In Washington, the Obama administration is agonizing over how it was taken by surprise by the dramatic events unfolding in the Arab world, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, now Libya. Where was the C.I.A.? The State Department? Isn’t anybody paying attention?
“I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligations in this area,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, my wife and I were hosting a dinner party. With a dozen guests coming over, we busied in preparations, with her taking the complex tasks, like making steelhead trout in mustard sauce, while I took the simpler jobs, like straightening the living room.
Nobody is impressed by a big pile of old magazines in a basket, so I grabbed a garbage bag and started transferring the periodicals into the trash.
Suddenly I stopped, cold, holding a copy of the Economist.
“Shifting Sands” the headline read. The illustration was of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as a stone effigy in a pharaonic headdress, buried to his chest in a sand dune, his face set in a scowl (the “sneer of cold command” Shelley refers to in his poem about vanished glory, “Ozymandias,” describing a monumental figure buried in the desert. Give those Brits credit — they know their literary references).
“Change is coming to the West’s Arab allies,” read the subhead.
No kidding. I looked at the date: July 17th, 2010. Last summer.
Inside, a 14-page special report on Egypt.
“The expectation of a seismic shift is almost tangible in the air,” it announced. “Egyptians may be renowned for being politically passive, but the rising generation is very different from previous ones. It is better educated, highly urbanized, far more exposed to the outside world and much less patient.”
See, that’s the problem with finger-pointing. “Why weren’t we told?” is too easy a question — so easy, in fact, it gets raised even when people were told, because it diverts blame to underlings who supposedly should have sent a memo describing exactly what would be happening in Egypt in coming months.
Asking why we weren’t told feeds into our fantasies of omnipotence. We are able to control world events — we tell ourselves — but of course those in power must first know all the details. If only someone had mentioned this Egypt situation, we’d have . . . we’d have . . .
Done what? That’s where the “Why weren’t we told?” exercise falls apart. Even had we known — which we did — what might happen in Egypt, what would we have then done differently?
Here’s a hint: probably nothing. Push too hard for the protesters and it would have become OUR revolution. The best way of toppling Mubarak was, ironically, corrupting him with our poisoned embrace.
Egypt is a perfect example of the dilemma America faces on the world stage. We have our values of democracy and freedom which, as threadbare as they are at home (only 41 percent of Chicagoans bothered to vote for their first new mayor in 22 years) we still like to foster them in other places. (Yeah, that’s us: Democracy’s Fierce Torch to the World).
But if Egypt picks a dictator, then we have to deal with that dictator. (We can only shun so many nations and really, looking at North Korean and Cuba, what good does that do?) When liberated Egyptians demand to know why we tolerated Mubarak, we should turn the question around and ask, “Why did you? You were right there, with the power — it turns out — to kick him out all the time in your hands? Why demand that we do something you yourselves wouldn’t do?”
This issue will come up again. If the people of China overthrow their government tomorrow — they won’t, but pretend they might — they’ll ask us why we’ve been cozying up to the dictators who’ve been standing on their throats ever since 1972, when Nixon met Mao, a man responsible for more innocent deaths than Hitler and Stalin, combined.
And the honest answer would be: because it isn’t our world to run. It never was. We might have flattered ourselves that it was, but it wasn’t. Even at the height of American power, immediately after World War II, we couldn’t stop the Soviets from swallowing Eastern Europe or China from turning communist.
History can only be lived forward. Those who seem to anticipate it are not soothsayers. They’re just lucky. They didn’t predict the future, it just happened to turn out the way they guessed it might. And those who ignored the correct predictions weren’t necessarily reckless, but dealing with the blizzard of information, the vast chorus of warning, that we get every single day.
Even the few predictions that appear to be on the money can lose their acuteness if you look at them closely. Reading through the special section in the Economist that so distracted me from cleaning for the dinner, they seem to predict what indeed happened this past month, but then they conclude:
“The government’s plan to perpetuate itself in office, via the traditional electoral rigmarole, is likely to go ahead. Predictions of change in Egypt have almost always proved wrong.”
Except when they’re proved right.
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