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February 2, 2011
The Empire's Bagman
By VIJAY PRASHAD
From inside the bowels of Washington's power elite, Frank Wisner emerges,
briefcase in hand. He has met the President, but he is not his envoy. He
represents the United States, but is not the Ambassador. What is in his
briefcase is his experience: it includes his long career as bagman of Empire,
and as bucket-boy for Capital. Pulling himself away from the Georgetown
cocktail parties and the Langley Power-point briefings, Wisner finds his way
to the Heliopolis cocktail parties and to the hushed conferences in Kasr
al-Ittihadiya. Mubarak (age 82) greets Wisner (age 72), as these elders confer
on the way forward for a country whose majority is under thirty.
Obama came to Cairo in 2009, and said, "America does not presume to know
what is best for everyone." Those words should have been cast in gold and
placed in the portico of the White House. Instead, they drift like wisps in the
wind, occasionally sighted for propaganda purposes, but in a time of crisis,
hidden behind the clouds of imperial interests (or those of Tel Aviv). America
presumes to know, and presumes to have a say equivalent to those of the
millions who have thronged Egypt's squares, streets and television sets
(one forgets about the protests of the latter, too tired to get to the square,
nursing sick children or adults, a bit fearful, but no less given over to anger
at the regime).
The Republicans have their own ghouls, people like James Baker, who are
plucked out for tasks that require the greatest delicacy. They are like
diplomatic hit-men, who are not sown up by too much belief in the values of
democracy and freedom, but to the imperatives of "stability" and Empire. The
Democratic bench is lighter now, as the immense bulk of Richard Holbrooke
has departed for other diplomatic assignments. He had been given charge of
Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he found little traction. The Taliban could
not be cowered, and nor would the Pakistani military. Holbrooke had much
easier times in the Balkans, where, according to Diana Johnstone, he
instigated the conflict by refusing the road of peace. Wisner comes out of
the same nest as Holbrooke. He is the Democrat's version of James Baker,
but without the pretend gravity of the Texan.
Wisner has a long lineage in the CIA family. His father, Frank Sr., helped
overthrow Arbenz of Guatemala (1954) and Mossadeq of Iran (1953), before
he was undone in mysterious circumstances in 1965. Frank Jr. is well known
around Langley, with a career in the Defense and State Departments along
with ambassadorial service in Egypt, the Philippines, and then India. In each
of these places Wisner insinuated himself into the social and military
branches of the power elite. He became their spokesperson. Wisner and
Mubarak became close friends when he was in country (1986-1991), and
many credit this friendship (and military aid) with Egypt's support of the US in
the 1991 Gulf War. Not once did the US provide a criticism of Egypt's human
rights record. As Human Rights Watch put it, the George H. W. Bush regime
"refrained from any public expression of concern about human rights
violations in Egypt." Instead, military aid increased, and the torture system
continued. The moral turpitude (bad guys, aka the Muslim Brotherhood and
democracy advocates need to be tortured) and the torture apparatus set up
the system for the regime followed by Bush's son, George W. after 911, with
the extraordinary rendition programs to these very Egyptian prisons. Wisner
might be considered the architect of the framework for this policy.
Wisner remained loyal to Mubarak. In 2005, he celebrated the Egyptian
(s)election (Mubarak "won" with 88.6% of the vote). It was a "historic day" he
said, and went further, "There were no instances of repression; there wasn't
heavy police presence on the streets. The atmosphere was not one of police
intimidation." This is quite the opposite of what came out from election
observers, human rights organizations and bloggers such as Karee Suleiman
and Hossam el-Hamalawy. The Democratic and Republican ghouls came
together in the James Baker Institute's working group on the Middle East.
Wisner joined the Baker Institute's head Edward Djerejian and others to
produce a report in 2003 that offers us a tasty statement, "Achieving security
and stability in the Middle East will be made more difficult by the fact that
short-term necessities will seem to contradict long-term goals." If the
long-term goal is Democracy, then that is all very well because it has to be
sacrificed to the short-term, namely support for the kind of Pharonic State
embodied by Mubarak. Nothing more is on offer. No wonder that a
"Washington Middle East hand" told The Cable, "[Wisner's] the exact wrong
person to send. He is an apologist for Mubarak." But this is a wrong view.
Wisner is just the exact person to send to protect the short-term, and so
only-term, interests of Washington. The long-term has been set aside.
I first wrote about Wisner in 1997 when he joined the board of directors of
Enron Corporation. Where Wisner had been, to Manila and New Delhi, Enron
followed. As one of his staffers said, "if anybody asked the CIA to help
promote US business in India, it was probably Frank." Without the CIA and
the muscle of the US government, it is unlikely that the Subic Bay power
station deal or the Dabhol deal would have gone to Enron. Here Wisner
followed James Baker, who was hired by Enron to help it gain access to the
Shuaiba power plant in Kuwait. Nor is he different from Holbrooke, who was
in the upper circle of Credit Suisse First Boston, Lehman Brothers, Perseus
and the American International Group. They used the full power of the US
state to push the private interests of their firms, and then made money for
themselves. This is the close nexus of Capital and Empire, and Wisner is the
hinge between them.
One wonders at the tenor of the official cables coming from Cairo to
Washington. Ambassador Margaret Scobey, a career official, has been once
more sidelined. The first time was over rendition. She is known to have
opposed the tenor of it, and had spoken on behalf of Ayman Nour and others.
This time Obama did an end run around her, sending Wisner. Scobey went to
visit El-Baradei. Similar treatment was meted out to Ambassador Anne
Patterson in Islamabad. Her brief was narrowed by Holbrooke's appointment.
What must these women in senior places think, that when a crisis erupts,
they are set-aside for the men of Washington?
Wisner urged Mubarak to concede. It is not enough. More is being asked for.
Today, Mubarak's supporters have come out with bats in hand, ready for a
fight. This has probably also been sanctioned in that private meeting. It is
what one expects of Empire's bagman.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History
and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most
recent book, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, won
the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions
are just out. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org