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.
President Obama and his advisers acknowledge that there are huge uncertainties in when and how the present wave of protests will end. Yet, the president opted to embrace the protesters’ demands—and, according to The New York Times, to do so against the advice of key national-security officials in his own administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the administration’s special envoy to Mubarak and former ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner. The paper reported that the president relied not on the advice of Middle East experts, but rather on younger “idealistic” White House officials, a number of whom were involved in Obama’s presidential campaign. It is no secret that some of them are already preoccupied with the next election and do not want their candidate to be vulnerable to charges of rejecting the freedom agenda.
This is hardly an unusual approach to world events in Washington, but no one should pretend that it is done in the name of higher morality. And, in fact, the president had an option that was both moral and practical—namely, to avoid choosing sides between the protesters and President Mubarak. Instead, the White House could have relied on private diplomacy to urge reforms, while publicly limiting itself to expressing strong support for both democracy and stability, and maintained links to the government and the opposition. There was no need for the president and other officials to offer daily or hourly commentary on breaking news. After all, Egypt is not an American protectorate and the president need not act as if it were his prerogative or responsibility to shape events there. Finally, there was no need for Mr. Obama to express public impatience with Mubarak just moments after speaking to him.
All may end well and the military may be able to ensure a smooth transition. Moderate forces may prevail. Egyptians may be too tired after eighteen days of disorder to support more upheaval, and the current government may realize that stability cannot be restored without meaningful reforms. But history suggests that once begun, revolutions develop their own dynamics—and that often the people who start a revolution are not the ones who finish it. President Obama may be able to avoid that outcome this time, but repeating his performance in Egypt in future crises could cost the United States dearly.
Dimitri K. Simes is the publisher of The National Interest. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.