The journalism memento on my office wall that I most cherish is a framed note, dated May 26, 2003, from Mohamed ElBaradei, then director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In it, he thanked me for my appearance on a CNN International television program on which I yet again denounced the lies that made up the phony case for invading Iraq.
I’m usually suspicious when powerful people say nice things to me, but in those days, ElBaradei had nothing to gain politically from his compliment. On the contrary, the small circle of dissidents in which I found myself that included ElBaradei was, at the time, completely submerged by the mad triumphalism that followed the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, just before I appeared on her show, Daljit Dhaliwal interviewed James Woolsey, the former CIA director, who confidently predicted new discoveries in Iraq that would prove that Saddam Hussein had been well on his way to destroying the world with atomic bombs and chemical weapons.
Things have certainly changed since then. It was heartening to see ElBaradei in the headlines as a major spokesman for the Egyptian opposition leading up to dictator Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, on Friday. But I got nearly as much pleasure from seeing the State Department and White House tied up in knots as they struggled to appear neutral in a conflict in which they clearly favored some version of the status quo — one that would not include ElBaradei in any important position. ElBaradei at the head of a coalition government is, next to a radical Islamist leadership, the Obama administration’s worst fear for Egypt.
Not only did ElBaradei offend the permanent political class in Washington by rejecting Bush’s propaganda about Saddam’s weapons program (remember that many “liberals,” including the present secretary of state, also favored the invasion), he did it with a diplomat’s restraint and proportion, saying, for instance, that there was no “plausible indication” of an atomic-bomb project in Iraq. More recently, to Hillary Clinton’s consternation, ElBaradei recommended negotiation with Iran, rather than confrontation, over its nuclear ambitions. The former U.N. diplomat also favors ending the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip, which must further annoy the dogmatically pro-Israel secretary of state.
The Obama administration prefers to deal with caricatures of Muslims, radicals like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama bin Laden, because they help justify its vast military deployments and expenditures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The last thing that the administration wants is a cosmopolitan, secular, Western-oriented leader of Egypt who refuses to toe the line with Washington realpolitik. “Democracy” is a very fine thing as long as it doesn’t threaten trusted dictatorships.
Amid the tumult in Tahrir Square, one thing was certain: that Hillary Clinton, Israel, and Saudi Arabia were doing their utmost to undermine ElBaradei in the eyes of the Egyptian people, already wary of someone who has lived in New York, Geneva and Vienna for most of the past 35 years. I heard criticism in the dismissive voice of the Israeli diplomat I spoke with a couple of weeks ago (“ElBaradei has no popular base.”). I hear it in the presumptuous tone of Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times column (ElBaradei is “dubious as a grassroots leader.”) entitled “Obama the Realist.”
Thus is the party line in Washington supported by the institutional voice of The Times. In its traditional role of semi-official government gazette, the paper has worked hard to paint over ElBaradei’s moderate, social-democratic positions and portray him instead as a dangerous appeaser of Islamic radicalism. He may have won the Nobel Peace Prize and praised President Obama’s efforts toward nuclear disarmament, but look at what John Bolton had to say about him.
In a Jan. 31 story, The Times gave voice to Bolton’s opinion that ElBaradei is “a political dilettante who is excessively pro-Iran,” and then permitted its reporters to write, without a named source, that “even some of Mr. ElBaradei’s staff members chafed a bit when he softened the edges of IAEA reports, especially on Iran. They believed he was doing everything he could to avoid giving the Bush administration, or Israel, a reason to launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Nowhere did the paper note that John Bolton is a right-wing and very radical anti-Islamist, who, while Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, did his utmost to emasculate that world body and who dearly hopes for an offensive war against Iran.
Good for ElBaradei. Restraint is precisely what’s needed in the tinderbox that is today’s Middle East, which has been rendered much more dangerous by Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Obama’s escalating occupation of Afghanistan, America’s corrupt alliance with the Saudi royal autocracy and the blind bipartisan support of Israel no matter how it treats the Palestinians.
Unfortunately, this is why I’m pessimistic about ElBaradei’s chances for assuming an important office in post-Mubarak Egypt. Mubarak’s tenacious hold on power owed much to Washington’s delays and prevarications. But it was also because of a powerful mindset that I witnessed in London last month, when I dropped in on Tony Blair’s second round of testimony before Britain’s Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq invasion. Blair was his usual self-obsessed, glib, mendacious self, clinging to the mantra that overthrowing Saddam justified anything that came after, even if he “deeply and profoundly” regretted “the loss of life” that resulted from his adventure in nation-building with George W. Bush. The next day, the London press gave him pretty good marks for the performance, with particular emphasis on his misty gesture to the surviving relatives of the hundreds of thousands of dead and missing.
What chance has an honest Arab, no matter how westernized, in a world that still largely tolerates Blair and Bush?