Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 2, 2011

Egypt: WWRD?

The Time cover depicting Ronald Reagan photoshopped with his arm around Barack Obama is inescapable this week. The timing is ironic; the image serves mainly to highlight the unlikeness of the two men in the face of profound developments abroad. I think most Americans viscerally reject the comparison: Obama, emerging occasionally from his cone of silence to utter a few clipped, perfunctory sentences about the uprising in Egypt, is no Ronald Reagan.

But that begs the question:  what would Reagan do? I was thinking about this yesterday as I watched the panel on Fox News’s Special Report. Charles Krauthammer was parsing the situation with his usual precision, and his take (I’m paraphrasing) was that as long as the Egyptian army has control of the country, there will be some reassuring adult supervision of the potential outcomes. This is good analysis – certainly important from the security point of view – but somewhat deflating as freedom rhetoric. The freedom rhetoric is what’s missing in January 2011. Reagan excelled at it – and I think he would, characteristically, have recognized a tremendous opportunity to use ideas to influence the course of events in the Arab world.

Reagan approached rhetoric in its original sense in the canon of Western thought: as an intellectual discipline and a mighty tool. His power as a communicator derived from his practice – so frustrating to his political opponents – of assuming philosophical points more often than arguing them, and spending his time on the memorable aspects of rhetoric:  anecdote, inspiration, humor, warning. His basic posture in communicating was what America’s posture ought to be toward the people of Egypt: one of respectful encouragement and persuasion, unashamed to speak in explicit terms about the meaning of liberty.

For Reagan, it would go without saying that the United States will not choose a political path for Egypt. Obama assumes that that needs clarifying; Reagan would have assumed the opposite. I believe Reagan would have started the conversation by offering a gift from America’s unique lore of liberty:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

These foundational words, to be used only with due consideration and in the appropriate situations, would establish clearly how the United States classifies the uprising in Egypt. Not all “revolutions” merit this allusion, but I think Reagan would judge that this one does.

He would proceed to build on this reference by shifting his citations to a fount of ideas from Egypt’s past – because, while there was only one Declaration of Independence, each people approaches the Declaration’s ideas in its own way. Reagan might posit, in passing, a philosophical link between the Declaration’s unalienable rights and the wisdom passage on freedom from the Book of the Dead: “The way to final freedom is within yourself.” Perhaps along the way he would invoke incisive proverbs from the ancient temples of Luxor and Karnak, aphorisms that are a universal heritage of humanity, like “In every vital activity it is the path that matters”; or “The qualities of a moral order are measured by deeds.”

He would make admiring reference to Egypt’s long history of intellectual vigor and its iconic Arab press in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. He would probably give the most time to the Egyptian voices of freedom, dissidence, and political accountability from the past 30 years, perhaps telling the story of dissident publisher Hisham Kassem, whom Commentary’s Joshua Muravchik profiled in his 2009 book The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East. He might speak of dissident bloggers like Abdel Kareem Soliman and Hany Nazeer (a Coptic Christian), imprisoned for their writings – and in doing so affirm the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. He would no doubt recognize the courageous voices of women like Noha Atef and Dalia Ziada.  He would refer to Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the novelist whose works have been banned in Egypt, and he might quote Mahfouz as follows: “Freedom of expression must be considered sacred and thought can only be corrected by counter thought.”

Reagan would not neglect to establish that the U.S. has strategic interests intertwined with the political future of Egypt. But I believe he would elide much of the current argument by simply stating what America believes and what America will do. America believes that the adoption of liberty and consensual government is the best guarantor of security and peace. And America will stand ready to affirm our close ties with a more democratic Egypt; to assist the Egyptian people in charting their own course, without interference from the forces of illiberalism, exploitation, or terror; and to defend and reinforce Egypt’s admirable acts of global citizenship, like its peace agreement with Israel, its administration of the Suez Canal, and its cooperation in the war on terror.

It would not be Reagan, however, if the coda did not sum up the moment for us and make us smile. After characterizing the events for political effect, offering inspiration and encouragement from the Egyptians’ own heritage, and stating America’s posture, I believe Reagan would conclude with a simple quote from Anwar Sadat: “You are not a realist unless you believe in miracles.”

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.” She writes a weekly column for Patheos.



  1. ‘The core argument Bush made, which is that America must stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity — the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance — was right. ‘

    and he showed his integrity and respect for human dignity by allowing his administration to put in place a program of torture conducted by the government’s employees, by hired “help” and by sending prisoners to oppressive regimes that would torture our prisoners for us.

    • The legally well founded, extravagantly circumscribed and to a notable extant indulgent and almost lavish treatment of unlawful combatants (including mass murderers) at Gitmo and elsewhere should by any reasonable moral standard accrue to the credit of the United States rather than otherwise.

      Very sparse use of effective interrogation techniques leaving no permanent mental or physical damage for the purpose of gaining valuable intelligence and perhaps saving hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives can be described as “torture” only in the most Orwellian usage which essentially eviscerates the meaning of the word. Such usage is particularly insulting to the thousands (if not tens of thousands) of perfectly innocent people who have indeed been brutally tortured even to death in that time.

      • “….can be described as “torture” only in the most Orwellian usage…”

        or in the US criminal code.

        it is what it is.

        you may approve of torture, you may pretend that it saved hundreds or thousands of lives.

        it is what it is.

        • it is what it is.

          Torture: “Infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion”.

          What a few detainees endured at Guantanamo may be illegal but waterboarding, as unpleasant as it undoubtedly is, simply does not meet the definition of ‘torture’.

          I’m sure it’s inconvenient, but the definition is, what it is…

          More importantly, I would ask you a simple question; if you were President (with all the responsibility) and knew for certain that a captured enemy possessed knowledge that if revealed would save millions of lives ( an imminent, planned nuclear terrorist attack) and you were the person in charge, would you order that person to be tortured?

          Knowing that if you did not and those millions died, that you had not done all that you could do to save them?

          And finally, if you stood on ‘principle’ and let those millions die, what would you say to the dead’s relatives?

          Sucks to be you?

          Or would you fly to the soon to be ‘glass parking lot’ and, to set the example, die for your principles?

          • Geoffrey, waterboarding is what is known, as has for centuries been known, as the water torture. Law officers in the US have been sent to federal prison for using it.

            “knew for certain that a captured enemy possessed knowledge that if revealed would save millions of lives ( an imminent, planned nuclear terrorist attack) ”

            when that case arises, I’ll consider what to do. it was never the choice facing President Bush.

            • “when that case arises, I’ll consider what to do” is an evasion fuster, which reveals to the discerning, an unwillingness to examine the inner contradiction…

              • Geoffrey, what it means is that I’m denying your premise and saying that it is highly unlikely that we can ever know that someone knows the information that will allow us to save those multi-thousand lives and that only if we torture it out of him will we receive it and we also are certain that there is no other way to get the info.

                if you twist my arm, i may grant you all of that.

                then I’ll say that it would be morally defensible to do it and yet still criminal. somebody would have to take the fall.

        • The legality of waterboarding, as applied, is not subject to reasonable dispute. It has not really been denied (although it has, supposedly, been discontinued) by the Obama administration. It was not outlawed by overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress. When I say as applied I mean in the context of interrogating very high value detainees, with perishable information, that may or may not directly lead to the immediate salvation of lives. I would note also that the very mild form used here (and used on American intelligence and military officers in preparing them for possible capture) differs substantially from that used by the Japanese and Spaniards, en masse, for the purpose of punishment and/or extracting confessions for the political purposes of the government.

          The distinction above is also why the the morality of challenging waterboarding, as applied is exceptionally dubious.
          Indeed the very application of the term “Torture” to this particular is highly problematic as it vitiates the very dramatic differences between this practice and the very wide spread activities dozens of regimes around the world used against thousands of people for the simple acts of trying to exercise their political rights or even of being suspected of trying to do so.

          In the case of ticking time bomb scenario the moral argument against something so benign as waterboarding obviously becomes that much weaker. To be sure there may be practices and situations where an enhanced interrogation technique much harsher could be considered and where the prospective use of such could pose a very grave moral dilemma. This is not close to being one of those situations.

          As to the general treatment of detainees, the extreme consideration extended to them, the comforts and indulgence of abusive treatment of the very professional staff at the facility (certainly such professionalism is not alway in evidence – as at Abu Gharaib- but that of course is an entirely separate matter) far exceeds anything ever afforded to men drafted into the service of their country, having fought consistent with the laws of war, and entirely subject to the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

          Indeed one almost has to think back to the tenure of Jean II as the “guest” of Edward III, to identify a prisoner getting a better deal.

          • the legality of waterboarding is indeed indefensible.

            it is indeed illegal, immoral and nowhere near as awful as boiling in oil.

            it is, if done correctly, not homicide.

            if done incorrectly, it is.

  2. That’s very inspiring, OC. Genuinely (I’m not being sarcastic – and descend into redundancy to say so). Certainly rhetoric along those lines would necessarily be far more effective than anything that our current dear leader has had to say – although, surely his very persona and his “Gift” should be much more effective even than anything the Gipper would have had to offer (we can be quite sure he thinks so). Still, and perhaps I’m somewhat more cynical than I should be, I’m just not sure how much absolute effect it would have in influencing the situation for the better.

    No doubt Reagan’s rhetoric had a meaningful impact on political developments in the Soviet Block, the USSR itself, perhaps, to an extent in places like the Phillipines, Taiwan, South Korea, Chile. Rhetoric of this kind might have had considerable impact in Iran two summers ago.* The polity in Egypt does seem, however, to be somewhat different from these. I do not for one second doubt that a very significant portion of the Egyptian people are interested in political freedom and economic opportunity, that they have a considerable level of education, access to technology and would be inspired by such rhetoric and strive for an outcome congenial for themselves and the incidentally (but not for us insignificantly) for the U.S. Still, the balance of forces in Egypt makes such a positive outcome somewhat dubious.

    Also, Byron York had a piece about a poll of Egyptians which does give rise to some concerns. Supporting Mubarak is obviously a non-starter. The trend of opinion seems to be to accelerate his exit and try to work to preserve the influence of the Army** but it would appear that Dear Leader seems to be open to if not indeed welcoming of participation by the Muslim Brothers. Hmm.

    In any case I don’t think this is the principal burden of this post. It is rather to draw
    the necessary and dramatic distinction between Obama and Reagan with respect to rhetoric and fundamental assumptions not necessarily to suggest that this will yield a desirable outcome in Egypt. It also happens to be a particularly brilliant piece, even for you.

    *I was in Hamburg at the time, not precisely a neocon or even a particularly pro-American hotbed (certainly not to the extent that it should be). The particular people I was interacting with – a motly mix of Germans, Romanians, Koreans, Englishman and Australians – were almost to the man and woman shocked by the flaccid, cynical, cowardly attitude of the Obami.

    **By the way, sailor, does Egypt have a navy proper. Given their particular geographic situation one would certainly assume some significant naval component to their military.

    • See, I said this was especially good. Now its gone viral.

  3. There was a similar ‘kerfluffle’ regarding an operations manual that certain CIA trainers were using with the Contras, there was little traction on that, the outrage was dialed up to 11 back then, Our erstwhile Czar is making a big deal of the treatment of Marcos, then again the former wasn’t as central to our counter terrorism strategy as Mubarak is now, and the Maoist oriented NPA wasn’t as significant as AQ is today. We see with this circumstance, that to chose to ally yourself to the US is a foolish enterprise, better to be an avowed enemy, and you earn respect, re; Ahmadinejad and Chavez.

    Even in a universe, where Spock wears a Taliban beard, there could never be a parallel of Obama with Reagan. The latter believed in America’s special promise,
    the former only focuses on our imperfections. In one of his bios, Obama, explained
    his attraction to community organizing, as a way of counteracting Reagan’s ‘dark deeds.


  5. For starters, I want to say that it’s great to have you back Geoffrey. I feared terrible things given your extended absence. I’m very happy my fears were not realized. Also, I would have extended these sentiments several days ago, but I was away (in your NYC fuster) and didn’t have the usual computer access. Speaking of all this, I don’t recall entering into a transaction where Cheetos would be changing hands, but I’d be more than happy to send you a supply of Cheetos fuster if you give me your address. A tiny price to pay to have GB back.

    “Geoffrey, waterboarding is what is known, as has for centuries been known, as the water torture. Law officers in the US have been sent to federal prison for using it.”

    Now, back to battle! fuster, isn’t waterboarding in the case of KSM et al a *legal* issue? Regardless of whether it has been *known* for centuries as torture? And since KSM wasn’t arrested in the US, as a US citizen under the US criminal code, isn’t it irrelevant whether or not US law officers (police I assume?) have been sent to prison for waterboarding?

    Unless I’m mistaken, since KSM is an enemy combatant and not a regular criminal according to US law, doesn’t Congress have to pass a law saying that waterboarding is torture for it to be considered torture in the legal sense? The way I see it, unless the interrogation act falls into the definition of torture as GB described above, it is not really torture at all – as unpleasant as it may be.

    • the opticon was just ragging me about the Cheetos, RE. I earned that by deriding her fondness for packed mac-n-cheese.
      and I surely wouldn’t want to profit from Geoffrey’s health and return in any way other than having the pleasure of arguing with him.

      waterboarding is what it is. it is illegal under federal and state law all over the US. even were it not a statutory offense, it would still be a common law assault.
      it is also illegal in any part of the world where the UCMJ applies to the person doing the waterboarding.

      the Bush administration made some absurd effort to try to define it as other than torture, but mostly their effort was in trying to find a way to keep a judge from ruling on it by denying any US court jurisdiction.

  6. “For all his sense of vision, his devotion to the American brand of democracy, and his conservatism that changed the political landscape of America, Reagan’s influence on the Philippines and Latin America represented nothing new, and in fact, represented a darker, more sinister permutation of American policy. Democracy was something to be insisted upon in Europe, but was something unnecessary, and even inconvenient, in Asia and Latin America.”
    Murray Horton.

  7. What is the current circulation of Time Magazine, and what was it seven years ago? Seven years ago, the New York Times was trading at about $40.00 per share and now it trades for $11.00. If you ask my grandchildren whether or not they remember when President 0 was on the cover of Time with Ronald Reagan’s arm around him, they will say no.

    Reagan would be telling the Egyptians that socialism doesn’t work and that they should look at how Israel has transformed itself since Israel abandoned socialism and embraced free enterprise. He would tell them to look to Israel’s Nobel Scientists and thousands of ground breaking patents and make a permanent peace in the region.

    0bama could never say these things. Crows sit on this make believe man’s head. He is useless. He is embarassing. Instead of Reagan we should depict Mussolini with his arm around this arrogant mistake of a President’s shoulder.

  8. SciSoc — it’s true, of course, that TIME’s circ is way down. But the image of its cover has been all over the Internet — and TIME is still the “hard” news magazine (I know, hilarious) most likely to be found on the stands in checkout lines and lurking on newsstand and bookstore shelves.

    Those facts are interesting in themselves. America doesn’t really have a quality news weekly any more — I’m not sure the genre would even draw enough of a readership, with all the media competition. But still TIME gets positioned on racks where passersby can see it.

  9. cavalier — Egypt does have a navy, althought not a big one. Security for the Canal is a matter of land operations, with a little coast-guard-type offshore action thrown in. The Egyptian navy hasn’t seen much action since the 1967 war. My assessment of it is that to sustain a higher operational profile — e.g., if the government went unfriendly to Israel — the navy would require refurbishment. Its capital ship inventory is low (e.g., destroyers).

    The article does seem to have gotten a lot of play around the web. Got some very nice feedback on it from some folks.

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