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Obama and Egypt

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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.

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