Obama on Egypt: more confused than cool

The idea that Obama played it ‘brilliantly cool’ on Egypt represents a spectacular rewriting of history.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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After weeks of appearing cautious and defensive about his response to protests in Egypt, President Barack Obama’s tone changed last Friday, as he gave his statement in response to Hosni Mubarak stepping down. Obama was upbeat and relaxed. He praised the protesters for making history, and returned to poetic language, saying the uprising ‘inspired us’ with ‘a moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice’.

Following his remarks, a consensus emerged that Obama had, despite some hiccups, got it right on Egypt. Liberal commentator Peter Beinert said: ‘Now and then an episode comes along that reveals what an unusual, and impressive, great power the United States still is. That’s what the Egyptian revolution has done… Forced to choose between national interests and national ideals, the Obama administration – after a little stammering – chose the latter, and so did many of its fiercest domestic critics. That’s a pretty remarkable thing.’ And it wasn’t just liberals. John Boehner, majority leader of the Republicans in the House and effectively the party’s leading spokesman, said of the Obama administration: ‘I think they’ve handled what is a very difficult situation about as well as it could be handled.’

It was understandable that Obama showed a palpable sense of relief: his administration worried about a crackdown by the Egyptian regime that would cause massive bloodshed. And the critics who warned that Obama was about to ‘lose Egypt’ were silenced.

But this seemingly favorable outcome for the White House was not enough to quell lingering doubts about its response over the prior weeks. The impression still remained that for long stretches the administration appeared far more concerned about propping up the regime in the name of stability than in supporting the protesters.

And so the White House set out to rewrite history. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Obama was ‘furious’ that his envoy to Cairo, Frank Wisner, had told a Munich conference the weekend before that Mubarak ‘must stay in office to steer changes through’. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton echoed Wisner at the same conference, warning about the chaos that might ensue if Mubarak resigned too quickly. The Times wrote that Obama was ‘seething about coverage that made it look as if the administration were protecting a dictator and ignoring the pleas of the youths of Cairo’. His advisers worried that Obama would be ‘accused of abandoning the ideals he expressed in his 2009 speech in Cairo’.

If you believe the story the White House is telling, the president was a clear cheerleader for democracy all the way from his Cairo speech to Mubarak’s downfall; he was on top of events and played them coolly all along, balancing support for the protesters’ aims with nudges to reformers within the regime and military; and his administration’s only blemishes were a few diplomats who wandered off-message. Yet this picture distorts reality. In truth the administration was caught off-guard by the protests; it was consistently behind the curve as events unfolded; and it appeared confused for a good reason – because it was. Washington has tried to influence events in Egypt – it has not been as non-interventionist as it claimed – but it has been more carried away by developments than shaping them.

American intelligence and security officials were flat-footed in response to the first protests. Obama admitted as much, when he criticised US intelligence agencies for failing to predict the popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt. Shortly after the start of the uprising, the National Security Council officials met with Middle East experts. According to the Wall Street Journal, at one point, a participant said, ‘Please tell me you have contingencies in case Mubarak’s regime collapses’. The NSC, reports the Journal, ‘had to admit they didn’t’.

Administration representatives fared no better. On the day of the first protest in Egypt, Clinton described Mubarak’s government as ‘stable’ and ‘looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people’. Two days later, vice president Joe Biden declared ‘I would not refer to [Mubarak] as a dictator’, because he ‘has been an ally of ours in a number of things’. Obama and the White House did not correct either comment.

Clinton is now one of the scapegoats, but it looks more likely that she was following direction from the White House. Clinton was criticised for speaking of an ‘orderly transition’, with too much emphasis on ‘orderly’. But Obama himself made the phrase the centerpiece of his response to Mubarak’s announcement that he would not run in the September elections, when he said ‘an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now’. Only later would his aides spin that the key word was ‘now’ rather than ‘orderly transition’.

After the negative response to Mubarak’s first concession speech, it did appear that the US administration wanted to push Mubarak aside – but only to replace him with his handpicked deputy, Omar Suleiman. As the New York Times reported on 4 February, ‘The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by vice president Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said’. In the name of an ‘orderly transition’, the US was now backing the man who the protesters saw as the Mubarak regime in another guise. This was also a man with an unsavoury past as head of the Egyptian intelligence service, who blamed outside influences for the protests; as one observer put it, Suleiman saw ‘a conspiracy coordinated by a united front of Israel with Hamas, al-Qaeda with Anderson Cooper’.

The same weekend that Clinton and Wisner were supposedly going off-message, Suleiman announced that he had entered into discussions with some opposition figures. The Times reported: ‘White House took no issue with Mr Suleiman’s statement; administration officials said it looked like the setting of some clear goals.’ And Obama himself? ‘Mr Obama said Mr Suleiman’s talks with opposition leaders the day before were making progress.’ The protesters knew that Suleiman and Mubarak represented the same regime, and so it was no wonder many of them drew the conclusion that the White House was not in their corner.

Not only was the White House trailing far behind the protesters, who were driving events. It was also flailing in trying to work with the regime and military. This was most noticeable – and embarrassing – last Thursday, as word spread that Mubarak would announce his departure in an evening speech. This rumour got a big push from CIA director Leon Panetta, who told Congress earlier that day that there was a ‘strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down’. Obama also predicted that day that we were ‘witnessing history unfold’.

Of course, they got it wrong. Despite all of Washington’s long relationship with Mubarak and the White House’s overtures during the crisis – sending Wisner, calls from Obama and Biden, among other steps – the administration did not know what was really going on, and seemed to have little or no influence. As one clueless official later said, ‘Everyone we talked to in the Egyptian government anticipated Mubarak would make, certainly, a more definitive statement than he ended up making’. And a senior intelligence official said Panetta based his comments on media reports – amazingly, the head of the CIA gets his information from CNN, just like everyone else.

On Friday morning, a Wall Street Journal headline accurately summarised the situation: ‘Crisis flummoxes White House.’ White House officials were ‘stumbling for their next step in a crisis that was spinning out of their control’. But then Obama was saved: as we know, the protesters rejected Mubarak’s speech, upped their protests on Friday and the military told Mubarak his time was up. And thus Obama’s great sense of relief.

But there is a good chance that the White House’s day in the sun will be shortlived. Democracy in Egypt has not arrived and Washington’s attempt to influence the reform process may once again find the US on the side of an ‘orderly transition’ and against the protesters. More broadly, it is unclear what the fall of Mubarak will mean in geopolitical terms. For many years Egypt has been central to US strategy in the region, in many ways: for its role in the Arab-Israeli relationship; as a Sunni counter to Shia influence; as an ally in America’s anti-terrorism campaign; for its control of the important Suez Canal; for allowing US military ships and airplanes to pass through. Indeed, Egypt is far more strategic than Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its unraveling will have unpredictable consequences.

Furthermore, the entire Middle East region may spin out of Washington’s control. Protests are already spreading. Arab leaders are reportedly irate at the White House for abandoning Mubarak. Ben Rhodes, national security adviser for strategic communications, said the administration had reached out by phone to officials across the Arab world in recent days to assure them that the US intends ‘to keep its commitments’. I’m sure they were convinced.

Washington’s incoherent stance is illustrated by its attitude to protests across the Middle East. On one hand, the administration is trying to reassure Arab allies that it still stands behind them, and consequently that it is holding off on giving vocal support to protests in those countries. But at the same time, the White House is loudly encouraging demonstrations in Iran – with Biden and Clinton making strident comments – which is likely to invite further protests throughout the region.

Obama hopes that a simple ‘I heart democracy’ message will put him, as they say, on the right side of history, on the side of the people. But, as events in Egypt showed, the US was consistently out of step with the protesters’ demands. Moreover, the US cannot shake its legacy so easily. It is still associated with the autocratic regimes across the region, with propping up their aloof despots. It is also still associated with its failed military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, which continue.

Egypt has shown how America no longer calls the shots in the Middle East as it once did: not because it doesn’t want to try to direct events to its advantage, but because the old order in the region is collapsing and the US refuses to admit it.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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