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“The Empire’s Bagman:” Obama Egypt Envoy Frank Wisner Says Mubarak Should Stay

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The official U.S. response to events unfolding in Egypt remains mixed. Over the weekend, the Obama administration distanced itself from U.S. “crisis envoy” to Egypt Frank Wisner after he issued a statement in support of President Hosni Mubarak. Revealing a possible conflict of interest, British journalist Robert Fisk recently reported Wisner works for the law firm Patton Boggs, which openly boasts that it advises “the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government’s behalf in Europe and the U.S.” We are joined by Trinity College Professor Vijay Prashad, who has written about Wisner’s history with the U.S. Department of State and his close relationship with Mubarak. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring someone else into this discussion. The official U.S. response to events unfolding in Egypt has been mixed. For days, the Obama administration has refused to call for President Mubarak to resign, but said an orderly transition of power was needed. But on Saturday, the U.S. special envoy, Frank Wisner, explicitly said Mubarak should not resign.

FRANK WISNER: The President must stay in office in order to steer those changes through. I therefore believe that President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical. It’s his opportunity to write his own legacy. He has given 60 years of his life to the service of his country. This is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward, not just in maintaining stability and responsible government, but actually shaping and giving authority to the transition that has to be underway.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Obama administration’s special envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner. The Obama administration responded to Wisner’s remarks by claiming he was speaking in his private capacity and not as U.S. envoy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, quote, “We deeply respect the many years of service that Frank Wisner has provided to our country, but he does not speak for the American government.”

Meanwhile, the British journalist Robert Fisk has revealed U.S. envoy Frank Wisner works for the law firm Patton Boggs, which openly boasts it advises “the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government’s behalf in Europe and the U.S.”

To talk more about this, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad, who has written about Wisner’s appointment as U.S. envoy to Egypt and the close relationship he has had with President Mubarak. Vijay Prashad, professor at Trinity College, most recent book called The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.

Your piece was called, Professor Prashad, “The Empire’s Bagman.” Talk about who Frank Wisner is, who it is President Obama sent to Egypt, and why the U.S. ambassador to Egypt wasn’t the one who was talking with the government.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes, the point is a very good one, why Margaret Scobey herself was not in charge of the deliberations. Instead, President Obama turned to Frank Wisner, Jr. Frank Wisner, Jr., has had a 36-year career in the State Department. He is the son of Frank Wisner, Sr., a man very well known at the CIA, who was the operational chief to conduct at least three coups d’état — Arbenz in Guatemala, Mossadeq in Iran, and the attempted coup in Guyana. He was also, Frank Wisner, Sr., the man who created Wisner’s Wurlitzer, where the United States government paid journalists to go and do propaganda in Europe and in the rest of the world.

Frank Wisner, Jr., had a more steady career in the State Department, was the ambassador in Egypt between 1986 and 1991. During that period, he became very close friends with Hosni Mubarak and, at the time, convinced President Mubarak to bring Egypt on the side diplomatically of the United States during the first Gulf War. Subsequently, Frank Wisner was ambassador in the Philippines and then in India, before returning to the United States, where he became essentially one of the great eminences of the Democratic Party. One of the things he did during this recent period is author a report for the James Baker Institute, where he argued that the most important thing for American foreign policy is not democracy, which they treat as a long-term interest, but stability, which is the short-term interest. So, Frank Wisner, Jr., is seasoned State Department official, a very close friend of Mubarak, a man more committed to stability than democracy, and, yes, an employee at Patton Boggs, where one of the portfolios is for Patton Boggs to lobby on behalf of the government of Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Vijay Prashad, a professor at Trinity College. Now, what he said, Vijay Prashad, that he said Mubarak should remain in power, the man who works for the lobbying firm, well known, Patton Boggs, that is working for — that boasts about working for the Egyptian government, now saying that another client of his firm should remain in power.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes. It’s interesting that in that same speech he mentioned that Mubarak should be able to, in a sense, author his own legacy. I mean, he is probably speaking partly on the basis of this broad policy that he has, which is that stability is more important than democracy, and secondly, partly from friendship.

It should be said that the United States government has essentially been chasing events in this period. There are two pillars of U.S. foreign policy that they’ve been trying to maintain at the same time as not lose their credibility in the world. And the two basic pillars, the first one is to maintain Egypt as a close ally in the war on terror. That includes, of course, things like extraordinary rendition, but also includes Egypt carrying America’s buckets in places like the Arab League. The second important pillar is to ensure that whoever comes to power in Egypt, whether Mubarak or a Mubarak successor, will uphold the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979. These are the two principal pillars of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Egypt. What the Obama administration, it seems to me, has been trying to do is to ensure that if Mubarak himself cannot carry these two pillars, then some successor, a Mubarak-lite, Mubarak number two, will come in and carry the pillars forward. The United States does not have the best record in, you know, helping its dictatorial friends in the long term. We’ve seen that with Manuel Noriega. We’ve seen that with Saddam Hussein. So, the friendship that Frank Wisner, Jr., has for Mubarak might be a little liability, but broadly put, his attitude towards Mubarak and the Mubarak regime is quite consistent with the broad outlines of the Obama policy and of the State Department.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Prashad, this issue of Wisner, not only what he has represented now, but coming — I mean, his father, also named Frank Wisner, long lineage in the CIA family, his father, Frank, Sr., helping to overthrow Arbenz in Guatemala and, the example that is often brought up today, a year before, overthrowing the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq. The parallels to what we are seeing today?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes. I mean, this is — you know, the tragedy of American foreign policy has been, on the one side, you’ve had the sort of CIA operations, and on the other side, you have the soft diplomacy, the kind of soft politics of the State Department. And we see that a little bit. As Frank Wisner, Jr., arrives in Cairo and goes to huddle with Mubarak and Omar Suleiman and others, Margaret Scobey, who, essentially cast aside by American foreign policy, goes to meet ElBaradei. This has been a big feature in American foreign policy. On the one side, you have sections in the State Department under the illusion that they are carrying forward a policy based on freedom and human rights, and on the other side, there is this much darker foreign policy apparatus conducted by the CIA special envoys, who are actually better called “proconsuls,” and of course the United States military. There seems to be this contradiction at work, but it may not in the end of the day be a contradiction, because on one side you can say that the iron fist is being shrouded by the velvet glove. So, Margaret Scobey talking about human rights, going to see ElBaradei, talking about supporting the kind of upsurge of democracy, and on the other side, in much darker, more dangerous rooms, people like Frank Wisner, perhaps the CIA chief, discussing with Mubarak and Omar Suleiman how do we maintain your authority and change perhaps the face of that authority before the Egyptian people and the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And Professor Prashad, the issue of the money that the U.S. government has funneled into Egypt for decades, for the 30 years? We’re talking about tens of billions of dollars. Over the weekend, France announced it would not be giving military aid to Egypt, but the U.S. has not cut off the money flow, the weapons flow, as far as we know, and of course has not called for the immediate removal of Mubarak, the immediate resignation of Mubarak.

VIJAY PRASHAD: This is quite true. The Obama administration mentioned that they have been spending money on democracy promotion. But that’s just in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 30 years. $1.3 billion a year goes towards military. Most of that goes towards subsidizing essentially the security apparatus of the Mubarak regime. So all the thugs that you see beating ordinary protesters, civil liberties people, etc., they are being essentially subsidized by the United States exchequer. You saw pictures from Tahrir Square of people holding tear gas canisters on which was written the words “Made in the U.S.A.” This is very frustrating for people in the region to watch this subvention — on the one side, Israel being funded by the United States, on the other side, Egypt. This money is not going to end. I know that when Mubarak spoke to Christiane Amanpour, he looked very hurt. He said that the words of the President had hurt him. But it’s unlikely that when Washington says that we would like to see some progress towards a transition, anybody is saying, “We’re going to cut the money.” Egypt is too valuable as an ally in the war on terror, and it’s too valuable as an ally for Israeli state interests, for the United States to start threatening a cut in that massive subvention that goes towards its military and security services.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Vijay Prashad, I want to thank you for being with us, professor at Trinity College, has written extensively about U.S. foreign policy. His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. His piece on Frank Wisner is called “The Empire’s Bagman.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo in a minute.

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