Friday, January 28, 2011


Remember the Joe Biden gaffe way back when he said that Barack Obama would be tested early in his presidency by a foreign policy crisis? Well, guess that it's finally happened, although not really on the VP's timetable.

Since I have no Egypt expertise, I can only remind you that the Monkey Cage is a good place to go for links to people who knew something about that part of the world before last week (and they have some excellent links for keeping up on the news), and to steer you elsewhere for what's happening inside Egypt. I do, however, have some cautions about what we're likely to hear in the US press and commentary. Consider this a general news-followers guide to any kind of fast-breaking story, especially those taking place in foreign nations.

1. American press and political reaction to things like this invariably overstate the American role in whatever is going on. The US of course does have a lot to do with Egypt, and it may or may not be true that American policy can influence events there, but US coverage in these situations almost always overestimates that potential influence. That's even more true about statements, as opposed to actions, by US government officials.

2. I have no position on the best choices for President Obama and Secretary Clinton, but media-watchers should remember that there's usually a media bias here in favor of action. Action may or may not be appropriate; it's worth remembering that during the most successful mass outbreak of democracy ever, in 1989, President George H.W. Bush was criticized for being overly cautious in his public statements. Again, I don't have any suggestion of what's best to do, but remember that sometimes doing as little as possible (especially publicly) can be an effective strategy.

3. There's also a media bias, and also a pundit bias, in my opinion in favor of believing that there's a good solution to all problems -- and that democracy elsewhere is always a good thing for the US. Again, that may be so, and I do think it makes sense for US policy to have a principled preference for democracy in other nations, but it may be that in some nations a healthy democracy would also produce anti-American policies, and that's a real dilemma for American policy.

4. Add-on to point #1: you're going to hear a lot of people claiming that this or that American policy is responsible for anything good (or bad) that happens, but odds are that such claims are massively overstated.

5. Many, although not all, of the people who are going to give opinions early on are basically going to be just plugging whatever they usually say into this situation without having any idea whether or not it applies. The sorts of people who are inclined to say "we'll just have to wait and see" are not usually the sorts who want to be on CNN giving their opinions, and at any rate CNN doesn't usually ask them back a second time. The sorts of people who are inclined to immediately attribute things to social media/American imperialism/American fecklessness/that we haven't started drilling in ANWR/that we haven't passed an energy tax/that it's all Barack Obama's fault/that it's all Sarah Palin's fault (pause, breath...) do get asked back.

6. And, finally, whenever there's lots of fast-breaking news, the odds are very good that some of what you hear is going to be factually wrong. That goes for live-bloggers, it goes for tweets, and it goes for CNN and other established, credentialed reporters. Major media outlets made basic factual errors about what was happening during the Tucson massacre a few weeks ago, around the Christmas and Times Square terrorist attempts, and, of course, during the September 11 attacks.


  1. There's also a media bias...that democracy elsewhere is always a good thing for the US

    This is clearly untrue; the easy counterexample is the recent election of Hamas in Gaza. However, the negative externalities arising from the Hamas election should not be laid at the feet of democracy; dictatorships give rise to similar difficulties.

    For example, from the start of the Second Intifida to his deposing, Saddam Hussein was the financier of several Palestinian suicide bombers who caused terrible mayhem inside Israel. Hussein surely did not do so because he cheered for the rise of Palestine; he pretty clearly was ginning up anti-Israeli sentiment on the Iraqi street as a distraction from his country's increasingly difficult situation in the face of lengthy global sanctions.

    An Egyptian democracy, like the election of Hamas in Gaza, may reflect latent anti-Israeli sentiment, which may undo much progress between those nations. However, the same thing could happen with a new Egyptian dictatorship that overthrows Mubarak, especially if it goes the Hussein route, ginning up anti-Israeli sentiment as a distraction from troubles at home.

    I'm not an Egypt expert either, and its true that democracy is not a panacea - but those who support democracy are not fans of voting per se, we are fans of the infrastructure, of the democratic institutions, that tend to give common folk something constructive to focus their lives upon aside from the destruction of some hated enemy.

  2. A bit of further reflection, and it seems that Egypt is a peculiarly difficult case for Israel (and by extension, America). Egypt is arguably the one Arab country where the flowering of democracy may coincide with the withering of relations. Israel will always have a devilishly tricky time dealing with its Arab neighbors; replacing Mubarak with a democratic government could make that task more difficult.

    In general, though, democracies, where average citizens occupy themselves with pedestrian concerns like making their payroll, ought to be way preferable to dictatorships, where average citizens plot to blow up pedestrians. Egypt is possibly the exception that proves the rule.

  3. Speaking of embarrassing gaffes:

  4. To be fair, Foot-in-Mouth Biden didn't mean "something would happen." He meant: "the Chinese or some other not-quite-friendly government will gin up something to test him on the international stage, a la the Chinese 'accidental' plane bump"

    And, it didn't happen. (Actually, I kinda thought that wasn't the worst prediction ever)

  5. people who knew something about that part of the world before last week

    A snark classic that pretty much sums it up!

  6. Matt --

    You are correct.

    Rick --

    Thanks...but FWIW, there sure is a lot of good stuff out there, and even some of what I've heard on TV has been pretty honest; CNN did have an expert on who explained what he knew about Egypt, but was careful to avoid speculating about what would happen, let alone claiming to know everything. I did hear one dud expert on NPR this evening, though. And a dud panel on NPR about what Obama should do. (All of which reminded me why I normally listen to the local college stations and not NPR).

  7. I wonder if the "nobody saw this coming" nature of the situation is leading to a slightly higher quality of journalism, at least so far. I don't mean that they made a collective decision to be more responsible (please). Just that since last week, there wasn't much of a market for media-friendly Egypt experts, so maybe a lot of the talking points, glib opinions, and predictions haven't really formed yet. Besides that, the ideologies of this situations seem a little mixed up, so conservative and liberal pundits can't just push their stock line of thought quite as easily.

  8. I found this list very interesting. Point 1 was especially spot on. The protesters in the street are not thinking about America's role in all of this. They are thinking about their lives, their government, and their people. Also, you are right that the Obama administration is in a tough position on this one, but I think Obama, Clinton, and Gibbs did a better job striking a good balance on Mubarak than Biden and Kerry.

  9. Great points!

    1) "...invariably overstate the American role in whatever is going on."
    2) "... media [and public] bias here in favor of action."
    3) "Many ... just plugging whatever they usually say into this situation without having any idea whether or not it applies."
    4) "... the odds are very good that some of what you hear is going to be factually wrong."

    And then there are the purposefully slanted reports. Amazing (& sometimes disturbing) how differently international incidents are reported in different countries, even by different stations. (Not to mention this trend in American politics.)

    And finally...

    5) "... bias ... that democracy elsewhere is always a good thing for the US."

    This goes a lot further though. What is good for the US is not and should not be the yardstick for the best outcome in international incidents. What is good for the US is not necessarily what is good for the rest of the world and we should not presume otherwise. Although it would certainly be advantageous if things worked out in a way that would benefit us as well as the international communities in question, our interests should not be seen as a primary consideration -- even here in the US. We should not presume that our interests take precedence over the interests of the people actually living in the affected areas
    In any case, the “best“ outcome – for the world as a whole – will ultimately be known only years from now.

  10. the last timee I was in egipt was 30 years ago in the yumper kemper war. in capuring 3,000 egiption tank's, 5 pontoon briges, a 108 sam six missile dite's,$08,000.00 in smaall arm's & 26,000 Egiption pow's.
    Egipt ask me to answer. If one has to give in a littel it easerr to alow demacasiey an the will of the people. than to be a hard liner,playing hard ball. thank the military for siding with the people.
    Anger dosee not salve problem's, let the people
    save problem's. It's normeal for thhe military to feal uneaasy in a demacaiey it why it called of we the people.
    the bit was for 30 years of peace it time to
    coleat one derivative and peace divadend's.
    buy vaugh nebeker the scintest that put out chernobyl.


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