We have known for a long time that politicians talk, usually without having any effect. However, we have also learned to listen more carefully to some politicians than to others. When the President of the United States speaks, the world may not shake immediately, but it is more likely to listen than to a member of the city council or the head of some lesser country.
Those of us who consider ourselves familiar with the craft know how to listen to a long outpouring, and to balance one sentence against another. We pay attention to the nuances and the reservations, when the great person modifies in one clause what is earlier proclaimed in heroic fashion .
One doubts that the crowds in a foreign place, caught up in a noisy and protracted demonstration, are as careful in parsing the words that they hear, or those translated for them.
The American president is speaking in a way that would allow him to defend himself if all hell breaks loose in Egypt, and thousands die. While he has called time and again for a change in government, widespread reform, and democracy quickly, he has also said, on occasion, that change should not come in a way that is destabilizing.
It is time to call Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. back from retirement in order to judge if the president is violating the standard he set in 1919: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." (Schenck v. United States, 1919)
We are a long way from knowing what will emerge from more than two weeks of demonstrations. Recent statements from the Egyptian president, ranking ministers, and generals indicate that Hosni Mubarak is not leaving office as quickly and as completely as Barack Obama would like; that there is shrill criticism of Obama for trying to influence them; and that the military will figure prominently in whatever happens.
If the scenes will not be pretty, no one in the White House should be surprised. Egypt is one of the countries that "embraced the idea" of helping out the United States for what the euphemism calls "extraordinary rendition," and what critics label "torture by proxy." That is the sending prisoners taken in the war against terror to places outside the reach of American courts concerned with human rights.
According to the British newspaper Guardian, "The Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured.".
"Torture" is a dirty word easily used against those that one does not like. It can mean anything from deprived sleep or food to brutality that destroys mind and life . The whole idea of extraordinary rendition is that personnel of Egypt, Poland, and elsewhere would act in ways less pleasant than the American military, or the police of New York, Chicago, or even Los Angeles.
Far be it for this American and Israeli, sensitive to Israel''s dependence on the White House, State Department, and Defense Department, to be shrill in his criticism of the President of the United States. That is not the way I learned to behave in the schools of Fall River, or the home of patriotic parents. Yet I feel that I am a long way from crying falsely about fire in a theater when I assert that Barack Obama is likely to do more harm than good, if he accomplishes anything by his comments about Egypt.
The Commander in Chief is justified in sending troops to battle in a cause that is legitimate, even though it is dangerous. Provoking a crowd by assertions of democracy in a country without the cultural restraints that make democracy workable is just as dangerous as sending troops to battle, and is more questionable with regard to its justification. Egyptians have already died, and further deaths seem more likely than wide ranging political reform. Barack Obama will not have killed them. He will not have ordered them into the maws of a foreign army, the police, or gangs doing the work of the regime. But he is encouraging them to risk their lives for ideas more suitable to his American constituency than the streets of Egypt.