March 04, 2005

A Real Pro Weighs In

Frank Wisner, in B.D.'s humble opinion, is one of the very best of the best diplomats of his generation. He's now in the private sector, but had a long an illustrious career as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, India, the Philippines, among other countries. And while Wisner was a career foreign service officer (ie, not a political appointee) I think it is fair to say that he has always been more affiliated with the Democrat party. Which makes these comments all the more heartening, in my view [emphasis added throughout]:

Q: Were you surprised by President Mubarak's speech over the weekend calling for a constitutional change to open up the presidential election process for the first time?

A: Yes, I was surprised, as I think many people were. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been a very active political debate inside Egypt in recent weeks after the president announced he was going to stand for a fresh term in office. My own personal assumption was that any constitutional changes would occur after, not before, the election. So the timing of this revision of the constitution to provide for multi-candidate presidential polling came as somewhat of a surprise to me, but as I said, the ground was churning. We were headed in new directions for Egyptian politics.

Q: What do you think is behind Mubarak's decision? Internal unrest over the political system in Egypt? Democracy movements in other Arab countries?

I believe it's a mixture of factors. Certainly one can't discount the general move in the region towards freer elections, or the international environment which is arguing for greater democratic participation in Arab countries, or President Bush's specific call for Egypt to take the lead in democracy in the region. Egypt, after all, has a political past that provided for substantial democratic participation. All of these are factors, plus the fact that this is clearly the last time President Mubarak will stand for re-election. His age is such that [Egypt] is clearly in a transition period, with something else to follow.

Q: Let's talk a bit about the impact of events in other countries. I would assume the situation in Lebanon is of most interest right now to the Arab states. Would you agree?

A: Oh, I certainly do. The events in Lebanon are unbelievably important. The assassination of [former Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri is a very consequential event. But it, too, comes within a context. Beginning at about the time of the American intervention in Iraq, there was coalescence in Lebanese politics around the idea that maybe the time was coming to call for, and obtain, an end to the Syrian presence that had dated from the late 1970's in Lebanon. It was led, in the first instance, by the Druze--Walid Jumblat's people [the Druze are a religious sect; Jumblat is a Lebanese politician of the Druze faith]--and was increasingly gaining traction among Maronite Christian elements, and picking up support among Sunnis. It now has all come together in a considerable turnout of Lebanese sentiment, not only to respond to the assassination of Hariri, but to carry it forward politically and get the Syrians to withdraw. What we haven't heard yet, which I personally believe is material, is where the Shiites will come out. They are, after all, the majority in Lebanon, and their political institutions, Hezbollah and [the] Amal [party] are very consequential, and I have not yet heard where they stand...

...Q: What do you think Mubarak's reaction was to President Bush's State of the Union call for Egypt to lead the region toward democracy?

A: The speech, I thought, was valid. There was no finger-pointing at Egypt in those remarks that Egypt was undemocratic and had to change its ways if the American relationship was to be preserved. But rather, it was a positive message, looking to Egypt, her sophistication, her assets, her influence in the Arab world, to take the lead in this, as in other Arab matters, to help the region move towards a more open, participatory political future, and strong institutions that make up a functioning democracy. The press and judiciary have strong foundations in Egypt, but there is a ways to go before they are functioning and able to provide the cadre, if you will, of a democratic society.

Q: Bush has talked about democracy in the Middle East in a very idealistic way now for a couple of years. He's been ridiculed a bit in the United States about this being sort of an impossible dream. And now, all of a sudden, he's either on a very lucky streak or has had some impact. What do you think?

A: I believe that the president took a principled stand. The actions of the United States are consequential in the Middle East, and they have had some serious effects. They have also been clouded in accusations that the Middle East [is] not going to give into American pressure, and democracy can't be built at the point of a gun. But a debate has been stimulated by a clear American stand; one that all of us should welcome, provided that the pursuit of that objective is very, very carefully pursued. Because these are very fragile societies in a dangerous region, and the last thing any American would want are domestic circumstances in any Arab state to spin out of control and have the very people who have profound differences with the United States on top of the heap. We certainly don't want fundamentalist, Islamic-controlled, radical-controlled regimes.

Note Wisner's praise (bolded above) about the manner Bush addressed Egyptian democratization in the SOTU. It was delivered like a pro, quite firmly but still politely and non-diktat like. Also, of course, it's interesting to see Wisner (and I wholeheartedly agree with him) link increased Lebanese agitation for freedom from the Syrian yoke to the Americans unseating the Baathists in Iraq. It's more than coincidental, and serious, experienced Democrats get that.

P.S. Don't miss Wisner's cautionary noises (both re: the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and Egyptian democratization) either.

Posted by Gregory at March 4, 2005 12:23 AM | TrackBack (3)

I think that since Bush said almost the same exact sentence more last year vis-a-vis Egypt, you have to look to other factors.

a) The demonstration effect of elections in Iraq and events in Palestine and Lebanon.

b) Rice's willingness to speak out and embarrass Mubarak.

c) The emergence of Ayman Nur, Hizb Al-Ghad, and the Kefiya movement.

Otherwise, it doesn't make any sense to credit Bush's line because, again, he said the same exact thing earlier. But the fact that the Bush administration carried out the Iraq elections (a year late) honestly spoke to its seriousness.


Posted by: praktike at March 4, 2005 01:05 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Your humility is unwarranted. I think you have it exactly right. Well... maybe Afghanistan and the Ukraine made a difference as well. Still your points track my thoughts. Bush's rhetoric is far more effective in the present context than before. People move with winners, even lucky ones (didn't Osama himself tell us that?) and right now Bush is looking like a winner.

Myself, I am rarely humble. So, IMO.

Posted by: Lance at March 4, 2005 01:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Ah, yes. I forgot the Ukraine. Five blogosphere points to Team Soros!

Posted by: praktike at March 4, 2005 02:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt--certainly no neocon and in fact a man said to have a record of fairly typical anti-American posturing--told David Ignatius of the Washington Post that it was "the American invasion of Iraq" which kicked all this off. There were some twists and turns along the way, to be sure (and we should probably expect more to come) but it seems as if the statue of Saddam Hussein that US Marines and Iraqis pulled down in Firdous Square on 9 April 2003 has now landed on Assad (deserted even by the Saudis the other day!) and Mubarak.

Posted by: PJC at March 5, 2005 10:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Don't be a sucker, PJC. Jumblatt knows how the game is played, and he'll blow all kinds of sunshine up whoever's ass he needs to kiss at the moment. He's a first-rate operator.

Posted by: praktike at March 5, 2005 08:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I am always irritated when I see an "expert" allude to our need to micromanage a democratic revolution. What is the worst that could happen? We'd have to put up with another Iran for 10-15 years until a younger generation gets tired of the anti-US, anti-west cant of the old guard. This was my objection to the anti-war crowd saying an Iraqi theocracy would be more dangerous than the Baath fascists -- nothing --NOTHING -- could have been or will be more dangerous to the long term interests and safety of the US than Saddam in power.

Posted by: wayne at March 5, 2005 09:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"nothing --NOTHING -- could have been or will be more dangerous to the long term interests and safety of the US than Saddam in power."

Wow. Nothing? What about a martian invasion?

Posted by: praktike at March 6, 2005 04:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Dear Praktike:

Thanks for your comment.

OK, let's assume for the sake of argument that I am being a "sucker" and that Jumblatt is posturing.

Then my question is, when was the last time he felt moved to posture in any seriously *pro-American* way? (Let me say right outfront I'm no expert on this guy, but what I've heard is that he's pretty much been a standard-issue anti-American [Arab MidEastern subspecies] for most if not all of his career--if that's so, why is he changing his tune NOW?

You yourself said above in this thread that the demonstration effect of the Iraqi elections has mattered in the region, and even if they were a year late or whatever, the fact that they could be held at all presupposes the US military invasion and toppling of Hussein, which is precisely what Jumblatt cited in his remark to David Ignatius.

So even if Jumblatt is playing some kind of angle--which I readily concede could well be the case--does that necessarily mean that he's being insincere in this particular remark, or that the remark is objectively false? Can't even people with manipulative intentions tell the truth sometimes?

And all that aside, doesn't the mere fact that his very possibly self-interested puffery is pro-American tell us something significant?

Posted by: PJC at March 6, 2005 06:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Actually I think your comments here make a lot of sense. I don't see any real incompatiblity between you and Praktike here at all. Nothing in and of itself causes something like this to happen. However, many things can be an important factor, and Iraq has been an important factor.

"And all that aside, doesn't the mere fact that his very possibly self-interested puffery is pro-American tell us something significant?"

I could have said it better myself, but now I don't have to:)

Posted by: Lance at March 7, 2005 05:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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