There are few things as complicated and as minimally rewarding as international politics. How do nations get along with each other, anyway?
The language of diplomacy is always cloaked, always obscured behind the idea of letting the other nation think what one is suggesting is their own idea, or in their own best interests, since sovereign nations are not directly able to order each other about, though they would like to. It just doesn’t work this way. There is national pride, honor, and the fact that no nation is required to do what another nation wants it to do, especially since other nations don’t promote things which are against their own interests. Where politics and self-interest collide, there is always a hidden agenda. No nation is immune from having an agenda thrust on it, nor immune from forwarding their own agenda. It is the way of men, nations, and international politics.
“I am going on an official state trip to China to discuss trade, Asian-nation relations, and military cooperation, where I will have the best interests of the Chinese at heart,” said no American diplomat, ever.
“We like taxing and selling the opium we encourage the Afghans to grow and would like to facilitate the addiction of the entire nation of China, which will bring billions of dollars to the British East-India Company, thus the British crown, and allow us to control the Chinese like an organ grinder controls his stringed monkey,” admitted no British diplomat, ever.
“I am going to the G-20 summit where I will present a list of demands that will inflict sheer bedlam on the economies of several nations while enhancing our own,” said no government leader, ever.
“The Arab Spring is a breath of fresh air that clearly indicates the Arab people’s desire for secular, democratic governments,” said several American politicians and diplomats, rather recently. Many of the diplomats have since retired, though the politicians linger. At least one of the diplomats is now dead, but it was not reported what the late Ambassador Stevens may have actually thought about the Arab Spring, the overthrow of Mohammar Qaddafi, or what the Arab people in Libya may have wanted. We can be relatively sure that Ambassador Stevens did not want to be dead, or at least as fellow humans we are inclined to think that is what he most likely wanted; we cannot be certain.
The Arab Spring has been unpredictable. It seems that the Arab people, rather than vote themselves democratic governments, have turned towards fundamental theocracy. Did this catch our diplomatic corps by surprise, or is our nation forwarding its own narrative, one that is inconsistent with reality, hoping the narrative catches on? I don’t know. I cannot say. I think that many who serve in international relations don’t know much about international relations, and what they do know might be wrong. It is a dismal field…nearly as dismal as the dismal science.
All of the aforementioned are observations; they are not criticisms. I am avoiding criticism, since there are plenty of critics, most of them inhabiting their own place of confusion. As I write this, I have read the news from Egypt, and it does not look good for the Egyptian people. It seems that our nation is in the process of supporting a military coup of what seemed to be a democratically elected government that went bad in securing more power for itself. Hmmmm! How does one cope with that? What side does one take? A distant nation cannot be simply for “the people”, without being for some political entity that will represent “the people.” What those entities seem to be and what they are are not necessarily the same thing. Only time will reveal the true character of political and governmental entities, particularly in those places where peaceful transitions of power are an anomaly, and never very peaceful. In fact, throughout all of history, the peaceful transition of power has been very rare, since transitions of power are usually accompanied by revolts, riots, mayhem, and murder. This has been par for the course.
So now my normally critical self is withholding judgment on the administration and what many are decrying at its lack of leadership in the struggles for power in the Middle-East. What course should our government pursue? There are a bewildering array of scenarios, none of them pleasant and nearly all of them wrong. The administration is being castigated for doing too little, for not doing enough, for supporting the Egyptian military, for not supporting the Egyptian military, for furnishing military aid in spite of what the laws in our own country require, for not furnishing enough military aid . . . just pick any position and laud it or vilify it. it won’t matter; you will have plenty of company, and plenty of argument. Since there are so many expert opinions that differ by 180°, any opinion somewhere between those two points is likely to be just as valid. Of course, those with advanced degrees in international relations, and vast experience in the field as emissaries, envoys, and diplomats have every right to think that I am an inexperienced rube from the provinces and don’t know what I am talking about. They would be right, but all their education, training, and experience does not help them agree with each other, nor reach a consensus on a clear, consistent policy for us to follow. It has to be the most unrewarding job, that of a diplomat.
Before WW2, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, visions of WW1 clearly in his mind, has to think that the course he was following would keep Britain out of the continental war. He had to think appeasement of the Nazis, even though at great cost to the Poles and Czechs, was the best course. History has shown that he was as wrong as any human ever was about anything. But maybe our history does not have all the facts. For all we know, Britain’s early entry into the was may have resulted in British defeat, thus all of Europe would be speaking German now. We aren’t omniscient. We aren’t clairvoyant. We can only follow the man who can lay out a vision clear enough for us to see it. Winston Churchill was the right man. Neville Chamberlain was the wrong one, though we have to give him the benefit of the doubt . . . He thought he was doing the right thing; we cannot allow for an instant that he may have thought to himself, “I am purposefully choosing to do the wrong thing.” No man chooses that.
Men may become perverted and twisted so that they can no longer determine right from wrong, and absolute political power is the best man-perverter that has ever been discovered. Diplomats have to deal with this all the time, the perverted remnants of a formerly good man. Many times, these are the people in power, and they are determined to hold on to it since the examples of those who held it and lost it are not those that lead one to a favorable conclusion. Most of the time it is either hold on to power at all costs or be killed in the process, since being killed after the process is typical.
Is it any wonder that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is desperately holding on to power? I wonder what the upside is for him relinquishing it, or being overthrown? Nothing in surrender or capitulation will benefit Assad or his minions; it will most likely mean their deaths, or if they’re lucky, merely their lifetime imprisonment. Former Egyptian President Mubarak stepped aside and is now in prison awaiting trial, or perhaps not awaiting trial, just execution. Quaddafi, with the interference of American fighter jets, lost his battle and was murdered at the hands of his captors. Saddam Hussein was captured, then later hanged as a criminal. Hahmid Kharzai, the Afghani President, must hang on to everything he has, else he will find himself beheaded on the outskirts of Kabul. Former Pakistani President, Parvez Musharraf, had he been able to, would still be in power and not in prison. Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi, dead now from cancer, would have been dead anyway at the hands of his overthrowers had he not abdicated and fled to the USA. None of these outcomes looks attractive to a dictator, so they fight with everything available to them while our government and its diplomats decide on what our roles should be. The dictators keep power by oppressing those who will oppress them if they get to power. It is a nasty business. If we knew the winning side, we would most likely pick them. We could use some of the clairvoyance I mentioned earlier.
I do not envy President Obama. He has plotted a course for relations with other nations that does not seem to be serving him. But I maintain that if he had plotted a different course, it would not serve him, either. If he changes course, it will not serve him. Nothing he can possibly choose can silence his critics, nothing, that is, but success. Even then, I suppose those who were not part of the success would be critical that he had not been successful sooner. There is no end to the criticism.
Since the winners get to write the history, we seldom get the whole story. As we witness the current events around those nations in turmoil, we have, perhaps, our only chance to get the full story, and record it for posterity. After the fact, the facts are edited. The only facts we will have then are those preserved for us. Generations from now, those edited facts will become history. The other side of the story will have been lost to us.
It is a mistake, though, to think that because we watch the news, have access to the news, video clips of the news, and analysis of the news, that we have the full story. We only have the story that is being reported. Others edit and choose that which we see because they are showing us that which they choose to show us. Maybe we should only let the women and children of places in political turmoil be the reporters. Maybe then we would get a different side of the story. If we consistently got this other side of the story, how would we then govern ourselves in international relations? Probably every bit as effectively as we do now, which is not very effective.
Ever taken a cathartic and have it fail to work? Oh, goodness, it compounds the problems, increases the discomfort, and reduces one to a caterwauling misery. This, my friends, is similar to international relations. Sometimes the right cure is the very thing that fails to work, making things worse, not better. We would not choose the right cure if we knew in advance it would produce the wrong results. Think about it for a minute. The very fact that the right thing might inadvertently produce the wrong results is a peril that no one wants to hazard. In that case, the right thing turns out to be the wrong thing. Yet, shall we choose the wrong thing? Oh, goodness, two times!
Best wishes to our government as it struggles to do the right thing, or what it thinks is the right thing, or what is actually the right thing that produces the wrong result. Let us never choose what we know to be the wrong thing. Let us have the ability to know the difference.
I am reminded of my friend Waleed, a very talented and gifted Cairo-born engineer I am working with on a project in Greenwood, Mississippi. During a break in the work, I told Waleed that I did not presume to know what may actually be going on in Egypt since my only knowledge of it was the news. I asked him, point blank, about what was in store for Egypt since the deposing of Mubarak, the election of Morsi and ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the subsequent extension of his power. Waleed’s answer? He looked me in the eye, softened his voice, and as if gazing into the future, or peering across the sands of the Sahara, perhaps thinking of his family in Cairo half-a-world away, said, “It’s worse than you can imagine.”
I am imagining. I am imagining with all my might. I am thinking of Waleed’s words to me, the words of one who knows Egypt far better than I can ever hope to. For me to imagine that I know Egypt better is to admit that perhaps Waleed knows Mississippi better than me . . . and that is not possible. So, I submit. No matter how terribly I can imagine, I am reduced to this . . . it’s worse. This is not an encouraging thought.
I am thinking that the world is on the brink of a full-scale Middle-Eastern war. If there can be anything worse than that, I am incapable of imagining it, which is exactly what Waleed told me. I hope our diplomats get it right, but even if they do, there is so much that is beyond their control, if, indeed, they are able to control anything, which is not likely.
We are borne about on fickle winds that blow in whatever direction they will, hoping to catch the wind that will lead us to a safe harbor. We should be thankful for the peace that we enjoy at home right now, since throughout various recent wars, America has never been at war, only our military. We must support every effort to bring our service men and women home from foreign soil. We are all Americans, perhaps with different visions of how our government should work, but this is not new; it has always existed. Best wishes to those serving in our diplomatic corps. Best wishes to the government that would give them direction and guidance. Best wishes to the people of the Middle-East. May we all have the clarity of vision that will enable us to be supporters of the right thing, and may the right thing never be those things which take food, shelter, and safety beyond the reach of women and children.
It was four o’clock in the morning in Washington, D.C., during a cooler than usual August. A soundly sleeping President Sherman was awakened and called to a hastily cobbled meeting of the National Security Administration and the State Department to discuss what steps must be immediately taken to forestall the complete breakdown of law and order in Egypt. His valet brought him a cup of coffee and set it on the nightstand beside his bed. He rolled out of the bed in his red union suit, put on his boots, sighed, and sat there sipping on the steaming cup of Maxwell House coffee, which he had enjoyed on his many trips to Nashville in an earlier life, the one before he became President. He hated these early morning meetings, but it was part of his job, and he was never one to shirk his duty, no matter how unpleasant it might be.
He clomped to the elevator in his boots and union suit, his hair disheveled, looking like he had been on an all night drunk even though he was a teetotaler, pressed the button labeled “Basement 3” and moved his coffee cup to his lips as the elevator doors closed. About the time his lips touched the tilted cup, the elevator began moving with a lurch, causing him to spill some of the hot coffee on his union suit. It dribbled down his patchy salt-and-pepper beard as he cursed under his breath. His accompanying personal secret service agents did not say a word as President Sherman continued to mutter his mild curses, which they knew could turn profane at the very next moment. He was not a man to be trifled with until he had at least had his third cup of coffee.
The elevator bumped to a halt at level B3. The doors opened and Sherman stormed out, spilling more coffee as he went, striding directly to the door of the situation room where the Chiefs of the NSA and the CIA were waiting with the Secretary of State, various Middle-East diplomats, and members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees. All eyes were on him as he burst through the door. He flopped down in his seat at the head of the walnut table, everyone silent, waiting for him to say something. He peered intently at them all, a scowl on his face.
“So?” he asked. “What’s this about?”
Everyone began speaking at once. He pounded the table with his fist, then held his hand up. “One at a time,” he said. “You! State. Go first.”
“Mr. President,” said the Secretary of State, “The situation in Egypt continues to deteriorate. It is being reported to us that elements from Syria and Libya, and Al Queda operatives from Mauritania and Mali are gathering in Egypt. The situation looks grave. Already, there are rumors that some of the weapons we have provided to the Egyptian military have been compromised. It looks like a complete breakdown of law and order and a full scale civil war are in progress.”
“And?” asked President Sherman.
“Well, sir. We are merely apprising you of the situation,” said State.
“Thanks, then,” said the President, rising from his seat. “Having been thus apprised, I’m now going back to bed.” He turned to go, clomping his way towards the door, his union suit unbuttoned in the back, his arse exposed to the people sitting around the table. They averted their gaze, embarrassed at this president who seemed to care so little about decorum or the dignity of the office. They wondered why they had agreed to serve in the administration of such a coarse man.
“But Mr. President . . .” shouted the CIA director. “The deteriorating situation calls for immediate action to protect our interests in Egypt.”
President Sherman whirled around in his tracks. “What interests?” he demanded. “We have no interests in Egypt. Let the Egyptians work this all out for themselves.”
“But Mr. President,” said the director of the NSA, “If we do not intervene, we are likely to see the fall of all of North Africa to the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood and consequently, to the influence of Al Qaeda. Already we have word of the operations of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and even their funding by the Saudi kingdom.”
“I regret that,” said the President, “But what do you expect me to do about it? I’m not going for the old ‘domino theory’, though I can see its tempting relevance here.”
“We have reached the conclusion that Congress would be amenable to the approval of a limited military engagement in Egypt, to show them that we mean business,” said the House Foreign Relations Chairman, nodding towards his Senate colleague, who nodded in agreement. They looked at the President, who was still scowling, then looked back at each other nodding, then continued their simultaneous nod again at the President. He did not nod back at them, merely raised an eyebrow.
“When you two bastards agree on something, I am at my most skeptical,” said President Sherman. State winced at this breach of political etiquette but said nothing. As if by magic, Sherman produced a cigar from somewhere in his union suit. He popped it in his mouth and one of the Secret Service agents produced a lighter, lit it, and held it out to the President who puffed on his cigar in a cloud of smoke. There was officially no smoking in any Federal building by law, but no one dared say anything about it, though State coughed and cleared her throat, as if the smoke bothered her. The President went over and stood directly behind her chair, puffing on his cigar, enveloping them both in the cloud. She coughed harder. The more she coughed, the more he puffed. In about 30 seconds, the entire room was full of the smoke from his Honduran cigar. The two legislators had their heads down, red faced, embarrassed and furious that the President had denigrated them by calling them bastards. Not since Lyndon Johnson had any President called a member of congress a bastard to his face.
“The USS CVN Carl Vinson is in the Mediterranean, sir, just off the coast of Sicily” said the NSA. Defense says that they are ready on your command to launch cruise missiles, carry out drone trikes, or launch a full scale attack with all the Vinson’s air combat resources.”
“Against whom?” asked the President.
“More as a demonstration of strength and commitment than against any particular target, sir,” said the NSA.
“So, all you recommend that we just flex our muscles by sending some ordinance downrange to no target in particular?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. Sort of to show them we mean business, sir,” said State.
“All right,” said the president. “Fire about fifteen cruise missiles, all equipped with two thousand pound warheads, right at GPS coordinates 29°58′31″N/31°08′16″E.” In a rush, all of the people seated around the table whipped out their smart phones and punched in the GPS coordinates. A staggered gasp was heard around the room, traveling like the wave at a football stadium until it had completely circumnavigated the table.
“Mr. President!” exclaimed State, looking up from her phone, “That’s the coordinates for the Sphinx. You would destroy the Sphinx? Imagine the public outcry at the destruction of such a valuable piece of human antiquity.”
“Is it not Egyptian history that we are preparing to alter?” asked the President.
“Yes, sir, that is our desire, but not at the risk of alienating the entire world. We just want more of a symbolic military gesture,” said the Senator.
“Idiot,” said the President. The Congressman was glad he didn’t say anything and be thus embarrassed. The President continued, still addressing the Senator but pointing his finger at the Congressman beside him, “You and your equally idiotic colleague from the House come in here demanding that we just fire some missiles at Egypt to make some sort of statement that will show our strength. Would you have us fire them at some absolutely unpopulated area of the desert? Maybe the news media can go there to film some craters in empty Sahara sand. Does that seem like a show of strength to you? If it does, then you are even more stupid than I thought you were.
“Would you rather we fired those missiles into a population center and killed and maimed innocent women and children, those who are already being killed and maimed by their own fellow Egyptians? Do we fire them at a hospital? A retirement home? Perhaps an elementary school? Unless we are cruel, far crueler to them than they are to each other, then our message will have no effect.
“Therefore, let’s reduce the Sphinx to a pile of rubble. We won’t be the first to deface it. Someone broke its nose off a few hundred years ago for no apparent reason. Let’s just reduce it to rubble and finish what someone else started. If that doesn’t do the trick, then the next target will be the Great Pyramid…Then the Valley of the Pharaohs, the tomb of Ramses. We’ll get every famous Egyptian landmark one by one and the world will get a real show of just what we are capable of.”
“Mr. President, that would have the entire academic world condemning us,” said State.
“The entire academic world already condemns us,” said the President. “Let’s give them something substantial to condemn us for. Are you more worried about what the academic world thinks about us than the lives of women and children? Are you more concerned about stones cut and stacked into the likeness of a lion with a man’s head than the life of one child? Are you concerned about this simply because the Sphinx is ancient?”
No one said a word. They all looked down at their hands on top of the table. The President’s reaction was unexpected. They had learned to expect the unexpected from this coarse and belligerent man, but this time he had gone too far. The Sphinx was precious to all of humanity, except of course, those jihadists from the Arabian peninsula who were waiting for their chance to seize power so they could blow up what they thought was an idolatrous sculpture.
“When you recommend a military action, which by its very nature is meant to kill people and destroy things, and you’re more concerned about the things than the lives you’ll disrupt and destroy, I’d say you’re suffering from a misplaced sense of priority,” said the President, puffing furiously on his cigar, the pall of smoke hanging thickly about the room.
No one said a word. This time they knew better than to speak at all.
“Remember Napoleon’s exploits in Egypt?” asked the President. Only the Director of the CIA nodded. The President looked at him, addressing him directly since he was the only one who had shown any inclination of knowing that Napoleon had ever set foot in Egypt. “It was disastrous for Napoleon. France abandoned over 30,000 men to a slow and brutal death by starvation and murder in Egypt after Napoleon made good on his escape. When the French troops ran out of ammunition, food, and water, they were cut down one-by-one by the Arabs. France refused to even re-supply them, and the only thing they had to eat after their horses and mules were gone was each other. Had it been a little more disastrous a little sooner, and the Little Corsican left there to rot with his men, it would have been good for all of Europe just a few years later. As it was, Napoleon escaped, successfully laying the blame laid on those he left in charge, and he then succeeded in pillaging and raping Europe for the next fifteen years, consuming an entire generation of fathers, brothers, and sons of Europe, leaving death, misery, and starvation in his wake.
“I intend on none of that. If I do nothing, I’ll be criticized. If I do something, I’ll be criticized. So, let’s do something to give them cause for legitimate criticism if we are indeed going to do something. I regret that the Egyptian people are going to endure some terrible times at their own hands, but I will not offer the blood of one American youth on any partial, limited engagement in Egypt. I will, however, sacrifice the Sphinx if you think a statement from us is advisable.” The last sentence was posed more in the form of a question than a statement.
The room was silent.
“I thought not,” President Sherman said, turning on his heels, spitting out onto the floor a piece of the cigar he had chewed from its stump. He vanished, leaving a trail of smoke in his wake as if he were on the battlefield again, throwing out a smokescreen diversion to cover his retreat, thinking of his own children and their mother, of the mothers whose son’s lives he had spent like so many nickels, and the mothers from whom he had taken food and sustenance to feed his own army in a different time, in a different place. As he boarded the elevator, he wiped away the tears from his eyes at his memories of those times, and the thoughts of the people suffering in Egypt, and of his inability to make any effective choices in this situation. Only his personal secret service agents ever got to see this display. They never said anything to anyone about it. Sherman knew that and was thankful. Nevertheless, he felt like he had to say it.
“If you guys ever breathe a word of what you just saw, I will personally kick your asses to hell and back!” They didn’t doubt that he could, or that he would. They only knew that they were proud of the fact that he would never have to try. They loved this coarse man, who spoke the truth in the most remarkable way, directly, and to power. He never wavered. He never failed. They thought we could use more presidents like him, those who never tested the waters through polls of public opinion, those who would lead a charge from the front, not driving his men on the point of a sword, but leading them by showing them that they, too, could overcome their fear in order to do their duty. President Sherman was a rare commodity: the honest politician. He knew the weaknesses and failings that were common to all men. He knew that he was not exempt from them, unlike some of those who had served before him and would serve after him.
“Why did I agree to serve?” he asked himself, over and over, hanging his head tiredly as the elevator doors opened to the second floor living quarters of the White House. He paused to look up at a portrait of Lincoln, whose administration he had served much earlier I his career.
“What would you do, Mr. Lincoln?” he asked the portrait, not really expecting an answer.
“I’d keep them guessing,” said the portrait back, the image of Lincoln winking and smiling before settling back to the near image of its former self, though Lincoln seemed to have a slight smirk rather than the scowl the portrait previously displayed. Sherman whipped his head around to see if his secret service agents heard or saw that. They heard and saw something, but they were not sure what it might have been. They shrugged their shoulders at Sherman, who turned, clomped into his bedroom, sat on the edge of his bed and removed his boots, and lay back, scratching, as like all soldiers, he was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. The junior secret service agent removed the perilously perched still-lit cigar from the sleeping President’s lips. They then closed the door to his bedroom, peering curiously across the hall at the portrait of Lincoln. They looked at it closely. The looked at each other. The smirk on Lincoln’s face was foreign to them, and of intense curiosity.
“Man, don’t say a word,” the senior one said to the other. “Keep yo’ mouth shut. Ain’t nobody saying nothin’ about nothin’ that happens on this floor. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it’s gonna stay.”
From inside the closed door, they heard the sounds of the President’s gentle snores, with the occasional snort. They thought no more about it. They never said a word.