Monthly Archives: June 2012

The ancien regime in Egypt should tread carefully

Catastrophe is looming in Egypt, and the next month or two will have major implications for the Middle East and U.S. policy there.  The revolution that overthrew the old guard last year had brought hope to tens of millions of Egyptians, but now the Egyptian military and its supporters in the higher echelons of Egyptian society are endangering the fragile new order.

Over the last two weeks, the Egyptian military has assumed legislative powers after a court decision to disband the newly elected parliament, insisted on authoring a new constitution that maximizes its influence in politics, expanded its authority to arrest and try civilians, and increased its troop presence throughout Egyptian cities.  Meanwhile, the favored candidate of military leaders to win this week’s presidential election, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, has yet to concede defeat while his opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi has yet to be declared winner by Egypt’s electoral oversight council.

While unlikely, if Shafiq is determined to be the winner, or the election is nullified, Egypt will explode — whether into armed conflict or armed repression by a military that will face mass protests that would compared to last year’s Arab Spring.  In the more likely event that Morsi is certified the winner, the standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military will continue to remain tense, as each side competes for influence and power under the new regime.  The military will control the guns, while the Brotherhood controls the street through continued mass rallies meant to bring pressure on the military.

The likely outcome of a continued standoff between Morsi, as the new president, and the military bodes poorly for the forces of moderation in the country.  While the Muslim Brotherhood is often labeled as “Islamist” and “fundamentalist” in the new media, the group is actually comprised of, and draws upon, a wide spectrum of supporters — from practical moderates to the a hard-core religious base.  The problem is, the longer confrontation with the military drags on, the more Morsi and other leaders in the Brotherhood will call upon the passionate radicals in the organization to confront the military.  While high-ranking members of the military fear the more extreme elements of the Brotherhood, their actions could empower exactly those they fear most.The biggest challenges to revolutions are reversal and extremism.  Egypt stands on the razor’s edge between both outcomes.  Many in the military would like to turn-back-the-clock to the Mubarak era, but it is too late for that without significant bloodshed and international isolation.

Many revolutions first produce moderate leaders, who are later displaced by radicals or become more radical themselves.  The Russian Provisional Government was overthrown by Bolsheviks, the burgeoning democracy in post-revolutionary Iran was crushed by the Ayatollah, and early efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy after the French Revolution gave way to the guillotine.

The Egyptian military and its supporters should heed the lessons of the French Revolution.  They are the ancien régime, the much resented but still feared representatives of the old system of corruption and privilege.  Louis XVI might have saved his own neck, as well as those of his family and thousands of supporters, had he embraced the changes occurring in his country.  Instead the revolution “devoured its own children,” descending into bloody repression and, eventually, paving the way for Napolean Bonaparte, who set the rest of Europe ablaze, costing millions of lives.  Such is the worst case scenario for Egypt, but that it is a possibility is a cause for real concern.

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The cynical politics of the Obama campaign

Allow me to begin by apologizing to my readers from straying a bit lately from the “world” part of woodwellontheworld.  Normally, I’d like this blog to focus on global issues rather than the issue-of-the-day here in the U.S.  However, with the presidential campaign gearing up, it is hard to avoid commenting on national issues that I feel strongly about.

For this entry, I’d like to discuss about something that I have found increasingly disturbing – namely, the “cynical politics” that have been practiced over recent months as part of the initial salvos of the Obama campaign against Mitt Romney.  Yes, that’s right; I’m dedicating this blog to criticizing a party and president that I otherwise tend to agree with the large majority of the time.

The term “cynical politics” came into vogue during the Republican primaries as a way of describing Romney’s practice of adopting political positions that seemed strongly at odds with his past positions, and even his temperament, in an attempt to curry favor with the far right “base” of the GOP.  In an attempt to paint himself as a “severe conservative,” Romney disavowed past views on issues like man-made climate change, gay rights, and health care.

Since Romney began wrapping up the nomination in March, however, the politics-of-cynicism has been adopted with gusto by the White House.  The two most cynical talking points that have been adopted by the administration and its “surrogates” (another term that has come into vogue) in recent months have been “the Republican War on Women” and “Bain Capital.”   Let me discuss each in turn and why each represents the triumph of demagoguery over fair criticism.

The first talking point, that Republicans have launched a “war on women,” arose largely from two policy debates earlier this year. The first debate centered on whether the federal government could require religious-based organizations to fund contraception as part of their health care plans.  What was a fair debate about the conflicting virtues of religious freedom and women’s health care was seized upon by Democrats as a conservative attempt to “deny women contraception” and force the country “back into the 1950s.”  It was, of course, nothing of the sort.  While I disagreed with the prevailing Republican view (I wrote about this in earlier blog), skepticism about expanding government mandate to require private organizations to pay for employee contraception hardly represented an effort to turn back the clock sixty years.

At the around the same time, a law in Virginia introducing intrusive ultra-sounds provoked strong opposition by pro-choice groups. Although Virginia received more press, an arguably even more restrictive law was introduced in Pennsylvania’s legislature around the same time.  Along the same lines, just over the last week a Republican-supported law to criminalize gender-based abortions in the U.S. was narrowly defeated.

Do these efforts to restrict abortions represent a “war on women” or an honest difference of opinion about what constitutes human life versus what constitutes women’s rights?  While feminists have often painted the anti-abortion movement as anti-women, pro-choice Democrats should at least pause to consider that women have, for years, been slightly less supportive of legalized abortion then men.  It’s hard to see how taking a particular side of an issue that divides the opinions of women as much or more than those of men can be viewed as a “war” on anyone.  As is the case with government mandated contraception, these are issues on which reasonable people can disagree without the rhetoric of war being invoked.

Beyond the “war on women” nonsense, Obama’s campaign has, picking up where Newt Gingrich left off in the primaries, repeatedly resorted to populist attacks on Romney’s decades-long experience as the head of Bain Capital.  The firm practiced “leveraged buyouts,” essentially friendly takeovers after which Bain consultants would reorganize a company business practices in order to make them more efficient and profitable before selling them off.  In an effort to make these companies more competitive and efficient, workers were sometimes laid off.  The Obama campaign has focused on these layoffs while ignoring those who were able to keep their jobs because their companies went on to survive and thrive not to mention the wealth created and channeled in large part to retirement funds that benefit the middle class.

Attacking Romney for his business background is as loopy as accusing Obama of being a “socialist.”  Democrats need to be better than that, and some have spoken out to defend private equity firms.  Moderate Democrats like former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and Cory Booker registered their reservations, only to be roundly criticized by the White House and its most ardent supporters.  When the “Big Dog” Bill Clinton declared Romney’s business background “superb” this week, it made an even bigger impression – but the attacks continue.

The sad thing is that it is unlikely that President Obama believes the rhetoric his own campaign is purveying any more than Mitt Romney believes he is a severe conservative.  With the exception of a silly promise to “re-visit NAFTA” in his 2008 campaign run, Obama has generally been forthright in expressing his overwhelmingly moderate (some have even described him as an “Eisenhower Republican”) views, often to the disappointment of the Democratic “base.”

So, why the anti-Bain attacks?  To understand this, one has to look at views of those still undecided about their choice of candidate this November.  According to recent polls, truly undecided voters are a jaded bunch – with low opinions of both candidates, low opinions of Washington, and low opinions of Wall Street.  They disproportionately support Ron Paul and are often the conspiratorially-minded types who see like to talk about how both parties are the same and how “plutocrats” are running the country.  The Obama campaign likely knows this from repeated focus group research and have decided the best way to win over the undecided voters is to play up the plutocrat angle for all its worth.  Romney makes for an easy target.

It is my hope that the Obama campaign won’t continue to play the populist card and continue to curry support by negative attacks aimed at people’s fears and other baser emotions.  While Republicans have often criticized President Obama for being “too professorial,” it is his stronger and more sophisticated grasp of public policy that makes him the better man to lead this country.  He is better than the cynical politics we’ve seen coming from his camp over the last few months.