Some Thoughts on Power, Revolution, and the Arab Spring September 13, 2012Posted by Sobek in Politics.
Long, disorganized, unedited mindthoughts warning.
You’ve been warned.
I heard something insightful a long time ago by Jay Leno, of all people. Man, I wish I could remember the quote, because he put it well, but it was something to the effect of “you never know whether you have power until you try to use it.” He was talking about power in Hollywood, but I think that applies to all walks of life.
Someone, a lady from Iran, asked me a few months ago who has the real power in Egypt, now that Mubarak is gone. That’s a really tricky question, because it’s not just a matter of Googling “who’s the President of Egypt.” A man can have a fancy title and not have real power. I pointed out that in Iran after the revolution, the new President was Abolhasan Bani-Sadr … before I could even finish my sentence, she laughed at me, and that was exactly my point. Everyone knows, in hindsight, that Bani-Sadr had no power to do anything. No one (himself included) knew that in February of 1979. He didn’t find that out until he tried to use his power to make things happen, and the people around him looked at Ayatollah Khomeini to see whether that was okay. As Khomeini grew increasingly apart from Bani-Sadr, Bani-Sadr’s orders were followed less and less, and it was soon very, very clear that he had no power at all.
That’s because power – real power – is what moves things. It’s what changes things, makes things happen, gets movies green-lit or laws enforced.
Consider the question of power by asking the following question: Does the President of the United States have power to appoint a Secretary of State who was a member of a Congress that voted a pay-raise for that position? You could look at the Constitution, Article I, Section 6, clause 2, and say no, the Constitution clearly forbids that, and the President does not have that power. Or you could point out that Obama did precisely that when he appointed Hillary Clinton, and it turns out that in actual point of fact, apparently he does have that power. That may seem a cynical conclusion, but on the simplest understanding of what power is, Obama wanted to make something happen, he made it happen, nobody stopped him, and Clinton has been Secretary of State ever since. No one has any realistic expectation that anyone will do anything about that.
Or consider this: did Obama have power to order six mnonths’ worth of airstrikes on Libya without a declaration of war or any other approval from Congress? One might check the Constitution and the laws and treatises that have been written on the subject, or you could look at history and note that, again, Obama did precisely that. So yes, he did have the power. Moammar Ghadaffi’s corpse might argue that it was an illegal exercise of power, but I specify that it’s a corpse on purpose – Obama’s actions had real-world consequences in making something happen, which no one stopped him from doing and for which he never paid a penalty.
So we can quibble about sources of power, and who ought to have power, or we can look at who actually makes things happen and understand that person has power, as a practical matter.
The more I study revolutions, the more convinced I am that successful revolutions have important traits in common, and for purposes of this essay, the most important involves the aftermath. That’s because successful revolutions are caused by coalitions, with disparate leadership and disparate aims, but all with one common goal: to take the current government out of power. Danton and Robespierre would end up hating one anothers’ guts (and Robespierre ended up judicially murdering Danton with a guillotine), but they both agreed Louis XVI had to go. Trotsky and Stalin both agreed the Romanovs had to go, and that monarchy should be replaced by socialism (and Stalin ended up murdering Trotsky with an ice ax). Adams and Jefferson both agreed on independence for the United States (and then they wrote hysterically awful things about each other).
That’s my point about revolution: it succeeds on the backs of fragile coalitions, but once the old power is gone, the scramble to determine the new power begins. That scramble can be peaceful or bloody, quick or protracted. Consider that in Afghanistan, the different mujahideen groups all agreed that the Soviets needed to go, but once they were gone they launched one of the bloodiest civil wars in world history, which so devastated the country that people actually cheered the coming of the Taliban (at first), who could at least provide some semblance of stability (at first). If one person or party had emerged the clear victor after the Soviets had left, there would be no Taliban, al-Qaeda would have found no safe-haven there, and there would have been no 9/11.
Damn you, Afghanistan.
The Arab Spring
So, who has power in Egypt? It looks like the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Muhammad Morsi has it. Not because he has the fancy title, but because he has proven he makes things happen. For months after Mubarak was ousted, the talking heads wondered whether the MB would have any real power, or whether any President would remain a puppet of the military (which is what usually happens in Africa).
But Morsi proved otherwise, when he dismissed his top generals and the military allowed that action to happen. In America, that’s exactly what we would expect, if a President fired a general. But for developing countries like Egypt, it was a surprising and striking thing. I spent the next few days watching to see whether they would actually go quietly, and it turned out, they did. And now we know who has power in Egypt, per Professor Leno’s dictum, because Morsi used power and made something happen.
Something More Disturbing
All of my examples so far have been about intra-national contests. Here’s something to chew on when you read about Tuesday’s attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi. Ask the same question: does Egypt have the power to storm our embassies, destroy our flags, and raise the al-Qaeda flag on our soil? Yes it does. Because mobs did that very thing, and they paid absolutely no price for it. We let it happen, and demonstrated to Morsi that his mobs have that power. Does the Libyan government have power to tell the mob where our Ambassador’s secure location is, so the mob can murder him and three of our Marines in cold blood? Yes it does, because we just allowed it to with impunity.
If you go back to the first question I asked, about Hillary Clinton being appointed SecState in clear violation of the Constitution, that was allowed to happen by a Congress that was derelict in its duties. The Democrats just shrugged, said “it’s not that big a deal,” and approved the appointment. Their failure to react and oppose the power grab left the door open for future power grabs, like illegal recess appointments, illegal gun-running operations, illegal use of Executive Orders, an illegal war in Libya, illegal leaks of classified intelligence. Every time Obama tests whether he has power to ignore the Constitution he swore to uphold and defend, it emboldens him to do it again, because he keeps learning he actually does have that power.
Just so with radical Islamic groups. bin Laden declared war on America, and we did nothing. We launched a few missiles at an aspirin factory to distract from Clinton’s sexual predation/perjury scandal, but that was about it. So bin Laden started blowing up our buildings and sinking our ships, and he learned over and over again that he had power to do it. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that America finally contested that use of power. But that was a long time ago, and one President ago, and we seem to be a 9/10 nation again. By going back in time, we have ceded power to those in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, tacitly informing them through our inaction and ineptitude that they have power and we do not.
Power on the Individual Scale
On Tuesday afternoon, as the first news of the Cairo attack started filtering out, a retired Marine and I were wondering why none of the Marines shot as the rioters came over the walls. It is an act of war, and we both agreed the soldiers would have been justified in shooting.
Then my buddy wondered out loud what the Rules of Engagement are for a Marine on embassy grounds, and we both figure they have to be some of the most restrictive in the world. That’s with good reason: if you have a million rioting thugs out there, you don’t have enough bullets to stop them all, and shooting one thug can turn a riot into a war. As I considered this, I put myself into the head of a Marine inside that compound, watching barbaric animals invade sovereign US territory (with visions of Iran, 1979 in my head), and my sympathies went immediately to him, because I asked “if I take the shot, will the President have my back?” And the answer is an unequivocal No. There is no way in hell that Barack Obama would come to the defense of a Marine who fired in the defense of our embassy. So that Marine had a gun, and training, but was stripped of all power. He could not, under any circumstances, make anything happen.
Barack Obama is a shameful excuse for a human being, and if he had any capacity for self-reflection he would realize how utterly despicable and beneath contempt he is. What a loathsome, spineless, little, pathetic worm.