assertions as a result of his coverage of al-Masry al-Youm's censorship of an article I had been commissioned to write by the editor of that newspaper's new English language weekly, rather paradoxically named Egypt Independent. To appear in the second issue of that new weekly, scheduled for publication on Dec. 1, my article noted the favorable image of the Egyptian military as reported in various domestic public opinion polls since Feb. 11. It went on to argue that Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the country's official leader since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, would nevertheless be unwise to interpret this data as support for the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF). The available polling data suggests that SCAF's image is much less favorable than the military's and in fact is in precipitous decline.

I concluded that the field marshal's implied threat against civilian rule as embodied in the trial balloon he floated in his Nov. 22 speech, which referred to a possible referendum on military rule, could backfire against him. Not only would many civilian political forces in Egypt be dismayed by such an effort to prolong the SCAF's rule, but so too might military officers disapprove out of fear that their institution's reputation could thereby be damaged. This assertion was not just speculative, but based on substantial evidence to that effect. I also referred to Washington's explicit disapproval of efforts to prolong the SCAF's political role, for example, a Nov. 25 White House statement calling for Egypt's new government to be "empowered with real authority immediately."

It was these observations that resulted in the article being censored by Magdy el-Galad, the editor-in-chief of al- Masry al-Youm. I do not know whether he did so on direct orders from the SCAF or because he anticipated General Tantawi's negative reaction. What has been reported to me is that the editor in question is known to have close ties to the military and intelligence services. (The Egyptian Independent's brave reaction to the incident was to refuse to produce another edition of their weekly until it was granted editorial freedom from al-Masry al-Youm.)

Whatever happened behind the scenes, the censorship suggests marked sensitivity about the leadership and role of the SCAF and its relations with the broader military. General Tantawi must be aware that his perch atop both the SCAF and the military (indeed, for the moment, the entire state), is precarious. For years he was Mubarak's instrument to control the military. The measures he employed -- including promoting the incompetent over the competent, minimizing training and general preparedness, redirecting the institution's primary efforts to economic rather than military pursuits, and ladling out dollops of patronage to retain loyalty -- resulted in an indulged officer corps, but also one that harbors profound resentments. Those resentments have been greatly exacerbated by the SCAF's mishandling of the transition, especially the deployment of military units for crowd control, outright intimidation and even killing of demonstrators, and converting military bases into detention facilities.

As the political pressure on the SCAF intensifies, the question becomes whether or not its members might seek to defend its and the military's interests by dumping Tantawi, just as the field marshal dumped Mubarak. After all, the second in command is Chief of Staff General Sami Abul Enan, whose good reputation appears yet to be badly tarnished by Tantawi's and the SCAF's misdeeds. What could trigger an internal coup? Grumbling in the officer corps, combined with a growing fear of the appeal of Islamism among enlisted men -- especially in the wake of the electoral triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis -- are incentives for the SCAF to turn on Tantawi lest the military, possibly in some sort of alliance with Islamists, turn on the SCAF.

In sum, the political pressure on Tantawi, now heightened by the results of the first round of parliamentary elections and the SCAF's immediate attempt to disempower parliament even before it is seated, is enough to make anyone nervous. That he was Mubarak's manager of the military economy -- a vast enterprise including factories, bakeries, and other businesses -- for more than two decades, hence with plenty to hide, may cause him to wonder if he might end up on the wrong side of the dock with his old boss.

But clumsy censorship simply exacerbates his and the SCAF's problems. One lesson of the Arab Spring is that news now travels very fast indeed. Within hours of the 20,000 copies of the second issue of Egypt Independent being pulped, the story had spread not only in Egypt, but globally, as the article in London's The Independent attests. It did not used to be this way. A previous publisher of al-Masry al-Youm, Hisham Kassem, former chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, clashed several years ago with the owners of the paper over the issue of editorial freedom. He ultimately resigned. That the ostensibly liberal owners of the paper, including Naguib Sawiris, founder of the possibly misnamed Free Egyptians Party, were not then revealed as having endorsed censorship suggests the profound enhancement of information flow over the past three or four years, to say nothing of commitment to that flow. (Indeed, the bravery of the staff of Egypt Independent provides ample evidence of that.)

But there are some worrying implications here, too. That even Egyptians nominally on the liberal side of the country's political spectrum drag out the old canards of foreign conspiracies and spies to discredit those whose views they fear might upset powerful actors does not augur well for a possible transition to a more liberal political order. And as far as the most powerful actor is concerned, the SCAF, its profound sensitivities, overreactions, and outright duplicity suggest that both its commitment and its capacity to orchestrate a successful transition are in grave doubt. Its misdeeds unfortunately threaten not only itself and its leader, but, paradoxically, the integrity of the military -- to say nothing of the stability and well being of the country as a whole. This in turn poses a huge challenge to Washington, which is now caught between an incompetent SCAF and a potentially hostile Islamist government, with no obvious place to turn given the apparent political weakness of liberal secularists.

In sum, there is lots of bad news in Cairo, but censorship will not prevent it from getting out.

ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

He's Not Sorry

So why is Barack Obama so worried about Mitt Romney and being called the Apologist-in-Chief?

There are political lies; and then there are charges that fall squarely in the realm of pants-on-fire untruths. The repeated assertion by conservative politicians, commentators, and pundits that President Barack Obama has consistently apologized for America during his global travels -- the "American Apology Tour" as Mitt Romney calls it -- falls squarely into the latter category.

It is a lie that has been reiterated so often that it has become conventional wisdom on the right. The fact that Obama has never directly apologized for America; that he has never expressed direct sorrow or regret for U.S. actions; that alleged charges of contrition have been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked appears not to matter much at all -- particularly to those such as Romney, who in last month's CNN national security debate repeated the charge again. It's worth mentioning that Romney is so enamored with the topic of presidential apologizing that he titled his recent foreign policy book, you guessed it, No Apologies. And piling on was Rick Santorum, who on Wednesday, Dec. 7, called Obama's policy toward Islamist radicals "nothing but appeasement."

The apology canard has been disproven practically as often as it has been made. Politifact assessed the claims and determined that "While Obama's speeches contained some criticisms of past U.S. actions, those passages were typically leavened by praise for the United States and its ideals, and he frequently mentioned how other countries have erred as well. We found not a single, full-throated apology in the bunch." The Washington Post "Fact-checker" said of the charge, "The claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context." They gave it four Pinocchios.

All of this might sound like the inevitable back and forth of American politics. After all, politicians exaggerate the faults of their opponents all the time -- and it's hard to imagine that the Obama administration would take any of these obvious untruths seriously. But even the most mundane and misleading of political attacks can shape foreign policy decision-making. If, as Clausewitz suggested, "war is the expression of politics by other means," then foreign policy is often the expression of domestic politics by other means -- with often unsettling consequences.

For starters, the apology charge -- and general claims of a lack of exceptionalist fervor by Obama -- actually appears to resonate with a surprising number of Americans. According to a December 2010 Gallup poll, only 58 percent of Americans agreed that Obama believes the United States has a "unique character" that "makes it the greatest country in the world." It's not a bad number, but far less than Ronald Reagan (86 percent), Clinton (77 percent) and George W. Bush (74 percent). In all, a stunning 61 percent of Republicans believe that Obama doesn't view America as an exceptional country. Nearly four in ten independent voters feel the same. So, it's legitimate to ask how much this actually matters -- and how many votes are actually swayed by the belief that Obama doesn't love America with every fiber of his being. In fact, according to a recent Pew survey, only a bare majority of Americans believes that the "culture" of the United States "is superior to others" -- an approximately 20 percent decline from just a decade ago.

Still, the White House appears disinclined to take any chances. Case in point, in the wake of a U.S. attack into Pakistani territory that killed 24 soldiers, the U.S. Department of State had been urging Obama to offer public condolences or some sign of remorse in order to salvage America's increasingly precarious relationship with Pakistan. According to media reports, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter was pushing Obama for a video statement or even apology on the incident. But none will be forthcoming -- and one of the reasons is instructive. Writes the New York Times, "some administration aides also worried that if Mr. Obama were to overrule the military and apologize to Pakistan, such a step could become fodder for his Republican opponents in the presidential campaign."

To put it another way, because of an oft-disproven charge that Obama is a serial apologist for America, the United States would risk further deterioration in its relations with Pakistan out of a fear that it will give ammunition to the president's political opponents.

Now all of this should be taken with a grain of salt. Even without the president's contrition dilemma it's quite possible that Obama still would not have apologized for U.S. actions in Pakistan -- and he did take the step of offering personal condolences to Pakistani President Zardari, although he stopped short of a direct apology. But the very fact that such considerations must be taken into account by the White House speaks volumes about the often under-appreciated "political" nature of foreign affairs.  It's a reminder that for every White House, and especially a Democratic White House, foreign policy decisions are shaped, often subtly and implicitly, by what is said -- or could be said -- on the campaign trail.

For the Obama administration, Pakistan is hardly the only place where politics has occasionally put its thumb on the foreign policy scale. Considering the regular meme of Democratic weakness -- and the nature of GOP political attacks -- it's possible to assess key elements of Obama's first term foreign policy as an exercise in political distraction.  Take, for example, the surge in Afghanistan and the fear of a White House getting in a public food fight with the military over troop levels there. Or backtracking on the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the indefinite holding of terror suspects, and the use of military tribunals -- all positions that contradicted Obama's campaign promises. Going to war in Libya for fear of being blamed for watching while civilians were massacred; unwillingness to push Israeli leaders on settlement expansion at the price of getting into a tussle with a powerful domestic constituency. Even the decision to actively pursue and kill Osama bin Laden -- and the ramping up of drone strikes against al Qaeda targets -- can be seen in light of an administration intent on proving its mettle in fighting the military side of the war on terror. And just today, the president was more than happy to use the operation as a direct rebuttal to Republican charges that he is both an apologist and an appeaser. "Ask Osama bin Laden," said Obama, "and the 22 out of 30 top al Qaeda leaders who've been taken off the field, whether I engage in appeasement."

In fairness, the administration has also frequently taken positions with a healthy share of political vulnerability -- leaving Iraq, adhering to its 18-month timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, its nuclear policy and the New START treaty with a "reset" Russia, on its recent focus on LGBT issues, and its efforts at outreach to Iran in 2009. But when it comes to sticking its neck out politically on foreign policy the default position of the administration has been generally to adopt the Hippocratic Oath approach of "do no harm."

Suffice to say, fear of political attack on foreign policy hardly constrains Republicans in the same manner. If anything, one could make the case that commitment to the war in Iraq by President George W. Bush, long after any political benefit continued to accrue to his administration, was driven by the belief that to remain steadfast -- even in support of the wrong policy -- was essential to maintaining the GOP brand on national security.

In the end, all of this is an important reminder that as the campaign season heats up what might seem like even the most baseless foreign policy attack isn't necessarily viewed so benignly. While foreign policy practitioners like to occasionally believe that their decisions are immune from the push and pull of the political scene, more often than not they are directly shaped by them. Like their domestic policy counterparts, we're all hostage to the next election cycle.

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