February 2, 2011

Macchiavelli, Mubarak, and Assange

The amazing thing, I suppose, is that it took nine days before things began to turn seriously violent in Egypt.

After Egypt’s dictator President Hosni Mubarak announced his intention to finish out his constitutional term of office and not seek re-election in regularly-scheduled elections this September, protesters calling for regime change in Egypt’s government seemed to split, with most of them crying that this wasn’t good enough and a sizable minority saying that Mubarak ought to be allowed to “depart with dignity” and make good on his vow to “die on Egyptian soil.” It turned ugly, people started throwing rocks, and now the Army wants the protests to end.

The U.S. response to all of this is diplomatic and nuanced in tone, too carefully and cautiously nuanced for some and not sufficiently bold and ideological for others. Many both in and out of Egypt fear that Mubarak’s announced leaves him sufficient time to put a puppet in place and that there will be no real change in how Egypt is governed, and that the United States actually has no particular problem with the idea that Egypt remaining only nominally democratic but a dependable ally is what we really want.

As I noted before with my comments about what Machiavelli would have thought of all this, that perception is probably exactly right. The problem is not that this policy is erroneous, it is that it has been stripped naked and its cynical, hard-headed realism is exposed for all the world to see. Consequently, the U.S. is losing standing and political capital with the very people out there in Tahrir Square, who for a week seemed to be open and sympathetic to the idea of engagement with the west and forming a secular democracy, who wanted a signal that they were thought of as the good guys in Washington and London and Paris.

Now, they’re not so sure. Now, they’re wondering if they have to look elsewhere for support. The handoff has been fumbled — it’s not clear whether that has been by some sort of mistake by Western diplomats, by Mubarak’s half-a-loaf concession, or if some kind of interference has made this all clear.

Which is why floating the idea of giving Julian Assange the Nobel Peace Prize on this of all days seems poignant. Assange wants to portray himself as a martyr for the cause of complete transparency in government, particularly the U.S. government. But that kind of transparency would prevent exactly the sort of public idealism/private realism maneuver which Machiavelli advises as the best way for statecraft and diplomacy to be practiced. Without the ability to be, well, Machiavellian about it, it forces a government outside of a situation like this to go all-in for one side or the other early on. It prevents hedging of bets, it raises the stakes of outcomes, and most importantly, it short-circuits the possibility of negotiated compromise settlements. Complete transparency means that gradual change becomes more difficult and revolutions, or violent repression of the same, become the only way change can take place.

Which is why Assange’s self-appointed mission of transparency is not a force for peace. Mubarak’s proposal contains the potential for being a tissue over the swapping of one strongman for another at the helm of the Egyptian ship of state, but it also contains enough of a framework for incremental change and a transition to democracy. That transition does not need to be generations long, but it probably can’t be successful overnight. Iraq did not transition from military dictatorship to constitutional democracy overnight, and neither will Egypt. Or Tunisia or Syria or Jordan or Libya or anywhere else that does not have a meaningful culture of peaceful political discourse and a tradition of democratic institutions upon which a constitutional republic can be built.

Mubarak’s compromise solution to protests against his government allows everyone some breathing room — it allows the West the breathing room it needs to assure itself that a new Egyptian government will not fall into the grips of radical Islamists or develop overt hostility to Israel. It allows the Egyptian military to stand back and not kill anyone, which it does not seem to want to do. It allows Mubarak the ability to withdraw from the field peacefully. It allows for democracy to actually develop in a way that will be enduring. And most of all, it allows the people of the various factions united only in their opposition to Mubarak’s authoritarian government the time to organize and present their visions of what Egypt could be in the future to the people of Egypt, without throwing rocks at each other or at pro-Mubarak forces and getting themselves hurt or killed.

This requires that there be some level of opacity in negotiations. This requires some tolerance of dissonance between public statements and official actions. It requires patience and nuance in forming policy. And it requires the maturity to tentatively accept compromise solutions. These are not things that radicalized crowds of protesters are good at. These are things that only leaders can do — and if Julian Assange forces their hands, radicalizes them, and prevents them from adopting these kinds of nuances, then he is not a force for peace, and he can look at the college kids in Cairo clashing with riot police and enjoy the spectacle of the world he has made.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Assange's mission is plainly not peaceful, for precisely the reasons you enumerate. I find him thoroughly problematic, and his willy-nilly, gleeful approach to sharing any and all secret information makes any good he does a mixed blessing, at best.

However, let's not kid ourselves that the Nobel Peace Prize has anything to do with "peace." Plenty of winners give the lie to this particular notion. Mother Theresa may have been a wonderful humanitarian (though not to hear Hitchens tell it), but what did that have to do with peace? Believe what you will about Al Gore (and I am that rare liberal apostate who questions the scientific validity of anthropogenic global warming), but even if you accept his data, what does that have to do with peace? And I don't think even Barack Obama would argue that Barack Obama deserved the Peace Prize, at least at that point in his career. (You and I differ about his options re: accepting the award anyway.)

No, Assange would fit in perfectly with many other plainly ideological, peace-unrelated winners.