No Comment — February 14, 2011, 4:43 pm

Obama and Egypt

In the New York Times, Helene Cooper, Mark Landler, and David E. Sanger offer a curious glimpse into the Obama Administration’s internal dialogue over Egypt. They lead with Frank Wisner’s appearance before the annual Munich security conference. Mubarak was indispensable to Egypt’s democratic transition, Wisner said, seemingly contradicting White House messages that evinced growing irritation with Mubarak and his slow response.

Mr. Obama was furious, and it did not help that his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Wisner’s key backer, was publicly warning that any credible transition would take time — even as Mr. Obama was demanding that change in Egypt begin right away. Seething about coverage that made it look as if the administration were protecting a dictator and ignoring the pleas of the youths of Cairo, the president “made it clear that this was not the message we should be delivering,” said one official who was present. He told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to take a hard line with his Egyptian counterpart, and he pushed Senator John Kerry to counter the message from Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Wisner when he appeared on a Sunday talk show the next day.

The trouble in sending a clear message was another example of how divided Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team remains. A president who himself is often torn between idealism and pragmatism was navigating the counsel of a traditional foreign policy establishment led by Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, against that of a next-generation White House staff who worried that the American preoccupation with stability could put a historic president on the wrong side of history.

Niall Ferguson, building off the same material, takes the criticism to the extreme, writing of “a colossal failure of American foreign policy.” There’s no doubt that the Wisner statement was the low point in a less than perfect game by Team Obama, but Ferguson’s critique and the barbs in the Times are seriously overblown. For starters, the talk of a “division” seems to be a stretch, as is the claim that Secretary Clinton is closely aligned with Wisner’s position. The tension that the Times spotlights was apparent even in the official statements made in the White House during the demonstrations that ultimately brought Mubarak down, but there is nothing surprising nor particularly troubling about it. Key presidential strategists naturally accentuate the dynamic element of their president’s policies, while career bureaucrats argue for the protection of existing assets, sometimes letting their discomfort with unpredictable change show through a bit too clearly. The administration’s management of this period reflects a balancing of these competing interests, and in the end it surely made mistakes, but both Obama and Clinton also showed a nuanced understanding of the situation and a healthy restraint. In fact, it’s hard to imagine George W. Bush, John McCain, or any other likely president handling the process much differently. It was the Washington foreign policy establishment on autopilot.

There is a natural tendency, moreover, which this article reflects, to attempt to assess the fall of Mubarak as a key chapter in the history of the Obama presidency. This is extremely short-sighted. In fact the issue has never been the “fall of Mubarak.” He was an octogenarian, and he was headed out the door in any event. The real issue has always been what happens after Mubarak’s exit. Can Egypt break from the binary mold in which a military-backed authoritarian regime struggles with radical Islamists? As Olivier Roy argues in a penetrating analysis in Le Monde, the political dynamics in Egypt have suddenly shifted. Neither of these old potential power centers commands broad popular support; the nation’s political discourse has come suddenly to a plainly secular focus on building democracy. Egypt’s substantial middle class, its professional elites, and its well-educated but largely jobless youth are the new constituencies upon which a democratic state might well be built. These were the key constituencies behind the public outpouring that brought down Mubarak. U.S. policy has, for at least two decades, sought to empower them, but it has pursued this with such timidity that most Egyptians concluded that America’s talk about democracy was overshadowed by its commitment to Hosni Mubarak.

Will the basis for democracy be created in Egypt? That means a free media that allows political parties and candidates to give voice to their vision of the nation’s future. It means permitting independent political parties and relaxing the restraints on who can seek elective office. This needs to occur under an interim government that has credibility and is led by people with no stake in the coming elections. There is an obvious pool of talent to draw from in Egypt’s appeals courts, which have waged a valiant and essentially unchronicled struggle to uphold the rule of law through the last decade of Mubarak’s presidency. U.S. diplomats and development workers can play a key positive role in this process—not taking sides but struggling to build capacity and to insure that the ground is prepared for fair elections. Above all the natural Washington impulse to turn everything into a partisan tug-of-war needs to be resisted. The fate of Egypt and the Middle East is too consequential.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Average duration of a Japanese prime minister’s tenure since August 1993, in months:

16

Brain shrinkage has no effect on cognition.

An Indianapolis fertility doctor was accused of using his own sperm to artificially inseminate patients, and a Delaware man pleaded guilty to fatally stabbing his former psychiatrist.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today