Most of my Twitter feed is in Arabic. I don’t read Arabic. Sometimes I ask my niece to translate, but I try not to impose too often. The men and women I “follow” in the Middle East (and not all of them are Arabs, not all of them are Muslims–some are Copts and Syrian Orthodox–some Berbers, some Turks) captured my attention during the so-called Arab Spring because they know English and therefore were able to give witness via Twitter, for the benefit of the western world, to what was happening across North Africa almost two years ago.
I have kept these men and women at the heart of my Twittter feed as a reminder to myself that they–whatever the frustrations they feel now, whatever their dark impulses, and let me tell you, the anti-Copt sentiment in Egypt even among people we would call liberals runs deep–nevertheless, they are the future. Why? Because by mid-century over half the world population will be Muslim. Why? Because the arc of history for this century, unlike the last, is bending away from secularism and materialism and towards faith. Yes, the Islamic world–whatever that means, for the cultures and countries are various–is grappling with an inheritance of western values–both burdensome and wished-for. But it is they, and not us in the West, and specifically in the (still) remaining one world power the United States, who will define for this new century “liberty” and “human rights.”
A harbinger of this new dynamic played itself out today at the Clinton Global Initiative meet-up in New York City. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke this morning at her husband’s annual event–to wide applause, both from attendees and also from (most unusually and some would say unprofessionally) the press. While I was listening to Hillary Clinton, I was scrolling through link after link on Twitter, posted from the Arab and Muslim world, to an op-ed piece, below the fold, written by Pankaj Mishra for today’s New York Times.
Here are a few of Mishra’s observations:
“It is as though the United States, lulled by such ideological foils as Nazism and Communism into an exalted notion of its moral power and mission, missed the central event of the 20th century: the steady, and often violent, political awakening of peoples who had been exposed for decades to the sharp edges of Western power.” As a historical argument, this is simplistic, in that weaker nations and ethnic groups were also exposed to the sharp edges of Soviet power.
But Mishra goes on to observe, accurately, as I think we all realize now, that “the United States faces a huge deficit of trust” in the Middle East. He talks about the “intense desire among humiliated peoples for equality and dignity.”
The problem for us–I call it the aging power’s need to acquire bifocal lenses–is that the “awakened peoples,” as Mishra terms them, define equality and dignity differently than we do. And this has become an American political issue just this week as Mishra’s observation that the Obama administration has engaged in “fresh overestimations of American power in that region” has played itself out in Benghazi, Libya.
And we Americans have been greatly troubled by recent violence in Benghazi: the death of our ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the slow response of the State Department to suspect that it was not mob reaction to an American YouTube clip mocking the Prophet but a co-ordinated attack by Islamic terrorists via local militia groups, the subsequent revelation that the so-called consulate in Benghazi was a poorly-guarded compound, the fracas over CNN’s reporting on Ambassador Stevens’s private journal, in which he wrote about fear for his life from Libyan militants.
In that context, which many of us must have been thinking about this morning, here is former President Clinton introducing his wife before she speaks at CGI:
“We’ve already had a good morning laughing and talking about what happened yesterday, getting a report from Chelsea about a dinner she attended last night. . . . As Secretary of State, she [Hillary] has done an enormous amount to extend the diplomatic efforts of the United States into not just stopping bad things from happening or diffusing crises or dealing with all the things that she’ll have to deal with today as soon as she leaves us [such as a meeting with the Libyan president], which means she may drag out her remarks a little bit to avoid having to face some of them.”
The Clintons, of necessity, now live in a bubble (despite all that tree-planting in Malawi Bill Clinton reminisced about yesterday); therefore, I believe we have to make allowances for that reality. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton struck a dissonant note, given the national mood, while introducing his wife.
Early in her remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says, “We must think and act innovatively and be willing to change ourselves to keep pace with the change around us, and at the same time, we must stay true to our values. Otherwise, we will lose our way.”
Isn’t that the issue? How do we honor our American values while respecting the very different ones of, for example, Mohamed Morsi and the majority of Egyptians whom he represents?
The curious thing about Secretary Clinton’s remarks at CGI was that they underscored her perception of the various ways in which the world is now inter-connected and driven. She talked at length about the role of development in national security, about the changing role of that development from NGO-based to private business investment, the role of risk assessment in investment decisions abroad, the increasing emphasis on a developing nation’s taking responsibility for its future, “building the capacity to set priorities,” as Clinton says.
And yet, in her closing remarks, Clinton says, “So let’s get to work for more freedom, democracy, opportunity, and dignity.”
In one moment, Secretary of State Clinton exemplifies Mishra’s observation, which has proved so resonant in the Middle East, about America’s “exalted notion of its moral power and mission.”
Earlier, she talked at some length about a new Korean apparel company in Haiti. Gave us the details. Later in the day, after her appearance at the Clinton Global Initiative, she officially launched the State Department’s new Global Philanthropy Working Group (aimed at reducing tax burdens and paperwork for overseas giving). And then even later, she met at the Waldorf-Astoria with Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf before the meeting at the U.N.
The flowery remarks and condolences on both sides (death of the Ambassador) seem to have led to a misuderstanding. Secretary Clinton praised the Libyan people for their courage: “courage to rise up and overthrow a dictator; courage to choose the hard path of democracy; courage to stand against violence and division in their country and the world. And Mr. President, that kind of courage deserves our support.”
My Arabic Twitter feed has taken her remarks to mean increased financial aid. But Secretary Clinton could just as easily mean we will use our drone strikes in Libya cautiously, so as to kill as few civilians as possible.
Libya has become the biggest foreign policy blunder of Hillary Clinton’s career as Secretary of State, and–most ironically in a venue like the CGI, dedicated to global cooperation and understanding–she seems not to grasp the extent of the consequences. Wanting to believe in courage and democracy, for a sweep of desert that has never had any kind of civil society, not even something as small as a scout troop, but that instead is an overlapping and often hostile mix of ethnicities, tribes and religious orientations, now armed with rocket-propelled grenades, thanks to us, Clinton has failed to heed the warning signs of trouble ahead there for us.
Since the revolution, the World War Two cemeteries in Libya have been desecrated. The graves defaced with anti-Christian and anti-Semitic graffiti. Classical monuments in ancient Roman ruins have been removed for safe-keeping, because of anti-western sentiment. The violence in Benghazi had been slowly escalating before Ambassador Stevens’s death. There had been earlier rocket attacks. American intelligence has long known that al Qaeda has a strong presence in Libya. And now, in the aftermath, despite the violent reaction of some Benghazi citizens against the militias who may or may not have had anything to do with the attack on the American consulate there, the situation on the ground is very complicated. Some of the militias are protected by the new Libyan government, because some of them do security work for various ministries. Basically, the new government does not have the power, much less the police and military force, to enforce peace.
So what does Secretary Clinton mean when she says, “we will continue to stand with you?” Who, in a fragmented society like post-Qaddafi Libya are the you?
Unlike Italy, for example, the United States gets no oil from Libya. We have no national security interests in Libya. But the fall-out at home for our leaders Clinton and Obama in believing in the implementation of a western-style civil society there has been enormous, for the debacle has stoked American Islamophobia.
The American people see the “deficit of trust” that Mishra describes. We know, as he points out, that our influence in the Middle East is waning. For many, this is a relief. We have never wanted to be imperialists–and that is one thing that the Middle East does not understand about us. But for some reason our leaders cannot see the forest for the trees. For Secretary Clinton right now, the Libyan trees are “MANPADS and other excess weapons,” settling the issue of Pan Am flight #103.
In the Clinton Global Initiative opening plenary session yesterday, former President Clinton made a striking comment. “We’re not very good at creating jobs and employment. There are many more moving parts to creating good things than in stopping bad things from happening.” This is a provocative statement. I’m not sure I agree with him. Certainly, his wife has had no success, despite tremendous effort, in improving our relationship with Pakistan–it has grown much worse over the Obama presidency–precisely because there are so many moving parts. And as for Libya (and Tunisia), those World War Two cemeteries full of Allied soldiers are testimony, if mute, to just how very difficult it is to stop the bad things.
September 24, 2012
Tomorrow: last day of CGI: Romney, Obama and post-partisan Clinton