“Manufacturing Ignorance,” or “Why Brian Leiter Doesn’t Write Such Good Blog Posts”

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 30, 2011

The blogosphere’s own Miss Congeniality informs us that “since [Hosni] Mubarak does U.S. bidding, the ‘free’ media in this country do not refer to him as a dictator.”

Is that correct? One has one’s doubts.

We’ll begin with the bits about what the media says about Mubarak and his dictatorial tendencies. Here is Jackson Diehl (note that all emphasis in excerpts below are mine):

Tunisia’s popular revolution should have been a wake-up call to the rotting autocracy of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and his supporters in the Obama administration. Instead, Cairo is moving to retrench, with the tacit blessing of President Obama.

The comment about Mubarak’s regime being a “rotting autocracy” certainly sounds as though Mubarak is being called out as a dictator. More from Diehl, in which he refers to Mubarak’s “political repression,” calls Mubarak an “octogenarian strongman,” discusses how Mubarak “stepped up repression,” and how he “staged a blatantly rigged parliamentary election in November.” All of these are characteristics of–guess what!–dictatorships, and contra Leiter’s claim, the Washington Post is not at all shy about calling Mubarak out as a dictator.

More from the Washington Post, this time, in the person of David Ignatius:

The unrest that toppled a government in Tunisia has spread across the region, with big street demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. It’s a movement that appears leaderless – more like a “flash mob.” But it shares a common sensibility – the rising expectations of a younger generation that sees global change on the Internet and has momentarily lost its fear of corrupt, autocratic leaders.

One naturally presumes, of course, that since Ignatius is discussing “demonstrations in Egypt,” one of the “corrupt, autocratic leaders” to whom he refers is Hosni Mubarak. Granted, the word “dictator” is not used to refer to Mubarak, but one trusts that “corrupt autocrat” will do for Leiter.

Here is an NPR interview between host Melissa Block, and international relations professor Shibley Telhami:

BLOCK: These three decades that Hosni Mubarak has been in power, how would you characterize this regime? You can see privately in diplomatic cables that U.S. officials call him a dictator. How would you describe…

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, he’s definitely an autocrat. There’s no question that he’s the central authority. Egypt has certain freedoms that are allowed, including more freedom of expression than many states that we consider dictatorships. But there is no question that the bulk of the decisions pertaining to national security, to foreign policy, to the constitution of the government are in the hands, ultimately, of the president.

So NPR has a segment calling Mubarak an “autocrat,” and a dictator. Another hole in the Leiterian thesis about the free media’s behavior concerning this issue. Note as well that U.S. officials are perfectly willing to call Mubarak a “dictator,” even though he supposedly “does U.S. bidding.”

Through the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page, Kareem Amer opines as follows in an editorial entitled “Egypt Will Never Be the Same”:

The news of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution rocked the Egyptian Internet. The blogosphere was full of calls urging people to take to the streets on Jan. 25 and bring down the regime of Hosni Mubarak, just as massive protests toppled the 25-year regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

For too long, despotic Arab governments have been reassured by the submissiveness and compliance of the people. The events in Tunisia have changed everything.

It should be clear that one of the “despotic Arab governments” being referred to in an opinion piece entitled “Egypt Will Never Be the Same” is Egypt’s “despotic Arab government.” Here, we see that the word “despot” is defined as “a king or other ruler with absolute, unlimited power; autocrat,” or “any tyrant or oppressor,” which serves to further undercut Leiter’s argument that the free media is ignoring Mubarak’s dictatorial ways.

We can keep playing this game. Here is Roger Cohen, of the New York Times:

I am writing this on my return from Tunisia, where Facebook gave young protesters the connective muscle to oust an Arab dictator, and as I watch on YouTube images of brave young Egyptians confronting the clubs and water-cannons of President Hosni Mubarak’s goons.

“All they have, all they have,” says one bloodied protester of the brute force he’s encountered. Yes, when all you have is a big hammer — and that’s what’s left in the arsenal of decaying, nepotistic Arab regimes — everything looks like a nail.

The truth is these men — add the 23-year rule of the ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to the reigns of Mubarak and Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and you have almost a century of despotism — are relics to whom a wired world has given the lie.

Is Mubarak being referred to, at least implicitly, as a dictator? I report, you decide, but you know, it’s really not a close question. And you know, the references to Mubarak’s dictatorial tendencies are hardly implicit.

This piece refers to Mubarak as “Egypt’s authoritarian president,” which appears to serve as yet another indication that the free media of the United States has no problem criticizing Hosni Mubarak for behaving as a dictator would, Leiter’s theories notwithstanding. For good measure, this article refers to Mubarak’s “authoritarian rule.” Leiter will doubtless be pleased to note that the conservative free press has no problem calling Mubarak a dictator; indeed, this piece, which lumps Mubarak in with the likes of Hu Jintao, Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Ali Khamene’i, goes ahead and labels him just that.

So much then for Leiter’s argument that the free media in the United States has been unwilling to call out Mubarak on his dictatorial tendencies. But what about this bit regarding Leiter’s claim that “Mubarak does U.S. bidding”?

Well, that doesn’t seem all too accurate either. Here is Lee Smith on the matter:

. . . Vice President Biden told PBS’s “Newshour” that Mubarak wasn’t a dictator, which is probably going to anger a lot of those same Muslim masses his boss has been courting ever since he delivered that Cairo speech in 2009. No doubt Biden’s remarks are drawing chuckles from the Bush administration, which loathed Mubarak. It is interesting to wonder what might have happened had these same protests erupted 5 years ago when the Bush White House was feeling its oats with victories for the freedom agenda in Iraq and then Lebanon. Mubarak pushed back with the 2005 parliamentary elections when he awarded the Muslim Brotherhood some 20 percent of the seats—if you want democracy, the Egyptian president seemed to be warning the White House, I’ll stick Osama bin Laden’s friends in parliament. Under little pressure from the Obama administration to democratize, Mubarak felt no reason to frighten Washington during the latest round of parliamentary elections this fall, when as Jennifer Rubin, reported in our December 20 issue, the Brotherhood won only one seat.

The Bush NSC was constantly at odds over Egypt with the State Department, where the bureau of Near East affairs, headed then by one-time ambassador to Cairo David Welch, argued that Mubarak was a pillar of regional stability. Whether or not Mubarak is good for U.S. national interests, the Bush White House is now proven right in at least this one regard: The regional status quo is not stable. Who knows what might have happened 5 years ago, had the streets of Cairo been burning and Bush had suggested to the Egyptian president that it was time to step aside?

It would thus appear that Mubarak has not been nearly as good at “do[ing] U.S. bidding” as Leiter would have us believe. Back to Jackson Diehl, whose article was linked to earlier:

During her first visit to Egypt as secretary of state, in March 2009,Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked whether human rights violations by the Egyptian government that had been documented by the State Department would interfere with a visit to the White House by President Hosni Mubarak. It was a good question: Mubarak had not been to Washington in five years, thanks to his clashes with the Bush administration over his political repression.

And more:

. . . Mubarak’s interests don’t necessarily match America’s. He’s largely ignored years of pressure from the Obama Administration and its predecessors to introduce reforms aimed at avoiding the sort of scenario he now faces, and in a televised address finally delivered at midnight, local time, Mubarak came out swinging, firing his government and promising to name a new one on Saturday, proclaiming himself an agent of reform and human rights, and declaring that “We will continue our political, economic and social reforms for a free and democratic Egyptian society.” In other words, he wasn’t going anywhere. Indeed, Mubarak defended his crackdown, vowing that he would “protect” Egypt from the “anarchy” of the protesters.

(Via 3 Quarks Daily.) Hosni Mubarak has doubtless been an ally in the past, but to say that he “does U.S. bidding” is–oh, how shall one phrase this?–at variance with the facts. To put matters bluntly, if Mubarak is a lap dog, he is the most incompetent lap dog who ever lived.

The problem with Leiter’s claim that “Mubarak does U.S. bidding” is that it is so incredibly simplistic. It portrays Mubarak as being in thrall to the United States, and claims that the United States is so supportive in return, that the “free” (Leiter’s sarcasm quotes, not mine) media “does not refer to him as a dictator,” presumably due to pressure from the United States government. The facts are significantly more complicated than that. Reihan Salam may as well be addressing Leiter when he writes the following:

. . . when idiots on the Internet tell me that America is to blame for Hosni Mubarak, I have to ask, which America and which Americans? The America that Egyptian authorities are blaming for sponsoring and protecting a handful of young Egyptian democracy activists who may well be at the center of the disturbance? U.S. think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute that publish books like Reuel Marc Gerecht’s The Islamic Paradox that make the explicit case that (a) democratization in the Arab Middle East will lead to anti-U.S. and anti-Israel governments and that (b) this is nevertheless a crucial first step to more decent, humane societies in the region that the United States government should support?

For all of Leiter’s claims about the supposed failings of the American free media, it’s actually done quite well at calling Hosni Mubarak what he is, and what Leiter wants the media to call Mubarak. And despite his blanket assertion that “Mubarak does U.S. bidding,” the fact of the matter is that there have been plenty of instances in the past in which Mubarak has clashed with American administrations–especially when it comes to the issue of democracy-promotion, undermining Leiter’s belief that when the U.S. says “jump,” the Egyptian president asks “how high?”. Incidentally, while the mechanism I used to collect many of these news stories taking issue with Leiter’s claim that Mubarak is not referred to as a dictator is somewhat Rube Goldbergesque in its operations, I trust that after a few practice tries, Leiter will become reasonably proficient with it.

As a final note, I suppose I could be cruel and write that the less Brian Leiter knows, the less he knows it. Or, I could close with something like “no ideas, and the ability to express them, that’s Brian Leiter.” But you know, I just don’t have it in me to be cruel, so I will conclude instead by writing that apart from Leiter’s error in thinking that the free media in the United States does not refer to Hosni Mubarak as a dictator, and apart from his mistaken blanket assertion that “Mubarak does U.S. bidding,” his blog post on the subject was completely, and entirely accurate, and informative.

UPDATE: From a friend, an e-mail with the following observation: “You missed a trick though – I just noticed the al Jazeera piece [referenced by Leiter] doesn’t refer to Mubarak as a dictator either.”

Right! Leiter just references the main Al Jazeera page in English. A search for the words “Mubarak” and “dictator” brings up just one piece, which quotes a tweet from an Egyptian at the end of it, calling Mubarak a dictator. “Mubarak” and “tyrant”, “Mubarak” and “tyranny”, “Mubarak” and “dictatorship”, “Mubarak” and “totalitarian”, and “Mubarak” and “authoritarian” all bring up no stories at the time of this writing. I am sure that somehow, some way, Leiter will blame this on the supposition that “Mubarak does U.S. bidding.”

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