The Obama Administration: Missing in Action on Egypt

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 13, 2011

Niall Ferguson points out what everyone following the Administration’s reaction to events in Egypt already knows–that from the President on down, the U.S. government’s reaction to the momentous events there was to wing it. The lack of any coherent strategy regarding the Administration’s response to the revolution in Egypt ought to trouble anyone who cares about the state of American foreign policy:

“The statesman can only wait and listen until he hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then he must jump up and grasp the hem of His coat, that is all.” Thus Otto von Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman who united Germany and thereby reshaped Europe’s balance of power nearly a century and a half ago.

Last week, for the second time in his presidency, Barack Obama heard those footsteps, jumped up to grasp a historic opportunity … and missed it completely.

. . . The wave Obama just missed—again—is the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy. It has surged through the region twice since he was elected: once in Iran in the summer of 2009, the second time right across North Africa, from Tunisia all the way down the Red Sea to Yemen. But the swell has been biggest in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.

In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.”

The result has been a foreign-policy debacle. The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness.

[. . .]

This failure was not the result of bad luck. It was the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of coherent grand strategy, a deficit about which more than a few veterans of U.S. foreign policy making have long worried. The president himself is not wholly to blame. Although cosmopolitan by both birth and upbringing, Obama was an unusually parochial politician prior to his election, judging by his scant public pronouncements on foreign-policy issues.

Yet no president can be expected to be omniscient. That is what advisers are for. The real responsibility for the current strategic vacuum lies not with Obama himself, but with the National Security Council, and in particular with the man who ran it until last October: retired Gen. James L. Jones. I suspected at the time of his appointment that General Jones was a poor choice. A big, bluff Marine, he once astonished me by recommending that Turkish troops might lend the United States support in Iraq. He seemed mildly surprised when I suggested the Iraqis might resent such a reminder of centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule.

Hindsight is 20/20, and all that, but it would not have been too hard–especially in light of the calamitous way in which the Obama Administration reacted to the 2009 uprising in Iran–to have come up with a coherent and intellectually defensible response to the events in Egypt. Something like the following could have come out at the beginning of the uprising:

1. Hosni Mubarak has been an ally of the United States for 30 years. We do not forget our friends.

2. At the same time, we also do not forget our values. Nor are we unmindful of how trends in the Middle East might affect American national security and foreign policy interests.

3. Bearing all of these factors in mind, we would urge Mubarak to take seriously the protesters and their demands, to bear in mind the longstanding objections to anti-democratic aspects of his rule (including his government’s treatment of Ayman Nour, and other dissidents), and to engage the opposition in serious and genuine dialogue, conducted in good faith, aimed at ensuring the implementation of political liberalization in Egypt.

4. We would urge Mubarak to carefully monitor and heed the tone and tenor of protests, seeing as how it would help him and his government understand how those protests might inexorably affect the nature of Egypt’s political situation, and direction as a country.

5. It is not for the United States to say how long Hosni Mubarak’s presidency ought to last. But no political leader governs or rules forever, and at some time, power must be given up. It will be up to Mubarak and to the Egyptian people to determine when that time comes, and while Mubarak certainly has the responsibility to ensure national stability, he also has the responsibility to take heed of the overwhelming sentiments of his fellow Egyptians.

This set of principles may have helped the Obama Administration navigate between the need to show loyalty to a longtime friend of America, and the need to pay attention to the Egyptian people, and to larger trends in the Middle East. It might have also served to advance both American values, and American national security interests. I wrote the forgoing points in a few minutes. I imagine that they might have been improved upon by the foreign policy and national security establishment if the Administration had the foresight (again, especially in light of what happened in Iran in 2009) to hear the footsteps of God resounding through Egypt; and then to grasp the hem of His coat. Instead, the Administration chose to lurch back and forth, day by day, in its approach to events in Egypt. On some days, it would appear to back Mubarak. On others, the protesters. The result? A mess, and a likely diminution of American soft power, not to mention international esteem for the Administration’s ability to respond to events of great global significance.

  • ns

    “We do not forget our friends.” Ha! The realist goes jacksonian! Well, ok, snark aside, this is where realism and jacksonianism intersect: countries have interests but we deal with people.
    Would your approach (which I think is a good one) work? Maybe not, it would be difficult to balance the different sides, but the stand and the reasons for it would be clear. Obama’s stances, shifting and contradictory as they were, leave everyone wondering what he thinks US interests are, and show his administration has no coherency, no plan or policy, for any event.

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