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Monday March 7th 2011
How Obama handled Egypt
Crossed wires, close calls but a good result—until the next friend wobbles
Feb 17th 2011 | from the print edition
UNLIKE the Egyptian army, which showed impressive restraint in Tahrir Square, many of Barack Obama’s critics wasted no time before opening fire on his handling of the revolution in Egypt. Quickest on the trigger were those Republicans harbouring presidential ambitions of their own. Newt Gingrich said the administration had been “amateurish”; John Bolton (yes, the strident former UN ambassador really is contemplating a presidential run) called the White House “hesitant, inconsistent, confused and just plain wrong”; Tim Pawlenty said Mr Obama’s team had shown all the consistency of a “Tower of Babel”.
Quite a few more objective analysts have also stormed into Tahrir Square with polemical guns blazing. In Newsweek Niall Ferguson, a British historian, declared that the president had presided over “a foreign-policy debacle”. Michael Scheuer, the former head of CIA operations against al-Qaeda, claimed that Osama bin Laden would be doing a “happy dance” at the spectacle of America pulling down a loyal ally. Marc Thiessen, a think-tanker at the American Enterprise Institute, said that an over-cautious Mr Obama had failed to show the Egyptian street that America was on its side. And Dimitri Simes, a distinguished former Kremlinologist, argued there was no need for the president to have thrown a friend off a cliff instead of hedging his bets as events unfolded: “After all,” said Mr Simes, “Egypt is not an American protectorate and the president need not act as if it were his prerogative or responsibility to shape events there.”
The first thing to be said about such criticisms, of which the foregoing is a mere sampling, is that they cannot all be right. Mr Obama stands accused both of dumping an ally prematurely and also of having hesitated too long before coming out for the demonstrators. Well, it might be one or the other but it can hardly be both. It is also important to note that Mr Obama has won his share of plaudits, including that of John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, who said he had managed the crisis well. Moreover, all such instant judgments are based not only on incomplete knowledge but also on untestable what-ifs. America’s self-regarding politicians and pundits naturally assume that American words and deeds helped shape events in Cairo. It is indeed possible that Washington’s advice to Egypt’s American-trained army helped to prevent Tahrir becoming Tiananmen. But it is no less possible that the outcome would have been the same no matter what the superpower said or did.
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In fact Mr Obama himself appears to have decided early on that events had slipped beyond Hosni Mubarak’s control, let alone America’s. On January 28th he gatecrashed a meeting in the situation room, shunted Tom Donilon, his national security adviser, out of the chair, and took charge himself. The next day Mr Donilon drafted a ten-point memo summarising the president’s view that the status quo in Egypt was untenable and that political change was inevitable. Mr Obama is said to have been more certain in private that Mr Mubarak’s jig was up than America’s public pronouncements (especially those of Hillary Clinton, his sometimes behind-message secretary of state) let on. He flatly rejected the Israelis’ analysis that the Egyptian president could hang on and that America should do everything to help him. Mr Obama’s conversation with Mr Mubarak on the evening of February 1st is said to have been the toughest between an American president and an ally since Ronald Reagan’s scolding of Menachem Begin during Israel’s bombing of Beirut in August 1982.
At a press conference this week Mr Obama said that America had put itself on the right side of history while never pretending that it could or should dictate the outcome in sovereign countries. And whatever influence he did or did not have on the downfall of Mr Mubarak, he gives every sign of being satisfied with the result. The White House believes that the peaceful toppling of an Arab autocrat gives America a fresh opportunity to align its interests with its values, undermine the violent alternative offered by al-Qaeda and slam Iran’s violent suppression of its own pro-democracy protests. To those who contrast Mr Obama’s more muted support for Iran’s democrats in 2009 with his behaviour in the case of Egypt, the administration’s answer is that in the former case too much American support for the protests would have helped the regime portray the opposition as a tool of the United States. That consideration did not apply in Egypt.
So how did he do?
This has been the most testing foreign-policy crisis of Mr Obama’s presidency, and his performance so far gives ammunition to fans and foes alike. It is true, as Messrs Pawlenty and Bolton say, that some wires got crossed. If Mr Obama decided early on that Mr Mubarak had to go sooner rather than later, the State Department and former ambassador Frank Wisner, America’s emissary to Mr Mubarak, should have got the message sooner. Still, crossed wires are only to be expected during fast-moving events. What counts is the result, and this has been no disaster. America remains on good terms with Egypt’s new military masters without having alienated its youthful pro-democracy demonstrators—a neat balancing act whether by luck or design.
That said, harder choices may lie ahead. By his actions in Egypt, Mr Obama has put other authoritarian allies on notice that this president does not buy the “our son-of-a-bitch” theory. He thinks that even pro-Western autocracies that fail to reform deserve to die. But how much reform? And when will he decide they are dying? Will Mr Obama abandon gradual reformers such as King Abdullah or King Mohammed as soon as enough people turn out on the streets of Jordan or Morocco? How many people are enough? To judge by the gale rattling the Arab world this week, he may have to answer such questions rather soon.

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