Attacks on US policies are nothing new in Egypt. But as government representatives and NGOs prepare fore the September UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the loudest protests come from an unlikely corner: the Vatican. John Paul II has blessed a campaign (none dare call it a jihad) to tar the Cairo gathering, the latest of a series of UN meetings on global population issues, as a manifestation of pernicious US “cultural imperialism.”

II Papa’s militant posture is not the result of a miraculous ideological conversion to dialectical materialism. Rather, it hearkens back to the glorious 1980s, when the Vatican and the Reagan-Bush White House were as one on the “family values” wavelength. In 1984, at the Mexico City precursor to this year’s Cairo meeting, the US and the Vatican teamed up to campaign against funding of international family planning programs which in any way provide information or services relating to abortion, although the whole conference had agreed that abortion was an issue of health and rights, not a method of family planning.

The Vatican’s obsession to curtail and stymie any kind of global birth control regime first made the transition to the rhetoric of anti-imperialism in, 1992, at the UN-sponsored “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. On that occasion, the Vatican joined with the Group of 77’s quite reasonable critique of the US and other industrial powers for ignoring the environmental consequences of the North’s overconsumption and the maldistribution of global resources. With the coming of the Clinton administration, and its more enlightened stance on family planning and women’s reproductive health, the Vatican-Washington breach widened. In the summer of 1993, for instance, when the Ramos government in Manila too eagerly grabbed for USAID family planning dollars, the holy hierarchy attacked him as a puppet of American “demographic imperialism.”

The Filipino campaign made a good use of a declassified 1974 National Security Council memorandum that justified support for population control on what were seemingly compelling geostrategic grounds: Fewer people in the South means less likelihood of rebellions, expropriations and related threats to vital resources. The White House now frames its support for family planning as a means to “sustainable development,” but this term is broad and vague enough to attract a host of old “geostrategists” and neo-Malthusians in Western Europe and the US who link population policy with lessening “pressure” on the North’s borders, cities, jobs and social services. A recent Congressional Budget Office “study” (“Enhancing US Security through Foreign Aid,” April 1994) cites poverty and overpopulation as “conditions that may provide breeding [sic] grounds for extremist movements, as are evident today in the Middle East” (p. 49).

The draft program for the Cairo conference makes women’s education and empowerment a priority, and calls for providing worldwide access to contraception and basic reproductive health care. A concern for social justice does not seem to underlie the intemperate opposition of New York City’s Cardinal John O’Connor, who warns of the prospect of a global future of “abortion on demand, sexual promiscuity and distorted notions of the family.” In response, MER editor Sally Ethelston, who works with Population Action International, commented to the New York Times that “Women should not die or suffer irreparable physical harm as a result of unsafe abortions because of a group of 114 celibate men,” referring to O’Connor and his fellow cardinals.

Cardinal O’Connor’s uneasy grip on reality is closely rivaled by that of Daniel Pipes, a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs and the New Republic, whose name has come up on occasion in this column. Back in January, the Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed the impressively credentialed, intrepid author of “hundreds of articles and reviews” who, poor fellow, complained that “he can’t get published in certain journals that specialize in the Middle East.” As Rashid Khalidi noted in the same Inquirer piece, Pipes is right: there do tend to be two views of Middle East issues — “an informed view, which is the view of most specialists,” and “the hegemonic view in Washington, particularly in Congress,” which is for most part “grossly misinformed.”

Pipes, deprived of the patina of scholarship but gifted with an unerring sense for the hegemonic, has come up with a remedy: a new journal, Middle East Quarterly, under his direction and dedicated, unlike other “quasi-scholarly” publications, squarely to the “promotion of American interests.” The premier issue features Bernard Lewis, another suppressed voice in the wilderness of a “pro-Nasser” and “pro-Saddam” academic establishment.

How to cite this article:

Al Miskin "Column: Reality Checks," Middle East Report 190 (September/October 1994).

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