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Thursday, February 9

Be less helpful or be less squeamish

The British air command did play a role with Germany but the basic story is that after the United States bombed Germany and Japan to rubble, the American conquerors told what was left of those nations that they were going to have the kind of democracy Americans could live with, then dictated how their governments were to be run. That bought a beleaguered world more than a half century of peace and stability in Western Europe and Japan.

That's how it's done; that's how to establish democracy in lands where the concept of sovereignty is built not on the Westphalian ideal but on the monarchist one. Yet if Americans are too squeamish to do it right, then they must to learn to rein in the urge to be helpful, as headlines from Egypt underscore.

The Wall Street Journal's Matt Bradley reported in the wee hours today from Cairo that America's top military commander, JOC Chairman Martin Dempsey, was on his way to Egypt to negotiate with Egypt's military "over the fate" of the American NGO workers now facing imminent criminal charges relating to "ill-defined political subterfuge" but which could include the charge of espionage.

The problem for General Dempsey is that the Egyptian authorities found maps among the papers they confiscated at those NGOs that could be read as intelligence-gathering as part of a covert U.S. plan to balkanize Egypt. (See Matt's report for details.)

The NGOs have what they consider to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the maps. They used the maps, Matt reports,
... to plan monitoring missions during parliamentary elections late last year.
So the NGOs were just trying to be helpful, as State underscored:
In Washington on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is concerned that the investigation "could have implications for the whole relationship, including our ability to deliver the assistance that we have planned…to support Egypt in its democratic transition and the traditional assistance that we provide for security purposes. We do not want that to happen."
The problem for State is that the organizations those Americans now holed up in the U.S. embassy in Cairo work for are NGOs -- nongovernmental organizations -- only in the most technical legal sense of the term, as Matt's report indicates:
The targeted Americans work for four NGOs, all of which have close connections to Capitol Hill and operate almost entirely on congressional financing. In addition to Mr. LaHood's IRI, Egyptian prosecutors are investigating the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists.
That last one is new to me, but the others, as I've mentioned several times on this blog, are notorious GONGOs -- governmental nongovernmental organizations, which of course is a contradiction in terms. They're also INGOs -- international nongovernmental organizations.

It was just such bizarre hybrids that Vladimir Putin was aiming at, when he threw all foreign NGOs out of Russia some years back, even though the NGOs protested that they were just trying to be helpful.

As Moisés Naím indicated, one problem with institutionalizing at the government level the urge to help outside one's borders is the copycat syndrome. That's why authoritarian regimes took a page from the USA and set up their own GONGOs, all in the name of being helpful to peoples in foreign lands.

(For readers unfamiliar with Naím's discussion and the entire issue of GONGOs see my 2007 post, Of Ingos, Gongos, and Rogue Aid: three pieces of the 21st Century puzzle.)

The other big problem is that the election monitoring and other help given by American GONGOs in foreign lands is that these activities are often followed by peoples' revolutions that no matter how nonviolent in the technical sense topple regimes not to America's liking.

To state the problem with greater precision, Gene Sharp, unwittingly perhaps, opened Pandora's Box. He did this by cataloguing, codifying and publishing all the tactics that have been used successfully to mount civil protests against an authoritarian regime. It was a great idea, but the downside is that the tactics can do double duty as a blueprint for staging a soft coup.

That wasn't such a big problem in the era of fax machines and snail mail. But in this era, every authoritarian regime on the planet has downloaded Gene Sharp's rules for nonviolent protest from the Internet. So, now they know every trick in the book about how to pass off a soft coup as a nonviolent revolution.

I'd be surprised to learn that the Obama administration is trying to balkanize Egypt but given the history of GONGOs and the successful soft coups in the post-Soviet era, it's not unreasonable for Egypt's generals to suspect the worst of the American NGOs in Egypt -- particularly because the generals know the Gene Sharp-NGO drill backward and forward.

That's because they were tacitly supporting the organizers of the Tahrir Square 'nonviolent' protests, who were admittedly working from Sharp's playbook -- although the admission didn't reach the American public until after Hosni Mubarak was driven from office. The New York Times broke the story a day or two after Hosni decamped; this was followed about 10 days later by Frontline's documentary, Revolution in Cairo, aired on PBS.

Watch the documentary, and read all the supplemental material available on the PBS Frontline website and through links it provides, to understand more of this part of the story of Egypt's revolution.

What the reporters for Frontline didn't emphasize was that Egypt's military rulers found the Tahrir Square democracy activists, including the self-described "youth wing" of the Muslim Brotherhood (see the Frontline documentary), to be very useful, which is why they stood down during the protests. I think at all costs they needed to get rid of Gamal Mubarak and the Gamalists, who were methodically stripping the military of its power and who gave every indication that they meant to escalate their efforts in an upcoming election. The mass protests against Hosni Mubarak and his regime were the way to neuter the Gamalists without staging assassinations.

And, I might add, there is no instance of Sharp's tactics bringing about a soft coup without tacit cooperation from a country's security apparatus. For readers who believe in the power of nonviolent protest and Tinkerbell, I repeat: no instance.

In short, the generals cooperated with the democracy activists during the Tahrir Square protests because they saw a way to turn Gene Sharp's tactics for promoting civil rights and democracy into a tactic to reinforce their authoritarian rule.

This curious inversion is one of the many oddities of post-Mubarak Egypt, which finds the country's ultraconservative Salafist party defending the democracy-building efforts of American NGOs now facing criminal charges, and the absolute monarch Saudi King Abdullah still angry at the democratically elected Barack Obama for betraying the Gamalists -- who were trying to prepare Egypt for real democracy by breaking the military's power!

This tangled Egyptian tale is just one of the many tangled tales that Americans got tangled up with in their effort to be helpful to the cause of democracy without actually conquering other countries.

The irony is that the more America has tiptoed around in the name of being helpful, the more it's been accused of being an expansionist empire. But if Americans don't want to impose democracy through conquest, they're wise to take the present situation in Egypt -- and in Pakistan, where the generals there are also maneuvering to hold onto their power -- as a lesson. A lesson on the limits to being helpful when you don't have the power to manage unintended consequences.

The same observation holds for staging bombing raids in the name of being helpful. Last August, Mark Safranski, in a discussion with me in his blog's comment section about the militarized 'Right to Protect' doctrine, observed :
[...] Moreover, the Libyan intervention was an astrategic mess carried out in a half-baked, amateur manner that harms US long-term interests in talking states off the nuclear non-proliferation-state sponsor of terrorism ledge. What dictator in his right mind will believe our diplomatic assurances of reconciliation if they give up WMDs or change their policies after what happened to Gaddafi? We have just incentivized every potential rogue state into adopting a posture of maximum intransigence, mutual aid to fellow dictators and strategic courtship of Beijing.

Gaddafi is odious but he served a use, like Ceaucescu did, in demonstrating that America would negotiate a deal with enemies and stick to it. That card is now lost, or if not lost, seriously devalued to a short term, low-trust, expediency.
Mark hit the mark so squarely that he might as well have been reading from Rawalpindi's playbook ever since Pakistan's generals saw what happened to Gaddafi.

What the proponents of the Right to Protect doctrine don't come right out and say is how they plan to impose order in a country after they've bombed its wicked regime to smithereens. But of course they plan to send in a veritable army of NGOs (actually, GONGOs) to monitor free and fair elections and in other ways help establish a genuine democracy.

The glitch in the plan is evident in today's Egypt -- where the generals have popular support for their accusation that Americans are meddling their country -- and in today's Libya. Earlier this week a BBC correspondent gave an eyewitness report that the nation's capital was now blanketed by armed militias roaming around the streets and representing various and presumably opposing factions in Libya.

You want to send election monitors into that? Hand out pamphlets on how stage a genuine democratic election? (Here; hold my AK-47 for a minute while I read.) Not without a contingent of U.S. Marines at your back, which the European Parliament very well knows.

So what to do, if the half-baked militarized approach to being helpful and the NGO approach carry such serious downsides that they're counterproductive? Well, there's always the combination militarized-NGO approach: send in Special Forces to sneak around and be helpful to the cause of democracy. (Kid, don't touch that box marked "Pamphlets" if you don't want to blow up half your village.)

Not a new approach, to be sure, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn it's being deployed in Libya or will be soon. But in this era, when it seems half the world's nations are selling weapons to the other half, and when it's easy to order enough light arms from the Internet to start a civil war, the combo approach presents the same fundamental problem as the other two half-baked approaches: again, Americans don't have the power to manage the inevitable unintended and often completely unforeseen consequences.

So in Libya, as in Afghanistan and other countries, the bloodbath your intervention was meant stop or avert easily touches off a bloodbath that can be harder to stop than the first because it's more diffuse than the one launched by the central governing authority you toppled, or flimflammed out of office.

(I suppose I should note here that the United States didn't actually conquer Iraq; it conquered the Iranian military and Baghdad. Then because it didn't want to deploy enough troops to pacify the rest of the country it left a British command in charge of the key city of Basra. That turned out to be a tragic mistake.)

Then what's the solution, if my fellow Americans blanch at the thought of the United States becoming an expansionist empire? In my view there is no solution, although I think the globalized labor union movement would argue with me. My reply would be that switching out GONGOs for U.S. government-supported labor unions is simply putting a new face on the same downside that exists for GONGOs.

But it's possible to kick the can of armed conquest down the road by revising the approach to being helpful that became standard procedure for the U.S. government during the latter part of the Cold War. The approach was never updated for the present era, during which every authoritarian regime has a library of Gene Sharp books and has learned to play the IMF like a fiddle.

Before revision, though, must come thinking. Toward this end, it's helpful to review the Westphalian concept of sovereignty, the history of the United Arab Republic, and the British Raj. (You're not looking to become historians here; just get in the ballpark and for that, Wikipedia has prefectly serviceable articles on all three topics.)

The review can produce an understanding in Americans that our government's pro forma way of promoting democracy, which focuses on free and fair elections and civil rights, misses a crucial step.

The real battle of ideas today is not in the arena of democratically electing leaders. It's in the arena of sovereignty. Get that part down pat, and Americans don't need GONGOs in the era when a terrorist spokesman, hiding out in the boonies in Waziristan or wherever, emailed Long War Journal's Bill Roggio to inform him that he was right to be suspicious of government announcements that Hakimullah Mehsud was dead.

And in an era when villages in Afghanistan are Tweeting each other like mad on their cell phones to share stories of Taliban misdeeds. (Huh. And here we thought we were the only ones the Taliban were taxing to death.)

I add that Twittermania is a recent twist in the tangled tale of Afghanistan that's putting the Afghan Taliban, and I imagine Pakistan's military, on the back foot. Money says that's why those two are now scrambling to negotiate a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan -- before the Obama administration wakes up and realizes it's not necessary to negotiate.

Where was I? To wrap it up: if Americans really want to be helpful in this era, they can focus on making their own story hang together. The rest of the world will be all ears.

As to how to dismantle the American INGO industry that's sprouted up, get a hammerlock on American CEOs with transnational corporations who see themselves as Gandhi reborn, and elbow U.S. weapons merchants back across the line -- well, that's all part of getting our story straight.

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