What do you call it when a military deposes a democratically elected president, kills more than 50 of his supporters and installs a government of its own choosing?
In most of the world, that would be called a coup d’état. But in Washington, where logic and language go to die, it’s called a conundrum.
In the week since Egypt’s military unseated and arrested President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama administration has struggled mightily to avoid calling the situation what it is: a coup. Doing so would require the U.S. to cut off $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, thanks to a decades-old law that “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
That, in turn, would eliminate whatever remaining leverage the U.S. has in Cairo, the administration has argued, right when it’s needed most.
“We do not believe that it is in our interests to make a precipitous decision or determination to change our assistance program right away,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a Monday press briefing, after another round of rhetorical somersaults around the coup question.
But never fear. On the very day of Morsi’s ouster last week, Vermont’s own Sen. Patrick Leahy jumped in to point out the obvious.
In a six-sentence statement, Leahy called out Morsi for being “a great disappointment to the people of Egypt,” who “squandered an historic opportunity.”
Then he got to the point: “Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise. In the meantime, our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
While only the executive branch can determine what is and isn’t a coup, Leahy’s words matter. After all, he chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that doles out foreign aid — and in just two weeks, that committee will start hashing out next year’s budget.
After the Egyptian military’s last coup two years ago, Leahy used the same budgeting process to make funding contingent upon the country’s commitment to holding elections and protecting human rights. The Obama administration eventually waived that provision.
So when Leahy spoke out last week, people took notice — lumping him in with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said “we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election” Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The next day, the New York Times’ Peter Baker identified Leahy as one of “a few voices in Washington [who] have called for a cutoff in aid,” while Politico’s Burgess Everett wrote that Leahy “has also said aid should be cut off.”
But Leahy didn’t say that. In his statement, Leahy simply reiterated the law of the land: that aid is cut off when there’s a coup.
The operative question right now is whether, in the eyes of the U.S. government, last week’s coup was, um, a coup.
It’s like if I said, “Our law is clear: People get arrested when they steal cars.” That ain’t the same as saying, “You should be arrested,” or, for that matter, “you stole my car, jerk.”
So does Leahy really think the U.S. ought to cut off aid to Egypt? Should be easy enough to find out, right?
Alas, spokesman David Carle said on Monday that Leahy’s been declining interviews all week.
“He’s continuing to discuss and evaluate the fast-moving situation with [the White House] and [State Department] and continues to believe that it’s a time when it’s best to say less and not more,” Carle explained in an email.
That’s fair. Even as we went back and forth Monday, news was breaking about the military’s mass shooting of more than 50 pro-Morsi protesters. And as this column went to press late Tuesday, Egypt’s interim government was promising quick elections, which could allay U.S. concerns.
But the question remains: Does Leahy believe that a democratically elected government was deposed by military coup or decree in Egypt last week?
“Yes, he does,” Carle replied.
“Huh,” I wrote back. “So by logical extension, he believes aid should be cut off, right?” If memory serves me correctly, that’s the transitive property: If A equals B and B equals C, Egypt gets no more aid.
“It’s a fluid situation at the moment, and he understands the Administration wanting to wait for some clarity,” Carle replied. “The situation in Cairo is cloudy, but the law itself is clear.”
No doubt the diplomatic situation is fluid and, understandably, Leahy sees little percentage in further undermining the administration’s see-no-evil strategy. But as Leahy himself acknowledges, there’s nothing cloudy about whether there was a coup in Cairo last week, nor any question that a coup precipitates a cutoff.
The only thing cloudy is why Leahy would purport to defend the law in a press statement — only to shirk from demanding its enforcement.
Sure, “coup” is only a word. But laws are made of words. And when we deliberately ignore what words mean, we no longer have meaningful laws. They will have been deposed by a coup of denial.
And no, we’re not talking about that Nile.
Roughly 80 South Burlington residents spoke their minds in the middle of a crowded, sweaty school gymnasium on Monday night. They had a lot in common: Dressed in summer wear and fanning themselves to keep cool, many said they’d lived in town for decades. Betty Goldberg said she’d been a South Burlington resident for 64 years.
Others recounted how they or their children or grandchildren had played in that very gymnasium at the Chamberlin School. Most went out of their way to proclaim their love of country and, most importantly, their respect for the Vermont National Guard.
Dividing them was whether the South Burlington City Council should revisit its opposition to the Air Force’s proposed basing of a squadron of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport, just blocks away.
Though the council voted 4-1 last year against bringing the planes to town, two F-35 opponents were ousted in a March election and replaced by two F-35 supporters. Now in the majority, the plane’s proponents were looking for a re-vote.
But for many of the more than 200 people who attended Monday night, it was an opportunity to speak to — and hear from — their own neighbors. In a debate that’s been dominated by the shrill voices of those dedicated either to luring the plane to Vermont or barring its entry, it was refreshing to hear the unscripted thoughts of those who would be most affected by it.
Take, for instance, Jeffrey Deslauriers, a 26-year-old college student who grew up on Delaware Street, joined the Army Guard at the age of 17 and served for a year in Afghanistan.
“In terms of all the information that’s flooded this issue, I don’t know who to trust anymore,” Deslauriers told the crowd.
After the meeting ended — and after his father and brother also spoke — Delauriers clarified his views.
“My position on the plane is I wholeheartedly support the plane coming here as long as the risks to the neighborhood and the community are mitigated,” he said. “If that risk cannot be mitigated, I’m wholeheartedly against it.”
Deslauriers’ position wasn’t exactly the norm Monday night. By my very rough count, some 23 South Burlington residents spoke in favor of the basing, while 47 spoke against it and another dozen fell somewhere in between.
Where the broader population of South Burlington, Chittenden County or Vermont stands on the issue is anyone’s guess. While Green Ribbons for the F-35 founder Nicole Citro told the Monday-night crowd that support for the plane is “overwhelming,” even she admitted her conclusion is based on Facebook likes and the number of ribbons that have been distributed.
For some reason, nobody’s polled the issue.
Not that it matters. None of the five South Burlington city councilors seemed particularly swayed by the three hours of heartfelt testimony they heard. Each came with their minds made up and not a single one budged.
And each ignored what was perhaps the most sensible plan of the night, proposed by audience member and former city councilor Jim Knapp: that in a city so clearly divided, perhaps the council ought to simply withdraw its opposition to the basing and state no position. That way, Knapp argued, city government wouldn’t be taking a position virulently opposed by so many of its citizens.
Alas, council members appeared uninspired by the respectful dialogue modeled by their constituents. When chairwoman Pam Mackenzie sought to call the question before weighing in on the matter herself, councilor Rosanne Greco — an outspoken opponent of the planes — rudely yanked the microphone away from Mackenzie and informed the chair that she should speak before voting. Mackenzie yanked the microphone back and carried on.
The crowd erupted and South Burlington resident George Maille raised a point of order from the audience, arguing that Mackenzie should speak before the vote — or not at all. In response, Mackenzie said she simply wouldn’t explain her vote.
Plowing ahead, Mackenzie and fellow councilors Pat Nowak and Chris Shaw voted to cease debate, while Greco and councilor Helen Riehle voted against doing so.
“No. Hell no!” Greco said in an unbecoming outburst.
On the motion to support the jets, the 3-2 tally was the same. When her turn to vote came, Greco repeated herself.
A new era has begun at Vermont’s largest daily newspaper.
In recent weeks, the Burlington Free Press hired five new staffers, according to a tweet from Freeps associate editor Adam Silverman.
Yes, I’m going off a tweet, but only because the Freeps seemed oddly unwilling to celebrate the good news by returning our calls. Reached by phone Monday, executive editor Mike Townsend grunted, “I’m walking into a meeting,” and hung up the phone.
Based on Silverman’s tweet and some low-key Google stalking, it looks like the Freeps has hired Bennington Banner assistant sports editor Austin Danforth, St. Albans Messenger reporter Jessie Forand, former Washington Examiner intern April Burbank, recent University of Missouri-Columbia j-school grad Emilie Stigliani and recent St. Michael’s College grad Liz Murray.
The new hires appear to be replacing a slew of recently departed Freepsters.
In the past few months, the paper has lost environmental reporter Candy Page and South Burlington scribe John Briggs to retirement, and associate editor Mike Kilian, sports reporter John Fantino and online editor Tom Brown to other jobs or other states.
Silverman, the paper’s former “accountability editor,” was promoted to Killian’s job, while Joel Banner Baird, the former Burlington city hall reporter, seems to have taken over Page’s beat.
Best of luck to our colleagues, new and old. And, Mike, call me back whenever!