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Wisner not wise

February 1, 2011 5 comments

Tonight, Frank Wisner is in Cairo. Wisner is the former US ambassador to Egypt. The White House describes his visit as that of a private citizen, despite official State Department advice to American citizens to avoid the country altogether.

“The US says it is despatching a representative to Cairo to help it understand the situation on the ground. Officials say Frank Wisner is a private citizen, not an envoy.”

The BBC further reports:

“The US state department is tight-lipped, saying only that he is already in Cairo and ‘has the ability to talk to Egyptian leaders’. It seems the former ambassador’s job will be to drive home the need for wide ranging political reforms and what American officials describe as an ‘orderly transition’. There’s a feeling among Western diplomats here that President Mubarak has yet to draw the necessary conclusions from events unfolding throughout his country. It may fall to Mr Wisner to say that unless the Egyptian leader acts fast, there may be no alternative but to leave.”

Wisner was US ambassador to Egypt for five years from August 1986 to June 1991, taking in the Gulf War, in which Mubarak offered the US unqualified support. Wisner went on to serve as ambassador to India and the Philippines, and in the Clinton-era Department of Defense.

Wisner maintains a considerable interest in the Middle East and is clearly viewed by the White House as something of an expert and an insider both. Interviewed in 2005 on the subject of that year’s Egyptian presidential election, Wisner commented that:

“The final results of the election are obviously not in, it’s too soon. But I think there’s very, very little doubt in anyone’s mind that Mubarak will win this election and win it handily. It is, nonetheless, a major development first and foremost for Egyptians and the emerging political class, which will draw many lessons from this day on how the election was conducted. It was the first step in a process of managed political change and reform that Mubarak has launched. It’s significant for the United States because it marks a major outcome for policies that we’ve advocated strongly–that Egypt, the dominant nation in the Arab world, set the pace in democratization.

[…]

The next steps are what’s really important. After all, what we’re looking at here is a managed political process. The government wants to–as was decided by Mubarak–move Egypt down the road to democratic reform, democratic inclusion. But like everything that has typified his presidency, he’ll be very careful about it.

[…]

I think the point I want to make is that an historic day occurred yesterday in Egypt. A page was turned. A first important step was taken. There will be many steps in the future.”

There weren’t. They never came. Mubarak won the election 88.6% of the vote and everyone knows where we stand today. The interview – conducted by Bernard Gwertzman of cfr.org and published in the New York Times – makes for grim reading now. It’s hard to know whether Wisner’s answers are the result of fawning or denial. Throughout, Wisner depicts Egypt – and, worst of all, the will of the Egyptian voter – through a seemingly opaque lens of US foreign policy delusion: voters are apathetic and will not vote for anyone but Mubarak, they fear that a newcomer will not know how to run the country, there were “no instances of repression; there wasn’t heavy police presence on the streets. The atmosphere was not one of police intimidation.”

Why Wisner should have been so hopeful is anyone’s guess. Seemingly little had changed since the end of Wisner’s own tenure as ambassador, some 15 years earlier. Shortly after Wisner’s return to Washington, Human Rights Watch concluded in their World Report that:

“A state of emergency has been in force in Egypt almost continuously for over twenty-four years. The broad powers of detention that it affords has led to tens of thousands of arbitrary arrests and the related widespread practice of torture.

[…]

The need to thwart terrorism, prevent assassinations, and control drug trafficking are justifications offered by the government for the continuation of the state of emergency.”

Wisner left Egypt in 1991. That was written in 1992.

Of the United States’ role in pushing Egypt towards democracy and reform, Human Rights Watch concludes that:

“Egypt’s human rights record, including a pattern of torture of detainees held in prisons, police stations and SSI detention centers, continues to escape serious public scrutiny by the Bush Administration and Congress. Despite significant U.S. leverage, and the opportunities presented by frequent high-level meetings between Egyptian and U.S. officials in 1991, the Bush Administration refrained from any public expression of concern about human rights violations in Egypt. To the contrary, Egypt received massive debt write-offs and other U.S. and international financial assistance to strengthen its shaky economy. No human rights improvements were required of President Mubarak in return for this assistance.”

This was all on Wisner’s watch. He was the direct link between Mubarak and the Bush administration, and the Reagan administration before that. The active condoning of torture is an allegation that dates from the time of Bush the Younger, and not the Elder, to whom Wisner ultimately reported, but these do not exactly appear to be the credentials of the ideal candidate to “drive home the need for wide ranging political reforms”, or to tell Mubarak to go.

Wisner’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs continued long after his departure from Egypt. In 2002, Wisner co-chaired a working group for the James Baker Institute (Baker, as Secretary of State to the first President Bush, was effectively Wisner’s boss during his time as US ambassador to Egypt) and the Council on Foreign Relations (who also conducted the blithely optimistic 2005 interview) on post-war considerations relating to the then-imminent – and already by then inevitable – invasion of Iraq. The result was Guiding Principles for U.S. Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq, published in 2003, a couple of months prior to the beginning of the war itself.

The report is largely credible, ominously predicting, through its urgent calls to avoid them, much of the war and its aftermath’s ultimate course – (“The road will be long and difficult. But without serious early planning for ‘Iraq the day and decade after,’ a painful future awaits not only the Iraqi people, but American interests in the region as well. Military victory will be quickly overshadowed by political defeat if the United States does not get reconstruction right, and reconstruction may be the hardest part.”) – and is far in advance of anything produced by the Bush administration’s own war-planners. Credible as it may be, the report does offer some insight into the thinking of the political and diplomatic establishment – somewhat outside of Bush’s own – from which its views are drawn.

“It is possible that Saddam will be overthrown prior to the end of hostilities, with a new Iraqi strongman or a national salvation committee taking power in Baghdad … the United States should be prepared to work with it and to help it establish the broadest, most favorable terms for post-conflict international involvement on disarmament and reconstruction.”

This is perhaps unsurprising – wars are different to protests or demonstrations, different even to revolutions, and justifications may suffice for one which do not in the case of the others – but the report goes on to make the rather more general point that:

“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.”

Seemingly referred to here is the whole Middle East, not just Iraq. Wisner was the working group’s co-chair, along with Edward P. Djerejian; the words are not necessarily his but it’s hard to believe, that the views presented do not at least partly reflect Wisner’s own school of thought.

Nor has Wisner’s work in the Middle East been purely diplomatic or governmental. Wisner currently serves as international advisor to Patton Boggs, a US Top 100 law firm with offices in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates whose own website boasts of being “consistently ranked as the nation’s top lobbying firm” and, notably, of their expertise in the Middle East:

“Our attorneys also represent some of the leading Egyptian commercial families and their companies, and we have been involved in oil and gas and telecommunications infrastructure projects on their behalf.”

That would be the elite, then. Further, Patton Boggs boast:

“We have also handled negotiation of offset agreements and managed contractor disputes in military sales agreements arising under the US Foreign Military Sales Act.”

And that would be the $1.3 billion in military aid that makes Egypt the second largest recipient of US aid after neighbour Israel.

That’s not it for Wisner’s outside interests. As well as the expected memberships of various think tanks and not-for-profits, he also served on the board of the distinctly for-profit Enron.

“When Wisner was US Ambassador to the Philippines (1991-92), Enron was in the midst of negotiations to manage the two Subic Bay power plants. When Wisner left Manila in July 1992, Enron won the deal and began to manage the plant in January 1993.”

Wisner joined the board of Enron in 1997, immediately after the end of his three-year stint as US ambassador to India. Enron became notorious during this period for a series of deals in which local Maharashtra state authorities were tied into purchasing electricity from Enron’s Dabhol power station at vastly inflated prices. A change of government in India led to the project’s cancellation part-way through construction. Enron then attempted to charge local authorities a maintenance fee, despite supplying them no power. It’s highly unlikely that such a high stakes investment involving a company the size of Enron would proceed without some involvement from the American ambassador to the country concerned. Writing in the year of Wisner’s appointment to the board of Enron, but before the accounting scandal that finally brough the company down, Vijay Prashad comments:

“Frank Wisner, Jr. was a big catch for Enron Corporation. His lineage is impeccable, since his father, Frank Wisner Sr., was a senior CIA official (from 1947 until his suicide in 1965) who was involved in the overthrow of Arbenz of Guatemala (1954) and Mossadeq of Iran (1953). Wisner Junior was well-known in the CIA and he worked as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs; his current boss, Kenneth Lay, Chief Executive Officer of Enron Corporation, also worked for the Pentagon during the US war in Vietnam. With “economic espionage” as a task for the CIA (see PD, 12 October 1997), there is little doubt that Wisner used this instrument during his long-tenure as Ambassador in Asian nations. A Wisner staffer told InterPress Services this year that “if anybody asked the CIA to help promote US business in India, it was probably Frank”.”

Since 1997, Wisner has also served as Vice President of External Affairs for AIG, the US insurer whose trading in credit default swaps and subsequent liquidity crisis precipitated the worldwide banking crisis.

None of which is illegal on Wisner’s part. Directorships and a variety of board positions are par for the course for retiring members of the higher economic, political and diplomatic classes. Many are remote positions requiring little involvement. Arm’s length capitalism – like arm’s length diplomacy and arm’s length politics – hides a multitude of sins, and Wisner is not necessarily a knowing party to anything he shouldn’t be, but this is the man seemingly chosen to carry America’s message to a brutal and repressive ally who has long outstayed his welcome and whose people are dying in the streets to see him gone.

It may not be through ill will that Frank Wisner is well-disposed towards strongmen and short-term necessities, but his are short-term necessities which have outlived all else and left long-term goals seemingly all-but-forgotten long ago. His connections are typical of his class; they provide him the influence for which he has been chosen as Obama’s unofficial emissary, but those are connections – whatever we may make of them in the West – which in Egypt and the wider Arab world find their mirror in the cronyism without which regimes like Mubarak’s could not survive. They will be seen by Egyptians – standing in the shadow of American-made tanks in the centre of their nation’s capital, chanting for their president to depart as they and we know he should have done long ago – as nothing less. Why should they be? What is Frank Wisner doing there? What good can he do? His presence there now may be as ill as Hosni Mubarak’s own, and the message he brings one it may prove murderous to let the dictator even hear.

Selected sources:
1. “Frank G. Wisner,” NNDB
2. E. P Djerejian et al., Guiding Principles for US Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq (Council on Foreign Relations, 2003)
3. “Patton Boggs | Middle East | Our Experience” [Web]
4. “Q&A: Egypt’s presidential election,” The New York Times, September 8, 2005
5. Vijay Prashad, “Trade Secrets: The Power Eliter – Enron and Frank Wisner,” People’s Democracy, November 16, 1997
6. World Report 1992, Egypt, World Report (Human Rights Watch, 1992)

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