In a live video Q & A session, Truthdig Editor and columnist Robert Scheer answered readers’ questions on his latest column, “Hey Obama, Read WikiLeaks,” and on the uprising in Egypt. You can watch the video, listen to the podcast, and read the full transcript below.
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Kasia Anderson: Greetings, everyone. [Welcome] to the Truthdig Robert Scheer live chat. We are going to be discussing your column, Bob, from this week, which very appropriately is about Egypt. But why don’t we start by just getting your initial thoughts on what’s going on this Friday, this momentous day, over in Egypt? What’s your reaction?
Robert Scheer: Oh, I think the Egyptian people distinguished themselves. They restored the great luster of Egyptian civilization. A great culture had stagnated under monarchies and secular dictatorships. And these people didn’t back down; mostly very young, they held out. I think the governments of the West were quite willing to betray them up to a point, but the people didn’t fold. And I think this is going to change world politics, I think … certainly beginning with the region. Egypt is the Arab world; there’s no question about it. I mean, it’s the most important country, not in terms of resources, unfortunately, but certainly population, education, what have you. And, you know, the idea that people can speak out, act out, and take great risks in a nonviolent way for democracy—it’s momentous. It’s on the order of Nelson Mandela in South Africa; it’s on the order of Martin Luther King.
And I think Barack Obama and his statement finally embraced that. His statement after the downfall of Mubarak was poetic, it was to the point; it captured the majesty of the moment. And I don’t think the politics of that area are ever going to be the same; I don’t think any dictator in the world is going to sit secure after this. And what we really see is the combination of modern technology, visibility—there aren’t these dark corners where you can hide. And so I think it’s great. There are a lot of questions remaining about the role of the military, and will the military embrace this freedom, and will it support it, or will it try to stifle it. So far the signs are all quite good.
Anderson: You’ve touched on this in your statement just now, but what do you think about the neighboring nations, some of which have been undergoing some political turmoil themselves? Do you think that this will be a kind of a ripple effect, or what do you predict, if you could be so bold?
Scheer: Well, I think if democracy can really take off in Egypt, it just changes the whole dynamic for the other states—including Israel, by the way. I mean, Israel’s whole defense of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is that it is surrounded by a vast sea of militant Islamic fanatic Arabs, and so forth. Now, of course, the reality is that they’ve been cooperating with Egypt ever since the Six-Day War, and both militaries have been, in substantial ways, underwritten by the United States. But still there’s that whole specter of this massive Arab population and tiny little Israel. If Egypt becomes democratic and rational and reasonable in its politics, and yet pushes for progress on allowing the Palestinians to have their own rights, well, then it’s going to be that much more difficult for Israel to resist.
I think it also puts enormous pressure on the monarchies of the Mideast. They’re just out of joint, particularly the oil ones, but including Syria, and they have to change. It raises the standard for Iraq, you know, because Egypt is the model for the Arab world; there’s no question about it. And if in Egypt reason and logic and education come to rule—and social justice, which is also very much needed, since the average … you know, it’s two dollars a day for most Egyptians to live on. So there has to be some spreading around of wealth; there has to be economic development, if not underwritten by oil and the states that have it, hopefully with some support from outside investment.
But, you know, life is very hard in Egypt, and there were food riots a few years back; most of it is centered around the Nile, and there’s very little that you can do to improve life without development, and that’s really going to be the big issue. And the question is where the army comes down. They’ve got their resources; they’re taken care of. Are they going to get out of the way now and allow true modernization, or are we going to go back to, or continue, this corruption where some Egyptians get very rich and are taken care of, and the rest are ignored?
Anderson: Here’s a question from the Web, and it’s also one of the follow-ups that I would ask as well: “How do you feel about the Muslim Brotherhood—if they become the leaders of Egypt, what will happen?”
Scheer: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the convenient whipping boy forever, as far as I can recall. As I mentioned in my own columns, I was reporting from Egypt at the time of the Six-Day War, and that was the whole justification for rallying around Nasser and his corrupt authoritarian regime. If you don’t go with Nasser, or every other dictator, whether they’re religious or not—and I would point out that most of the monarchs claim to be even more fanatical in religious terms than the Muslim Brotherhood—you’ll get these Muslim fanatics.
And it became a great excuse for oppressing the people, it became a great … and yet they were trying to play that card while the people were in their square. They said, oh, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s not really all these young people; they’re naive, they’re being duped. Well, that’s garbage. And we’re going to have to face up to it that you can be both democratic and Islamic. You know, this has become a … thing in this whole war of terror to say that anytime people who happen to be followers of Muhammad also want democracy, “No, it’s a contradiction.” Why is it a contradiction? We’ve had crazed Christians, we’ve had crazed Jews; it was a Jewish fanatic who killed Rabin in Israel. We’ve had Christians that have waged holy war down through the centuries. Yes, we have crazed Muslims; why do we assume that’s the norm? Why do we assume that’s the majority?
And clearly, the experience in Egypt, where they’re in the midst of protests … you had Christians and Muslims worshipping together, protecting each other, both demanding freedom—and Muslim Brotherhood people there also, demanding freedom. I just think this whole demonization of “the other” in the Mideast is really a cop-out for the existing rulers. You know, “Stick with us even though we’re corrupt and violent and totalitarian, because otherwise you’ll get these religious fanatics.” And it’s … I’d like to challenge that, you know. I don’t think these people deserve a pass because they’re holding back the evil horde, you know. It’s a cop-out.
Anderson: Well, just to push you a little bit on that, if there’s been past precedents—I’m thinking of Poland and other countries that have undergone major upheavals in the last couple of decades where, you know, the promise of democracy and a new type of leadership takes a while to develop, takes a while to test-drive and see if it’s actually going to work there. And in that time certain, perhaps more extreme, types of leaders can rise up and capture the imagination of the people. There is some kind of opening for that here, wouldn’t you think? Or is that grafting another country’s fate onto an irrelevant new topic?
Scheer: I think it’s insulting to people around the world to say that we are the only ones who can make history in a good way. First of all, it was a Christian, advanced Christian country that descended into fascism—Germany. OK? It wasn’t some primitive country. …
Anderson: Well, but to defend myself, I didn’t say that. I asked if there was an opening for …
Scheer: Well, democracy always has risks. We see it in our own society to now. We have forces in America that want to appeal to the worst instincts that are xenophobic, racist … you know, and so forth. That’s what democracy is all about—challenging those ideas, hoping the truth will win. But there’s an assumption to that questioning of the ability of other people to make a freer society, to have democracy. And I just don’t … I don’t know why that always comes up. First of all, it’s not our business. They’re the ones that had the right and the responsibility to make a decent society.
Now, you know, assumed in that question somehow there’s a threat to our security or well-being. I don’t buy that. I think the threat to our well-being comes from our meddling in their interests. After all, we built up this Egyptian army. We propped up this dictator. We’ve propped up the oil monarchs—you know, where did the [Sept. 11] hijackers come from? One came from Egypt; 15 of the 19 came from Saudi Arabia, a country that we’ve been doing business [with] and supporting their military, supporting their monarchy, forever. So supporting a monarchy certainly carried a lot of risks, in terms of the hijacking, and now here we are at a moment when the Egyptian people have so clearly spoken out for freedom—nonviolent! They’ve been nonviolent. They risked their lives, and they’re out in their streets … if this thing had gone the other way, they’d all be in jail and tortured and everything. And then we sit around on these news shows and everything and wonder whether they can be trusted with their freedom?
They have demonstrated that they have the right to make their own history. They took the risks, they were out there, these primarily young people in Egypt, and I find it kind of insulting that these pundits sit around and say “Are they ready for democracy?” I’ll raise the question: Are we ready for democracy? You know? And why wasn’t that raised during our history? We had slavery; we had segregation; we didn’t allow women the right to vote; we threw a lot of innocent people in jail during our history. We fought wars that were based on lies. Why don’t people around the world say hey, are you Americans ready for democracy? And yet anytime people around the world move to make their own history, we wonder, oh, are they ready for this? Who are we to be making these points? Where are our hands so clean? We’ve propped up many evil forces in this world, many evil dictatorships, and not the least among them in the Mideast. And we’ve been on the wrong side of a lot of this stuff.
I would point out, by the way, we even propped up Saddam Hussein. We propped up the Shah of Iran when it was convenient to us. And then we turn around and say, hey, you people can’t be trusted to make your own history because you might back the … yes, that’s the risk of democracy. They might back somebody we don’t like; they might back somebody we wouldn’t vote for. But, you know, it’s their country, and as long as it doesn’t represent a threat to our freedom, you know, I think we have to … I watched Ron Paul, who’s increasingly becoming somebody I like, and Ron Paul was on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, and Wolf Blitzer said can’t we just … don’t we have to decide, and don’t we have to move … and Ron Paul said [paraphrasing Rep. Paul] “Wait a minute. What are you talking about? We built the Egyptian military, we supported this monarchy; we did it because of the military-industrial complex. And now you’re saying if we don’t meddle in there, they’re not going to be able to figure it out?” I think it’s very insulting to other people, particularly people of such a rich, long history as the Egyptians.
Anderson: Well, I certainly didn’t intend any insult in the framing of my question, but you can take it however you like, Bob, as you will. …
Scheer: Well, you’re not insulting me, and I didn’t think the question came from you. But I’m not trying to put down anyone who … people can raise any question they want. It’s just the way these questions always come up. And I do … I think it’s not insulting to me, it’s insulting to these other people. That somehow … look what happened in Egypt, for God’s sake. Here was a Google executive who had it made in the shade. He was making a lot of money; his career was launched. And instead of saying, “Hey, I’m just going to get fat and rich like the people on Wall Street,” he said, “You know what?” he said, “I’m going to worry about my country. I’m going to worry about the people that I went to school with. I’m going to worry about what happens.” And he risked his life! And he went to jail. And now we’re going to turn around and say he can’t be trusted to figure out what should happen in his own country?
Anderson: Certainly not me. I’m not going to say that. [Laughter]
Scheer: Well, all right. Just wanted to straighten that out there, Ms. Anderson. [Laughter]
Anderson: Yes. OK, well, we’d better pay some attention to our Truthdig members, who are asking you questions about your column this week. So here’s a good one from Truthdig member gerard. She said: “I’d like to ask Mr. Scheer to please explain what he means by this phrase”—and she quotes you—“ ‘... the deep cynics who run our foreign policy.’ Most of us are trying to figure out a reasonable explanation for the behavior of our State Department and our foreign relations people. Or we’re dissolving in self-hatred and fear. Have we all given over to cynicism, too? Is there any cure?”
Scheer: Well, I think that the people in the foreign policy establishment have been deeply cynical over the decades. I think they were prepared to make a deal with the vice president [of Egypt], and keep Mubarak until September, and so forth. And I think, had it been up to our advisers and our people there, things would have gone very badly. And that’s what concerned me; I said there was “an odor of betrayal” to what we were starting to hear, after a good start by Obama.
However, I think the instincts of the American people are great. I think our history has prepared us to support people who struggle, who fight for freedom; after all, we were a revolutionary society. And I think Barack Obama, in his statement on Friday, was brilliant. He was poetic; he was incredible. I’ve criticized the man on many occasions, but he rose to the occasion. He seized the moment, and he’s absolutely right. He celebrated the ability of the Egyptian people to make their own history; he celebrated this change.
And now, by the way, the test is going to be whether the morning after, Barack Obama leans on our own Pentagon and says [paraphrasing the president], “Look, we’re not cooperating with the Egyptian military unless they cooperate with their own people. We’re not going to give them [the military] a blank check.” We’ve been giving them an enormous amount of money over the years in military aid, aid of other kinds; we’ve been underwriting a lot of their activities; we’ve done it because they have contracts with our own defense industry. And I think it’s really time now for our president to tell the Pentagon, tell the State Department: “Don’t play your games. What we want from the Egyptian military is to provide safety and security to the people of Egypt, so they don’t get beaten up by thugs, and there’s some order. But we don’t want them installing a new dictator or a new oligarchy, as has happened before. If they do that, they will not have our cooperation; we will not underwrite their activities; we will not be their ally in this respect.”
Anderson: Well, that leads me to ask you a question that just came in on the Web from one TDoff, who—I think perhaps in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, but [that’s] not definite—says: “Who do you think Leon Panetta will appoint to replace Hosni Mubarak?”
Scheer: Well, that is the danger. I mean, again, [paraphrasing] Ron Paul to Wolf Blitzer, you know, he says I suspect these people in our government and the State Department and everything are running around now trying to find a new guy to back. That is not, as Ron Paul said, our business. How would we feel if a bunch of Egyptians were running around our country, saying, “I’m worried about your next election, let’s reorganize it, we know who the best people are; after all, you know, we’ve studied your culture, we’ve studied your society. We have our intelligence agency.” I think it’s an absurd … I’m sure … first of all, Panetta is actually one of the better people we’ve had, so he’s probably got some sense about it.
But I do think these people tend to be very cynical. If you read the WikiLeaks cables, for instance, there’s very specific language in there of contempt for the very military people, and the others, that we were backing. Our government has known all along how bad Mubarak was, but they also … in fact the general who’s now the key guy, the defense minister, is described as Mubarak’s “poodle” in the WikiLeaks cable. Poodle! OK? So, now, that’s a concern. Because, after all, the military has power. And if that poodle becomes the poodle of another dictator, or a dictator himself, that will be very bad.
And I think our cynics, our experts, whatever you want to call them, who have been having dinner with these people for 30 years and have been underwriting them and advising them and everything else, need to get the word out—“No. We’re talking about real democracy here. We’re talking about the ordinary Egyptians being able to make their history. Now, you know, if you’re on the wrong side of that, we don’t want to give you aid. We don’t want to cooperate; we won’t give you all the war toys. If you’re on the right side of that, and you behave in a decent fashion towards your own people, yes, we’ll continue cooperating.” That’s the leverage the U.S. has right now. And I think if Barack Obama is consistent with his speech, when he quoted Martin Luther King, and our soul, we seek freedom and this is a universal yearning of people. We’ve seen an incredible outpouring of decency in Egypt. Decency. People willing to risk their lives for the freedom of other human beings, for a decent society, and doing it in a nonviolent … this is one of the great victories of nonviolence. This is, you know, Gandhi exponential; this is Mandela at the end; this is Martin Luther King; this is resistance of a really noble order.
Anderson: Well, let me ask this question that might—actually, you might have just answered that, but maybe to get a little more specific—do you think funding to Egypt from the U.S. will increase or decrease in the years to come? What do you think it should be, and what’s your opinion about it?
Scheer: Well, I think there’s the basic problem now—assuming that the military doesn’t install another dictatorship, and I think they’d be … I don’t think they’re going to do that; I hope they don’t. I think economic development, economic justice—that was very clear here. You had a significant number of people in the elite in Egypt; you know, the one and a half million people who worked for the government, and certainly the ones on the higher level, the capitalists, the big investor class. They were doing just fine during this period, but the average Egyptian is living a very poor life … quality of material life. And you have a lot of people who’ve got an education but they can’t find decent jobs, and so forth. And it’s not just in Egypt; it’s true throughout much of the developing world. But in Egypt it’s really stark, and they’re living in a neighborhood where other people are oil-rich and can have a lot of luxuries, and so forth.
I think the real pressure now on whatever government comes in in Egypt is going to be to deliver some progress. Because people want it, they want economic progress to be married with political progress. They want to see some results. And Egypt has a well-educated work force, and what they need is investment. And to the degree that we do foreign aid, it should be to support economic development, not just support the military. And what we’ve done is primarily support a bloated military; I don’t know what they need this big military for. Who are they going to go to war with, or what are they going to fight … you don’t need a big military to fight terrorists, if that’s what your real goal is. They need a big military to suppress—and a big police force to suppress—their own population. Well, hopefully they’re not going to be in the suppression business now.
And so, yes, I’m for transferring much of that military aid to economic aid. And here I differ with Ron Paul; I believe in substantial economic aid. But I also believe—and here I agree with Ron Paul—I believe in a lot of trade and investment. That’s what our founders had in mind, as he pointed out: diplomacy and trade. And yes, we should embrace an expanded economic connection with Egypt, not because they have oil to exploit, which they don’t, but because they have a lot of people that deserve a shot at a good life, and they’re hardworking and they’re decent people, and we should become their economic partners.
Anderson: I think [that] next to your next column we should have a graphic that has “agrees with Ron Paul on these points” and “disagrees on these,” so readers can keep up. …[Laughter]
Scheer: Well, let me defend … Kasia, I think that I get your drift there, but let me just say, I … after all, the Republicans control the House. And the conscience of the Republican Party now, for better or worse, [is] really the libertarians, because at least they’re consistent. At least they say, “No, I don’t want big government on the social side and I don’t want big government on the military side.” And I think it’ll be a breath of fresh air if we can have that debate and that discussion.
And we claim that our military people always were so concerned about Egypt—as long as they were buying a lot of weapons, and as long as they had a big army, and so forth—will they be concerned about Egypt as far as feeding the hungry, as far as education? And if that assistance and that support comes from investment and business activity, and we treat Egypt as a potential—you know, like Brazil, potentially a very big economy, a very forceful, energetic economy—that’s a good thing. But if we treat it as a pawn in some kind of Mideast war and politics, then it’ll be a very bad thing. And so, yeah, I like the fact that there are principled people on the Republican side, and so Ron Paul is an example of that.
Anderson: The WikiLeaks played a role in your column this week, and so there’s a question about it that I wanted to raise before we have to wrap up here. And it’s by Jay Sheen, and he asks: “Whatever happened to Obama’s promise to bring more transparency to government? Isn’t WikiLeaks only relevant because of the lack of transparency in the first place?”
Scheer: Well, there’s no question that WikiLeaks is relevant because of the lack of transparency. There’s no question that WikiLeaks played a major role in this upheaval, and in the upheavals we’re seeing, the good upheavals, the Democratic upheavals. Because it let ordinary people in Egypt in on what the U.S. government really thought about their society and their leadership. And it was devastating, because in those cables what you have are the diplomats saying, “We know that Mubarak oppresses his people terribly. We think that’s a good thing, because it gives him stability. We know that they’re corrupt; we know that they’re ripping off their people at every turn.” So … the contempt that American diplomats felt toward the Egyptian leadership was revealed to the Egyptian people. And that supported this uprising.
The reader is absolutely right; it would be better if that had been said openly. But thank God for WikiLeaks letting us all in on what these so-called experts are really thinking. And they’re supposed to be working for us, by the way; they’re not supposed to be lying to us. The State Department’s supposed to be our agency; so is the Pentagon. And they’re not supposed to be deceiving us. But if you look back at the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, basically under Republicans and Democrats, they were deceiving us. They were not telling us the truth about what was going on there.
And by the way, that’s why we and they, our big-shot leaders, were totally unprepared for this uprising. Right? I mean, did anybody predict it? Did our CIA predict it? Did our State Department predict it? No! In fact, when you read the WikiLeaks cables, they say “No, Egypt is stable!” Hillary Clinton said that very shortly before this uprising. Stable. Why? “Oh, they’ve got a good dictatorship, even better than under Saddam. More efficient, he’s got more secret police, he’s monitoring things better.” I mean, there’s something very evil revealed in the WikiLeaks cable, that our people, who claim to be Democrats in our State Department, were embracing totalitarianism because it was efficient. Well, the Nazis were efficient. You know? They could control the people.
And yet … the WikiLeaks cable … these are cables written by State [Department] people … it reeks of a vicious cynicism and a contempt for ordinary people. And that should be the subject of serious examination and debate. What are we training these people in the foreign services for? What are we bringing these people in for? And do they really respect people around the world, or do they just respect power?
Anderson: On that note, there was another question about … that I know you can’t really answer, but maybe I can build on it a little bit, out of curiosity. The question was: “What are Obama’s true feelings about Mubarak stepping down? Did he want this?” And I would maybe make it a little more accessible by saying … by asking you what you think the kind of legacy of the Obama administration’s handling of this will be, maybe, when it comes to his re-election campaign or just in general.
Scheer: I think, thanks to the Egyptian people and their resilience, Obama’s going to come out looking very good. I think there was a moment, and that’s why I wrote my column, in which this administration blinked. And they said, “Oh, Mubarak has made a speech, he’s given some signals; let’s hang on till September, there’ll be some modest reforms.” After all, they were hearing not only from Israel but from the oil sheikdoms, the monarchy, they were hearing from Saudi Arabia, they were hearing from other powerful people in the Arab world: “Don’t do anything. Mubarak is our guy, Mubarak is our ally, Mubarak is your ally, you’re going to unleash the mob, you’re going to unleash the people.” And fortunately, the people in Egypt behaved in such an exemplary fashion that you couldn’t support that argument. They retained that nonviolence, they retained that dignity, they retained … they waved the flags of their country. They did it in a way in which they had Christians and Muslims praying side by side.
So by their behavior—by their behavior—they gave the lie to what was an emerging U.S. government position: “Hey, don’t let this democracy spin out of hand, you might get something terrible, we can’t guarantee it,” and so forth. And the Egyptian people said: “No. We can be trusted; we can even hold the square. ...” Remember, they were viciously attacked; they had to defend themselves, but they held that square. And so I think by their behavior, they forced the U.S. government to do the right thing. As to what Obama is thinking, I think Obama loved the end result. I think Obama’s a good man. OK? You know, we’ve had presidents that have been good people. Eisenhower was a good man when he refused to get involved in meddling in the Mideast at an earlier stage. We have good instincts, and I think Obama’s quite thrilled that a dictator has been kicked out; I don’t think he likes dictators. I think he’s quite happy that this has happened, and I think he rose to the occasion today in his speech; I think it was memorable in that he captured what this represents for human history.
A lot of us have been worried about this new technology, you know; [columnist] Chris Hedges on our website, very concerned, is it [technology] a vehicle for totalitarianism, does it amuse people to death, does it mislead people—Twittering and Facebook and all of that. Well, you know, we now have a very big example that this new technology can also be liberating. That the Internet can be liberating. That Facebook and Twittering can be liberating!
And that’s really what we saw in Egypt: that instead of these people using all their little gadgets and saying, oh, who’s the new Hollywood … you know, what’s happening with … I can’t even remember her name, Lindsay Lohan or somebody … I don’t even care about these people. But instead of using their iPads or something and saying, “Well, what’s happening to Lindsay Lohan in that courthouse and did she steal the thing or not steal,” and everything … no! They were Googling and saying, “What did Obama say? What did this guy say, and what is the record, and what did WikiLeaks say?” And so this modern technology has never been on better display than these last weeks—never. It is a great day for the Internet; it is a great day for the new technology showing the potential to inform a democracy. It’s not a done deal, it’s not automatic; it [technology] can be used to trivialize, it can be used to sidetrack people and amuse them to death. On the other hand, we have seen the great liberating effect of the Internet.
And on a day like … you know, with a magazine like Truthdig, I’m really happy. You know, we had our cartoonist, Mr. Fish—we have the best cartoonist in the world on our site, I say that unabashedly—and Mr. Fish did a wonderful cartoon on what was happening. And it showed up in the Mideast! It showed up in Egypt; it showed up around the world, you know? Because people can access it. And that’s just great. And I think they could read stuff that was written outside, and things that were being said outside, and I think it gave them ammunition, it enforced them … reinforced them. So I think this is a great day for the new technology, and being part of this new world of Internet journalism, and so forth. I think it’s just terrific.
Anderson: Well, on that happy note—it’s a good thing, I think, to leave off on a happy note—we’ll thank you, Bob—you’re nobody’s poodle—for your participation today. And we will see you next time for a discussion on Bob’s column. Thanks a lot, everyone.