President Barack Obama’s handling of the Egyptian uprising demonstrates once again that America’s chief executive is definitely not a foreign-policy president. Appearing to be on the right side of history, as defined by today’s political correctness, proved to be more important to the president than national-security considerations.
What many fail to realize is that virtually all of America’s friends in the Middle East were deeply concerned by the administration’s handling of developments in Egypt, including both our Arab allies and Israel. None wanted the United States to throw Hosni Mubarak off a cliff, whatever his shortcomings. While many European governments shared Obama’s approach, they often defer to the reactions of their Muslim populations and have limited concern for Israel’s security. Revealingly, the revolt’s other cheerleaders were Iran, al-Qaeda and Hamas.
That Mubarak was a loyal ally of the United States is not in dispute. It was of course in Mubarak’s personal self-interest to be a loyal ally, but this is true for most superpower allies and doesn’t disqualify them from expecting a bit of empathy when their survival is on the line.
At almost every turn, from peace with Israel to supporting the first war against Iraq, cooperating against Muslim extremism and opposing Iran’s nuclear program, the Egyptian president strongly identified himself with American foreign-policy positions. In fact, this was one important reason—though certainly not the only one—that he was despised by many in his own country and needed to rely on authoritarian measures to stay in power. Moreover, despite its enthusiastic embrace of the “freedom agenda,” the Bush administration was fully prepared—morally and otherwise—to make use of Egypt’s repressive machinery, reportedly surrendering terrorism suspects via rendition for interrogation, including torture. More recently, Mr. Obama warmly kissed Mr. Mubarak on both cheeks when he visited Cairo less than two years ago—and the Egyptian leader's conduct had hardly changed between 2009's kisses and 2011's kick. International politics frequently presents ugly choices and sometimes it is impossible to avoid throwing friends under the wheels of history. But displaying visible pleasure about it the way that President Obama did suggests both a lack of strategic clarity and a serious moral flaw.
In fairness, Mr. Obama had plenty of company in the United States among politicians and commentators alike. The mainstream media covered Egypt’s upheaval as a cross between a soap opera and a morality play. Little consideration was given to the fact that the protests were not entirely peaceful, something made clear when government buildings were set on fire, dozens of police officers were wounded or killed, and the army, which was not trained in crowd control, was called in to replace overwhelmed police forces in the streets. It was precisely the government’s restraint in using force during the uprising’s initial stages that emboldened the opposition and led to Mubarak’s undoing.
Unschooled in history and swept up in uncontrolled excitement, many journalists began to make misleading comparisons with Central European revolutions of 1989. But those revolutions were directed against client regimes of a rival superpower, the Soviet Union. Because these regimes were hostile to America and a product of foreign domination, there was every geopolitical and moral reason to support the protestors. Also, being vocally and reliably pro-Western, the Central Europeans and their genuinely peaceful revolutions were no-brainers in deserving American support. In contrast, current unrest in the Middle East has so far been directed primarily against moderate pro-Western governments, not American opponents. And its outcome is far from clear.