Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

The Nuclear Challenge: 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Gorbachev’s Response (3)

21 Aug

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No public figure was more convincing and determined to pursue the ideal of a world without nuclear weaponry than Mikhail Gorbachev while he was the transformative General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between the years of 1985 and 1991. Of course, Gorbachev is appreciated in the West mainly as having presided over a political process that led to the nonviolent ending of the Cold War, the peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet he was also perhaps the only head of an important sovereign state during the nuclear era whose commitment to nuclear disarmament and the conditions of a peaceful world reflected a deep realization that the existing world order was not sustainable and not serving the interests of the Russian people. His speeches at the United Nations and elsewhere exhibited ethical and political concerns that recognized that national interests could no longer be separated from the promotion of global and human interests.

 

Gorbachev believed then, and continues to believe, that nuclear war becomes more likely, a virtual certainty, with each passing year; as more governments continue to possess and others over time gain access to the weaponry the risk of nuclear war rises. Gorbachev believes that it is inevitable that the nuclear club will grow gradually larger, as it has, although more slowly than some had feared. He also believed, reflecting the Cold War context within which he governed, that the illusionary search for a winnable combination of weaponry and doctrine could produce an unwanted nuclear conflict between rival superpowers either by one side seeking a victory or by the other preempting an opponent it perceived as dangerous so as to lessen vulnerability and avoid defeat. In the mid 1980s the Soviet system was experiencing a complex and deep crisis of economic stagnation and bureaucratic rigidity, which meant that the nuclear arms race burdened an already acutely stressed Soviet reality.

 

In an August 16th interview with the German magazine, Spiegel, Gorbachev strongly reaffirms his anti-nuclear outlook, and recalls the successes and disappointments of his efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. His skepticism about disarmament negotiations back in the 1980s is even disheartening today than when Gorbachev was in power. The approach then prevalent he regarded as a hypocritical blend of posturing and useless meetings, a pathetic wordplay in which “diplomats pored over mountains of paper, drank wine, and even harder stuff..and it was all for nothing.”

 

More helpful in Gorbachev’s view were unilateral steps taken in Moscow that acknowledged a growing danger of catastrophe that could only be removed by the “complete destruction of nuclear weapons and a permanent ban on them.” As significant as this serious affirmation of nuclear disarmament as a necessary and highly practical goal of state policy represented a shift in Soviet thinking and strategy that gave the highest priority to minimizing risks of war until a safer future could be brought into being by eliminating weaponry of mass destruction (including chemical weapons).  This meant, in Gorbachev words, that instead of planning “for coming war” or seeking military advantages, the central policy effort was devoted to the prevention of “military confrontation with the West.”  That is, war avoidance as an interim approach that depended on a Soviet foreign policy that consciously reduced international tensions rejected threat diplomacy and provocative policy moves.

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Gorbachev surprisingly found that Ronald Reagan, his American right-wing counterpart, shared his nuclear anxieties, and was ready to be a partner in joint denuclearization efforts. Already in 1985 they jointly declared that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Gorbachev interprets this declaration as a commitment by the two governments not to seek a position of superiority based on developing new types of nuclear weapons (for instance, defensive shields that made an attack seem more plausible, and thus might tempt a potential target state to consider preemption), but claims that the United States never acted as if it understood this Reagan/Gorbachev declaration in this manner. Gorbachev does take appropriate note of Reagan’s deep attachment to SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) as limiting the progress that the two leaders could make in relation to denuclearization, and incompatible with his recognition of what a horror nuclear war would be.

 

In this regard, Gorbachev considers United States militarism then and now to constitute the “insurmountable obstacle to a nuclear-free world.” As this unfortunately seems to be a correct assessment, it entails a gridlocked nuclear future with no escape route. Gorbachev expresses his almost fatalistic view of human destiny if nuclear weaponry is retained: “The alternative is clear: Either we move toward a nuclear-free world or we have to accept that nuclear weapons will continue to spread step by step across the world.” In effect, the only effective long-term nonproliferation regime is dependent upon a parallel regime of complete nuclear disarmament, and without such a regime nuclear war will occur at some point due to the sheer multiplication of nuclear actors.

 

As others have noticed, the highpoint in Gorbachev era nuclear diplomacy occurred at the Reyjkavik summit in 1986 when Reagan and Gorbachev seemed to be on the historic verge of agreeing on the obligatory elimination of all nuclear strategic weaponry, only to have the potential breakthrough immediately undermined on the home front in the United States by the bipartisan realist guardians of the nuclear status quo. This very robust move in Iceland that briefly ‘threatened’ to achieve nuclear disarmament was unnerving for militarists in the West. Always skilled at summarizing the hawkish mood of governing elites, Margaret Thatcher sounded the collective alarm: “We won’t be able to handle a second Reyjkavik.” And indeed, her words were heeded at the pinnacles of government, and there has not been another Reyjkavik, or anything approaching a high profile inter-governmental occasion at which ideas about nuclear disarmament were being seriously discussed and contemplated by the governments of the respective leading nuclear weapons states.

 

What has received scant notice is the missed opportunity of the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when the Cold War came to an end. It was then George H.W. Bush who was the American president, supposedly moderate, sensible, and knowledgeable about foreign affairs. And this is the depressing point. It was just his establishment realism that led Bush derisively to dismiss any ambition to take advantage of the new situation in the world to abandon the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and seize the opportunity to initiate a global nuclear disarmament process. Instead of exploring what could have been probably negotiated with Gorbachev, Bush notoriously rejected on principle fundamental reform as ‘the vision thing,’ which he happily admitted was not his cup of tea. And so this unprecedented moment of opportunity was tragically wasted, and instead the 1990s became a decade devoted to servicing neoliberal economic globalization being fashioned in a manner that produced a post-colonial predatory set of relations among the peoples of the world. This ‘new world order’ was driven by the logic of capital efficiency, which has led to steadily widening disparities between rich and poor within countries and regions and in their interplay as well as launched multiple threats to environmental sustainability.

 

In effect, after the Cold War even the fatuous nuclear disarmament diplomacy that Gorbachev decried disappeared, and a period of self-satisfied nuclear complacency ensued. Governments are more or less content with obscure ritual review conferences within the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Regime. This failure of political imagination by Bush Sr. may be seen in retrospect as a most disastrous lapse in American global leadership, far worse than was the American refusal to join the League of Nations after World War I, and give that first experiment in war prevention on a global scale some slight chance of success. For these reasons I would not be astonished if a revisionist historian concludes that the Bush Sr. presidency was more harmful to the United States and the world than was the failed presidency of Bush Jr..

 

There is a final vital point that Gorbachev develops in response to skeptical questions from the Spiegel interviewer about the feasibility of nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev responds by posing a question of his own that is meant to answer itself by an implicit appeal to common sense: “And can we really imagine a world without nuclear weapons if a single country amasses so many conventional weapons that its military budget nearly tops that of all other countries combined?” He goes on to point out the obvious: “[t]his country would enjoy total military supremacy if nuclear weapons were abolished,” and by implication, other countries will never be so foolish as to submit their societies to such hegemonic arrangements. In effect, Gorbachev is imagining that nuclear weaponry should be linked, not as in most liberal speculation to an affirmation of the nonproliferation regime, but rather to undoing geopolitical militarism, which means that if the United States ever embraces nuclear disarmament as policy rather than sentiment, it will have to terminate its global domination project. Gorbachev delivers here a powerful and persuasive message: if the United States ever becomes truly serious about wanting to implement the visionary conceptions of nuclear disarmament that Obama affirmed in his Prague speech with lofty generalizations, then it must simultaneously embark on a program of unilateral demilitarization.

 

With this concluding bit of insight from Gorbachev, which I find compelling, we should also acknowledge that it has been an odd deficiency in strategic thought in the West that most forms of strong advocacy of nuclear disarmament have not been organically connected with an overall demand for American demilitarization. Unless nuclear disarmament is implemented in a policy context that includes the demilitarization of geopolitics, it would give the United States the kind of political environment in which its massive military machine would be far more usable, less inhibited, and in all probability more menacing to the rest of the world. From this perspective one wonders why the realist cadres at the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, and the Beltway think tanks do not endorse nuclear disarmament as a prime strategic goal fully consistent with achieving the kind of global securitization administered from Washington that militarists have long favored as the keystone of American grand strategy since 1945.

 

Gorbachev doesn’t venture onto this speculative terrain. His current belief is that unless American demilitarization becomes part of the nuclear disarmament package “talks toward a nuclear-free world will be little more than empty words.” Although Obama is not mentioned, his Prague speech thus qualifies as ‘empty words,’ not only because of the absence of follow up, but more pointedly due to Obama’s silence about the relevance of diminishing America’s non-nuclear military capabilities as an essential aspect of making credible and beneficial the endorsement of a world without nuclear weapons.

It is also probably the case that when an American president possesses a determined commitment to a world without nuclear weapons he will make initiate a campaign to win over public opinion in Omaha, Denver, or Phoenix, and not Prague. What is said in the Czech Republic may play well in Oslo, but it is not going to shake the ideological and bureaucratic foundations of nuclearism in the United States.

 

In this short essay, it has been my principal intention to appreciate the humane wisdom of Mikhail Gorbachev, and to hope that even 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki an American leader will emerge in the dark of night to carry forward the struggle for a viable human future by championing nuclear disarmament to be accompanied by substantial American demilitarization. She will think and act against the grain of this delusional quest for absolute geopolitical control, and maybe rest long enough to thank

Gorbachev for showing the way, both as political leader and as engaged citizen, an exemplary instance of what I call ‘citizen pilgrim.’    

 

 

 

 

 

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The Nuclear Challenge: 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1)

18 Aug

 

[Prefatory Note: I have been preoccupied for many years with the multiple challenges posed by nuclear weapons, initially from the perspective of international law and morality, later with regard to prudence diplomacy and political survival in international relations, and in all instances, with an eye favoring deep denuclearization associated in my mind with an abiding abhorrence over the use of atomic bombs against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and with the avoidance of any future use of nuclear weaponry or even threatened use. The annual observance of these terrible events encourages reflection and commentary on this darkest of legacies. Zero nuclear weapons is the unconditional goal that I affirm, achieved in a manner that creates as much public confidence as possible that the eliminations of weaponry and enriched uranium stockpiles are being faithfully carried out.

 

In this spirit, I want to call attention to a notable volume on the continuing menace posed by nuclear weapons that has just been published under the editorship of Geoffrey Darnton, bearing the title Nuclear Weapons and International Law, and available via Amazon or the bookseller Ingrams. The book contains the entire text of the judgment issued by the London Nuclear Warfare Tribunal (1985), a civil society initiative presided over by four judges, three of whom were Nobel Prize winners, the great dissenting opinion of C.G. Weeramantry in the Advisory Opinion on The Legality of Nuclear Weapons issued in 1996 by the International Court of Justice, and other documents and texts discussing the continuing imperative of nuclear disarmament. I recommend the book highly to all those who seek a broad understanding of why the citizen pilgrims of the world should unite in an urgent effort to create a climate of public awareness that pushes governments to make a genuine effort to fulfill by way of a practical disarming process the often articulated and affirmed vision of a world without nuclear weaponry. What is crucial is to shift the discourse from affirming the elimination of nuclear weaponry as an ultimate goal to the adoption of nuclear disarmament as a programmatic goal of practical politics, especially in the nine nuclear weapons states. Whether this entails a simultaneous partial disarmament of conventional weaponry by some states, especially the United States, is a further issue to consider.

 

At the invitation of Geoffrey Darnton, David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Foundation (NAPF), and I contributed a jointly authored foreword to the volume as well as a dialogue on nuclear weapons and international law. Krieger, a lifelong advocate of a zero nuclear world, as well as a poet whose poems are often responsive to his humane concerns, has devoted his professional life to the attainment of this goal, traveling throughout around the globe to reach diverse audiences and take part in a variety of NGO anti-nuclear efforts. The NAPF heads a coalition of civil society support for the historic Marshall Islands legal initiative currently under consideration in the International Court of Justice and in American federal courts that demands fulfillment of the nuclear disarmament provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. More information about the NAPF and the Marshall Islands litigation can be found at the NAPF website. A second post will contain our foreword together with David’s poem, “A Short History Lesson: 1945” that raises in the most pointed form the moral tensions and civilizational hypocrisies that related the atomic bombing to the Nuremberg Judgment that held surviving Nazi leaders accountable for their complicity in state crime.]

 

There are many reasons why nuclear weapons have been retained and acquired by sovereign states, and it is an instructive insight into the workings of the war system at the core of state-centric world order that the first five nuclear weapons states happened to be the five states given preeminent status in the United Nations by being made permanent members of the Security Council with a right of veto. Because of the devastating potentialities of nuclear weaponry to destroy the human future there was from the start of ‘the nuclear age’ a public outcry against their retention and widespread revulsion about dropping atomic bombs on densely populated Japanese cities. This dialectic between hard power maximization and public canons of sensitivity to state-sanctioned atrocity has been evident ever since 1945. The outcome has been the retention and development of the weaponry with related efforts to limit access to the extent possible (the ethos of nonproliferation) and vague affirmations of a commitment to seek nuclear disarmament as a matter of policy and even law. This asymmetry of goals has given us the situation pertaining to the weaponry that haunts the future of humanity. It is epitomized by the geopolitical energies devoted to implementing the nonproliferation provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (1970; 190 states), as evidenced by making the feared apprehension of future acquisition a casus belli in Iraq (2003) and with respect to Iran, hopefully a second nonproliferation war being averted by the Iranian willingness to limit their nuclear program in such a way as to minimize any prospect of acquiring ‘the bomb.’ In contrast, the nuclear disarmament provision, Article VI, of the NPT is treated by the nuclear weapons states as pure window dressing, having the outward appearance of being a bargain reached between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, but in reality a commitment by the latter to forego the weaponry in exchange for an empty promise that has been discredited by the absence of credible efforts at implementation over a period of almost half a century. Part of this reality is the unwillingness of the non-nuclear states to raise their voices in concerted opposition to the one-sided implementation of the NPT, exhibiting their reality as states but without geopolitical leverage.

 

The liberal version of this deceptive Faustian Bargain is the claim that the NPT and nuclear disarmament are complementary to one another, and should be linked in thought and action. The statist reasoning that offers a rationale stresses the desirability of limiting the number of nuclear weapons states while efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament move forward. Among the world’s most astute commentators on nuclear weapons policy is Ramesh Thakur, who heads the Secretariat on the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. In a recent article in The Japan Times [“Link Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation Efforts,” Aug. 12, 2015] Thakur tells us that “there is an inalienable and symbiotic link between nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.” He regards “[t]he key challenge..is to how to protect the political gains and security benefits of the NPT, while also working around it to impart momentum into the disarmament process leading to the total abolition of all nuclear weapons.” From this perspective, Thakur laments the failures of the nuclear weapons states to embrace this linkage in a credible manner, and worries that non-nuclear states are threatening to disrupt the benevolent NPT regime that he credits with greatly restricted the number of states possessing the bomb and has helped avoid any recourse to the weaponry over the 70 years that have elapsed since Nagasaki: “Globally, more and more countries are coming around to the conclusion that the NPT is being used cynically by the nuclear powers not to advance but to frustrate disarmament.”

 

What is surprising is that it has taken so long for the non-nuclear governments to reach this conclusion, or at least to acknowledge their disaffection in a public space. The mind game played so well by the nuclear weapons states, above all, the United States, rests on the proposition that the main threat posed by the existence and possession of the weaponry is its spread to additional states, not the weaponry itself, and certainly not the nuclear weapons states themselves. This inversion of the real priorities has shifted the policy focus away from disarmament for decades and put the spotlight on proliferation dangers where it doesn’t belong, Iran being the current preoccupation resulting from this way of thinking. The geopolitical discriminatory nature of this mind game is further revealed by the treatment of Israel, what Thakur calls “The global double standards” that are “reinforced by regional hypocrisy, in which all sides stayed studiously silent on Israel’s bombs. ”Sanctions and war threats directed at Iran, silence and denial conferred on Israel.

 

My disagreement with Thakur rests on his central assertion of linkage. In my view, the NPT regime has been posited for its own sake (operationalizing the sensible global consensus that the fewer nuclear weapons states, the better) but even more robustly, and here is the unacknowledged rub, as a long-term alternative to nuclear disarmament. In other words, while it is theoretically possible that the NPT regime could have been established as a holding operation to give time for a nuclear disarmament process to be negotiated and acted upon, it has been obvious from an early stage that the government bureaucracies of the leading nuclear powers had no intention of accepting an arrangement that would deprive themselves of the bomb. What the Faustian Bargain imposed was the false pretension that nuclear disarmament was integral to the policy agenda of the nuclear weapons states. From time to time political leaders, usually with sincerity, express their commitment to nuclear disarmament. At various times, several American presidents, including even Ronald Reagan, have affirmed their dedication to such a nuclear free future, most recently Barack Obama at his Prague speech in 2009, but after a flourish of attention, nothing happens.

 

Understanding why nothing happens is the real challenge facing the global disarmament movement. It is here that attention should be given to the ideologies of realist geopolitics that shapes the worldview of the policy elites that control the formation government policies and the supportive self-interested bureaucracies deeply entrenched in the media, think tanks, weapons labs, and private sector (the phenomenon Eisenhower flagged as ‘the military-industrial-complex’ in his Jan. 17, 1961 Farewell Address). It is these ideological and structural factors that explain why nothing happens, and is never allowed to happen. In what should have been treated as a startling confirmation of this disheartening assessment occurred when four former top government officials with impeccable hard power realist credentials decided a couple of years ago that the only way to uphold U.S. security dominance in the future was to abolish nuclear weapons, even their eminence did not prevent their hard power arguments for nuclear disarmament being shunted to one side by the nuclear weapons establishment. [See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4, 2007; see also Shultz et al., “Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation,”Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2011.]

 

Winning the mind game is a process that needs periodic diversions from the actuality of the global apartheid approach to nuclear weaponry that has never been seriously challenged, but is deeply antithetical to Western professed repudiation of genocidal tactics and ethos. When fears mounted of a breakdown in the bipolar standoff during the Cold War there did take place a popular mobilization of opposition to nuclearism. The anti-nuclear movement reached peaks in Europe after the scares of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and in response to some of the weapons deployment decisions by NATO. (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, CND). The main ground of anti-nuclear opposition was fear, although the most articulate leader of CND, E.P. Thompson expressed antipathy to nuclear weapons and doctrine on essentially ethical grounds. Thompson argued on the basis of an illuminating analysis that the culture that embraced the then prevailing policies of mutual deterrence was already an active accomplice of Satan by its announced willingness to annihilate tens of millions of innocent people should its will to survive as a state be tested by an unacceptable enemy provocation. [See “Notes on Exterminism: The Last Stage of Civilization,” New Left Review I/121 , May-June 1980] It is indicative that the governments of the nuclear weapons states, and here most notably again the United States was most adamant, never were unequivocally willing to commit themselves to ‘no first use policies’ even in relation to non-nuclear adversaries. In other words, nuclear weapons were treated as instrumental to foreign policy contingencies, and not tainted with illegitimacy based on the supposed ‘nuclear taboo.’

 

Nonproliferation was the most brilliant of all diversions from the transparent acknowledgement that, whatever rhetoric was used to the contrary, the lead states never accepted nuclear disarmament as a genuine goal of their foreign policy. Quite the contrary. All moves to manage the arms race, including reductions in the size of nuclear arsenals and arrangements about communications during times of crisis, were also designed to reduce public fears of nuclear war and thereby weaken anti-nuclear movements—first, through the message that steps were being taken to minimize risks of an unintended or accidental nuclear war, and secondly, that these steps were steps on a path leading to eventual nuclear disarmament.

 

This double coded message providing the policy rationale for arms control. Militarist contributors to this process, raising their doubts about whether risks were in fact being reduced if military options were being constrained by arms control measures. But it was the second element in the arms control approach that enjoyed tacit and sometimes explicit bipartisan support in the United States where this kind of debate mainly took place. The entire spectrum of policymaking elites agreed that the enactment of nuclear disarmament was both unrealistic and dangerous, and if a visionary president allowed his moral enthusiasm to get the better of him the backlash was swift and decisive as even Reagan found out after informally agreeing with Mikhail Gorbachev at their Reykjavik summit in 1986 on a treaty framework that was premised on getting to zero. In reaction, even liberal democrats in the political establishment chided Reagan for being naïve and insufficiently informed when he was blamed for mindlessly stepping across the invisible but rigorously enforced red line that separates managerial arms control from transformational nuclear disarmament. The lesson was learned, as the next presidential administration headed by George H.W. Bush, adopted as a cautionary internal slogan ‘no more Reykjaviks.’ The ‘No’ of the American establishment to nuclear disarmament could not be clearer, nor could the belligerent ‘Yes’ to upholding by war if necessary the NPT regime.

 

With such an understanding, my disagreement with Ramesh Thakur becomes clear and fundamental, and to make it unmistakable, I would conclude by saying the time is now ripe for the total de-linkage of nonproliferation from disarmament with respect to nuclear weapons policy. Without such a de-linkage false consciousness and confusion are unavoidable. It is time to generate populist impatience with the refusal of decades by government establishment to act on the basis of reason, ethics, and prudence: this requires the adoption of policies truly committed to the total abolition of nuclear weaponry in a period of not more than seven years.

When is an ‘NGO’ not an NGO? Twists and Turns Beneath the Cairo Skies

14 Feb


             A confusing controversy between the United States and Egypt is unfolding. It has already raised tensions in the relationship between the two countries to a level that has not existed for decades. It results from moves by the military government in Cairo to go forward with the criminal prosecution of 43 foreigners, including 19 Americans, for unlawfully carrying on the work of unlicensed public interest organizations that improperly, according to Egyptian law, depend for their budget on foreign funding. Much has been made in American press coverage that one of the Americans charged happens to be Sam LaHood, son of the present American Secretary of Transportation, adopting a tone that seems to imply that at least one connected by blood to an important government official deserves immunity from prosecution.

           

            Washington has responded with high minded and high profile expressions of consternation, including a warning from Hilary Clinton that the annual aid package for Egypt of $1.5 billion (of which $1.3 billion goes to the military) is in jeopardy unless the case against these NGO workers is dropped and their challenged organizations are allowed to carry on with their work of promoting democracy in Egypt. And indeed the U.S. Congress may yet refuse to authorize the release of these funds unless the State Department is willing to certify that Egypt is progressing toward greater democratization. President Obama has indicated his intention to continue with the aid at past levels, given the importance of Egypt in relation to American Middle Eastern interests, but as in so many other instances, he may give way if the pressure mounts. The outcome is not yet clear as an ultra-nationalistic Congress may yet thwart Obama’s seemingly more sensible response to what should have been treated as a tempest in a teapot, but for reasons to be discussed, has instead become a cause celebre.

 

            The Americans charged are on the payroll of three organizations: International Republican Institute (IRI), Democratic National Institute (DNI), and Freedom House. The first two organizations get all of their funding from the U.S. Government, and were originally founded in 1983 after Ronald Reagan’s speech to the British Parliament in which he urged that help be given to build the democratic infrastructure of newly independent countries in the non-Western world put forward as a Cold War counter-measure to the continuing appeal of Marxist ideologies. From the moment of their founding IRI and DNI were abundantly funded by annual multi-million grants from Congress, either directly or by way of such governmental entities as the U.S. Assistance for International Development  (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy. IRI and DNI claim to be non-partisan yet both are explicitly affiliated with each of the two political parties dominant in the United States, with boards, staffs, and consultants drawn overwhelmingly from former government workers and officials who are associated with these two American political parties. The ideological and governmental character of the two organizations is epitomized by the nature of their leadership. Madeline Albright, Secretary of State during the Clinton presidency, is chair of the DNI Board, while former Republican presidential candidate and currently a prominent senator, John McCain, holds the same position in the IRI. Freedom House, the third main organization that is the target of the Egyptian crackdown also depends for more than 80% of its funding from the National Endowment for Democracy and is similarly rooted in American party politics. It was founded in 1941 as a bipartisan initiative during the Cold War by two stalwarts of their respective political parties, Wendell Wilkie and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

            Against this background the protests from Washington and the media assessments of the controversy seem willfully misleading. Since when does Washington become so agitated on behalf of NGOs under attack in a foreign country? Even mainstream eyebrows should have been raised sky high when Martin Demsey, currently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while visiting Cairo was reported to have interceded with his military counterparts on behalf of these Americans made subject to a travel ban and faced with the threat of prosecution. When was the last time you can recall an American military commander interceding on behalf of a genuine NGO? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ‘the answer my friends, is never.’ So even the most naïve among us should be asking ‘what is really going on here?’

 

            The spokespersons for the organizations treat the allegations as a simple case of interference with the activities of apolitical and benevolent NGOs innocently engaged in helping Egyptians receive needed training and guidance with respect to democratic practices, especially those relating to elections and the rule of law. Substantively such claims seem more or less true at present, at least here in Egypt. Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as ‘civil society institutions,’ which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as ‘nongovernmental’ or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as ‘informal governmental organizations.’ (IGOs)

 

            It is hardly surprising that a more honest label is avoided as its use would call attention to the problematic character of the undertakings: namely, disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government by way of behavior that poses at the very least a potential threat to its political independence. With such an altered interpretation of the controversy assumes a different character. It becomes quite understandable for the Egyptian government seeking to move beyond its authoritarian past to feel the need to tame these Trojan Horses outfitted by Washington. It would seem sensible and prudent for Egypt to insist that such organizations, and especially those associated with the U.S. Government, be registered and properly licensed in Egypt as a minimum precondition for receiving permission to carry on their activities in the country, especially on matters as sensitive as are elections, political parties, and the shaping of the legal system. Surely the United States, despite its long uninterrupted stable record of constitutional governance, would not even consider allowing such ‘assistance’ from abroad.  If it had been proposed by, say, Sweden, an offer of help with democracy would have been immediately rebuffed, and rudely dismissed as an insult to the sovereignty of the United States  despite Sweden being a geopolitical midget and U.S. being the gorilla on the global stage.

 

            And these Washington shrieks of wounded innocence, as if Cairo had no grounds whatsoever for concern, are either the memory lapses of a senile bureaucracy or totally disingenuous. In the past it has been well documented that IRI and DNI were active in promoting the destabilization of foreign governments that were deemed to be hostile to the then American foreign policy agenda. The Reagan presidency made no secret of its commitment to lend all means of support to political movements dedicated to the overthrow of left-leaning governments in Latin America and Asia. The most notorious instances involving the use of IRI to destabilize a foreign government is well known among students of American interventionist diplomacy. For instance IRI funds were extensively distributes to anti-regime forces to get rid of the Aristide government in Haiti, part of a dynamic that did lead to a coup in 2004 that brought to power reactionary political forces that were welcomed and seemed far more congenial to Washington’s ideas of ‘good governance’ at the time. IRI was openly self-congratulatory about its role in engineering a successful effort to strengthen ‘center and center/right’ political parties in Poland several years ago, which amounts to a virtual confession of interference with the dynamics of Polish self-determination.

 

            Although spokespersons for these organizations piously claim in their responses to these recent Egyptian moves against them to respect the sovereignty of the countries within which they operate, and especially so in Egypt. Even if these claims are generally true, ample grounds remain for suspicion and regulation, if not exclusion, on the part of a territorial government. An insistence upon proper regulation seems entirely reasonable if due account is taken of the numerous instances of covert and overt intervention by the United States in the political life of non-Western countries.

 

            Against such a background, several conclusions follow: first, the individuals being charged by Egypt are not working for genuine NGOs or civil society institutions, but are acting on behalf of informal government organizations or IGOs; secondly, the specific organizations being targeted, especially the DNI and IRI are overtly ideological in their makeup, funding base, and orientation; and thirdly, there exist compelling grounds for a non-Western government to regulate or exclude such political actors when due account is taken of a long American record of interventionary diplomacy. Thus the Washington posture of outrage seems entirely inappropriate once the actions of the Egyptian government are contextually interpreted.

 

            Yet the full story is not so simple or one-sided. It needs to be remembered that the Egyptian governing process in the year since the uprising that led to the collapse of the Mubarak regime has been controlled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), which is widely believed by the Egyptian public to be responsible for a wave of repressive violence associated with its fears that some democratic demands are threatening their position and interests in the country. A variety of severe abuses of civilian society have been convincingly attributed to the military.  As well the military is responsible for a series of harsh moves against dissenters who blog or otherwise act in a manner deemed critical of military rule. In effect, the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realizing the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

 

            There is another seemingly strange part of the puzzle. Would we not expect the United States to side the Egyptian military with which it worked in close harmony during the Mubarak period. Why would Washington not welcome this apparent slide toward Mubarakism without Mubarak? Was this not America’s preferred outcome in Egypt all along, being the only outcome that would allow Washington to be confident that the new Egypt would not rock the Israeli boat or otherwise disturb American interests in the region. There is no disclosure of U.S. motives at this time for its present seemingly pro-democracy approach, but there are grounds for thinking Washington may be reacting to the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour (Salafi) Party in the Egyptian parliamentary elections and even more so to the apparent collaboration between these parties and the SCAF in planning Egypt’s immediate political future. In such a setting it seems plausible that sharpening state/society tensions in Egypt by siding with the democratic opposition would keep alive the possibility of a secular governing process less threatening to U.S./Israeli interests, as well as inducing Egypt itself to adopt a cautious approach to democratic reform. Maybe there are different explanations more hidden from view, but what seems clear is that both governmental in this kafuffle have dirty hands and are fencing in the dark at this point, that is, mounting arguments and counter-arguments that obscure rather than reveal their true motivations.

 

            In the end, Egypt, along with other countries, is likely to be far better off if it prohibits American IGOs from operating freely within its national territorial space, especially if their supposed mandate is to promote democracy as defined and funded by Washington. This is not to say that Egyptians would not be far better off if the SCAF allowed civilian rule to emerge in the country and acted in a manner respectful of human rights and democratic values. In other words what is at stake in this seemingly trivial controversy lies hidden by the smokescreens relied upon by both sides in the dispute: weighty matters of governance and democracy that could determine whether the remarkable glories of the Arab Spring mutate in the direction of a dreary Egyptian Autumn, or even Winter.