Foreign Policy Blogs

Sometimes a cigar is just a stogie

churchil cigar


This past week was one that offered sharp reminders that – under the veneer of white papers and white lies — reality can bite.

In other words – hello, why are you surprised at these “surprises.”

Let’s start with an easy one. Who is surprised that at least some elements of Pakistan’s government probably knew that bin Laden was most likely in the country and were doing nothing about it?  Anyone who ever worked in that part of the world knows factually and instinctively that bin Laden and his outfit have deep support among many tribes and many government officials. Yet that very myth is what diplomats and others would prater about.

Eventually, the United States grasped this reality. It decided to go after bin Laden and not tell Pakistan because telling Pakistan would be akin to telling bin Laden.

The cigar that was lit in triumph after the successful operation did not explode like a sideshow prank. The U.S. read the reality and acted on that reality.

About 2,451 miles west, the startling “surprise” unveiled is that the Muslim Brotherhood really was not a huge advocate of democracy and, once it got elected it would do what it could to increase its power and minimize that of opponents.

Likewise, is it really a surprise that the Egyptian military would lose patience seeing its foe grabbing more power after being elected and act? No doubt a wide variety of journalists, educators, business people, aid workers and many others knew this, figuring it was just a matter of time – not if — when the military would step in again

Yet judging from the reaction, it was as if the Nile froze over.

“Reality” is not supposed to be a factor in the decision making of diplomacy and public statements. And often governments can get away from facing reality — if they even know it is coming.

Ignoring the obvious is the reality for most, even after the fact.

Now, as Time magazine and others point out, one week since the Egyptian military deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the White House still could not decide if it was a coup. (A coup would require cutting off aid.) The reality that a cigar is often just a cigar, no matter its shape or aroma, was being blithely ignored.

And that ultimately denial hurts the grander goal: supporting democracy. “A coup, however it comes about, whoever carries it out, is the single most serious obstacle to democracy,” as Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has said. “A coup is a coup.”

Now the Egyptian military is asking for trust. Weren’t we there once before with them?  Is this wishful thinking or just no thinking?

Here is the simple and difficult truth to embrace: A democracy occurs when people in a relatively free name elect their leaders.  It is not when the military comes in and removes them.

The U.S. does not always likes who gets elected. That is understood. So do other things to support democracy such as bring more of their young people to the U.S. to universities and colleges, to study art and culture, or become champion tennis players.

So what should the U.S. do: support democracy or follow the advice of former Secretary of State and 1945 Nobel Peace Prize winner Cordell Hull who said, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.”

Or to paraphrase Hull, “It may be a crummy cigar but it is our cigar.”

The problem with truth is that it often makes action imperative.  Alter that truth and the need to act can always be deferred.

As Winston Churchill once noted, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” He also opined on the paucity of indecision and appeasement, that backing false realities is like “feeding the crocodile in the hope that it will eat (you) last.”

Yes, I know Churchill smoked cigars. That is just a lucky coincidence for this column.

(Photo credit: Photographic Archives)




Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.