The turmoil in the Middle East, and especially in the region's most populous country, is salient enough and troublesome enough that it will provide material for years to come to satisfy the ever-present urge to point fingers and assign blame. If events on the Nile really turn south, expect to hear “Who lost Egypt?” as a recurring theme—in, among other things, the 2012 presidential election campaign. Even if Egypt's political evolution doesn't turn out that badly, there still will be grist for arguments that the situation could have come out better if U.S. policymakers had been better informed, better prepared, or more adept at responding to the crisis.
Before proceeding further with this subject, I should note the one rare calm spot in the usual rough sea of Washington fault-finding and political warfare. The Republican Congressional leadership should be commended for not using this crisis (at least not yet) as one more means for making life difficult for the Obama administration. Instead, the Republican leaders have said that the United States should address the situation with one voice and have deferred to the president and the secretary of state to supply that voice. We should not be so naïve as to interpret this posture as the birth of a new spirit of bipartisanship. The Republicans do not come to this subject with any particular direction or clear preference anyway; the political future of Egypt was not addressed in the GOP's Pledge to America. This is not active bipartisanship, with buy-in to the resulting policy, of the sort that Republicans in the late 1940s exhibited—led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), who worked as a partner of the Truman administration in mustering support for the major foreign policy initiatives of the time, including the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of NATO. Today's Republican leaders are leaving themselves room for later breaking with the Obama administration's policies on Egypt should they choose to do so. But for the moment, it's nice at least to think that a little bit of Arthur Vandenberg has been reincarnated in Mitch McConnell.
Beyond the Congressional leadership there is not the same restraint, especially among presidential hopefuls who already are campaigning. Former senator Rick Santorum has criticized the administration for failing “to get out ahead of this and to understand this,” while in the same breath displaying his own lack of understanding by equating the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda.
Even when not designed to score political points, we are seeing the resurrection of the familiar idea of the government or parts of it being caught by surprise. This is a habitual way for such rapidly moving events to be interpreted and commented upon. When the public is surprised by something (and how much were Americans, even relatively well educated and well informed Americans, thinking about Egypt just three or four weeks ago?), there is a tendency to convert this into the idea that the government was also surprised. This dynamic is propelled partly by the need of the press and the commentariat to find additional angles about which to write on a continuing story that consumes many columns of space.
The last few days have seen more mention of the old reliable theme of “intelligence failure.” I have received multiple calls from journalists who ask, “Why didn't U.S. intelligence predict what is happening in Egypt?” to which I can only respond, “What do you know that I don't know about what intelligence services did or did not say to their policymakers about this subject?” The answer to that latter question is that the journalists do not know anything more than I know about the subject, which is to say they do not know anything at all about it. Without being a fly on the wall during exchanges between different parts of the government, one has no basis for judgments about how any part of the government—the White House, the State Department, intelligence agencies, or any other part—performed well or performed poorly. But such ignorance has never stopped outsiders from making such judgments or from inserting the theme into their reporting or commentaries.
This pattern is by no means new, and it is not even unique to the United States. When the Israelis encountered rough sledding and a lot of return rocket fire during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006, a journalist asked me for comment on this Israeli “intelligence failure.” I wasn't a fly on that wall either, and so there was no basis for commenting on what may or may not have represented an intelligence failure. Subsequent indications were that Israeli military intelligence actually had a pretty good handle on Hizballah's capabilities (especially its rocket arsenal) before the war, even though the government of Ehud Olmert decided to launch the operation anyway.
Although I am totally ignorant of the details of what has been said within the U.S. Government before and during the current crisis in Egypt, I have enough experience with how input to policymaking works on such matters to make the following three observations about what is going on behind the surface impressions of surprise and of scrambling to catch up with events. (The experience includes—more than a quarter century ago, during the early years of Hosni Mubarak's presidency—being the principal analyst and then the branch chief responsible for Egypt in the intelligence agency that formerly employed me.)
First, no matter how complete is our information about a situation in a foreign country and how astutely we may analyze that situation, it is impossible for anyone to predict the sort of happenings taking place in Egypt today. Those happenings are not the result of some secret conspiracy, detectable with sufficiently energetic collection of information. They are a spontaneous, leaderless eruption. The responsible government agencies should be expected to understand and to convey the potential for such eruptions, but they cannot predict the timing. Although Mubarak's regime has become increasingly sclerotic and repressive over the past decade or so, the potential for an eruption something like the current one has been present ever since I was responsible for the subject in the 1980s. One cannot expect the five U.S. administrations since then to have been in some kind of alert status or to make a series of fresh decisions about Egypt in response to that potential.
That leads to the second observation, which is that in the absence of very strong indications that they will soon be forced to make decisions, makers of foreign policy usually do not make them (except perhaps on a few issues that a president considers part of the platform he brought with him into office). Most U.S. foreign policy is the result of nondecisions rather than decisions. It is the product of inertia and of policy lines already established (and certainly the main lines of U.S. policy toward Egypt have been well established for a long time). Policymakers are very busy people. Fresh decisions are costly in terms of their time and attention and in terms of the fuel that must be burned to fight bureaucratic battles and achieve a new consensus. All of this means that a mere warning of possible untoward events in a foreign country—even a stronger and more specific warning than intelligence agencies or foreign services almost ever have a basis to make—is insufficient to energize decision-making. Actual events are almost always needed to force the making of new policy. Sometimes even after events occur, the heavy hands of inertia and competing demands on attention slow the making of new policy. Jimmy Carter's administration did not hold policy deliberations on Iran in 1979 until after unrest in Iranian streets had been going on for quite some time. As the then national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later explained, the administration's “circuits were overloaded” with other matters such as the Camp David talks and a new strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union.
Third, even if policymakers could have perfect information and understanding about the situation at hand, and even if the costs of decision-making were zero, what may seem to outsiders like scrambling to catch up may be due at least as much to the nature of a situation that provides no good options and no single direction that is clearly in U.S. interests. This was true as well of the response to the Iranian revolution, when the Carter administration's disarray was due less to surprise or lack of information than to strong disagreements within the administration between those who despised the shah as an autocrat and those who thought his throne should be saved in the interest of avoiding the uncertainty of what would come next. There have been obvious echoes of this in thinking about Mubarak's situation. The policy may seem like fumbling, but it may also be the product of policymakers facing the difficult task of reconciling different U.S. interests that point in different directions.
In the inevitable recriminations that follow events such as we are witnessing today, don't expect any of what I have described here to be understood or acknowledged.