Feature

Egypt: Did Obama dither while Cairo burned?

President Obama’s foreign-policy advisors and top aides were deeply divided on Egypt, and the split was evident in the series of mixed signals the president sent.

We’ve just witnessed a “colossal failure of American foreign policy,” said Niall Ferguson in Newsweek. When young Egyptians swarmed the streets of Cairo in recent weeks, demanding democratic reform and the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak, President Obama had a “historic opportunity.” Had he spoken out early and forcefully in support of Egypt’s protesters, Obama could have aligned the U.S. with the “revolutionary wave” currently sweeping the region. Instead, he sent a series of mixed signals, voicing support for Mubarak’s staying on until new elections, then saying change should occur “now,” while never publicly demanding he resign.

Those mixed messages reflected the internal chaos at the White House, said Helene Cooper in The New York Times. Obama’s foreign-policy advisors and top aides were deeply divided on Egypt. Members of the “traditional foreign-policy establishment”—including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—were warning that Mubarak’s immediate ouster might lead to chaos, while younger, more idealistic aides insisted that America’s failure “to side with the protesters could be remembered with bitterness by a rising generation.” Only after a lot of confusion and infighting did Obama conclude that Mubarak had to go, and he finally called the Egyptian leader to apply some gentle pressure. “Obama was a day late and a dollar short,” said Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online. “Like a modern-day Hamlet, he paused to examine every imaginable consequence before doing nothing.” You can just hear Obama asking himself, “If I support democratic reform, will I appear no different from a Bush neocon?”

It may have “looked sloppy,” said John Dickerson in Slate.com, but that’s because the White House, like the rest of the world, was “dealing with a rapidly changing situation about which information was unreliable.” Obama did figure out pretty quickly that if he sided loudly with the throngs in Tahrir Square, it would have fed into Mubarak’s claim that the uprisings were being driven by a foreign power. In the end, it’s likely that Obama’s sensible “refusal to meddle” actually hastened Mubarak’s departure. You can’t argue with success, said Thomas DeFrank in the New York Daily News. Mubarak is gone. America’s relationship with this vital strategic partner is intact, and Obama “burnished his image” by managing a foreign-policy crisis that ended in a positive, peaceful way.

That’s not how it played on the streets of Cairo, said Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. When the protests began, there was an assumption among young Egyptians that “America could not help but stand with them.” By the end, as one opposition leader put it, it became clear that the Americans “are just waiting to see which side wins.” By dithering, Obama showed other Mideast tyrants that he lacks core convictions and courage, said Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard. The oppressive regimes in Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Iran will be breathing much easier after this show of “weakness and passivity” from the world’s only superpower.

Actually, the White House “was smart to keep its distance from this crisis,” said Aaron Miller in Foreign Policy. For decades, successive American presidents have propped up Mubarak’s corrupt and autocratic regime out of American self-interest, so to turn on him too quickly and too decisively would have seemed hypocritical. Obama’s only real option was the one he took: “walking the political tightrope” in his public statements while, behind the scenes, pressuring Mubarak to leave. In the end, Obama “played a bad hand pretty well.”

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