I read the lengthy discussion with General Scowcroft. I heard a lot about contemporary problems. I heard no global solutions. In fact, I found General Scowcroft’s comments distressingly superficial, common place, and unrooted in today’s real world and yesterday’s history. He more than implies that it is only thanks to Facebook and Twitter that people can assemble and demonstrate and defy their rulers and cause changes. This is manifestly incorrect. People have been rebelling, taking to the streets, defying authority throughout all of recorded history. There are frankly too many examples to cite. The storming of the Bastille in 1789. The Russian Revolution of 1917. The American civil rights movement. The Paris Commune. There were slave rebellions during the days of Ancient Rome. The industrial workers strikes and demonstrations in many countries around the world since the beginning of the 19th century. And on and on. Even without Facebook and Twitter the Tunisian revolt, the Egyptian revolt, the Yemen revolt, the Syrian revolt would undoubtedly have occurred, maybe not in exactly the same way, maybe not in 2011. But they would have occurred. The causes of these revolts were not Facebook and Twitter. They were simply facilitators. Before they existed, people who had reached the breaking point found other means to communicate among themselves and to act together.
The general stated that the Chinese government will be stable in the long term, although he did not fix the term. He must be taking its short term stability and extending it well into the future. His prediction, of course, is going to prove inaccurate. By the end of this century China will have undergone major political and social transformations. The seeds have already been planted. An expanding wealthy class unaffiliated with government and an expanding middle class that will accept less and less governmental authoritarianism. A very large underprivileged rural class that is becoming also an underprivileged industrial worker class that will not accept its situation. Look at what happened in the industrialized countries of the West with the development of wealthy and middle classes and an industrial proletariat in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those European countries were all authoritarian states in the beginning, but they all succumbed to popular pressures and were transformed. Look at the Arab Spring, which is only the opening salvo in the awakening of the Islamic populations. I do not suggest that the transformation will be easy. It will most likely usually be very bloody. There will be turmoil. Humankind’s progress has always been stigmatized by turmoil and bloodshed. Does General Scowcroft think the Chinese population more docile than its Western counterparts? The present Chinese government, unless it develops a less rigid method of governing, will find itself before the end of this century swept away, just as were the Western monarchies.
(Quite serendipitously, after having written the above, I read an article in The New York Times Sunday Review of February 12, 2012, entitled “Is China Ripe for Revolution?”. General Scowcroft should read it.)
The general states that the Egyptian demonstrators were not interested in democracy, implying even that they do not know what democracy is. He states that the motivation for the Egyptian demonstrators was “…a yearning for dignity to be treated like a human being…” The general obviously did not follow the reporting by Western media. The motivating force was Freedom! And the surest way to ensure individual freedom is with democracy. The Egyptian demonstrators understood this. And they are still demonstrating against the authoritarian military regime and would undoubtedly demonstrate against any successor authoritarian regime. I found the general’s comments about the Chinese and Egyptian people condescending, if not insulting.
He mentioned the French, Russian, and Iranian Revolutions as being initially successful, then unsuccessful, and then once again successful. He talked about the “bad guys” taking over these revolutions. I very seriously doubt (in fact, I am willing to affirm) that the French do not consider Napoleon I, the restored Bourbon monarchy, the Second Republic, and Napoleon III as “bad guys”. Is the general simplistic or was he being so because of what he perceived to be the intellectual level of his audience? Of what Iranian Revolution was he speaking? The one in 1953 that we, the USA through the machinations of the CIA, destroyed or the one in 1979 that ousted our pet dictator? It is interesting to note that in France it took 84 years to establish a solid democracy, i.e. the Third Republic. It took74 years in Russia and there the final results are not yet certain. It has only been 33 years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It is also worth noting that it has been 236 years since the beginning of the American Revolution and the “bad guys” have not yet taken over, but a contemporary observer could well believe that we are going in that direction, from democracy to oligarchy. Are we allowing ourselves to fall into the trap that destroyed the Roman Republic, assuming an imperial role of attempting global domination?
He talked about the complicated situation in the Middle East. He stated, “And it’s hard to know how to act.” No, it is not, if one has long term guiding principles. Unfortunately, United States foreign policy is not anchored on such principles. It is totally tactical. And the general’s mind set is totally tactical, that’s why he thinks it difficult to know how to act. This carpe diem foreign policy is a result of the virtual takeover of US foreign policy by the military establishment. A contemporary observer could easily conclude by our actions that the USA wants to establish military dominance across the world by placing its forces everywhere. I do not consider that a legitimate long term guiding principle.
The general is all for the right of people to choose their own government, except for the Palestinians. I don’t understand this. The Palestinians already elect their own government. What they don’t have is national sovereignty.
He has the typical attitude of the military professional: Stability above all. He states, ”If we encourage revolt in Syria, who replaces Assad?” In other words, a bloodthirsty dictator is preferable to uncertainty, is preferable to human progress toward freedom. Let the Syrian people worry about Assad’s replacement. It is their right. Geopolitically, Syria, regardless of what the general says, is of insignificant importance to the USA. What is important to us and to the world is that everywhere people march toward, demonstrate for, fight for, and die for the progress of freedom.
Is the general for or against the establishment of a separate agency equivalent to USIA? He was wishy-washy on the subject.
He states that leaks will have a deleterious effect on the willingness of Foreign Service Officers to report fully, truthfully, and candidly to the Department of State. Does this mean that he considers FSOs so cowardly that they would allow themselves to be intimidated by the possibility (probably very slight) that their reports would be leaked? I assume that there were members of the Foreign Service community in the audience. I am surprised that no one took issue with the general. Should I infer that they were either being polite or were, in fact, in agreement? Do they actually believe that their colleagues would take the coward’s way out?
The article is badly titled. General Scowcroft offered absolutely no global solutions.
One always needs to remember that General Scowcroft was a member of the Governing Coalition that authored the infamous 2008 Report on National Security Reform, which essentially would have militarized the United States Government.
By the way, the published transcript was not well edited. It was very difficult reading. Sentences began and were cut off. Nouns and pronouns popped up without verbs. Verbs popped up without subjects. Punctuation was haphazard, and mostly non-existent.
Benjamin L. Landis, Colonel, US Army (ret.)
We made an editorial decision to publish without changes the transcript as received from the George Washington University program sponsors.