State Department clueless on Tunisia

The mystique of American power is sustained in no small measure by the ability of US government officials to convey the impression that they understand global affairs. In the last 48 hours the State Department has clearly shifted into overdrive in an effort to portray the US as being fully engaged with and attuned to fast moving events in the Arab world. “We’re ahead of the game,” the overarching message seems to be.

Hence the Christian Science Monitor provides this on-message piece of reporting under a headline emphasizing the prescience of the secretary of state: “Events in Tunisia bear out Hillary Clinton’s warning to Arab world”:

A day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Arab states that they risked “sinking into the sand” if they did not clean up corruption and quicken their glacial pace of political and economic reform, those sands took one of the Arab world’s long-reigning leaders.

Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Friday fled the North African country he ruled in autocratic fashion for 23 years, chased away by a month of street protests that started in provincial cities but engulfed the capital, Tunis, this week. The country’s prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, assumed temporary power. [Temporary turned out to mean for a day. He’s now been ousted and replaced by speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa.]

In a statement Friday afternoon, President Obama hailed the “courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” and said the United States joined the rest of the world in “bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle.” He called on the Tunisian government to “hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

Eleven days ago, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley didn’t make it sound like the US was paying close attention to what was happening in Tunisia. This was how he covered the issue on January 4:

QUESTION: On Tunisia, there’s continued, sort of, civil unrest there, and I was just wondering –

MR. CROWLEY: What country?

QUESTION: Tunisia. Tunisia. And I was wondering what you made of the situation there.

MR. CROWLEY: Actually, I didn’t get updated on Tunisia today. So we’ll save that question –

QUESTION: When was the last time you did get updated on Tunisia? (Laughter.)

The next day, Crowley seemed surprised that questions about Tunisia were still being raised. The sum of the State Department’s concern seemed to be the extent to which unrest might affect American travelers.

QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to the recent unrest in Tunisia?

MR. CROWLEY: Tunisia makes an appearance for the second day in a row. I mean, last month, there were some demonstrations that occurred in Tunisia over a several-day period. They appeared to us to be triggered by economic concerns and not directed toward Westerners or Western interests. As we do in various places around the world where we have concerns about the safety of our citizens, we did put out a Warden Message right at the end of the year urging Americans to be alert to local security developments, but – and it’s best to avoid these demonstrations, even ones that can appear peaceful.

QUESTION: But aren’t you concerned about economic reforms in Tunisia, or –

MR. CROWLEY: That is something that is part of our ongoing dialogue with Tunisia.

I guess the first question for Crowley on Monday should be: does the US still have an ongoing dialogue with Tunisia, or is it now simply in what has so often been the Obama administration’s default position — closely monitoring the situation?

That this administration expends so much of its energy making feeble gestures to demonstrate that it is on top of the situation, reflects a bigger problem — as one former State Department official recently noted in a different context — “which is that of a dysfunctional administration in which no one is in charge.”

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6 thoughts on “State Department clueless on Tunisia

  1. blowback

    Crawley is just clueless when it comes to Arab affairs. For instance:

    QUESTION: The name of Mr. Rashid Karami has been thrown in there as an alternative person, a Sunni person, to preside a new government in Lebanon. Would the United States be willing to support such a government?
    MR. CROWLEY: Again, the Secretary met with Prime Minister Hariri late last week as the duly constituted leader of the Lebanese Government. The President met with Prime Minister Hariri today in that same vein. During that meeting, we reiterated our commitment to support Lebanon and its sovereignty and independence. That is what we will continue to do. Obviously, Lebanon will determine what to do in light of the political action taken today. It will not change our commitment to support Lebanon in any way we can as it continues to seek to reinforce its sovereignty, independence, and security.

    Rashid Karami was assassinated by Samir Geagea who “was tried for ordering four political assassinations, including the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rashid Karami in 1987, and the unsuccessful attempted assassination of Defense Minister Michel Murr in 1991.”

    It is somewhat ironic that Geagea is such a strong supporter of the STL and extreme hypocrisy that he seems to be welcomed with open arms by “Washington”.

  2. rick

    Perception Infection: Seeing the World “Through Imperial Eyes”

    Paul Woodward writes: “The mystique of American power is sustained in no small measure by the ability of US government officials to convey the impression that they understand global affairs.” And also quotes a former State Dept. official: “[This is] a dysfunctional administration in which no one is in charge.”

    True, but this understates the problem. As Michael Vlahos notes —
    in, “Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change” (2009. $75. Ouch!
    But worth it.) — an Empire’s client-states and insurgent groups both
    seek legitimacy (i.e, “Ontological Cover”) *within* that Imperial Worldview.

    Foreign reaction to Wikileaks cable releases bears this out: Leaders are
    either outraged (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) or flattered (Robert Mugabe) by
    how they are portrayed in U.S. State Dept. cables, but the dominance
    and legitimacy of that Imperial Cognitive Frame, itself, is not questioned.

    The U.S. State Dept’s “Perception Management” is indeed a “Soft Power” tool, to maintain U.S. power, and to maintain the global Stability of Pax Americana.

    Client-state dictators — long insulated from their own people — also
    buy into the comforting security of this “Stability Umbrella” worldview
    projected by Washington, and embraced by the global economic elites.

    “Imperial Epistemology” — a globalized Imperial “Way of Knowing” and seeing the world — is a genuine force. It produces clueless out-of-touch State Dept. spokesmen, and it produces clueless out-of-touch client-state dictators.

    Out-of-touch with exactly what?

    Most importantly, our “Imperial Epistemology” ignores Food Security —
    which is exacerbated by Climate Change, and by the diversion of grains
    from Food to Energy markets — and the Demographic Time-bombs in Arab states.

    “Imperial Epistemology” — since it is co-embedded in vast globalized
    Bureaucracies — adapts *very* poorly to change. Rather than smooth
    evolution, it undergoes radical dislocations — “Punctuated Equilibria”.

    I do give Hillary Clinton credit for initiating the first-ever State Dept.
    Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. (This is the same mechanism our DoD Bureaucracy uses to try to adapt to change.)

    But even the Center for a New American Security — a “Strong-on-Defense”
    think-tank that initiated a “Natural Security” program on Food & Energy
    security and Climate Change — is not optimistic about the pace
    of State Dept. Bureaucratic adaption. See:


    On a less-crucial topic — the “dysfunctional administration in which
    no one is in charge” — recall that’s exactly how Obama’s
    pluralistic/delegating management style played out in the domestic
    Healthcare debacle, and in the Af-Pak policy sparring
    between McChrystal-Eikenberry-Holbrooke.

    Wikileaks promotes external Transparency, but is that mission best served
    by internal governance that is fully Transparent? The U.S. has the external
    form of a Democratic republic, so should it therefore be governed internally as a Democracy?

  3. Frigga Karl

    Unfortunately, the american diplomates in the different countries (districts) serving for the US interests, do not know anything what happen in their “district”. They just look at their US foreign ministery (hypnotized by its almighty power over themselves and over the world ) blind for the country they should understand. That is what reality shows. The people of Tunesia show something that we awaited for such a long time and now it occurs. I hope that the all around world’s corporate interests will not distroy the people’s will for democracy and dignity, as it happened most of the time. Dignity means also expulsion of the western sweat shops and an installation of a real syndicalist power system protecting the workers against slavery.

  4. Norman

    If ever there was a bubble, The U.S.Government lives in one, from the top on down, where it stops, is any ones guess. All the billions or trillions of $ $ $ spent on the so called intelligence gathering this Government does, yet they are clueless as to what is taking place in front of their nose. It’s time to stop wasting all that treasure on self delusion, plus I might add, the so called security right here in this country. The erosion of our civil rights in the name of protecting the population from terrorists, hasn’t stopped the home grown variety, especially the profiteers.

  5. BillVZ

    I wonder if PJ Crowley is the same fellow? I have in my memory viewing a similar incident this year about an issue and the the government voice replied with words similar -as if almost from the same script as today, each time he spoke. Highlighting in both instances either his natural ignorance- he is not in the loop or he is being stone walled by his superiors.
    However,Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel, still gets this weeks star billing.

  6. barry lando

    The irony of Hillary Clinton lecturing on the need for democracy and honesty in government to the Arab leaders, when the next day the Arab people take matters into their own hands–removing one of America’s closest allies in the “War against Terror”.America’s other shaken allies in the region look on–but there’s no way they’re going to reform themselves.

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