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Cairo Puts Popular Opinion Back on the Map

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Almost a year ago – February 21, 2010 – I wrote “Our image in the Muslim world would probably improve if we stopped killing Muslims.” Almost every week since, something like those words have been part of my Sunday posts. I either check my daily Citizens For Legitimate Government emails (sign up here) or go to Google News and find the latest drone attacks. Drones aren’t the only way we are killing Muslims obviously, but it is an easy search term for filtering out unrelated items and is also pretty cut and dried: A conventional bomb could be of disputed origin. Only the US has drones.

I also occasionally highlight the protests against these campaigns; for obvious reasons they are passionately hated, but the US has generally been indifferent to that fact. In the last couple weeks two events have changed the calculus, and neither has to do with the unpopularity of raining down remote death. First is the case of Raymond Davis.

On January 27th he killed two Pakistanis. Adil Najam has a wonderful overview of the circumstances here. Far from presuming guilt, Najam looks at the known facts of the incident and writes “serious questions need to be asked about just who the two young men on the motorcycle were, just as they need to be asked about who Raymond Davis is. There just seem to be too many unnecessary weapons in too much proximity in this story. All of the many explanations that are floating around are very disturbing, but also very plausible. Which is exactly why this story is even more dangerous if left unresolved.”

The killings have turned into a flashpoint in the region, even as Western outlets largely ignore it. Angry protests are being held, and commentators like Ali Ashraf Khan are looking at the Americans’ arguments for quietly disposing of the case in a fairly obvious context:

An almost amusing fact is that Americans are quoting international treaties and conventions which would prevent Pakistan from keeping the murderer of Pakistani citizens in custody. Have Americans at any time headed any international agreement? Guantanamo, Palestine, Iraq war without UN sanction, attack on Afghanistan, Abu Gharaib, torture cells in Bagram, Syria, Poland and other places. What a joke!

Khan concludes: “If the government again succumbs to US pressure it will not only undermine its own existence, it will invite a new wave of terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil and may be another Tunis & Egypt like situation under the changing circumstances.” This is the second event that has put drone strikes in a new light. Doctor Cleveland has a phenomenal analysis of America’s cynical bombing logic. Launch drone strikes against a democracy and you can expect a strongly anti-American government after the next election.

But when you’re dealing with dictatorships, juntas, Communist oligarchies, and so on, you tend to count popular opinion out. After all, public sentiment can’t replace the dictator, junta, or Politburo. Having the folks on the ground love or hate your country more than they did last year doesn’t make any immediately apparent difference. It’s natural to focus on how the people at the top respond to your actions. So, if you’re having static with Muammar Qadhafi and you feel bombing some targets in Libya will get him in line, that seems like the logical course of action. Sure, the average Libyan might hate the US because of those strikes, maybe for a generation or so, but it’s not like that changes anything in the short term. If Qadhafi takes his beating quietly and backs down, it looks like a satisfactory Libya policy. If Saddam Hussein attempts to have a former US President assassinated, you authorize an air strike on his intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. That works like a charm in terms of managing Saddam Hussein and his intelligence apparatus; they learned that specific lesson pretty well. How the rest of the citizens of Baghdad felt about having their city attacked by planes was beside the point as long as Hussein was in power. Their support wasn’t any real help to us, and their resentment didn’t hurt us. It wasn’t like we needed them to vote for some hypothetical pro-American political party, right?

Which is why events in Cairo sent America’s foreign policy conventional wisdom into the ash heap. One could forgive its diplomatic corps for feeling a bit unmoored at the moment; all the old operating assumptions are out the window. Appeals to international treaties are scoffed at for the entirely sensible reason that the US does not abide by them. Our foreign policy has been dismissive of popular opinion when it was easier to cozy up to dictators, but we have just seen how fragile dictatorships can be. Suddenly governments cannot casually ignore or suppress dissent. Suddenly it matters. And the drone attacks? They’ve stopped.

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