Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hillary's Metaphorical Muff

I would wager that most of us (including Sec of State Hillary Clinton) had never heard the term "perfect storm" before the movie thriller of that name, which was based on actual events that became the source of a chilling, riveting account by Sebastian Junger.  In the movie version, three different storm tracks very improbably converge to create what was referred to as a "perfect storm" with monster winds and waves that sank a New England fishing boat with all hands, including silver-screen favorites George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and John C. Reilly.  In the popular eye of most Americans, "perfect storm" is a metaphor for utter, virtually inescapable catastrophe.

Over the past month, events in the Middle East - especially in Tunisia and Egypt - have seemingly miraculously produced the demise of one autocratic regime in Tunisia, have set another (in Egypt) on a downward skid,  and have impelled  still other autocrats (in Jordan, Yemen, and - yes, given how Mr. al-Maliki has arrogated so much power to himself - I'd classify Iraq as perhaps heading again into autocracy) to signal the potential for opening political space for pro-democratic change. Yes, such changes do pose dangers; no one can be certain of how they will turn out, of how much reform will indeed be in the offing.  But around the region, the new word - a word that had seldom been heard for so many years  - is hope.  People are excited about the possibility of change, of improving their own lives and those of their children.  The new attitude that's emerging is - dare we say it - "Yes We Can."

 In such an atmosphere in which people want to embrace hope, I cannot imagine a US Secretary of State (especially one whose boss is capable of such lofty, inspiring rhetoric) employing a more deflating metaphor than to refer to conditions across the region as a "perfect storm" that might completely destabilize the region:


With anti-government demonstrations spreading from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen, Clinton said high unemployment, depleting oil and water reserves and long-simmering unhappiness at autocratic rulers threaten global stability. That unhappiness expands exponentially with new communications technologies, she said.

"The region is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trends. . . .  Leaders in the region may be able to hold back the tide for a little while, but not for long."

At least, bless her heart, she also talks of the importance of change as a "strategic necessity":
"This is not simply a matter of idealism; it is a strategic necessity. . . . Without genuine progress toward open and accountable political systems, the gap between people and their governments will grow, and instability will only deepen."

So, the US is on-board with the "change" thing.  But again, to channel George H. W. Bush, what about the "vision" thing?  And, once again, as I've noted in several earlier posts, there's that "stability" thing.

Which also, by the way, likely accounts for how, in the last 24 hours, the Obama people began tacking away from "change now" to acquiescing more agreeably in the Egyptian government's announced transition process, in which power is to be handed off to Hosni Mubarak's hand-picked vice-president, Omar Suleiman - who, from the standpoint of Egypt's autocratic, military-backed system, is as Old Guard as they come.  And that tack was momentarily diverted by the statement of US envoy Frank Wisner that Mubarak needs to hang onto power a while longer to make the transition work. Clinton's people jumped in to fix that immediately, but the episode betrays team Obama's confusion - how they're making it up as they go along, how they're ultimately unable (or unwilling) to trust the Egyptians' (meaning the regime, the opposition politicians, the military, and the people) ability to manage the process, and how much they prize stability above any other consideration. 

Focusing on stability opens space for foot-dragging - for the Egyptian military to get its ducks lined up so that they can continue to call the shots (for "stability's" sake), and for the obviously deeply worried Netanyahu government to apply pressure where pressure might help them rein in Egypt's transition to ensure stability.  But in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and al-Jazeera, foot-dragging can also be exposed quickly, and broadly, for what it is.

All of which means, I fear, that the Egyptian people, who for the last 2 weeks have been so full of hope, may need to take to the streets again, to give the "transition" a kick in its rear. But the "transition" may be ready and waiting for them this time.

To borrow Gen. Petraeus's question once more: Tell me how this ends.

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