Could Obama have handled the uprising in Egypt better? Yes. Should Obama call for the ouster of Mubarak? No. And does it matter? No. The era of American domination of the Middle East has unraveled, and neither the Egyptian military nor the protesters look to the United States to carry their banner.
However the intense drama in Cairo unfolds—and it may take months, or years, to reach its conclusion— there’s no reason for Obama to embrace the discredited Freedom Agenda of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives. It’s only a matter of time before the authoritarian regime collapses in Cairo, and the revolutionaries don’t need the White House’s help.
Not that the road ahead will be easy.
Why? Because the Egyptian military is a vast and sprawling organism with institutional inertia and enormous self-interest in perpetuating itself in power. The military’s relationship to and with President Mubarak is pragmatic, that is, that the military will insist on itself remaining in power while being open to the idea of consigning Mubarak to the trash heap sooner or later and, from the looks of Der Spiegel’s report about exile in Baden-Baden, perhaps sooner. Third, that the declining power and influence of the United States in the Middle East makes it difficult and well-nigh impossible for the United States to oust Mubarak simply by demanding his head on a silver platter. Especially given the Egyptian military’s entrenched hold on power, there’s very little that President Obama can do, besides jawboning Cairo’s generals to get rid of Mubarak (perhaps after a polite waiting period), though I believe it’s readily apparent to the generals that Mubarak is a goner. It is, most likely, apparent to Mubarak, too. It appears quite certain that behind the scenes, ever tending to its imperial mission, the United States is quietly working with the generals to grease the skids under Mubarak.
Still, it’s wrong for the United States ever and always to demand that foreign leaders pack up and leave. Or have I missed something, and now it’s OK for the United States to demand regime change here and there? The rabid enthusiasm among the neoconservatives for a resuscitation of the repellent Freedom Agenda of the Bush era doesn’t mean that Obama ought to pay attention—quite the opposite.
There’s a practical problem, too, namely, that the Egyptian opposition is united only by its distaste for the odious Mubarak family. So far, it’s held together, but just barely, around its insistence that Mubarak step down. (That unity was sorely tested this weekend by the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to conduct exploratory talks with Vice President Suleiman, in concert with the New Wafd and some other players.) Now, once again—but for how long?—the anti-Mubarak forces are united, or seem to be, around the demand for his departure. That demand, most likely, will be met within days or weeks. If it is, then what? A united military command will face a loosely organized protest movement, which will presumably be compelled to sit down for protracted talks with the vice president, the prime minister and Defense Minister Tantawi. Not only will the generals hold most of the cards, but the opposition will undoubtedly find it hard to sustain the momentum of a countrywide uprising, and even turning out masses in Liberation Square may be difficult.
None of this is to argue that the White House has handled the Egyptian proto-revolution with skill. Not only was US intelligence woefully inadequate on Egypt, it appears, but the White House and State Department were caught entirely unprepared for the explosion, and throughout its duration they’ve been one step behind at all times. Like a pitiful, helpless giant—to quote Tricky Dick—the United States was rudely rebuffed by Mubarak and Suleiman, just as it was rebuffed by Netanyahu when it asked for an end to settlements, and by Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq when it suggested, meekly, that the American deployment of forces in Iraq last beyond 2011. Last Tuesday, Obama delivered a stern message that change in Egypt had to happen “now,” and the next day his spokesman told reporters that “now” meant “yesterday.” It’s six days and counting.
That doesn’t absolve Obama and Clinton from the incredibly poor choice of Frank Wisner as envoy to Cairo at a critical moment. Wisner’s enthusiastically pro-Mubarak comments since leaving Egypt should have been expected, given his position as (a) a friend of the Mubaraks and (b) a lawyer for the Egyptian military. Someday we’ll get the transcript of Wisner’s talks with Mubarak, perhaps when Mubarak writes his self-congratulatory memoirs, but in any case it also needs to be noted even Wisner was rebuffed by the powers-that-be in Egypt. It will interesting to see precisely what instructions he was given, and then, in turn, how forceful he was in delivering the intended message from the White House. Still, it’s wrong for the United States to be sending envoys to foreign leaders in order to kick them out, no matter how much one wants to curry favor with Robert Kagan, Danielle Pletka, and other members and hangers-on of the “Working Group” on Egypt.
But I’m less critical of Obama than are some other supporters of the democracy movement in Egypt. True, he has bumbled along confusedly for the past two weeks, at least judging by what’s on the public record. True, he sent Wisner, a crony of the regime, to carry his confused message. And true, Obama has apparently reconciled himself to the perpetuation of the power of the Egyptian military establishment. But, even if Obama were to resurrect the misguided Freedom Agenda of President Bush, I’m unclear what else the United States can do to dislodge a determined military junta from power. Some supporters of the democracy movement suggest that Obama can halt US military aid to Egypt, but that would accomplish nothing. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support another dime in military aid to Egypt—nor aid to Israel, either.) But cutting off military aid doesn’t work instant wonders. And it can also backfire spectacularly, as the case of Pakistan reveals, over the past two decades, when the United States suspended its military relationship with Islamabad’s generals and accomplished nothing, only to come crawling back, hat in hand, in 2001, and finding itself faced with a sullenly hostile Pakistani general staff.
The fact is, American influence in the Middle East is falling apart. Egypt is in revolt, Lebanon is spinning rapidly out of the US orbit; Turkey has established itself as a bulwark of moderate-Islamist anti-Americanism; Iran has defied US threats, sanctions and diplomatic pressure for years; Iraq is building its own relationship with Iran and Turkey; Afghanistan’s president routinely thumbs his nose at Washington; and Pakistan’s generals stonewall the United States. President Obama’s irrelevance to the unfolding of the Egyptian revolution is just one more piece of that puzzle.