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ON THE HIGH WIRE
IF AT THE END OF 2010, anyone had asked me where the next major Middle East crisis would most likely occur, I could have offered them a rich menu of possibilities. There was Iraq, of course, where despite progress, it often felt as if a return to chaos was just a market bombing or militia attack away. The international sanctions we’d imposed on Iran in response to its nuclear program had started to cause some pain, and any defiance or desperation from the regime could lead to a confrontation that spun out of control. Yemen—one of the world’s true hard-luck cases—had become headquarters to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was now the deadliest and most active chapter of the terrorist network.
And then there were the few hundred miles of winding, contested border that separated Israel from the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Mine was hardly the first U.S. administration to lose sleep over those relatively thin pieces of real estate. The conflict between Arabs and Jews had been an open sore on the region for almost a century, dating back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British, who were then occupying Palestine, committed to create a “national home for the Jewish people” in a region overwhelmingly populated by Arabs. Over the next twenty or so years, Zionist leaders mobilized a surge of Jewish migration to Palestine and organized highly trained armed forces to defend their settlements. In 1947, in the wake of World War II and in the shadow of the Holocaust’s unspeakable crimes, the United Nations approved a partition plan to establish two sovereign states, one Jewish, the other Arab, with Jerusalem—a city considered holy by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike—to be governed by an international body. Zionist leaders embraced the plan, but Arab Palestinians, as well as surrounding Arab nations that were also just emerging from colonial rule, strenuously objected. As Britain withdrew, the two sides quickly fell into war. And with Jewish militias claiming victory in 1948, the State of Israel was officially born.
For the Jewish people, it was a dream fulfilled, a state of their own in their historic homeland after centuries of exile, religious persecution, and the more recent horrors of the Holocaust. But for the roughly seven hundred thousand Arab Palestinians who found themselves stateless and driven from their lands, the same events would be a part of what became known as the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” For the next three decades, Israel would engage in a succession of conflicts with its Arab neighbors—most significantly the Six-Day War of 1967, in which a greatly outnumbered Israeli military routed the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In the process, Israel seized control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The memory of those losses, and the humiliation that came with it, became a defining aspect of Arab nationalism, and support for the Palestinian cause a central tenet of Arab foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Palestinians living within the occupied territories, mostly in refugee camps, found themselves governed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with their movements and economic activity severely restricted, prompting calls for armed resistance and resulting in the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Arab politicians routinely denounced Israel, often in explicitly anti-Semitic terms, and most governments in the region embraced the PLO’s chairman, Yasser Arafat, as a freedom fighter—even as his organization and its affiliates engaged in escalating and bloody terrorist attacks against unarmed civilians.
The United States was no bystander in all this. Jewish Americans had suffered generations of discrimination in their own country, but they and other Jews emigrating from the West to Israel still shared language, customs, and appearance with their white Christian brethren, and in comparison to Arabs, they still enjoyed far more sympathy from the American public. Harry Truman had been the first foreign leader to formally recognize Israel as a sovereign state, and the American Jewish community pressed U.S. officials to assist the fledgling nation. With the world’s two Cold War superpowers vying for influence in the Middle East, the United States became Israel’s primary patron—and with that, Israel’s problems with its neighbors became America’s problems as well.
Practically every U.S. president since then had tried to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with varying degrees of success. The historic Camp David Accords, brokered in 1978 by Jimmy Carter, achieved a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt and returned Sinai to Egyptian control. The agreement, which yielded a Nobel Peace Prize for the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, and the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, also moved Egypt further out of the Soviet orbit and made the two countries critical U.S. security partners (as well as the largest recipients of U.S. economic and military aid in the world, by a wide margin). But it left the Palestinian issue unresolved. Fifteen years later, with the Cold War over and U.S. influence at its zenith, Bill Clinton brought Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat together for the signing of the first Oslo Accord. In it, the PLO finally recognized Israel’s right to exist, while Israel recognized the PLO as the rightful representative of the Palestinian people and agreed to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which would have limited but meaningful governance over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Along with giving Jordan license to follow Egypt’s example and conclude its own peace deal with Israel, Oslo provided a framework for the eventual creation of an autonomous Palestinian state, one that, ideally, would coexist with a secure Israel that was at peace with its neighbors. But old wounds, and the lure of violence over compromise among factions on both sides, proved too much to overcome. Rabin was assassinated by a far-right Israeli extremist in 1995. His liberal successor, Shimon Peres, served for seven months before losing a snap election to Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, whose platform had once included total annexation of the Palestinian territories. Unhappy about the Oslo Accords, harder-line organizations like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad set about undermining the credibility of Arafat and his Fatah party with Palestinians, calling for armed struggle to take back Arab lands and push Israel into the sea.
After Netanyahu was defeated in the 1999 election, his more liberal successor, Ehud Barak, made efforts to establish a broader peace in the Middle East, including outlining a two-state solution that went further than any previous Israeli proposal. Arafat demanded more concessions, however, and talks collapsed in recrimination. Meanwhile, one day in September 2000, Likud party leader Ariel Sharon led a group of Israeli legislators on a deliberately provocative and highly publicized visit to one of Islam’s holiest sites, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It was a stunt designed to assert Israel’s claim over the wider territory, one that challenged the leadership of Ehud Barak and enraged Arabs near and far. Four months later, Sharon became Israel’s next prime minister, governing throughout what became known as the Second Intifada: four years of violence between the two sides, marked by tear gas and rubber bullets directed at stone-throwing protesters; Palestinian suicide bombs detonated outside an Israeli nightclub and in buses carrying senior citizens and schoolchildren; deadly IDF retaliatory raids and the indiscriminate arrest of thousands of Palestinians; and Hamas rockets launched from Gaza into Israeli border towns, answered by U.S.-supplied Israeli Apache helicopters leveling entire neighborhoods.
Approximately a thousand Israelis and three thousand Palestinians died during this period—including scores of children—and by the time the violence subsided, in 2005, the prospects for resolving the underlying conflict had fundamentally changed. The Bush administration’s focus on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror left it little bandwidth to worry about Middle East peace, and while Bush remained officially supportive of a two-state solution, he was reluctant to press Sharon on the issue. Publicly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states continued to offer support to the Palestinian cause, but they were increasingly more concerned with limiting Iranian influence and rooting out extremist threats to their own regimes. The Palestinians themselves had splintered after Arafat’s death in 2004: Gaza came under the control of Hamas and soon found itself under a tightly enforced Israeli blockade, while the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, which continued to govern the West Bank, came to be viewed by even some of its supporters as feckless and corrupt.
Most important, Israeli attitudes toward peace talks had hardened, in part because peace no longer seemed so crucial to ensuring the country’s safety and prosperity. The Israel of the 1960s that remained lodged in the popular imagination, with its communal kibbutz living and periodic rationing of basic supplies, had been transformed into a modern economic powerhouse. It was no longer the plucky David surrounded by hostile Goliaths; thanks to tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, the Israeli armed forces were now matchless in the region. Terrorist bombings and attacks within Israel had all but ceased, due in some measure to the fact that Israel had erected a wall more than four hundred miles long between itself and the Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, punctuated with strategically placed checkpoints to control the flow of Palestinian workers in and out of Israel. Every so often, rocket fire from Gaza still endangered those living in Israeli border towns, and the presence of Jewish Israeli settlers in the West Bank sometimes triggered deadly skirmishes. For most residents of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, however, the Palestinians lived largely out of sight, their struggles and resentments troubling but remote.
Given everything that was already on my plate when I became president, it would have been tempting to just do my best to manage the status quo, quash any outbreaks of renewed violence between Israeli and Palestinian factions, and otherwise leave the whole mess alone. But taking into account the broader foreign policy concerns, I decided I couldn’t go that route. Israel remained a key U.S. ally, and even with the threats reduced, it still endured terrorist attacks that jeopardized not only its citizens but also the thousands of Americans who lived or traveled there. At the same time, just about every country in the world considered Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories to be a violation of international law. As a result, our diplomats found themselves in the awkward position of having to defend Israel for actions that we ourselves opposed. U.S. officials also had to explain why it wasn’t hypocritical for us to press countries like China or Iran on their human rights records while showing little concern for the rights of Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation continued to inflame the Arab community and feed anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.
In other words, the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians made America less safe. Negotiating a workable solution between the two sides, on the other hand, stood to strengthen our security posture, weaken our enemies, and make us more credible in championing human rights around the world—all in one fell swoop.
In truth, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also weighed on me personally. Some of the earliest moral instruction I got from my mother revolved around the Holocaust, an unconscionable catastrophe that, like slavery, she explained, was rooted in the inability or unwillingness to recognize the humanity of others. Like many American kids of my generation, I’d had the story of Exodus etched in my brain. In sixth grade, I’d idealized the Israel described to me by a Jewish camp counselor who’d lived on a kibbutz—a place where everyone was equal, he said, everyone pitched in, and everyone was welcome to share in the joys and struggles of repairing the world. In high school, I’d devoured the works of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer, moved by stories of men trying to find their place in an America that didn’t welcome them. Later, studying the early civil rights movement in college, I’d been intrigued by the influence of Jewish philosophers like Martin Buber on Dr. King’s sermons and writings. I’d admired how, across issues, Jewish voters tended to be more progressive than just about any other ethnic group, and in Chicago, some of my most stalwart friends and supporters had come from the city’s Jewish community.
I believed there was an essential bond between the Black and the Jewish experiences—a common story of exile and suffering that might ultimately be redeemed by a shared thirst for justice, a deeper compassion for others, a heightened sense of community. It made me fiercely protective of the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own, though, ironically, those same shared values also made it impossible for me to ignore the conditions under which Palestinians in the occupied territories were forced to live.
Yes, many of Arafat’s tactics had been abhorrent. Yes, Palestinian leaders had too often missed opportunities for peace; there’d been no Havel or Gandhi to mobilize a nonviolent movement with the moral force to sway Israeli public opinion. And yet none of that negated the fact that millions of Palestinians lacked self-determination and many of the basic rights that even citizens of non-democratic countries enjoyed. Generations were growing up in a starved and shrunken world from which they literally couldn’t escape, their daily lives subject to the whims of a distant, often hostile authority and the suspicions of every blank-faced, rifle-carrying soldier demanding to see their papers at each checkpoint they passed.
By the time I took office, though, most congressional Republicans had abandoned any pretense of caring about what happened to the Palestinians. Indeed, a strong majority of white evangelicals—the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc—believed that the creation and gradual expansion of Israel fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham and heralded Christ’s eventual return. On the Democratic side, even stalwart progressives were loath to look less pro-Israel than Republicans, especially since many of them were Jewish themselves or represented sizable Jewish constituencies.
Also, members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful bipartisan lobbying organization dedicated to ensuring unwavering U.S. support for Israel. AIPAC’s clout could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country, and just about every politician in Washington—including me—counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors. In the past, the organization had accommodated a spectrum of views on Middle East peace, insisting mainly that those seeking its endorsement support a continuation of U.S. aid to Israel and oppose efforts to isolate or condemn Israel via the U.N. and other international bodies. But as Israeli politics had moved to the right, so had AIPAC’s policy positions. Its staff and leaders increasingly argued that there should be “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israeli governments, even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy. Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as “anti-Israel” (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.
I’d been on the receiving end of some of this during my presidential campaign, as Jewish supporters reported having to beat back assertions in their synagogues and on email chains that I was insufficiently supportive of—or even hostile toward—Israel. They attributed these whisper campaigns not to any particular position I’d taken (my backing of a two-state solution and opposition to Israeli settlements were identical to the positions of the other candidates) but rather to my expressions of concern for ordinary Palestinians; my friendships with certain critics of Israeli policy, including an activist and Middle East scholar named Rashid Khalidi; and the fact that, as Ben bluntly put it, “You’re a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighborhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremiah Wright’s church.” On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote, but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties: someone whose support for Israel, as one of Axe’s friends colorfully put it, wasn’t “felt in his kishkes”—“guts,” in Yiddish.
“YOU DON’T GET progress on peace,” Rahm had warned me in 2009, “when the American president and the Israeli prime minister come from different political backgrounds.” We had been discussing the recent return of Bibi Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, after the Likud party had managed to cobble together a right-leaning coalition government despite winning one less seat than its main opponent, the more centrist Kadima party. Rahm, who’d briefly been a civilian volunteer in the Israeli army and had sat in the front row at Bill Clinton’s Oslo negotiations, had agreed that we should try to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, if for no other reason than that it might keep the situation from getting worse. But he wasn’t optimistic—and the more time I spent with Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, the more I understood why.
Built like a linebacker, with a square jaw, broad features, and a gray comb-over, Netanyahu was smart, canny, tough, and a gifted communicator in both Hebrew and English. (He’d been born in Israel but spent most of his formative years in Philadelphia, and traces of that city’s accent lingered in his polished baritone.) His family had deep roots in the Zionist movement: His grandfather, a rabbi, emigrated from Poland to British-governed Palestine in 1920, while his father—a professor of history best known for his writings on the persecution of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition—became a leader in the movement’s more militant wing before Israel’s founding. Although raised in a secular household, Netanyahu inherited his father’s devotion to the defense of Israel: He’d been a member of a special forces unit in the IDF and had fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and his older brother had died a hero in the legendary Entebbe raid of 1976, in which Israeli commandos rescued 102 passengers from Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked an Air France flight.
Whether Netanyahu also inherited his father’s unabashed hostility toward Arabs (“The tendency towards conflict is in the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement”) was harder to say. What was certain was that he had built his entire political persona around an image of strength and the message that Jews couldn’t afford phony pieties—that they lived in a tough neighborhood and so had to be tough. This philosophy neatly aligned him with the most hawkish members of AIPAC, as well as Republican officials and wealthy American right-wingers. Netanyahu could be charming, or at least solicitous, when it served his purposes; he’d gone out of his way, for example, to meet me in a Chicago airport lounge shortly after I’d been elected to the U.S. Senate, lavishing praise on me for an inconsequential pro-Israel bill I’d supported in the Illinois state legislature. But his vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power—and his familiarity with American politics and media gave him confidence that he could resist whatever pressure a Democratic administration like mine might try to apply.
My early discussions with Netanyahu—both over the phone and during his visits to Washington—had gone well enough, despite our very different worldviews. He was most interested in talking about Iran, which he rightly viewed as Israel’s largest security threat, and we agreed to coordinate efforts to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But when I raised the possibility of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians, he was decidedly noncommittal.
“I want to assure you, Israel wants peace,” Netanyahu said. “But a true peace has to meet Israel’s security needs.” He made it clear to me that he thought Abbas was likely unwilling or unable to do so, a point he would also stress in public.
I understood his point. If Netanyahu’s reluctance to enter into peace talks was born of Israel’s growing strength, then the reluctance of Palestinian president Abbas was born of political weakness. White-haired and mustached, mild-mannered and deliberate in his movements, Abbas had helped Arafat found the Fatah party, which later became the dominant party of the PLO, spending most of his career managing diplomatic and administrative efforts in the shadow of the more charismatic chairman. He’d been the preferred choice of both the United States and Israel to lead the Palestinians after Arafat’s death, in large part due to his unequivocal recognition of Israel and his long-standing renunciation of violence. But his innate caution and willingness to cooperate with the Israeli security apparatus (not to mention reports of corruption inside his administration) had damaged his reputation with his own people. Having already lost control of Gaza to Hamas in the 2006 legislative elections, he viewed peace talks with Israel as a risk not worth taking—at least not without some tangible concessions that would provide him political cover.
The immediate question was how to coax Netanyahu and Abbas to the negotiating table. To come up with answers, I relied on a talented group of diplomats, starting with Hillary, who was well versed on the issues and already had relationships with many of the region’s major players. To underscore the high priority I’d placed on the issue, I appointed former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as my special envoy for Middle East peace. Mitchell was a throwback—a hard-driving, pragmatic politician with a thick Maine accent who had demonstrated his peacemaking skills by negotiating the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the decades-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
We began by calling for a temporary freeze on Israel’s construction of new settlements in the West Bank, a significant sticking point between the two parties, so that negotiations might proceed in earnest. Settlement construction, once limited to small outposts of religious believers, had over time become de facto government policy, and in 2009, there were about three hundred thousand Israeli settlers living outside the country’s recognized borders. Developers, meanwhile, continued to build tidy subdivisions in and around the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the disputed, predominantly Arab section of the city that Palestinians hoped to one day make their capital. All this was done with the blessing of politicians who either shared the religious convictions of the settler movement, saw the political benefit of catering to settlers, or were simply interested in alleviating Israel’s housing crunch. For Palestinians, the explosion in settlements amounted to a slow-motion annexation of their land and stood as a symbol of the Palestinian Authority’s impotence.
We knew that Netanyahu would probably resist the idea of a freeze. The settlers had become a meaningful political force, their movement well represented within Netanyahu’s coalition government. Moreover, he would complain that the good-faith gesture we’d be asking from the Palestinians in return—that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority take concrete steps to end incitements to violence inside the West Bank—was a great deal harder to measure. But given the asymmetry in power between Israel and the Palestinians—there wasn’t much, after all, that Abbas could give the Israelis that the Israelis couldn’t already take on their own—I thought it was reasonable to ask the stronger party to take a bigger first step in the direction of peace.
As expected, Netanyahu’s initial response to our proposed settlement freeze was sharply negative, and his allies in Washington were soon publicly accusing us of weakening the U.S.-Israeli alliance. The White House phones started ringing off the hook, as members of my national security team fielded calls from reporters, leaders of American Jewish organizations, prominent supporters, and members of Congress, all wondering why we were picking on Israel and focusing on settlements when everyone knew that Palestinian violence was the main impediment to peace. One afternoon, Ben hurried in late for a meeting, looking particularly harried after having spent the better part of an hour on the phone with a highly agitated liberal Democratic congressman.
“I thought he opposes settlements,” I said.
“He does,” Ben said. “He also opposes us doing anything to actually stop settlements.”
This sort of pressure continued for much of 2009, along with questions about my kishkes. Periodically, we’d invite the leaders of Jewish organizations or members of Congress to the White House for meetings with me and my team, so that we could assure them of our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and the U.S.-Israel relationship. It wasn’t a hard argument to make; despite my difference with Netanyahu on a settlement freeze, I’d delivered on my promise to enhance U.S.-Israel cooperation across the board, working to counteract the Iranian threat and to help fund the eventual development of an “Iron Dome” defense system, which would allow Israel to shoot down Syrian-made rockets coming from Gaza or from Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon. Nevertheless, the noise orchestrated by Netanyahu had the intended effect of gobbling up our time, putting us on the defensive, and reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister—even one who presided over a fragile coalition government—exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, or any of our other closest allies.
But shortly after I delivered my Cairo speech, in early June 2009, Netanyahu cracked open the door to progress by responding with an address of his own in which he declared, for the first time, his conditional support for a two-state solution. And after months of wrangling, he and Abbas finally agreed to join me for a face-to-face discussion while they were both in town for the annual leaders’ gathering at the U.N. General Assembly at the end of September. The two men were courteous to each other (Netanyahu garrulous and physically at ease, Abbas largely expressionless, save for the occasional nod) but appeared unmoved when I urged them to take some risks for peace. Two months later, Netanyahu agreed to institute a ten-month freeze on the issuance of new settlement permits in the West Bank. Pointedly he refused to extend the freeze to construction in East Jerusalem.
Any optimism I felt about Bibi’s concession was short-lived. No sooner had Netanyahu announced the temporary freeze than Abbas dismissed it as meaningless, complaining about the exclusion of East Jerusalem and the fact that construction of already-approved projects was continuing apace. He insisted that in the absence of a total freeze, he would not join any talks. Other Arab leaders quickly echoed these sentiments, spurred in part by editorializing from Al Jazeera, the Qatari-controlled media outlet that had become the dominant news source in the region, having built its popularity by fanning the flames of anger and resentment among Arabs with the same algorithmic precision that Fox News deployed so skillfully with conservative white voters in the States.
The situation only got messier in March 2010, when, just as Joe Biden was visiting Israel on a goodwill mission, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced permits for the construction of sixteen hundred new housing units in East Jerusalem. Although Netanyahu insisted that his office had nothing to do with the timing of the permits, the move reinforced perceptions among Palestinians that the freeze was a sham and the United States was in on it. I instructed Hillary to call Netanyahu and let him know I wasn’t happy, and we reiterated our suggestion that his government show more restraint on expanding settlements. His response, delivered at AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington later that month, was to declare to thunderous applause that “Jerusalem is not a settlement—it is our capital.” The following day, Netanyahu and I sat down for a meeting at the White House. Downplaying the growing tension, I accepted the fiction that the permit announcement had been just a misunderstanding, and our discussions ran well over the allotted time. Because I had another commitment and Netanyahu still had a few items he wanted to cover, I suggested we pause and resume the conversation in an hour, arranging in the meantime for his delegation to regroup in the Roosevelt Room. He said he was happy to wait, and after that second session, we ended the evening on cordial terms, having met for more than two hours total. The next day, however, Rahm stormed into the office, saying there were media reports that I’d deliberately snubbed Netanyahu by keeping him waiting, leading to accusations that I had allowed a case of personal pique to damage the vital U.S.-Israel relationship.
That was a rare instance when I outcursed Rahm.
Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless currents of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come. I wonder whether our insecurities and our hopes, our childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend. I wonder whether a President Hillary Clinton or President John McCain might have elicited more trust from the two sides; whether things might have played out differently if someone other than Netanyahu had occupied the prime minister’s seat or if Abbas had been a younger man, more intent on making his mark than protecting himself from criticism.
What I do know is that despite the hours Hillary and George Mitchell spent doing shuttle diplomacy, our plans for peace talks went nowhere until late in August 2010, just one month before the settlement freeze was set to expire, when Abbas finally agreed to direct talks, thanks largely to the intervention of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan. Abbas conditioned his participation, however, on Israel’s willingness to keep the settlement freeze in place—the same freeze he’d spent the previous nine months decrying as useless.
With no time to lose, we arranged to have Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak, and Abdullah join me at meetings and an intimate White House dinner on September 1 to launch the talks. The day was largely ceremonial—the hard work of hammering out a deal would shift to Hillary, Mitchell, and the negotiating teams. Still, we dressed up the whole affair with photo ops and press availabilities and as much fanfare as we could muster, and the atmosphere among the four leaders was warm and collegial throughout. I still have a photograph of the five of us looking at President Mubarak’s watch to check that the sun had officially set, since it was the Muslim month of Ramadan, and we had to confirm that the religiously prescribed fast had been lifted before seating everyone for dinner.
In the soft light of the Old Family Dining Room, each of us took turns describing our visions for the future. We talked of predecessors like Begin and Sadat, Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein, who’d had the courage and wisdom to bridge old divides. We spoke of the costs of endless conflict, the fathers who never came home, the mothers who had buried their children.
To an outsider, it would have seemed a hopeful moment, the start of something new.
And yet later that night, when the dinner was over and the leaders had gone back to their hotels and I sat in the Treaty Room going over my briefs for the next day, I couldn’t help feeling a vague sense of disquiet. The speeches, the small talk, the easy familiarity—it all felt too comfortable, almost ritualized, a performance that each of the four leaders had probably participated in dozens of times before, designed to placate the latest U.S. president who thought things could change. I imagined them shaking hands afterward, like actors taking off their costumes and makeup backstage, before returning to the world that they knew—a world in which Netanyahu could blame the absence of peace on Abbas’s weakness while doing everything he could to keep him weak, and Abbas could publicly accuse Israel of war crimes while quietly negotiating business contracts with the Israelis, and Arab leaders could bemoan the injustices endured by Palestinians under occupation while their own internal security forces ruthlessly ferreted out dissenters and malcontents who might threaten their grip on power. And I thought of all the children, whether in Gaza or in Israeli settlements or on the street corners of Cairo and Amman, who would continue to grow up knowing mainly violence, coercion, fear, and the nursing of hatred because, deep down, none of the leaders I’d met with believed anything else was possible.
A world without illusions—that’s what they’d call it.
The Israelis and Palestinians would end up meeting only twice in direct peace talks—once in Washington, the day after our White House dinner, and then again twelve days later for a two-part conversation, with Mubarak hosting negotiators in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh before the group moved to Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence. Hillary and Mitchell reported that the discussions were substantive, with the United States dangling incentives to both sides, including plumped-up aid packages, and even considering a possible early release of Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel who’d become a hero to many right-leaning Israelis.
But it was all to no avail. The Israelis refused to extend the settlement freeze. The Palestinians withdrew from negotiations. By December 2010, Abbas was threatening to go to the U.N., seeking recognition of a Palestinian state—and to the International Criminal Court, seeking Israel’s prosecution for alleged war crimes in Gaza. Netanyahu was threatening to make life harder for the Palestinian Authority. George Mitchell tried to put things in perspective, reminding me that during negotiations to end the Northern Ireland conflict, “We had seven hundred bad days—and one good one.” Still, it felt as if in the near term, at least, the window for any peace deal had closed.
In the months to come, I’d think back often to my dinner with Abbas and Netanyahu, Mubarak and King Abdullah, the pantomime of it, their lack of resolve. To insist that the old order in the Middle East would indefinitely hold, to believe that the children of despair wouldn’t revolt, at some point, against those who maintained it—that, it turned out, was the greatest illusion of all.
INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE, we had frequently discussed the long-term challenges facing North Africa and the Middle East. As petrostates failed to diversify their economies, we asked ourselves what would happen when their oil revenues dried up. We bemoaned the restrictions placed on women and girls—hindering their ability to go to school, work, or, in some cases, even drive a car. We noted the stalled growth and its disproportionate impact on the younger generations in Arabic-speaking nations: People under the age of thirty made up about 60 percent of the population and were suffering unemployment rates double that of the rest of the world.
Most of all, we worried about the autocratic, repressive nature of nearly every Arab government—not just the lack of true democracy but also the fact that those who held power seemed entirely unaccountable to the people they ruled. Even as conditions varied from country to country, most of these leaders maintained their grip through an old formula: restricted political participation and expression, pervasive intimidation and surveillance at the hands of police or internal security services, dysfunctional judicial systems and insufficient due process protections, rigged (or nonexistent) elections, an entrenched military, heavy press censorship, and rampant corruption. Many of these regimes had been in place for decades, held together by nationalist appeals, shared religious beliefs, tribal bonds, familial ties, and webs of patronage. It was possible that the stifling of dissent combined with plain inertia would be enough to keep them going for a while. But although our intelligence agencies mainly focused on tracking the actions of terrorist networks, and our diplomats were not always attuned to what was happening on “the Arab street,” we could see indications of a growing discontent among ordinary Arabs—which, given the lack of legitimate outlets to express such frustration, could spell trouble. Or, as I told Denis after returning from my first visit to the region as president, “Sometime, somewhere, things are going to blow.” What to do with that knowledge? There was the rub. For at least half a century, U.S. policy in the Middle East had focused narrowly on maintaining stability, preventing disruptions to our oil supplies, and keeping adversarial powers (first the Soviets, then the Iranians) from expanding their influence. After 9/11, counterterrorism took center stage. In pursuing each of these goals, we’d made autocrats our allies. They were predictable, after all, and committed to keeping a lid on things. They hosted our military bases and cooperated with us on counterterrorism efforts. And, of course, they did lots of business with U.S. companies. Much of our national security apparatus in the region depended on their cooperation and in many instances had become thoroughly entangled with theirs. Every so often, a report would surface from the Pentagon or Langley, recommending that U.S. policy pay more attention to human rights and governance issues when dealing with our Middle East partners. But then the Saudis would deliver a vital tip that kept an explosive device from being loaded onto U.S.-bound cargo planes or our naval base in Bahrain would prove critical in managing a flare-up with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, and those reports would be relegated to the bottom of a drawer. Across the U.S. government, the possibility that some sort of populist uprising might bring down one of our allies had historically been met with resignation: Sure, it was likely to happen, the same way a bad hurricane will hit the Gulf Coast or the Big One will hit California; but since we couldn’t say exactly when or where, and since we didn’t have the means to stop it anyway, the best thing to do was prepare contingency plans and get ready to manage the aftershocks.
I liked to think that my administration resisted such fatalism. Building upon my Cairo speech, I had used interviews and public remarks to urge the governments of the Middle East to heed the voices of citizens calling for reform. In meetings with Arab leaders, my team often put human rights issues on the agenda. The State Department worked diligently behind the scenes to protect journalists, free political dissidents, and widen the space for civic engagement.
And yet only rarely did the United States scold allies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia publicly for their human rights violations. Given our concerns over Iraq, al-Qaeda, and Iran, not to mention Israel’s security needs, the stakes felt too high to risk rupturing our relationships. Accepting this type of realism, I told myself, was part of the job. Except that every so often, the story of a women’s rights activist being arrested in Riyadh would reach my desk, or I’d read about a local employee of an international human rights organization languishing in a Cairo jail, and I’d feel haunted. I knew that my administration would never be able to transform the Middle East into an oasis of democracy, but I believed we could and should be doing a hell of a lot more to encourage progress toward it.
It was during one of those moods that I set aside time for lunch with Samantha Power.
I’d met Samantha while I was in the Senate, after I read her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide—a moving, tightly reasoned discussion of America’s lackluster response to genocide and the need for stronger global leadership in preventing mass atrocities. She was teaching at Harvard at the time, and when I reached out, she jumped at my suggestion that we share ideas over dinner the next time she was in D.C. She turned out to be younger than I’d expected, in her mid-thirties, tall and gangly, with red hair, freckles, and big, thickly lashed, almost sorrowful eyes that crinkled at the corners when she laughed. She was also intense. She and her Irish mother had immigrated to the States when she was nine; she’d played basketball in high school, graduated from Yale, and worked as a freelance journalist covering the Bosnian war. Her experiences there—bearing witness to slaughter and ethnic cleansing—had inspired her to get a law degree, hoping it would give her the tools to cure some part of the world’s madness. That evening, after she’d run me through an exhaustive list of U.S. foreign policy errors that she insisted needed correcting, I suggested she might want to get out of the ivory tower and work with me for a spell.
The conversation that started over dinner that night continued on and off for the next several years. Samantha joined my Senate staff as a foreign policy fellow, advising on issues like the genocide then taking place in Darfur. She worked on my presidential campaign, where she met her future husband, my friend and eventual regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, and became one of our top foreign policy surrogates. (I did have to put her in the penalty box, removing her from the campaign, when, during what she thought was an off-the-record moment with a reporter, she called Hillary “a monster.”) Following the election, I hired her for a senior position at the NSC, where she did excellent work, mainly out of the limelight, including designing a broad global initiative to increase government transparency and reduce corruption in countries around the world.
Samantha was one of my closest friends in the White House. Much like Ben, she evoked my own youthful idealism, the part of me still untouched by cynicism, cold calculation, or caution dressed up as wisdom. And I suspect it was precisely because she knew that side of me, and understood which heartstrings to pull, that at times she drove me nuts. I didn’t actually see her much from day to day, and that was part of the problem; whenever Samantha got time on my calendar, she felt obliged to remind me of every wrong I hadn’t yet righted. (“So, what ideals have we betrayed lately?” I’d ask.) She was shattered, for example, when on Armenian Remembrance Day I failed to explicitly acknowledge the early-twentieth-century genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Turks (the need to name genocide unequivocally was a central thesis of her book). I had good reason for not making a statement at the time—the Turks were deeply touchy about the issue, and I was in delicate negotiations with President Erdogan on managing America’s withdrawal from Iraq—but still, she made me feel like a heel. But as exasperating as Samantha’s insistence could be, every so often I needed a dose of her passion and integrity, both as a temperature check on my conscience and because she often had specific, creative suggestions for how to deal with messy problems that no one in the administration was spending enough time thinking about.
Our lunch in May 2010 was a case in point. Samantha showed up that day ready to talk about the Middle East—in particular, the fact that the United States hadn’t lodged an official protest of the Egyptian government’s recent two-year extension of a state of “emergency law” that had been in place continuously since Mubarak’s election in 1981. The extension codified his dictatorial power by suspending the constitutional rights of Egyptians. “I understand there are strategic considerations when it comes to Egypt,” Samantha said, “but does anybody stop to ask whether it’s good strategy?” I told her that, actually, I had. I wasn’t a big fan of Mubarak, but I’d concluded that a one-off statement criticizing a law that had been in place for almost thirty years wouldn’t be all that useful. “The U.S. government’s an ocean liner,” I said. “Not a speedboat. If we want to change our approach to the region, then we need a strategy that builds over time. We’d have to get buy-in from the Pentagon and the intel folks. We’d have to calibrate the strategy to give allies in the region time to adjust.” “Is anybody doing that?” Samantha said. “Coming up with that strategy, I mean?”
I smiled, seeing the wheels turning in her head.
Not long afterward, Samantha and three NSC colleagues—Dennis Ross, Gayle Smith, and Jeremy Weinstein—presented me with the blueprint for a Presidential Study Directive stating that U.S. interests in stability across the Middle East and North Africa were adversely affected by the United States’ uncritical support of authoritarian regimes. In August I used that directive to instruct the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and other government agencies to examine ways the United States could encourage meaningful political and economic reforms in the region to nudge those nations closer to the principles of open government, so that they might avoid the destabilizing uprisings, violence, chaos, and unpredictable outcomes that so often accompanied sudden change. The NSC team set about conducting biweekly meetings with Middle East experts from across government to develop specific ideas for reorienting U.S. policy.
Many of the veteran diplomats and experts they talked to were predictably skeptical of the need for any change to U.S. policy, arguing that as unsavory as some of our Arab allies might be, the status quo served America’s core interests—something that wasn’t guaranteed if more populist governments took their place. Over time, though, the team was able to arrive at a coherent set of principles to guide a shift in strategy. Under the emerging plan, U.S. officials across agencies would be expected to deliver a consistent and coordinated message on the need for reform; they would develop specific recommendations for liberalizing political and civic life in various countries and offer a range of new incentives to encourage their adoption. By mid-December, the documents laying out the strategy were just about ready for my approval, and although I realized that it wouldn’t change the Middle East overnight, I was heartened by the fact that we were starting to steer America’s foreign policy machinery in the right direction.
If only our timing had been a bit better.
THE SAME MONTH, in the North African nation of Tunisia, an impoverished fruit vendor set himself on fire outside a local government building. It was an act of protest, born of desperation: one citizen’s furious response to a government he knew to be corrupt and indifferent to his needs. By all accounts, the man, twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, was not an activist, nor was he especially concerned with politics. He belonged to a generation of Tunisians raised in a stagnant economy and under the thumb of a repressive dictator named Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. And after being repeatedly harassed by municipal inspectors and denied a hearing in front of a judge, he was simply fed up. According to a bystander, at the moment of his self-immolation, Bouazizi shouted—to nobody in particular and to everyone at once—“How do you expect me to make a living?” The fruit vendor’s anguish set off weeks of nationwide demonstrations against the Tunisian government, and on January 14, 2011, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, similar protests, made up mostly of young people, were beginning to happen in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, and Oman, the first flickers of what became known as the Arab Spring.
As I prepared to give my State of the Union address on January 25, my team debated the extent to which I should comment on the events happening almost at warp speed in the Middle East and North Africa. With public protest having effectively driven a sitting autocrat from power in Tunisia, people across the region seemed galvanized and hopeful about the possibilities for wider change. Still, the complexities were daunting and good outcomes far from guaranteed. In the end, we added a single, straightforward line to my speech: “Tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
From the U.S. perspective, the most significant developments were in Egypt, where a coalition of Egyptian youth organizations, activists, left-wing opposition parties, and prominent writers and artists had issued a nationwide call for mass protests against President Mubarak’s regime. On the same day as my State of the Union, close to fifty thousand Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, demanding an end to emergency law, police brutality, and restrictions on political freedom. Thousands of others participated in similar protests across the country. The police were attempting to disperse the crowds using batons, water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas, and Mubarak’s government would not only issue an official ban on protesting but also block Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in an effort to hamper the demonstrators’ ability to organize or connect with the outside world. For days and nights to come, Tahrir Square would resemble a permanent encampment, with legions of Egyptians standing in defiance of their president, calling for “bread, freedom, and dignity.” This was precisely the scenario my Presidential Study Directive had sought to avoid: the U.S. government suddenly caught between a repressive but reliable ally and a population insistent on change, voicing the democratic aspirations we claimed to stand for. Alarmingly, Mubarak himself seemed oblivious about the uprising taking place around him. I’d spoken to him by phone just a week earlier, and he’d been both helpful and responsive as we’d discussed ways to coax the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, as well as his government’s call for unity in response to the bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, carried out by Muslim extremists. But when I’d brought up the possibility that the protests that had begun in Tunisia might spread to his own country, Mubarak had dismissed it, explaining that “Egypt is not Tunisia.” He’d assured me that any protest against his government would quickly die down. Listening to his voice, I’d imagined him sitting in one of the cavernous, ornately decorated rooms inside the presidential palace where we’d first met—the curtains drawn, him looking imperious in a high-backed chair as a few aides took notes or just watched, coiled in readiness to attend to his needs. Insulated as he was, he would see what he wanted to see, I thought, and hear what he wanted to hear—and none of it boded well.
Meanwhile, the news footage from Tahrir Square brought back different memories. The crowds in those first few days appeared to be disproportionately young and secular—not unlike the students and activists who’d been in the audience of my Cairo speech. In interviews, they came off as thoughtful and informed, insisting on their commitment to nonviolence and their desire for democratic pluralism, rule of law, and a modern, innovative economy that could deliver jobs and a better standard of living. In their idealism and courage in challenging an oppressive social order, they appeared no different from the young people who had once helped tear down the Berlin Wall or stood in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square. They weren’t so different, either, from the young people who’d helped elect me president.
“If I were an Egyptian in my twenties,” I told Ben, “I’d probably be out there with them.”
Of course, I wasn’t an Egyptian in my twenties. I was president of the United States. And as compelling as these young people were, I had to remind myself that they—along with the university professors, human rights activists, secular opposition party members, and trade unionists also on the front lines of the protests—represented only a fraction of the Egyptian population. If Mubarak stepped down, creating a sudden power vacuum, they weren’t the ones most likely to fill it. One of the tragedies of Mubarak’s dictatorial reign was that it had stunted the development of the institutions and traditions that might help Egypt effectively manage a transition to democracy: strong political parties, an independent judiciary and media, impartial election monitors, broad-based civic associations, an effective civil service, and respect for minority rights. Outside the military, which was deeply entrenched throughout Egyptian society and reportedly had a significant stake in large swaths of the economy, the most powerful and cohesive force in the country was the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni-based Islamist organization whose central objective was to see Egypt—and the entire Arab world—governed by sharia law. Thanks to its grassroots organizing and charitable work on behalf of the poor (and despite the fact that Mubarak had officially banned it), the Brotherhood boasted a substantial membership. It also embraced political participation rather than violence as a way of advancing its goals, and in any fair and free election, the candidates it backed would be odds-on favorites to win. Still, many governments in the region viewed the Brotherhood as a subversive, dangerous threat, and the organization’s fundamentalist philosophy made it both unreliable as a custodian for democratic pluralism and potentially problematic for U.S.-Egyptian relations.
In Tahrir Square, the demonstrations continued to swell, as did violent clashes between protesters and police. Apparently awakened from his slumber, Mubarak went on Egyptian television on January 28 to announce that he was replacing his cabinet, but he offered no signs that he intended to respond to the demands for broader reform. Convinced that the problem wasn’t going away, I consulted my national security team to try to come up with an effective response. The group was divided, almost entirely along generational lines. The older and more senior members of my team—Joe, Hillary, Gates, and Panetta—counseled caution, all of them having known and worked with Mubarak for years. They emphasized the role his government had long played in keeping peace with Israel, fighting terrorism, and partnering with the United States on a host of other regional issues. While they acknowledged the need to press the Egyptian leader on reform, they warned that there was no way of knowing who or what might replace him. Meanwhile, Samantha, Ben, Denis, Susan Rice, and Joe’s national security advisor, Tony Blinken, were convinced that Mubarak had fully and irretrievably lost his legitimacy with the Egyptian people. Rather than keep our wagon hitched to a corrupt authoritarian order on the verge of collapse (and appear to be sanctioning the escalating use of force against protesters), they considered it both strategically prudent and morally right for the U.S. government to align itself with the forces of change.
I shared both the hopes of my younger advisors and the fears of my older ones. Our best bet for a positive outcome, I decided, was to see if we could persuade Mubarak to embrace a series of substantive reforms, including ending the emergency law, restoring political and press freedoms, and setting a date for free and fair national elections. Such an “orderly transition,” as Hillary described it, would give opposition political parties and potential candidates time to build followings and develop serious plans to govern. It would also allow Mubarak to retire as an elder statesman, which might help mitigate perceptions in the region that we were willing to dump longtime allies at the slightest hint of trouble.
It went without saying that trying to convince an aging, embattled despot to ride off into the sunset, even if it was in his own interests, would be a delicate operation. After the Situation Room discussion, I phoned Mubarak again, raising the idea of him putting forward a bolder set of reforms. He instantly grew combative, characterizing the protesters as members of the Muslim Brotherhood and insisting once again that the situation would soon return to normal. He did agree, though, to my request to send an envoy—Frank Wisner, who’d been a U.S. ambassador to Egypt in the late 1980s—to Cairo for more extensive private consultations.
Using Wisner to make a direct, face-to-face appeal to the Egyptian president had been Hillary’s idea, and I thought it made sense: Wisner was literally a scion of the American foreign policy establishment, his father having been an iconic leader during the foundational years of the CIA, and he was someone Mubarak knew well and trusted. At the same time, I understood that Wisner’s history with Mubarak and his old-school approach to U.S. diplomacy might make him conservative in evaluating the prospects for change. Before he left, I called him with clear instructions to “be bold”: I wanted him to push Mubarak to announce that he would step down after new elections were held—a gesture I hoped would be dramatic and specific enough to give protesters confidence that change really was coming.
While we awaited the outcome of Wisner’s mission, the media became more focused on my administration’s reaction to the crisis—and, more specifically, whose side we were on. So far, we’d issued little more than generic public statements in an effort to buy ourselves time. But Washington reporters—many of whom clearly found the cause of the young protesters compelling—began pressing Gibbs on why we weren’t unambiguously standing with the forces of democracy. Foreign leaders in the region, meanwhile, wanted to know why we weren’t supporting Mubarak more forcefully. Bibi Netanyahu insisted that maintaining order and stability in Egypt mattered above all else, telling me that otherwise “you will see Iran in there in two seconds.” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was even more alarmed; the spread of protests in the region was an existential threat to a family monarchy that had long squelched any form of internal dissent. He also believed that the Egyptian protesters weren’t in fact speaking for themselves. He ticked off the “four factions” he believed were behind the protests: the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and Hamas.
Neither of these leaders’ analyses stood up to scrutiny. The Sunnis, who made up the vast majority of Egyptians (and all of the Muslim Brotherhood), were hardly susceptible to the influence of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, and there was absolutely no evidence that al-Qaeda or Hamas was behind the demonstrations in any way. Still, even younger, more reform-minded leaders in the region, including King Abdullah of Jordan, feared the possibility of protests engulfing their countries, and while they used more sophisticated language, they clearly expected the United States to choose, as Bibi had put it, “stability” over “chaos.” By January 31, Egyptian army tanks were stationed throughout Cairo, the government had shut down internet service across the city, and protesters were planning a nationwide general strike for the next day. Wisner’s readout on his meeting with Mubarak arrived: The Egyptian president would publicly commit not to run for another term but had stopped short of suspending emergency law or agreeing to support a peaceful transfer of power. The report only widened the split within my national security team: The more senior members saw Mubarak’s concession as enough justification to stick with him, while the younger staffers considered the move—much like Mubarak’s sudden decision to appoint his chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, as vice president—as no more than a stalling tactic that would fail to placate the demonstrators. Tom Donilon and Denis let me know that staff debates had turned acrimonious and that reporters were picking up on the discrepancy between Joe’s and Hillary’s cautiously anodyne statements and the more strident criticism of Mubarak coming from Gibbs and others in the administration.
Partly to make sure that everyone was singing from the same hymnal while we determined our next steps, I paid an unscheduled visit to a meeting of the NSC Principals Committee in the Situation Room late in the afternoon on February 1. The discussion had barely begun when an aide informed us that Mubarak was addressing the Egyptian people on a nationwide broadcast. We turned on the room’s TV monitor so we could watch it in real time. Dressed in a dark suit and reading from a prepared text, Mubarak appeared to be following through on his pledge to Wisner, saying that he had never intended to nominate himself for another term as president and announcing that he would call on the Egyptian parliament—a parliament he entirely controlled—to discuss speeding up a timeline for new elections. But the terms of an actual transfer of power were so vague that any Egyptian watching would likely conclude that whatever promises Mubarak was now making could and would be reversed the moment the protests died down. In fact, the Egyptian president devoted the bulk of the speech to accusing provocateurs and unnamed political forces of hijacking the protests to undermine the nation’s security and stability. He insisted that he would continue to fulfill his responsibility, as someone who had “never, ever been seeking power,” to protect Egypt from agents of chaos and violence. When he finished the address, someone turned off the monitor, and I leaned back in my chair, stretching my arms behind my head.
“That,” I said, “is not going to cut it.”
I wanted to take one last shot at convincing Mubarak to initiate a real transition. Returning to the Oval Office, I placed a call to him, and I put the phone on speaker mode so that my assembled advisors could hear. I began by complimenting him on his decision not to run again. I could only imagine how difficult it might be for Mubarak, someone who’d first assumed power when I was in college and had outlasted four of my predecessors, to hear what I was about to say.
“Now that you’ve made this historic decision for a transition of power,” I said, “I want to discuss with you how it will work. I say this with the utmost respect…I want to share my honest assessment about what I think will accomplish your goals.” I then cut to the bottom line: If he stayed in office and dragged out the transition process, I believed, the protests would continue and possibly spin out of control. If he wanted to ensure the election of a responsible government that wasn’t dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, then now was the time for him to step down and use his stature behind the scenes to help usher in a new Egyptian government.
Although Mubarak and I normally spoke to each other in English, he chose this time to address me in Arabic. I didn’t need the translator to catch the agitation in his voice. “You don’t understand the culture of the Egyptian people,” he declared, his voice rising. “President Obama, if I go into the transition this way, it will be the most dangerous thing for Egypt.” I acknowledged that I didn’t know Egyptian culture the way he did, and that he’d been in politics far longer than I had. “But there are moments in history where just because things have been the same way in the past doesn’t mean they will be the same way in the future. You’ve served your country well for over thirty years. I want to make sure you seize this historic moment in a way that leaves a great legacy for you.” We went back and forth like this for several more minutes, with Mubarak insisting on the need for him to remain where he was and repeating that the protests would soon be over. “I know my people,” he said toward the end of the call. “They are emotional people. I will talk to you after a while, Mr. President, and I will tell you that I was right.” I hung up the phone. For a moment, the room was silent, everyone’s eyes glued on me. I had given Mubarak my best advice. I had offered him a plan for a graceful exit. Any leader who replaced him, I knew, might end up being a worse partner for the United States—and potentially worse for the Egyptian people. And the truth was, I could have lived with any genuine transition plan he might have presented, even if it left much of the regime’s existing network intact. I was enough of a realist to assume that had it not been for the stubborn persistence of those young people in Tahrir Square, I’d have worked with Mubarak for the rest of my presidency, despite what he stood for—just as I would continue to work with the rest of the “corrupt, rotting authoritarian order,” as Ben liked to call it, that controlled life in the Middle East and North Africa.
Except those kids were in Tahrir Square. Because of their brash insistence on a better life, others had joined them—mothers and laborers and shoemakers and taxi drivers. Those hundreds of thousands of people had, for a brief moment at least, lost their fear, and they wouldn’t stop demonstrating unless Mubarak restored that fear the only way he knew how: through beatings and gunfire, detentions and torture. Earlier in my presidency, I hadn’t managed to influence the Iranian regime’s vicious crackdown on Green Movement protesters. I might not be able to stop a China or Russia from crushing its own dissidents. But the Mubarak regime had received billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars; we supplied them with weapons, shared information, and helped train their military officers; and for me to allow the recipient of that aid, someone we called an ally, to perpetrate wanton violence on peaceful demonstrators, with all the world watching—that was a line I was unwilling to cross. It would do too much damage, I thought, to the idea of America. It would do too much damage to me.
“Let’s prepare a statement,” I said to my team. “We’re calling on Mubarak to step down now.”
CONTRARY TO THE BELIEFS of many in the Arab world (and more than a few American reporters), the United States is not a grand puppet master whimsically pulling the strings of the countries with which it does business. Even governments that rely on our military and economic assistance think first and foremost of their own survival, and the Mubarak regime was no exception. After I publicly announced my conviction that it was time for Egypt to start a quick transition to a new government, Mubarak remained defiant, testing how far he could go in intimidating the protesters. The next day, while the Egyptian army stood idly by, gangs of pro-Mubarak supporters descended on Tahrir Square—some on camels and horses, brandishing whips and clubs, others hurling firebombs and rocks from surrounding rooftops—and began assaulting the demonstrators. Three protesters were killed and six hundred were injured; over the course of several days, authorities detained more than fifty journalists and human rights activists. The violence continued into the next day, along with large-scale counterdemonstrations organized by the government. Pro-Mubarak forces even began roughing up foreign reporters, accusing them of actively inciting the opposition.
My biggest challenge during those tense several days was keeping everybody in my administration on the same page. The message coming out of the White House was clear. When Gibbs was asked what I meant when I said that the transition in Egypt had to begin “now,” he said simply, “Now means yesterday.” We were also successful in getting our European allies to issue a joint statement that mirrored my own. Around the same time, though, Hillary was interviewed at a security conference in Munich and seemed to go out of her way to warn of the dangers in any rapid transition in Egypt. At the same conference, Frank Wisner—who no longer had an official role in the administration and claimed to be speaking only as a private citizen—voiced the opinion that Mubarak should stay in power during any transition period. Hearing this, I told Katie to track down my secretary of state. When I got her on the phone, I didn’t mask my displeasure.
“I understand full well the potential problems with any move away from Mubarak,” I said, “but I’ve made a decision, and I can’t have a bunch of mixed messages out there right now.” Before Hillary could respond, I added, “And tell Wisner I don’t give a damn about what capacity he’s speaking in—he needs to be quiet.”
Despite the occasional frustrations I experienced in dealing with a national security establishment that remained uncomfortable with the prospect of an Egypt without Mubarak, that same establishment—particularly the Pentagon and the intelligence community—probably had more impact on the final outcome in Egypt than any high-minded statements coming from the White House. Once or twice a day, we had Gates, Mullen, Panetta, Brennan, and others quietly reach out to high-ranking officers in the Egyptian military and intelligence services, making clear that a military-sanctioned crackdown on the protesters would have severe consequences on any future U.S.-Egyptian relationship. The implication of this military-to-military outreach was plain: U.S.-Egyptian cooperation, and the aid that came with it, wasn’t dependent on Mubarak’s staying in power, so Egypt’s generals and intelligence chiefs might want to carefully consider which actions best preserved their institutional interests.
Our messaging appeared successful, for by the evening of February 3, Egyptian army troops had positioned themselves to keep the pro-Mubarak forces separate from the protesters. The arrests of Egyptian journalists and human rights activists began to slow. Encouraged by the change in the army’s posture, more demonstrators flowed peacefully into the square. Mubarak would hang on for another week, vowing not to bow to “foreign pressure.” But on February 11, just two and a half weeks after the first major protest in Tahrir Square, a weary-looking Vice President Suleiman appeared on Egyptian television to announce that Mubarak had left office and a caretaker government led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would initiate the process for new elections.
In the White House, we watched CNN broadcast footage of the crowd in Tahrir Square erupting in celebration. Many staffers were jubilant. Samantha sent me a message saying how proud she was to be a part of the administration. Walking down the colonnade on our way to my press statement to reporters, Ben couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. “It’s pretty amazing,” he said, “being a part of history like that.” Katie printed out a wire photo and left it on my desk; it showed a group of young protesters in the Egyptian square hoisting a sign that read, YES WE CAN.
I was relieved—and cautiously hopeful. Still, I did find myself occasionally thinking about Mubarak, who just a few months earlier had been my guest in the Old Family Dining Room. Rather than flee the country, the elderly leader had apparently taken up residence in his private compound in Sharm el Sheikh. I pictured him there, sitting in lavish surroundings, a dim light casting shadows across his face, alone with his thoughts.
I knew that for all the celebration and optimism in the air, the transition in Egypt was only the beginning of a struggle for the soul of the Arab world—a struggle whose outcome remained far from certain. I remembered the conversation I’d had with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, immediately after I called for Mubarak to step down. Young, sophisticated, close to the Saudis, and perhaps the savviest leader in the Gulf, MBZ, as we called him, hadn’t minced words in describing how the news was being received in the region.
MBZ told me that U.S. statements on Egypt were being watched closely in the Gulf, with increasing alarm. What would happen if protesters in Bahrain called for King Hamad to step down? Would the United States put out that same kind of statement that we had on Egypt?
I had told him I hoped to work with him and others to avoid having to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood and potentially violent clashes between governments and their people.
“The public message does not affect Mubarak, you see, but it affects the region,” MBZ told me. He suggested that if Egypt collapsed and the Muslim Brotherhood took over, there would be eight other Arab leaders who would fall, which is why he was critical of my statement. “It shows,” he said, “that the United States is not a partner we can rely on in the long term.” His voice was calm and cold. It was less a plea for help, I realized, than a warning. Whatever happened to Mubarak, the old order had no intention of conceding power without a fight.
IF ANYTHING, ANTI-GOVERNMENT demonstrations in other countries only grew in scope and intensity following Mubarak’s resignation, as more and more people came to believe that change was possible. A handful of regimes successfully managed to make at least symbolic reform in response to protesters’ demands while avoiding significant bloodshed or upheaval: Algeria lifted its nineteen-year-old emergency law, the king of Morocco engineered constitutional reforms that modestly increased the power of the country’s elected parliament, and Jordan’s monarch would soon do the same. But for many Arab rulers, the main lesson out of Egypt was the need to systematically, ruthlessly crush the protests—no matter how much violence that might require and no matter how much international criticism such crackdowns might generate.
Two of the countries that saw the worst violence were Syria and Bahrain, where sectarian divisions ran high and privileged minorities governed large and resentful majorities. In Syria, the March 2011 arrest and torture of fifteen schoolboys who had sprayed anti-government graffiti on city walls set off major protests against the Alawite Shiite–dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad in many of the country’s predominantly Sunni communities. After tear gas, water cannons, beatings, and mass arrests failed to quell the demonstrations, Assad’s security forces went on to launch full-scale military operations across several cities, complete with live fire, tanks, and house-to-house searches. Meanwhile, just as MBZ had predicted, in the small island nation of Bahrain, huge, mostly Shiite demonstrations against the government of King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa were taking place in the capital city of Manama, and the Bahraini government responded with force, killing scores of protesters and injuring hundreds more. As outrage over police brutality fueled even bigger demonstrations, the beleaguered Hamad went further, taking the unprecedented step of inviting armed divisions of the Saudi and Emirati armies to help suppress his own citizens.
My team and I spent hours wrestling with how the United States could influence events inside Syria and Bahrain. Our options were painfully limited. Syria was a longtime adversary of the United States, historically allied with Russia and Iran, as well as a supporter of Hezbollah. Without the economic, military, or diplomatic leverage we’d had in Egypt, the official condemnations of the Assad regime we made (and our later imposition of a U.S. embargo) had no real effect, and Assad could count on Russia to veto any efforts we might make to impose international sanctions through the U.N. Security Council. With Bahrain, we had the opposite problem: The country was a longtime U.S. ally and hosted the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. That relationship allowed us to privately pressure Hamad and his ministers to partially answer the protesters’ demands and to rein in the police violence. Still, Bahrain’s ruling establishment viewed the protesters as Iranian-influenced enemies who had to be contained. In concert with the Saudis and the Emiratis, the Bahraini regime was going to force us to make a choice, and all were aware that when push came to shove, we couldn’t afford to risk our strategic position in the Middle East by severing relations with three Gulf countries.
In 2011, no one questioned our limited influence in Syria—that would come later. But despite multiple statements from my administration condemning the violence in Bahrain and efforts to broker a dialogue between the government and more moderate Shiite opposition leaders, our failure to break with Hamad—especially in the wake of our posture toward Mubarak—was roundly criticized. I had no elegant way to explain the apparent inconsistency, other than to acknowledge that the world was messy; that in the conduct of foreign policy, I had to constantly balance competing interests, interests shaped by the choices of previous administrations and the contingencies of the moment; and that just because I couldn’t in every instance elevate our human rights agenda over other considerations didn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to do what I could, when I could, to advance what I considered to be America’s highest values. But what if a government starts massacring not hundreds of its citizens but thousands and the United States has the power to stop it? Then what?
FOR FORTY-TWO YEARS, Muammar Gaddafi had ruled Libya with a viciousness that, even by the standards of his fellow dictators, spilled into madness. Prone to flamboyant gestures, incoherent rants, and odd behavior (in advance of the 2009 UNGA meetings in New York, he’d tried to get approval to erect a massive Bedouin tent in the middle of Central Park for himself and his entourage), he had nevertheless been ruthlessly efficient in stamping out dissent in his country, using a combination of secret police, security forces, and state-sponsored militias to jail, torture, and murder anyone who dared to oppose him. Throughout the 1980s, his government had also been one of the leading state sponsors of terrorism around the world, facilitating such horrific attacks as the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed citizens of twenty-one countries, including 189 Americans. Gaddafi had more recently tried to wrap himself in the cloak of respectability by ending his support for international terrorism and dismantling his nascent nuclear program (which led Western countries, including the United States, to resume diplomatic relations). But inside Libya itself, nothing had changed.
Less than a week after Mubarak left power in Egypt, Gaddafi’s security forces fired into a large group of civilians who’d gathered to protest the arrest of a human rights lawyer. Within days, the protests had spread, and more than a hundred had been killed. A week later, much of the country was in open rebellion, with anti-Gaddafi forces taking control of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. Libyan diplomats and former loyalists, including the country’s ambassador to the U.N., began to defect, appealing to the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people. Accusing the protesters of being fronts for al-Qaeda, Gaddafi unleashed a campaign of terror, declaring, “Everything will burn.” By the beginning of March, the death count had risen to a thousand.
Appalled by the escalating carnage, we quickly did everything we could short of using military force to stop Gaddafi. I called for him to relinquish power, arguing that he had lost the legitimacy to govern. We imposed economic sanctions, froze billions of dollars in assets that belonged to him and his family, and, at the U.N. Security Council, passed an arms embargo and referred the case of Libya to the International Criminal Court, where Gaddafi and others could be tried for committing crimes against humanity. But the Libyan leader was undeterred. Analysts forecasted that once Gaddafi’s forces reached Benghazi, tens of thousands of lives could be lost.
It was around this time that a chorus grew, first among human rights organizations and a handful of columnists, and then members of Congress and much of the media, demanding that the United States take military action to stop Gaddafi. In many ways, I considered this a sign of moral progress. For most of America’s history, the thought of using our combat forces to stop a government from killing its own people would have been a nonstarter—because such state-sponsored violence happened all the time; because U.S. policy makers didn’t consider the death of innocent Cambodians, Argentinians, or Ugandans relevant to our interests; and because many of the perpetrators were our allies in the fight against communism. (This included the reportedly CIA-backed military coup that toppled a Communist government in Indonesia in 1965, two years before my mother and I arrived there, with a bloody aftermath that resulted in between five hundred thousand and a million deaths.) In the 1990s, though, more timely international reporting of such crimes, combined with America’s ascendance as the world’s lone superpower after the Cold War, had led to a reexamination of U.S. inaction and prompted the successful American-led NATO intervention in the Bosnian conflict. Indeed, the obligation of the United States to prioritize the prevention of atrocities in its foreign policy was what Samantha’s book had been all about—one of the reasons I’d brought her into the White House.
And yet, as much as I shared the impulse to save innocent people from tyrants, I was profoundly wary of ordering any kind of military action against Libya, for the same reason that I’d declined Samantha’s suggestion that my Nobel Prize address include an explicit argument for a global “responsibility to protect” civilians against their own governments. Where would the obligation to intervene end? And what were the parameters? How many people would need to have been killed, and how many more would have to be at risk, to trigger a U.S. military response? Why Libya and not the Congo, for example, where a series of civil conflicts had resulted in millions of civilian deaths? Would we intervene only when there was no chance of U.S. casualties? Bill Clinton had thought the risks were low back in 1993, when he sent special operations forces into Somalia to capture members of a warlord’s organization in support of U.S. peacekeeping efforts there. In the incident known as “Black Hawk Down,” eighteen service members were killed and seventy-three more wounded.
The truth is that war is never tidy and always results in unintended consequences, even when launched against seemingly powerless countries on behalf of a righteous cause. When it came to Libya, advocates for U.S. intervention had tried to obfuscate that reality by latching on to the idea of imposing a no-fly zone to ground Gaddafi’s military planes and prevent bombing, which they presented as an antiseptic, risk-free way of saving the Libyan people. (Typical question from a White House reporter at the time: “How many more people have to die before we take this one step?”) What they were missing was the fact that establishing a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace would require us to first fire missiles into Tripoli to destroy Libya’s air defenses—a clear act of war against a country that posed no threat to us. Not only that, but it wasn’t even clear that a no-fly zone would have any effect, since Gaddafi was using ground forces and not air bombardment to attack opposition strongholds.
America was also still knee-deep in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had just ordered U.S. forces in the Pacific to help the Japanese handle the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, brought on by a tsunami that had leveled the city of Fukushima; we were seriously concerned about the potential of radioactive fallout reaching the West Coast. Add in the fact that I was still dealing with a U.S. economy that was barely above water and a Republican Congress that had pledged to undo everything my administration had accomplished in our first two years, and it’s fair to say that I found the idea of waging a new war in a distant country with no strategic importance to the United States to be less than prudent. I wasn’t the only one. Bill Daley, who’d become my chief of staff in January, seemed bewildered that anyone was even entertaining the notion.
“Maybe I’m missing something, Mr. President,” he said during one of our evening wrap-ups, “but I don’t think we got clobbered in the midterms because voters don’t think you’re doing enough in the Middle East. Ask ten people on the street and nine of them don’t even know where the heck Libya is.”
And yet, as reports of hospitals filling up with gruesome injuries and young people being unceremoniously executed on the streets continued to trickle out of Libya, support around the world for intervention gathered steam. To the surprise of many, the Arab League voted in support of an international intervention against Gaddafi—a sign not only of how extreme the levels of violence in Libya had become but also of the extent to which the Libyan strongman’s erratic behavior and meddling in the affairs of other countries had isolated him from his fellow Arab leaders. (The vote may also have been a handy way for countries in the region to deflect attention from their own human rights abuses, given that nations like Syria and Bahrain remained members in good standing.) Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy, who’d been criticized mercilessly in France for supporting the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia till the bitter end, suddenly decided to make saving the Libyan people his personal cause. Together with David Cameron, he announced his intention to immediately introduce a resolution in the U.N. Security Council on behalf of France and the United Kingdom, authorizing an international coalition to initiate a no-fly zone over Libya—a resolution on which we’d have to take a position.
On March 15, I convened a meeting of my national security team to discuss the pending Security Council resolution. We began with a briefing on Gaddafi’s progress: Libyan troops with heavy armaments were poised to overtake a town on the outskirts of Benghazi, which could allow them to cut off water, food, and power to the city’s six hundred thousand residents. With his forces massed, Gaddafi was pledging to go “house by house, home by home, alley by alley, person by person, until the country is cleansed of dirt and scum.” I asked Mike Mullen what difference a no-fly zone would make. Essentially none, he told me, confirming that since Gaddafi was using ground forces almost exclusively, the only way to stop an assault on Benghazi was to target those forces directly with air strikes.
“In other words,” I said, “we are being asked to participate in a no-fly zone that will make everyone look like they’re doing something but that won’t actually save Benghazi.”
I then asked for people’s recommendations. Gates and Mullen were strongly opposed to any U.S. military action, emphasizing the stress that missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were already placing on our troops. They were also convinced—correctly, I thought—that despite the rhetoric from Sarkozy and Cameron, the U.S. military would end up having to carry most of the load for any operation in Libya. Joe considered it foolish to get involved in yet another war abroad, while Bill remained astonished that we were even having the debate.
As I worked my way around the room, though, the voices for intervention weighed in. Hillary had been conferenced in from Paris, where she was attending a G8 meeting, and said she’d been impressed by the Libyan opposition leader she’d met there. Despite—or perhaps because of—her realpolitik on Egypt, she now favored us joining an international mission. Speaking from our U.N. offices in New York, Susan Rice said the situation reminded her of the international community’s failure to intervene in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She’d been a member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council at the time and remained haunted by the lack of action. If a relatively modest action could save lives, she argued, we should take it—though she suggested that rather than sign on to the proposal for a no-fly zone, we should present our own resolution seeking a broader mandate to take whatever actions were necessary to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s forces.
A few of the younger staffers expressed concern that a military action against Libya might have the unintended consequence of convincing countries like Iran that they needed nuclear weapons as a hedge against a future U.S. attack. But as had been true with Egypt, Ben and Tony Blinken felt we had a responsibility to support those forces protesting for democratic change in the Middle East—particularly if the Arab states and our closest allies were prepared to act with us. And while Samantha remained uncharacteristically clinical when describing the potential death toll in Benghazi should we decide not to act, I knew that she was in daily, direct contact with Libyans pleading for help. I almost didn’t need to ask what her position was.
I checked my watch, knowing I was soon due to host an annual dinner with the U.S. military’s combatant commanders and their spouses in the Blue Room of the residence. “All right,” I said. “I’m not ready to make a decision yet. But based on what I’m hearing, here’s the one thing we’re not going to do—we’re not going to participate in some half-assed no-fly zone that won’t achieve our objective.” I told the team we’d reconvene in a couple of hours, by which time I expected to hear real options for what an effective intervention would look like, including an analysis of the costs, human resources, and risks involved. “Either we do this right,” I said, “or we stop pretending that we’re serious about saving Benghazi just to make ourselves feel better.” By the time I arrived in the Blue Room, Michelle and our guests had already assembled. We took photos with each commander and spouse, making small talk about our kids and trading jokes about our golf games. During dinner I sat next to a young Marine and his wife; he had stepped on an IED while working as a bomb technician in Afghanistan and lost both his legs. He was still getting accustomed to his prosthetics, he told me, but he looked to be in good spirits and was handsome in his uniform. I could see on his wife’s face the mixture of pride, determination, and suppressed anguish that had become so familiar to me during my visits with military families over the previous two years.
All the while, my brain was churning with calculations, thinking about the decision I’d have to make as soon as Buddy and Von and the other butlers cleared away the dessert plates. The arguments Mullen and Gates had made against military action in Libya were compelling. I’d already sent thousands of young men like the Marine sitting next to me into battle, and there was no guarantee, whatever those on the sidelines might think, that a new war wouldn’t lead others to suffer such injuries, or worse. I was irritated that Sarkozy and Cameron had jammed me on the issue, in part to solve their domestic political problems, and I felt scornful of the Arab League’s hypocrisy. I knew that Bill was right: that outside of Washington, there wasn’t a lot of support for what America was being asked to do, and that the minute anything about a U.S. military operation in Libya went south, my political problems would only worsen.
I also knew that unless we took the lead, the European plan would likely go nowhere. Gaddafi’s troops would lay siege to Benghazi. At best, a protracted conflict would ensue, perhaps even a full-blown civil war. At worst, tens of thousands or more would be starved, tortured, or shot in the head. And at the moment, at least, I was perhaps the one person in the world who could keep that from happening.
The dinner ended. I told Michelle I’d be home in an hour and made my way back to the Situation Room, where the team had been reviewing options and sat awaiting further instructions.
“I think I’ve got a plan that might work,” I said.
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