Sometimes it’s not what a statesman says in public that matters most, but both how he says it and the context in which he says it. Case in point: Secretary Kerry’s remarks yesterday in Islamabad.
Having written speeches for two Secretaries of State, I am particularly sensitive to such nuances. I am also sensitive to the difference between Secretarial remarks that have been scripted and thought though, and extemporaneous remarks of the sort liable to pop out during encounters with the press. Mistakes happen with both sorts of language, but they tend to happen more often with the latter. And believe me when I tell you that the old sticks and stones theorem—that words can’t really hurt—is utterly false.
So am I saying that what Kerry said yesterday in Pakistan is a mistake? No, and yes. Let me walk you through that answer, please, starting with the “what”, moving to the “how”, and concluding with the “context.”
What he said was perfectly fine, to my way of thinking—which I explained at some length in my July 11 post, “Missionary Creep in Egypt.” He said the Egyptian military intervened to protect democracy, that millions and millions of citizens urged it on to do so. That was a smart thing to say, even if the first part turns out not to be true, lest the majority of Egyptians think that the U.S. Government is pro-Muslim Brotherhood—an impression rather a lot of them developed over the past year for reasons that need not detain us now.
Kerry also said that there’s a civilian government in Egypt now, and that “so far”—he said it twice—the military has not taken over the government. That is fine to say, even though of course it’s not really true, because it serves several purposes. It pleases the majority in Egypt. It protects us from several possible troubling futures that might come to pass but that we cannot decisively influence. It also increases perhaps slightly what modest influence we do have on the Egyptian military. It also signals those who disagree with the Administration’s posture concerning the “c” word and the $1.5 billion in aid implicated by it that there will be no backing down and no deals over this. That’s all to the good.
The Secretary also noted that U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil now had a timetable to end, as of, apparently, the moment the words came out of his mouth. This came across as a concession to Pakistani sensibilities, but Kerry immediately and carefully aligned that remark with a key condition: We’ll stop when we’ve taken out the targets we have identified. This says, in so many words, that we’ve been successful pretty much so far, and that’s why we can foresee an end; but if we stop being so successful, maybe because the Pakistani military does not do its share in cleaning up the mess in its tribal areas, that endpoint will drift further into the future. This is a very delicate matter in Pakistan, not least for the once again new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Kerry made the right noises. He bowed toward Pakistani opinion without forfeiting so much as a rupee’s worth of flexibility or leverage on our part.
Again, all this is separate from issues of truth or wisdom, in this case whether the drone-attack campaign that’s been so robustly augmented during the past four years-plus has been a good idea. As I have said before, and as have others, for the most part is has not. It’s one thing to blow genuine al-Qaeda types—transnational and trans-tribal terrorists of the chiliastic mass-murdering sort—into little clouds of pink meat in places like Yemen. I’m all for that, and I’m not even particularly squeamish about occasional collateral damage screw-ups. But targeting Pashtun tribesman in Waziristan involves a completely different strategic calculation—or at least it should. Once again U.S. decision-makers have displayed a very, very old trait: a near-complete incapacity to understand or take seriously critical differences within and among Middle Eastern and Muslims societies.
So much for the “what”, how about the “how”?
I have no gripe with Secretary Kerry’s use of language in discussing what he and his Administration associates wisely refuse to call the coup in Egypt. The statement about the Egyptian military not yet, “so far”, “so far”, having taken control of the government sounded to me a bit too studiously phrased. As such, it drew too much attention to itself and, since the statement is manifestly false, that’s not such a good thing to do. If you’re going to lie, if you need to do that for a good purpose, don’t wrap a red bandana around it and light off a cherry bomb. As for his locution about the future of U.S. drone strikes into Pakistan, that was fairly masterfully done.
Thus “what” and “how”; what about “context”? This I want to approach in reverse order.
Secretary Kerry is in Pakistan on an official visit, and in his first “public” encounter with the press it made all the sense in the world to offer what could be taken as a mild concession, something that felt like a heartfelt two fingers on the top of the hand in friendship. I’d like to think this had been worked out in advance with Prime Minister Sharif, because that’s the right way to do such things. The context was fine for those words uttered.
The context for what Secretary Kerry said about Egypt while in Pakistan, however, was about as unfortunate as can be. Let me count the two main ways.
Everyone paying attention knows that there are two large pro-Morsi sit-ins going on in Cairo right now, and everyone knows that General al-Sisi has ordered them shut down and dispersed. Everyone knows, too, that this looming confrontation comes on the heels of two especially vicious bloody attacks by the regime on the MB protestors, about which the U.S. government made several remonstrations in private, but said not a whole helluva lot about in public. And everyone knows why: The more inclusive the generals allow Egypt’s political framework to become as it is rebuilt from the ordeals of the past two years, the less likely Islamists will be driven to extremism, violence and terror tactics. But we don’t want to call the generals out in public on this at a time when we’re trying to win their confidence and cultivate their trust in our judgment.
Now, Kerry also said—and if you read the transcript of his remarks you can get the exact wording—that we don’t want to see mass violence again. “That can’t happen”, is how he unfortunately phrased it—because yes, it certainly can. So like his statement about the drone campaign in Pakistan, he tried to balance his remark, in essence trying to have it both ways. Be nice to the Egyptian military, so they’ll trust us better and take our views more seriously, but warn them against doing foolish things out of anger or spite in the meantime.
This splitting of the difference may or may not work with the Pakistanis, but it definitely won’t work with the Egyptians. The Egyptian military knows what it’s doing, or at least it thinks it does. It thinks that by showing strength at this early stage in what is bound to be a protracted conflict within Egyptian society, it reduces the likelihood of a civil war and massive domestic violence. Al-Sisi and company believe that if they seem weak now in the face of protests, it will encourage the Brotherhood and the Al-Nour Party salafis to take the next steps and organize for an insurgency.
They’re right. I therefore do not think they intend to overdo it, to try to extirpate the Brotherhood altogether from the future Egyptian political equation, as some have claimed to be their intent. At some point they will again tolerate the Brotherhood, within certain old and well-practiced red lines, if not tolerate Morsi, Badie and al-Shatar themselves. For the Egyptian military elite, this is a critical and existential decision-point; for the Obama Administration is clearly isn’t, and the Egyptian generals know that. This is a case, among a very great many, where the balance of interests is far more significant in determining outcomes than the balance of power.
The result of Kerry’s remarks, then, under the circumstances, will be to flash a green light to the Egyptian military’s use of force against the demonstrators. They will hear his first sentence or two, and they will ignore the rest. Many people will be killed, most likely, and it will then seem to some that the American Secretary of State is complicit in those deaths. That may not be entirely fair, but as with truth, fairness in such matters is a highly elastic concept.
The second aspect of context the Secretary should have been mindful of but apparently was not is that Pakistan is not a great place right now from which to praise the democratic credentials of a military ouster of an elected government. Pakistan is unusual in many ways, one of which is the fact that it has experienced both military and civilian government over the years with almost equal degrees of consensual remorse. The Pakistani roulette wheel points to “civilian” right now, and so my guess is that Prime Minister Sharif was not too thrilled to hear Kerry’s kind words about the actions of the Egyptian military. These days I suspect that General Kayani wasn’t either. Pakistan is like Egypt in that both countries suffer today from the Hot Potato Syndrome (HPS): No one really wants to rule what have become seriously ungovernable countries, lest they get burned for the long term from trying and failing.
Kerry would have been better off had he dodged the question about Egypt, and saved his remarks for the travelling press aboard Air Force II after wheels-up out of Pakistan. That way too, if the blood should dry thick outside of Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque in Cairo, Kerry will not stand to be blamed for helping to have spilled it.
Words can kill, just as sticks and stones can sometimes be employed as lesser evils. Beware nursery rhyme simplicities.