President Oblomov

August 20, 2013 Topic: BureaucracyPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPolitics Region: Egypt Blog Brand: The Buzz

President Oblomov

The administration will deal with Egypt. Tomorrow.


The title character of Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 classic Oblomov may be literature’s most indecisive man. We meet the young Russian nobleman lying in bed in the late morning; it takes two chapters for him to get out of bed—and collapse onto an armchair. He spends most of his life lying down, though he has much to do. His estate is in disarray, he faces eviction from his apartment, his friends come calling hoping to bring him to town or on a trip abroad, he needs to find a wife. And Oblomov has many ideas for putting his life in order—he daydreams of the house he’ll build on his estate, of the wife he’ll meet, of travelling with his friends. Yet first he must get up, wash, trade his dressing-gown for proper clothes. And there are endless interruptions—Oblomov may hardly move, but he is constantly planning to move, telling his servant what to do to prepare things for his move, thinking up what he’ll do once he’s moving, before he loses his handkerchief or his train of thought and must start anew. And so he’s been planning to fix up his estate for years without doing anything. He’s promised friends he’ll accompany them, but never has. A book he’s reading lies open to the same page for a month. He remains on his back, in his dressing-gown, into the afternoon. And of course he sees none of this as his fault—the interruptions, the incompetence of his servant, the visitors, all intervene to keep him from acting.

One evening his friend Andrei Stolz, exasperated, tells Oblomov that they will at last take their long-planned trip.


"We will start to-morrow. It must be done now or never." With that he went to bed. "Now or never." Somehow to Oblomov the words seemed a sort of threat....Two weeks later Schtoltz departed for England, after exacting from Oblomov a pledge to join him later in Paris, Oblomov even went to the length of procuring a passport, ordering an expensive travelling coat, and purchasing a cap....A month went by—three months; yet Oblomov still did not start. Stolz, who had reached Paris long ago, continued to send him letter after letter, but they remained unanswered.

The Obama administration’s Egypt policy lately shows shades of Oblomov. It has many grand plans for Egypt’s future, many deeply felt opinions about the regime’s actions, about the Muslim Brotherhood’s responses, about what the Egyptian people deserve and what the American people hope. Scarcely a day passes that the administration doesn’t see the need to inform the public of its views on the situation—and on many days it weighs in more than once, in case anyone forgets over lunch which outrages are deplored and which are merely condemned. Yet all this talk has seen precious little action. A few F-16s the Egyptians can barely use have been delayed; a military exercise has been cancelled. And of course many long phone conversations, the administration assures, have been had.

The administration’s Oblomovtschina was on full display early last Thursday afternoon, the second official comment on matters Egyptian in three hours. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s briefing included a series of long, meandering exchanges with Associated Press reporter Matt Lee, chiefly concerning whether the administration thought its policies were effective, or were even intended to have an effect. Lee repeatedly asked whether the administration’s cancellation of an exercise merely was intended to send a message of disapproval to Egypt’s military, or whether it was intended to change the military’s behavior; Psaki repeatedly sidestepped the question, stating that the administration can’t “determine on behalf of the Egyptians what steps they’re going to take,” but that it is taking “a number of steps to encourage the Egyptians to get back on a productive path.”

Psaki repeatedly told Lee that the violence “did impact our decision-making,” that the administration “will continue to assess and review our aid in all forms,” and that it was “continuing to put constructive ideas forward.” Psaki stated that “the end result is what’s important,” prompting Lee to ask whether the administration was “confident that it is pursuing the appropriate policy to bring about its goals.” Psaki replied by reiterating the administration’s goals and emphasizing that “we’ve known this would be a long journey,” that “we can’t look into the future...we evaluate every day what the appropriate steps are.” But, of course, “reaching the goal is up to the Egyptian people to reach. We can’t do it on their behalf.” And the exchange repeated several minutes later, as Psaki filigreed a distinction between reviewing “the appropriate steps”—which can be done “every day”—and evaluating “where things stand”—which cannot.

At times Lee seemed to be getting a malicious joy from questioning Psaki. One round ended with a remark that was less a question than the pin that sticks a struggling moth to the board:

QUESTION: All right. And then my last one – and I will stop, I promise, after this – do you think – is the Administration confident that the steps, that the policy that you have pursued thus far in Egypt and also in Syria --

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- are worthy of a President who not so long ago won the Nobel Peace Prize?

MS. PSAKI: Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: You do. Okay.

Psaki has spent nearly all of her short tenure squirming beneath the press corps’ skewers. Exchanges like this one on Egypt happen regularly. The crossing of Obama’s Syrian “red line” saw a similar wave of urgent reviews, evaluations, and factorings-in; Psaki was even stumped later on in Thursday’s briefings—again by Lee—when asked whether new Israeli settlements in the West Bank were “illegitimate.”

Some of the blame lies with Psaki, who (unlike her predecessor Victoria Nuland) is a career political operative, not a foreign-policy wonk. Yet the root of the problem is the entire administration. Psaki’s answers shed little light because there is little to shed light on. The Obama administration has no strategy for Egypt. It has no vision or central goal. And without a goal, it has no way to balance the complex and competing interests and values in play in Cairo. It does not know what to do or say. But it knows it must do or say something. And so it conducts evaluations without end. It asserts contradictions, then resolves them with sophistries. It weighs its options. It shares its feelings. It makes sure everybody knows how complicated the situation is, how many factors must be considered, how measured the president’s policies are, how tough these decisions have been. And there are reviews, and reviews of reviews, all of which are soon reviewed anew. “We continue to review our relationship with Egypt,” said Psaki. “I talked about the range of factors that are part of that consideration, including the depth of our partnership, including our national security interests and regional stability. And we’ll continue to review.”

“Now or never.” “To be or not to be.” Oblomov rose from his chair, but, failing at once to insert his foot into a slipper, sat down again.

Image: Flickr/Steve Parker. CC BY 2.0.