Friday, August 16, 2013

Reading Machiavelli in Washington

Remember when public diplomacy was all the rage in the United States? There was a conviction that through a good public relations effort, the U.S. government could enhance its image, particularly in the Middle East. The Bush administration funded such media outlets as Radio Sawa, the magazine Hi, and the television station Al-Hurra, to which few Arabs paid any attention.

These projects derived from an assumption that if America was better liked by the world, this would enhance its influence. The question of “being liked” is not one Americans take lightly. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the question many of them asked was, “Why do they hate us?” The carnage that day was not a consequence of ideology or of irreconcilable world views; it was a question of fondness, as if al-Qaeda would have desisted had the U.S. only shown its warmer side. 

This belief in the importance of being liked is very much an American reflex. So, when the U.S. deputy secretary of state, William Burns, twice traveled to Cairo recently to mediate in the standoff between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, he must have been stung when his efforts failed and some parties denounced what they describe as unwanted American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.

America has been treated with undue contempt by the Egyptians lately. The so-called liberal opposition is angry with the Obama administration for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, while the commander of the army, Abdel Fattah Sissi, indignantly told The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth, “You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that.” As for the Brotherhood, it has never had much sympathy for Washington anyway, and has interpreted American neutrality in the ongoing crisis as representing implicit support for the army.

In one respect, Sissi put his hand on the problem, albeit hypocritically. Nothing has done the U.S. worse damage in the past few years than its detachment from Middle Eastern events. A region that was at the center of American preoccupations a decade ago, has become one that Obama and many Americans seemingly do not want to touch with a ten-foot pole. America has turned its back not only on Egyptians, but also on Syrians, Libyans, Tunisians, and others.

Which brings us back to the debate over public diplomacy. Ultimately, the question is not whether the U.S. is liked, but whether it is respected or feared. To borrow from the great Italian political thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli, who asked in The Prince whether it was better to be loved than feared: “The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

But in the past five years the U.S. has been neither. A country that has spent tens of billions of dollars on Egypt for over three decades could not succeed in a mediation effort to avert an expected explosion. With all due respect to Burns, it was up to President Barack Obama, then readying his golf clubs for vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, to get personally involved and put pressure on Sissi.

Obama would do well to pick up The Prince and read other passages. For instance, Machiavelli observes that a prince “will be despised if he has a reputation for being fickle, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, irresolute; a prince should avoid this like the plague and strive to demonstrate in his actions grandeur, courage, sobriety, strength.”

All the public diplomacy in the world will not wash away the feeling that Obama is irresolute and cowardly when it comes to the Middle East. This has led many of his Arab partners to despise him and his administration, substantially reducing American authority.

The president, in his careful pursuit of neutrality, should have read another paragraph from Machiavelli: “A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy, that is for revealing himself without any reservations in favor of one side against another. This policy is always more advantageous than neutrality.”

Obama understandably sided with constitutional legitimacy in failing to condone Morsi’s ouster. But at the same time the administration sought to avoid alienating the army and much of the Egyptian population by not calling it a coup, which would have had legal implications for U.S. assistance. This tightrope act satisfied nobody, and in trying to be both legalistic and opportunistic the Obama administration ultimately was neither.

Had the administration backed the military’s move against Morsi, it would doubtless have been strongly criticized, but it also would have had far more sway to impose a smoother transition than what we are witnessing today. It could have used its leverage over the Egyptian army to ensure that its mediation succeeded as well as set red lines on what could be done against peaceful protesters – the events of last Wednesday being the third massacre carried out by the security forces since Morsi’s exit.

If an alternative strategy was preferable to Obama, for instance upholding Morsi’s rule against the army, then the administration should have pursued that from the beginning. But the Americans wanted it both ways. They did nothing, accepted setbacks, and issued empty statements. Before the U.S. can help Egypt, it must help itself.

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