Former CIA CounterTerrorism Head: “The US has simply become irrelevant in the Middle East”

This column by Robert Grenier is stunning not because of its content–I agree with just about all of it–but because of who Grenier is. As the CIA’s Iraq Mission Manager in 2002-2004 and then head of CIA’s CounterTerrorism Center in 2004-2006, he had to have been intimately involved with many US efforts in the Middle East (including, undoubtedly, partnering with Hosni Mubarak’s newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, on things like renditions and interrogation).

Events in the Middle East have slipped away from us. Having long since opted in favour of political stability over the risks and uncertainties of democracy, having told ourselves that the people of the region are not ready to shoulder the burdens of freedom, having stressed that the necessary underpinnings of self-government go well beyond mere elections, suddenly the US has nothing it can credibly say as people take to the streets to try to seize control of their collective destiny.

All the US can do is “watch and respond”, trying to make the best of what it transparently regards as a bad situation.

Our words betray us. US spokesmen stress the protesters’ desire for jobs and for economic opportunity, as though that were the full extent of their aspirations. They entreat the wobbling, repressive governments in the region to “respect civil society”, and the right of the people to protest peacefully, as though these thoroughly discredited autocrats were actually capable of reform.

They urge calm and restraint. One listens in vain, however, for a ringing endorsement of freedom, or for a statement of encouragement to those willing to risk everything to assert their rights and their human dignity – values which the US nominally regards as universal.

Yes, it must be acknowledged that the US has limited influence, even over regimes with which it is aligned and which benefit from US largess. And yes, a great power has competing practical interests – be those a desire for counter-terrorism assistance, or for promotion of regional peace – which it must balance, at least in the short term, against a more idealistic commitment to democracy and universal values.

But there are two things which must be stressed in this regard.

The first is the extent to which successive US administrations have consistently betrayed a lack of faith in the efficacy of America’s democratic creed, the extent to which the US government has denied the essentially moderating influence of democratic accountability to the people, whether in Algeria in 1992 or in Palestine in 2006.

The failure of the US to uphold its stated commitment to democratic values therefore goes beyond a simple surface hypocrisy, beyond the exigencies of great-power interests, to suggest a fundamental lack of belief in democracy as a means of promoting enlightened, long-term US interests in peace and stability.

The second is the extent to which the US has simply become irrelevant in the Middle East. [my emphasis]

As you’ll recall, Porter Goss and Jose Rodriguez fired Robert Grenier in early 2006, reportedly for being soft on torture. Grenier is also one of the CIA people who “remembered” details of the Plame leak after the fact, in July 2005, and testified at the Libby trial.

Not only does this column condemn many of the interventions in Pakistan, Iraq, and the Middle East generally in which Grenier was personally involved. But it suggests one reason behind his removal at the CTC may be a very American devotion to democracy.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. chetnolian says:

    At the heart of his comments is that of course the US doesn’t believe in democracy as a means to promote US interests. Democracy is about the majority in a country choosing the leaders who they think will best work for that country, whether or not those leaders want to support the USA. The USA has always had a problem with that concept.

  2. Mary says:

    It’s a good piece and I agree with his conclusion. Obama was the chance for the US to be something other than despised. He failed. He had the nice speech and the wind of populist sentiment at home and around the world under his wings, but he refused, over and over, to be a good man and do the right thing.

    Interesting how little Brennan’s name is mentioned the last few days.

    Obama has had the option, time and time again, in big and small ways, to put himself on the right side of history and he opted out. Finger steepling won’t help now.

    • jdmckay0 says:

      Obama has had the option, time and time again, in big and small ways, to put himself on the right side of history and he opted out. Finger steepling won’t help now.

      Yep. “The Great Black Hope” turned out to be an oreo cookie.

  3. nextstopchicago says:

    Thanks for this.

    What do you make of elBaradei? What do you think of the Pakistani analysis posted in Juan Cole of where the various generals stand – suggesting that the head of the Army, Anan, has already made a definitive split from Mubarak and Suleiman. I think that’s likely to be true – it’s the best way to make sense of the contradiction between the no-shoot guarantee on one hand, and the closing of the last internet portal, the failed threat to shut down cell communications.

    If the senior generals have lost the Army, my guess is they have few resources to call on now, and that by tomorrow their weakness will be clear. The fact that cell service remained open today is a big clue. I think Friday’s protest will be the end for Mubarak and Suleiman. I wonder who Anan is and what he believes.

    I’m concerned that when pressed for what comes next, people in the streets are saying “try Mubarak”. That may need to happen, but I hope they’re beginning to develop some thoughts on who they want governing. It’s fine to say “we don’t really trust elBaradei”, and radical skepticism is always good advice. But ultimately, they’re going to have to trust someone to negotiate or to pull together a government. I hope they are developing some leaders, or some mechanism – I hope they’re thinking beyond the fall.

    • Mary says:

      I’ve been hoping that we would develop some leaders for the last decade or so.

      Some of the on the scenes reports and interviews over the last couple of days have included bits from protestors talking about hanging out with the young guys in the army who are stationed around the protest areas. They talked about bringing them food and water and smoking cigarettes with them and swapping jokes with them and even mentioning family ties at times.

      Getting that Army to mow down its own people was, imo, always going to be a risky thing for a general to propose. OTOH, once they aren’t paid for a bit we might really see the chaos. Apparently ships aren’t being offloaded and in addition to food prices going up food is also getting scarce in some areas.

      So circumstances can always overtake any/everyone’s best laid plans.

  4. nextstopchicago says:

    Aggh. I just followed the link. I admire you for getting past his lede about his “flinty, unbending prep-school headmaster”. I would have puked and clicked elsewhere if I hadn’t been forewarned that it was worth reading anyway.

  5. nextstopchicago says:

    from Reuters, seemingly an hour ago, though it’s tough to tell what time zone these dispatches come from:

    Mentions elBaradei, Sami Anan (seemingly the general who said the Army would not shoot and recognized “legitimate demands” of protesters), and Nobel Chemist Ahmed Zewail.

    The article quotes Muslim Brotherhood and Baradei people positively. But then part of the question is how such people relate to the protesters. We’ll see.

  6. radiofreewill says:

    Bush defaulted the hard-won moral credibility of the United States of America when he invaded Iraq on the pretext of lies, claiming that the Christian God told him to do it.

    That’s why we’re irrelevant in the mostly Muslim Middle East.

    Nobody believes us anymore. To them, we’re morally bankrupt, both secularly and religiously…

    …and they’re certain they can do better for themselves without US.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The US appears to have a waning interest in promoting democracy here at home, too.

    Witness two administrations’ derision for openness and the rule of law, cornerstones of democracy; the gutting of regulations that limit economic excesses; endowing corporations, with their permanent existence, enormous funds, the talent of thousands and the narrow need for profits at any cost, with the political rights of real people; sustained attacks on social programs that benefit everyone, not just the wealthy, and sustained attacks from the wealthy on paying for government generally through fairly apportioned taxes.

    The list has become nauseatingly long, but at its top must be a refusal to hold government and corporate leaders accountable for the criminal wrongs they have so obviously, admittedly engaged in, an act that the current chief executive considers both stylish and one of his greatest accomplishments.

  8. rkilowatt says:

    How old are you, Robert Grenier?

    My understanding of the adage “Life begins at 70” has expanded over the last 25 tears, ever since a wizened old father-in-law remarked on it.

    Has to do with the absence of other-directed life patterns. More and more, as I ignored others’ authority over my viewpoint, my own basic truths became brighter…and kind of snowballed.

    Even the meanings of language could now resist the pervasive hypocracy that bathe us in the bullshit of evil intentions…which result mostly from others implanting their misleadership.

    Thanks for sharing your remarkable insights. Your communication will encourage others to confront their real selves.

  9. nextstopchicago says:

    Pharaoh’s army got drownded … oh, Mary don’t ya weep.

    Whatever else happens, Mubarak conceding even this defeat (assuming he announces in a few minutes that he won’t be a candidate again) is exhilarating to me. Of course, I also sang Mary don’t ya weep when McCain lost to Obama and it wasn’t as powerful a defeat of Pharaoh as I thought at the time.

  10. Frank33 says:

    But what about that other favorite of the neo-cons, counter-terror expert, and torture expert Philip Mudd? He has been winning the war on terror for years, without much respect. We are winning but patience is the key.

    Patience is the key. As the nine year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, the United States is safer and the jihadist ideological wave has crested. Unfortunately, it will be years before those who believe in al- Qa`ida’s message finally die off.

    It may be years before Mudd discovers that David Headley was an Al Qaeda double agent fooling the counter-intelligence community.

    But Mudd does tell us why we are fighting the Afghan War. It is to defeat Al Qaeda. It has been a profitable nine years, and Mudd wants to keep it that way.

    The United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda. It should stay that way.

  11. behindthefall says:

    to suggest a fundamental lack of belief in democracy as a means of promoting enlightened, long-term US interests in peace and stability.

    … and if that applies abroad, how much more strongly must it apply domestically?

  12. wayoutwest says:

    The people of Amerika seem to be the last to learn anything about how our policies affect others. The people of the Middle East, South America, South East Asia and many others have known these facts for decades.

    When Hellfire is rained down upon your citizens you learn the difference between rhetoric and reality.

  13. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Oh, dear. Guardian now reporting that Egyptians in the square in Cairo held up their shoes, some of them hurling them at the teevee screens, as Mubarak spoke and said he’d continue to serve out his term.

    Methinks that the neocons just didn’t see this kind of thing coming.
    My, oh, my.

  14. bell says:

    kudos to Robert Grenier for saying what he has… too bad there aren’t more people in power with the courage to state the obvious here as well…

  15. fatster says:

    O/T Update on Bradley Manning situation:

    Bradley Manning is UK citizen and needs protection, government told
    Amnesty International asks government to intervene on behalf of soldier suspected of having passed US secrets to WikiLeaks


  16. profmarcus says:

    personally, i think it’s a very good thing that “events in the middle east have slipped away from us”… it’s about time we realized that the united states is not the be-all and the end-all of what goes on in the world…

    watching the events unfolding in cairo have given me both chills at the sheer enormity of what i am witnessing and also a stirring of hope for the future… millions of people standing shoulder to shoulder, men and women, boys and girls, muslims and christians, egyptians and foreigners, standing and chanting in peaceful solidarity, cleaning up after themselves, and nary a leader in sight… to me, this is where we all must find the courage to go…

    imagine if what’s taking place in egypt transcended national borders, if people across the globe took to the streets demanding freedom from the tyranny of our corrupt, super-rich elites… that’s my fondest hope…

    And, yes, I DO take it personally

  17. Dameocrat says:

    This article is not the breakthrough you think it is. He is saying the neocons were right to impose it at gunpoint. I do support democracy when it comes from the people. I do not support democracy imposed through the Iraq war. I do not subscribe the realist view either. That view says you should support dictatorship over democracy even if the people want it because they are stable.

  18. sybille says:

    Another dimension of this irrelevance is revealed in the course of the following report from Tunisia from Al Jazeera English today:

    Relatives of Tunisia victim seek justice

    As the spokesperson for Human Rights Watch says, the success of the revolution also depends on what happens “the next day”:
    “Can you go from a justice system that never held accountable policemen or torturers for those crimes to one that is capable of investigating and holding accountable authorities do that the reign of impunity is brought to an end.”

    Right. He of course could be talking about the impunity granted to those responsible for the American torture regime, as well.

  19. jdmckay0 says:

    … successive US administrations have consistently betrayed a lack of faith in…

    I know what he meant, but sheesh… how many layers of obfuscation can a word smith insert to disassociate the intent of those “administrations”. Sooner or later, someone w/gravitas is going to have to nail it a little better, or in other words, say: “Those fuckers lied through their teeth.”

    If one wishes to comprehend why US has become so irrelevant (rather then just accept that irrelevancy), we’re gon’a need a few more honest mea culpas of the “those fuckers lied through their teeth” variety… eg. just who the fuckers were, what lies were told, and what actions were taken based on explicit, deliberate lies designed to misinform.

    I certainly agree w/his thesis (US has become irrelevant)… how could an intelligent person not?

    EL BARADEI has said the same in numerous intervies this past week btw…

    “Successive administrations” also fails miserably to make meaningful distinctions: Clinton left ME w/Oslo and real prospects for peace. BushCo undermined Oslo while lieing about it, fully backed Sharon whose explicit actions demonstrated a comittment not only to undermine Oslo, but wrt Gaza…

    a) impoverish
    b) isolate
    c) steal resources (Gazans pay Israel 5x what Israelis are charged for Gaza supplied water for example)

    And of course, neocons invasion of Iraq w/statements such as the “Palestinian solution runs through Baghdad”. I mean, really…

    I recall early days of Iraq “liberation”, reports of US troops razing farms in the north (eg. private property of non-ideological Iraqis) simply to eliminate possible camaflouge for “combatents”, and it sure seemed to me we were borrowing Israeli strategy used over and over to utterly destroy any burgeoning Palestinian economy. Still utterly baffles me how these AIPAC guys so got a hold of directing US policy…

    It wasn’t Clinton who handed over US policy to Likudniks. And it wasn’t Clinton who more or less sealed the deal on this “irrelevancy” US now faces. So, let’s hope (I’ve come to distrust that word hope, nevertheless… ) this is only a beginning of process by which some more distinctive, accurate accountability-moments come our way.

    I’d also like to remind this irrelevancy just dawning on some of these masters of “US policy” is/was a perfectly understandable outcome, accellerated over BushCo years, and accurately describes our global role in politics, economics, finance, and (which hopefully somebody realizes before we go toes up/bankruptcy) currency.

    Lies beget lies, which beget more lies, which bankrupt people/relationships/communities/nations. And the US is drowning in ’em… drowning in a sea of contived, thick, gooey bull shit or our own making.

  20. Mary says:

    OT, but related.

    A/O today, Crowley is still playing identity games re: Raymond Davis

    The White House Spokesman P J Crowley when questioned about the nature of Raymond’s job, his real name and why was he carrying a gun, briefly answered “I’m not at liberty to talk about his identity yet.” So it is very strange that his identity could not be even established by the State Department.

    And yet, they know he has diplomatic immunity. When the journalist asked why he had no diplomatic VISA, the Obamaco vision of transparency and support for freedom of the press is obvious, “Look, this is a matter that we are still discussing with the Government of Pakistan.”

    IOW, it’s not for you peons in the Pak press or the Pak or American civilians to know. Just us’uns.

    Meanwhile, Malik has been deciding the passport issue:

    Amid uncertainty over claimed diplomatic immunity of Raymond Davis, arrested for gunning down two Pakistanis in Lahore, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Wednesday that the US citizen is in the country on a valid diplomatic passport.

    ‘I can confirm that Davis arrived in Pakistan on a valid diplomatic visa, which was granted to him after proper screening by the secret agencies,’ Malik said.

    The Pakistani opposition leaders are saying the current gov has made a done deal with the US to get Davis out on diplomatic immunity. Other stories were circulating that there might be a swap for Siddiqui, but now Siddiqui’s family and those of the killed men are signaling that neither would agree to that, even if it were an option(not likely).

    The embassy is sticking with the story of them robbing others, elsewhere, right before the killing and no one is talking much about how he went from being “chased” as they claim, to having the guys in front of him and shooting through his windshield and into their backs.

    Malik is reassuring the provincial gov that the feds aren’t going to interfere at all – but his reassurance is that he has personally taken over the file. Hmmm.

    Meanwhile the families are seeking terrorist charges against the US detainee.

    “We demand the Raymond Davis trial be held under the anti-terrorism act,” said Sajjad, brother of Ibad-ur-Rehman, who was killed by the US vehicle, speaking at a joint news conference convened by the relatives.

    “The weapon was openly used in public, when people crushed under the vehicle and when people tried to stop the car, guns were aimed at them — all this falls into acts of terrorism,” Rehman said.

    So far, no one is asking the Pak gov to engage in enhanced interrogation techniques to save other Pakistani lives, even though the al-Davis affiliates who brutally crushed a man to death and brandished weapons at others are still at large.

    ABC is reporting that Davis is former Special Forces. Which leaves you at a loss for figuring out why he didn’t carve his bullets instead of just taking video of his kills. Partly /s.

    And now the Pakistani Vienna Conventions experts weigh in and say that there’s not immunity even if he were a diplomat:

    The 1961 Vienna convention deals with diplomatic staff, but the article’s expert says that the 1963 convention deals with consular staff (and this may be why everyone has gone so quiet after the first round of calling Davis a consular employee) and doesn’t provide immunity for grave crimes.

    “. . . its article 41 clearly states that in case of grave crimes like murder there is no immunity.”

    Of course, under all the anti-terrorism measures in place in Pakistan now, put into effect with US assistance – disappearing someone and using enhanced interrogation techniques aren’t the same as engaging in “arrest or detention pending trial.” IOW, under either version, whether he’s a diplomat or consular employee, and consistent with the US interpretation of the torture convention and of the rights to trial during the GWOT, he could be detained NOT pending trial.

    When will we see Yoo and Mukasey taking to the op ed pages to argue their pet theories?