A Credentialized Role?

4 February 2011


Can someone help me out here, please? I was watching a video of Thomas P. M. Barnett at WikiStrat, which is his most recent platform. In Barnett’s discussion of possible scenarios for Egypt he made the following comment:

“…in that pacted transition, where everyone gets sort of a slice of the pie, and you get the freest possible election down the road, and we would think that would be the best possible path in many ways for Egypt, if it was legitimizing, in terms of the public… if you got a strong, stable, credentialized role for the military throughout, because they are large and very powerful and that would be very reassuring to neighbors, especially to Israel, perhaps also to Saudi Arabia, definitely the United States, and you get the kind of most legitimizing, potentially opening up kind of outcome down the road.”

What exactly is “a credentialized role” for the military? I Googled the term “credentialized” right away and came up with nothing. It would be easy to speculate on what he meant, but it would be much more interesting to know exactly what he meant.

It could just be a slip of the tongue, and he simply meant to say “credentialed” role, and while “credentialed role” is not a whole lot clearer than “credentialized role,” it is a little clearer. Presumably he means a role for the military that possesses the credentials of some kind of constitutional regime with the authority that follows from popular sovereignty. But that is my speculation, and it is not at all clear that this is was Barnett meant.

It is, admittedly, a little spooky to me that a well-known strategist would choose to formulate his thoughts in this way, as though he not only accepted the presuppositions of credentialism in contemporary advanced industrialized society, but wanted to go further with credentialism: it isn’t enough that the military should fight wars and have their traditional ranks and chain of command, but now they are to be credentialed (or, rather, credentialized).

Maybe someone could start a university somewhere — it wouldn’t really matter where, just as long as the fees were high enough to prove a sufficient barrier to entry to keep out the riffraff — the appropriate institution could thereafter grant the appropriate credential to aspiring military brass, and, appropriately credentialed, that military establishment could begin their careerist ascent in full knowledge that those who don’t possess these sterling credentials will be prevented from being a distraction.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at Barnett’s credentialism taken to a higher order of magnitude. The “pacted transition” that he mentioned is one of the most conservative scenarios for Egypt at present, which means keeping Mubarak in place until his term is finished, in the meantime bringing in people — presumably the “right” people with the “right” credentials — who can make the transition in the government of Egypt as smooth and as painless for as many people as possible. What this misses is that Mubarak himself has become a symbol, and a symbol that the protesters want removed. Mubarak tried to fudge on fundamental change by keeping himself and dismissing his government; the people would have accepted a perfect reversal of this, if Mubarak’s government had stayed and he had left.

Mubarak has actually been publicly quoted in the press as saying that he is sick of the situation and wants out, but is only staying for the good of Egypt. This sounds spectacularly disingenuous, but he may be sincere — sincerely deluded. Mubarak may be so captive to his own perception of the situation in Egypt that he really believes that, without him, there will be chaos. He cannot see that he has now become the source of chaos.

There was a fascinating news story in June 2010 about the response to another popular protest. Here’s what I wrote about it in Twenty-one years since Tiananmen:

There was an interesting story on the BBC, Tiananmen leader’s ‘diary’ revealed, describing the publication of Li Peng’s diary kept during the events of 1989. According to the BBC story, Li Peng wrote, ‘I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.’ If this is true, it gives us a fascinating window into the thinking of the CPC’s elite leaders. The fear was not of democracy per se, but of the potential chaos that might come from a root-and-branch reform of China’s political system. This could be mere ex post facto justification by Li Peng, but it might also be an authentic sentiment. The dimensions of the Cultural Revolution are little understood in the West, like the scale of violence during the partition of India, the other great civilization of Asia. This revelation of Li Peng in itself could be the topic of a long post, if not of a book.

The turmoil of the Cultural Revolution was so great that those who lived through it could not accept that anything like it would happen again. I have no doubt that Li Peng was sincere. Similarly, I suspect that Mubarak is at least partly sincere, but he is sincerely wrong. Thomas P. M. Barnett is also sincerely wrong in thinking that credentials or a “pacted transition” is in the interests of Egypt or the region. In the video above Barnett also speaks of the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “nightmare scenario,” which shows how far members of the strategic establishment have to go in accepting the truth on the ground — and how deeply they are in denial.

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One Response to “A Credentialized Role?”

  1. Tom Barnett said

    Credentializing here means that the military’s performance in the hopefully smooth transition marks them as a contributing force for democracy rather than its hindrance, something we would term “delegitimizing.”

    The military, as we note, is large and powerful and popular in Egypt. That’s an asset for long-term stability worth protecting, because young democracies tend to be the most warlike–more than mature democracies and more than authoritarian states. If the military serves the right function here (Mubarak gone, but not willy-nilly leaving a vacuum, and the elections happen freely and with little violence), then it becomes seen as the righteous guardian of the republic and not its menace. That is credentializing, because it says the army isn’t just a plaything of the government or protector of any one ruler, but an institution that serves the long-term interests of the nation. Immature democracies are plenty scary in history, and if they’re coupled with a radicalized military, you’ve got trouble. So if the military’s fine standing can be preserved in this transition, they’re credentialized for what comes next, which will be tricky no matter who emerges.

    Clear enough?

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