The Empire’s Bagman

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: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu


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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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