Living in Washington, DC and observing how political rhetoric is shaped and conveyed, one gets a pretty good sense of what our elected officials are actually saying when they speak. Surprise, surprise, the real message is often at odds with the words themselves.
The Obama Administration is frequently criticized — and I’m among the critics — for a lack of communications discipline. Yet what at first blush appears timid and indecisive may actually be bold and resolute. Or at the very least consistent.
When Egypt was in the throes of its recent revolution, the US had to make a choice about whether to continue to support a secular despot, Hosni Mubarak, or endorse an uncertain experiment in democracy. (You may recall the president splitting the baby down the middle in a national address.) After it became clear that Mubarak’s continued reign was not an option, the calculus became even more complicated, due to the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood — a global organization with different chapters, some more radical than others. The Brotherhood, to put it mildly, have obnoxious theocratic tendencies. The American government was thus put in a difficult position of allowing the Egyptian experiment to continue — Brotherhood included — while harboring very real concerns about how it all would play out.
The Obama Administration rhetoric regarding the Islamic Brotherhood is telling. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
Well, I think we don’t know enough yet to understand exactly what they’re morphing into. For me, the jury is out. There are some Islamist elements that are coming to the surface in Egypt that I think, on just the face of it — they’re coming out of jails, coming out of the shadows — are inimical to a democracy, to the kind of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience that was the aspiration of Tahrir Square.
Consider that alongside the statements of Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes:
Our interest in these transitions is to ensure that a broad, diverse set of parties are capable of organizing and mounting competent campaigns. The president’s view is that we can’t let ourselves be driven by fear of change, particularly because change is coming. This is not fatalism. You have to take a step back and acknowledge that it is a good thing when people are demanding the same rights that we ourselves believe in. Indigenous democratic movements are what the U.S. wants, even if they create short-term challenges and complexities.
Challenges and complexities? You mean like watching a former ally — kleptocracy or not — transform into a democratically-elected Islamist state with an anti-Western lean? Still, where the politics are tricky, the rhetoric is surprisingly straightforward. We are not at war with Islam. We respect individuals’ rights to peacefully demand freedom and dignity in their political systems. America will not put its fingers on the scale.
Except that we are at war with Islam (at least its most virulent strains), and have been for more than a decade. We don’t always respect peoples’ demands for liberty or even human rights. And we most certainly put our fingers on the scale. But you won’t hear that in the speechifying.
Which is fine by me. It is strategically inadvisable to publicly denounce the Muslim Brotherhood, as it would only serve to strengthen their support and give the impression that the US is once again meddling in the affairs of sovereign Middle Eastern states. So the State Department is busy advising any and all political parties that coalesce in the vacuum left by Mubarak on how to become organized, effective and representational platforms for democratic participation.
But I wonder: how many State Department attachés are pulling double duty for US intelligence? Seems like the perfect opportunity to insert ourselves — under the guise of diplomacy — in a formerly controlled environment for the purposes of intelligence-gathering and analysis. And we’d be foolish to think the mission would stop there. The CIA has sought to influence Arab politics since it got its charter. I’ll bet my burqa that if the Brotherhood becomes too dominant, we will covertly undermine them.
Politics is a mix of opportunism and influence, with words nearly as potent as bombs. And it’s not always what is said that is important; it’s the impact. Whether this president is a liberal interventionist or a sober-eyed realist, he has a powerful grasp of rhetoric. And you don’t have to approve — or even notice — for it to be effective.