Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 August 2013

Strange Sympathies


How do you get a Yankee Jew to sympathize—really sympathize—with Muslims, even radical Islamists? You kill hundreds of them just for exercising their human rights to protest their treatment, and just for trying to participate, in their own awkward way, in what purports to be a democracy. You start to turn Egypt into Syria.

History is so ironic. Millennia ago, Moses led the Jews, as slaves, out of Pharaoh’s land to go their own way. His story became a biblical legend, a large part of the Old Testament. Eventually it inspired African-Americans, themselves slaves, to find their own way to relative freedom in America. They recalled the plight and ultimate triumph of Moses, singing “Let my people go!”

Now a son of Africa and America, of Kenya and Kansas, sits in the White House. He objects to the new, self-appointed Pharaoh killing his own people, mostly at random, to enforce “order and security.” Our President cancels military exercises with Egypt and says that military aid is under review. And well he should!

The new Pharaoh, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, calls himself a general. He says he is only bringing order and security to Egypt. He says he has the people on his side. But he uses the same brutal methods that Pharaoh used millennia ago. The only difference is the modern weapons.

Who are we as a species? What distinguishes us? Is it our brains? our opposable thumbs? our weapons? our recently-acquired ability to extinguish ourselves, which we almost demonstrated conclusively in October 1962?

Or is it our empathy? Without empathy and the cooperation it facilitates, we would be nothing. We are not as strong as elephants or gorillas, as well equipped for battle as lions, or as capable of individual flight as ducks. But we are the dominant species on this planet because we cooperate. And we can cooperate only because we empathize.

Al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood both need to ken these simple points.

Who are our species’ iconic leaders? Caesar? The Kaiser? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Bashar al-Assad?

Or are they Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela? Whom do we remember better, two millennia later, Caesar or Jesus?

When Jesus advised, “Love thy enemy” and “Turn the other cheek!” he was not oblivious to danger. He was not a stupid man. But he bet on the bystanders.

The thing about bystanders is that they don’t like injustice, let alone unnecessary, wanton killing. And over the long run, the bystanders usually prevail.

In the last century, the bystanders have made a lot of history. They freed India. They stopped and still remember the Holocaust. They helped end Apartheid. They got African-Americans a decent semblance of first-class citizenship. They got one elected to the world’s most powerful office. And they will never yield, as long as they can see clearly who has empathy and who has not.

Empathy and personal responsibility forbid murder. Human life is so fragile. Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison. It would have been so easy to kill him during all those years.

Can you imagine what a mess South Africa would be if someone had? God forbid that someone would even think of killing Mohamed Morsi.

Fortunately, al-Sisi has not been dumb enough to do that. But who knows whether one of many victims of senseless Army violence, now numbering over 700, might have become an Egyptian Mandela? Who knows what human potential Egypt lost in this week’s orgy of killing? Who knows whether a man (or woman!) who could have quelled the senseless violence with self-evident empathy, wisdom and justice, just like Mandela, now lies a corpse somewhere in a mosque used as a makeshift morgue?

Ironies abound. Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Al Qaeda Central’s leader, recently caused us to close embassies throughout the Middle East. He did so merely by communicating a threat to a co-conspirator in the Arabian Peninsula. That communication could have been a test of our intelligence, just like our signal to the Japanese feigning a bad water condenser on Midway Island during World War II.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaeda. Its members are not the al-Zawahiris of the world. Those violent extremists left Egypt (and other places) to wage a quixotic and disastrous war against human civilization and history’s most powerful nation. The Brotherhood’s members are the ones who stayed home, in Egypt, working quietly to build an Egyptian movement and a political party to resist tyranny.

They daily risked arrest, torture and execution to fight the Mubarak tyranny quietly at home. Now that they (and others) have nearly achieved that goal, the secularists who were incidental beneficiaries of their decades of labor are ready to offer them as human sacrifices. What ingratitude!

So today, after coming so close to leadership and after blowing their main chance through overreaching and incompetence, the Brotherhood appears to be the focus of ethnic cleansing in their own homeland.

They might not be ready for unrestrained national leadership, but surely they don’t deserve that. They deserve an Egypt, and a world, that recognizes their decades of sacrifice to fight tyranny and gives them a peaceful second chance—albeit with no guarantee of power, let alone success.

We Yanks are much maligned, on all sides. But at least we are consistent. Before Dubya led us to invade and occupy two foreign nations to fight a few hundred terrorists, the last big war we fought was in Bosnia. We fought on the side of the Bosnian Muslims, to prevent them from becoming the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We stood against the Rape of Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim boys. Now we must stand with Muslims again, against the massacre of innocent civilians on a thin pretext of provocation.

You might say we were powerful bystanders. We still are. Now is the time to exercise our power, before Egypt spins out of control.

Sure, we have important security interests in Israel. But we have even more vital security interests in general stability in the Middle East. That, in turn, requires a stable Egypt, the most populous Arabic, Islamic nation on our planet.

We Yanks don’t like violence and killing. We are convinced, based on voluminous scientific and historical evidence, that it leads not to stability or order, but to more conflict, violence and killing. That’s why the aftermath of our own Civil War is still impairing our government’s ability to act, over 148 years after the war ended with the South’s ostensible surrender. The South has fought a rear-guard action ever since. It is doing so today with Senate holds and filibusters.

Do Egyptians want a century and half of disorder, conflict and even chaos? I hope not. And so the faction in Egypt that captures our Yankee imagination will be the one that follows the teachings of Gandhi, King and Mandela, not the one that uses weapons we have provided to commit mayhem and murder.

As the President considers how to shape and downsize our military aid to Egypt, he should think about ordinary people. Maybe we should give Egypt’s Army more kevlar vests and helmets, so that its soldiers and police can dare to stand their ground without firing live ammunition into largely innocent crowds. Maybe we should hold the heavy weaponry until the Egyptian Army shows more nuanced operation, professionalism and self-restraint.

Before we ship any more heavy hardware, we should be absolutely certain that el-Sisi will not become al-Assad. At the moment, that outcome is hardly assured. Our reported suspension in delivery of four F-16s was a proper response, and a good start.

We should not worry that the Russians (or the Chinese) will step in with substitutes for our military supply. Not one whit. The Egyptian Army has used our equipment, supplies and spares for decades. It has trained with our supplies and with us. Its officers have gone to our war colleges, whose lessons of restraint they are now wantonly ignoring.

You do not replace an entire infrastructure of equipment, parts, spares, training and cooperation like that without immense economic, social and practical losses. Just ask the Iraqis how well our own “replacement” of Russian/Soviet electrical equipment went during the early years of our occupation. The intermittent and unreliable third-world power system that resulted was one of the many utterly incompetent aspects of our early occupation. It was a significant motivator for the Sunni uprising leading to low-level civil war in Iraq. That uprising ended only when the Anbar Awakening decided that Al Qaeda’s blowing Muslims up at marketplaces, weddings and funerals was even worse than our incompetent and unbalanced occupation.

Make no mistake about it. Our long supply chain and long relationship with Egypt’s Army gives us leverage aplenty. We should use it.

But we should not use it in an ineffective grand gesture, forcing Egypt to go “cold turkey” (pardon the expression). Instead, we should ratchet up the pressure, slowly, thoughtfully, relentlessly, and inexorably, so as to get al-Sisi’s attention and remind him constantly how much he and his generals depend on us. We want him to know and understand how awful a multi-decade headache any attempt to switch to another military supplier would be.

In any event, all sides in the Egyptian conflict need to understand a simple truth. Bargaining is better than mayhem. This is something that Egyptians ought to know.

It’s depressing to see a nation so skilled at bargaining in commerce resorting to raw force and mayhem when it comes to politics. We Yanks should do everything we possibly can to stop the tide of violence before it turns into a flood.

The world does not need another Syria in the otherwise promising twenty-first century, let alone in the volatile Middle East. And we do not need to see Arabs, who invented algebra, algorithms and the number system now used worldwide, acting like savages and butchering their own people.

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