The Rhetorical Trap in US Foreign Policy

The horrific events in Egypt these past days, and past month, have placed a persistent dilemma in US foreign policy to the fore once again. What does the US do when its ‘national interest’ or ‘strategic imperatives’ and ‘military logic’ dictate one policy direction while its ‘ideals,’ ‘values’ and ‘moral commitments’ suggest another? The inverted commas are necessary, of course, because the framing of the question thus, and what is grouped under ‘national interest’ as opposed to ‘values’ is a product of fluid contextual discursive formations and power relations.

The current dilemma in Egypt is ostensibly straightforward. The US state has long had a so-called “strategic relationship” with the Egyptian military, which has long dominated, as a corporatist military-economic nexus, that state. Yet the US government nominally supports the expansion and flourishing of democratic regimes. In his Cairo speech of 2009, Obama put it thus:

No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people.  Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.  America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.  But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things:  the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.  (Applause.)
Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise.  But this much is clear:  Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.  Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.  America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.  And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.
This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.  (Applause.)  So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power:  You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.  Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Barack Obama, we love you!

Thereafter the so-called Arab Spring forced a choice upon the administration and it moved towards embracing the ‘revolution’ and dialogue with Islamicist parties in Egypt (but not in Bahrain). Peter Mandaville helped nudge this process forward in the State Department in an admirable way (see his ‘Unexceptional Islamicist’ essay in Foreign Policy). But then the Muslim Brotherhood captured the presidency and it began to trample over other democratic norms and practices, institutionalizing sectarianism within the constitution. With the old political economy under profound challenge, the counter-revolution began and organizationally mobilized significant public support, ‘legitimizing’ the resultant military coup. “Elections alone do not make true democracy” but military coups against democratically elected leaders are hard to defend. For legal legislative reasons US political officials are now in the absurd situation of where they dare not speak the words ‘military coup.’

Is Egypt today an instance of normative rhetoric trapping US policy makers in positions that undermine their credibility, and expose the gap between ‘ideals’ and ‘strategic interests’ in the making of foreign policy? I’m not so sure if you read Obama’s text closely but the glib version — US supports military, then democracy, then military — is damning.

A rhetorical trap is clearer in other instances.

Earlier this month was the fifth anniversary of the August War of 2008, an event I’m writing a book on. Here a case can be made explicitly for a rhetorical trap and, some might argue, the abandonment of friends as the Saakashvili’s government was left to face a Russian military invasion on its own. Only Bill Kristol, to my knowledge, actually called for the US to ‘defend the sovereignty’ of US friend and GWOT ally Georgia. Senator McCain never suggested that the US actually go to the military aid of the Georgians. In the Georgian case, some US officials might respond that the Georgian government brought this upon itself by its own actions. There is more to it than this.

There are even stronger cases of a rhetorical trap and the US ‘abandoning friends’:

  • After the Gulf War of 1991, President George H.W. Bush, urged Iraqis to rise up in opposition to the rule of Saddam Hussein. Shia in Basra and Kurds in the North did so, and were crushed, triggering the scrambling response Operation Provide Comfort for the Kurds in the north that eventually gave rise to Iraqi Kurdistan (now the KRG).
  • Upon assuming power the administration of President Eisenhower, with John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, frequently called for the ‘liberation’ of the ‘captive peoples’ of Eastern Europe. An increasingly elaborate infrastructure of propaganda and covert activities pursued their policy of strong ‘rhetorical diplomacy’ against Soviet control. In 1956 RFE/RL issues some incendiary broadcasts which gave Hungarians the impression that they would be aided if they rose up against their Soviet occupiers. They did and were crushed.

In 1992 I helped lead a Geography fieldtrip to Budapest, a city I first visited in 1990, which focused on the spaces of the 1956 uprising. Since then I’ve had a strong interest in the event (bolstered by meeting some emigres who fled; Kati Morton, Holbrooke’s last wife, is one and features in the documentary Freedom’s Fury on the famous ‘blood in the water’ waterpolo match). Chris Tudda’s The Truth is Our Weapon: The Rhetorical Diplomacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles (Louisiana State University, 2006) is a compelling study of the how Ike and Dulles envisioned fighting the Cold War in Eastern Europe, with a fascinating chapter on 1956. Tudda defines ‘rhetorical diplomacy’ as the practice of Ike and Dulles to give hectoring, bellicose and ideological speeches (what he terms ‘inflammatory rhetoric’) against Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. Yet, he establishes that both Ike and Dulles held policy positions in private, and in confidence even from Western European allies, that diverged significantly from their public rhetoric. Put bluntly, both Ike and Dulles accepted the reality of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe but they never admitted this in public, suggesting instead the very opposite. In the 1956 case, this generated a rhetorical trap, and a very sorry episode in Cold War history.

All of these cases have their complexities but it can be argued that there is one commonality: the illegitimacy of ‘realism’ in US geopolitical culture. US political leaders are addicted to rhetoric that soars, and that all too frequently produces severe legitimacy crises like we see today.

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About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching territorial conflicts and the dynamics of geopolitical competition in post-Communist Europe.
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One Response to The Rhetorical Trap in US Foreign Policy

  1. Reblogged this on Militainment and the National Security State and commented:
    An astute analysis of the recurring problem in US public diplomacy by Gerard Toal via Critical Geopolitics. How to weigh “interests” against “security” .

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