Listening today to US government representatives intoning platitudes about the potentially epochal happenings in the Middle East, was both dispiriting and instructive in a broader sense.
Interviewers would ask about the lessons of Egypt, our 30 years of support for an increasingly imperious dictator, the behavior of the Bahraini government before being reined in by global opinion and US pressure, the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood stepping into the breach in Egypt and more. Almost as if the nuances and specifics of the question didn’t matter, out would come on auto-pilot, the almost statutory talking points.
Generic codswallop about “we support democracy”, “we are behind the legitimate aspirations of the people of….(fill in the blank),” “everyone should be peaceful”, “we have been sending this message for years” (one is reminded about the old saw of insanity having to do with repeating the same things over and over and hoping for different results), “we vetoed the UN resolution calling the Israeli settlements illegal because we think they are illegitimate but not illegal and we’re trying to get he parties to the table” (Heaven forefend that we actually do so any time in the near future, but it’s a lovely bit of rhetorical flotsam).
An entirely content free zone. No insight, no analysis, no self-criticism, no indication that we don’t have a pathological immunity to learning (why our “intelligence” community missed the Iranian revolution and the Egyptian ‘implosion’ with virtually equal obliviousness for example), nothing that would be more than a PR slogan. The devolution of discourse is alarming. No one in a politically representative position says anything. We hope they think something, and their thoughts have greater gravitas than their lacunae-riddled public statements.
How it would be nice to hear any of the following:
*The oil resources of the Middle East are central to our economy. Hence its stability has been construed to be a strategic priority. This has led to us supporting some very unsavory regimes and leaders.
*Mubarak kept the Camp David Peace Accords together after the assassination of Sadat. This has kept the Middle East from war. Because with Egypt being an ally of the United States and Israel, such a war would be unthinkable. Mubarak has also helped with arms embargoes to Gaza and more. Given that, while we could entreat him to be more rational as a dictator (not flash his pictures or his progeny or his loot so palpably, not to so egregiously steal elections and silence dissenters), we were between the Devil and the deep blue sea.
*We cannot of course take a stance against the peaceful aspirations of a populace, and this caught us completely off guard — the maturity, grace and courage of the Egyptian people gives us both pause and hope.
*The Muslim Brotherhood is a minority party in Egypt and we should not attempt to make them into a bogey-man. We have to hope that the entire spectrum of Egyptian opinion can be expressed when political parties are formed and true elections held. We will do whatever we can to assist this process.
*The events now occurring in other parts of the Middle East, require a delicate balancing act from us. We support such aspirations, but have realities to contend with, like a naval fleet parked in Bahrain and that country’s role as a US staging post in many ways.
*Our move to alternative energy is critical. The reason Iran continues as it does, is because of petro-dollars. Absent such income, all such regimes would have to tap their human capital. That would mean legitimizing themselves and enrolling the commitment of their people, tapping their productive energies. Then ideology and pragmatism would be allied. Over time, that is the synergy that changes the world.
As leaders, political leaders or business leaders, apply this litmus test to what you say in public.
1) Will this put the most critical issues into sharper relief and give us the right terms for engagement in a dialogue?
2) Will people have learned something by the time I’m done conveying the message that they didn’t know prior?
3) Is there enough authenticity and candor that people will trust future messages, or will they tune-out rather than be numbed insensate by what is little more than elocution practice?
Too much is afoot in the world for us to tolerate empty blandishments and talking points. We need insight, we need courage, we need awareness and we need action.
Perhaps rather than preening for cameras, our “leaders” can transform our own seeming contempt for the perspicacity of those who listen to us, as a way to role-model to dictators the need to respect the more basic rights of their populace. Yes, these are at very different levels of a Maslowian Hierarchy of Needs. But why not start with our own reflexes? Radical change is so much easier to preach elsewhere than to exemplify at home. That may be why our posturing looks so hollow and sounds so often shrill.
Let’s really talk — the genius of the American system is the mobilizing and transforming power of dialogue as it ripples through the various organs of power. We can be a lot smarter than we currently sound.