Small World: Middle Easternizing American politics
By Henry Precht
For the past several months the national media, many Democrats, Republican hawks, and some aged cold warriors have been busting out with charges of semi-treason in the Trump camp for having talked to (perhaps they really meant plotted with) officials from the Russian embassy, especially the ambassador. As an old school diplomat, I thought that was what we were supposed to be doing: trying to explain our position to the enemy and to understand his perspective. Both were considered useful tactics for preserving the peace.
It reminds me of my days in our consulate general in Alexandria in Nasser’s Egypt. We were then the enemy, invited by the Egypt’s charismatic chief to drink the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. No self-respecting nationalist would talk to us. We reciprocated. When somehow I made a connection with a labor leader, I treasured the rare contact. I would take him to a Greek place for shrimp and fish. He would respond with Egyptian cuisine, an Arabic language movie, or a prayer session in a mosque. (See what sacrifices we made in the cause of freedom!)
Ordinary Egyptians were, true to their nature, quite friendly when they could express themselves. When Mohammed Ali the boxer came on a visit, regime and people were united in treating him like royalty. But official Americans were excluded from the ceremonies. For an Egyptian to be friendly with one of us was to invite career and personal risk.
There was a similar controlling dogma in the Shah’s Iran. He didn’t want any Tehran embassy people talking to his opposition. Nixon and Kissinger saluted and, thus, we never talked to a mullah. Thus, we got only one point of view on Iran politics (if you could call the phony facade that). Come the revolution and — lo — the ruling clergy wouldn’t talk to us. I visited Tehran and the Foreign Minister asked me what I wanted to do. “Treat you like a normal country,” I replied. “Talk to all sides of your system.” He set me up with meetings with regime opponents, religious minorities and big shot clerics.
The latter two were quite friendly and moderate in their discourse. I wrote up in a report all they had to say. Then the embassy was seized and all its files published. Except for those two reports. They never appeared. Khomeini banned all contact with official Americans and the two reports, which showed independent thinking, couldn’t be allowed to circulate.
Back in Cairo for my final Foreign Service job in the early 1980s, I made sure that embassy officers reached out to as many Egyptians of real or potential influence as possible. It was at that stage of Mubarak’s rule a more or less open society except that police were omnipresent. The president’s top advisor said to me as I made my farewell, “we know how many socialists and communists you’ve been having to lunch.” Protecting against the spread of foreign ideas is as old a way of governing as the pyramids.
Finally, take Israel, the self-styled “only democracy in the Middle East.” It, too, has been infected with the bacteria of fear of foreign thinking. Its parliament recently voted to exclude anyone who advocates BDS (boycott, divestment or sanctions) or who works for Human Rights Watch. Seems the Democrats in charge think their legitimacy might be challenged.
I conclude with a couple of observations on the all-too-common national preoccupation with secrecy of ideas. But first a question: Is John Stuart Mill still taught in civics classes? Would our students be familiar with these principles? —
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
And “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
If we held firmly to these 150-year-old principles we would not care by whom dissenting views were expressed or whether in public or kept in private. (In the latter case a dissenter might well note the recent revelations that the CIA has extraordinary technical powers to stay informed on what we do and say.) We should welcome differing contacts and ideas. We might even learn something to our advantage.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.