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US on Egypt: Conflicting Signals?


US on Egypt: Conflicting Signals?

No More Hugs: Obama and Mubarak. Source: Google Images

I have admired Barack Obama for some time, but since early in the 2008 Democratic primaries, I have written that his Achilles’ heel is his hubris.  It is his strength, for sure, propelling a charismatic politician with little experience (especially on foreign policy) into the White House.  But it can be his undoing.  On Egypt, we have witnessed confusing signals over the last couple of weeks, as foreign policy has arguably swung from deference to heavy-handedness back to deference.

President Obama’s sense that he can do things that others cannot – like restoring America’s moral leadership, bringing Iran in from the cold, making Arab-Israeli peace,  ridding the world of nuclear weapons, resetting Russia, pressuring China to revalue its currency, and prudently reforming health care  – is at once refreshing and unsettling.  It can be healthy to re-examine the status quo and make bold policy forays toward better government.  However, it can be dangerous as well if done without humility and the capacity to self-examine.  In fairness, a chastened Obama did reflect on his foibles after the mid-term meltdown.

As the Egypt crisis has unfolded, the administration first cautiously supported President Mubarak, then, after Mubarak’s defiant speech to the nation, dropped him like a bag of…  More importantly, the news coverage of the Obama team’s reactions to events in Egypt painted a picture of a superpower calling the shots regarding the domestic politics of another country.  Now, the administration is backtracking, supporting Vice President Suleiman’s efforts to find a cautious course out of the crisis. 

One can understand the desire to support the democracy movement, the aspirations of a repressed people for a greater voice in government and greater economic opportunity, a moral position, and incidentally, a highly popular one.   Still, last week when they were sticking it to Mubarak, the administration appeared to be telling the world – if you are an ally and you are authoritarian, we will undermine you; but if you are an adversary and authoritarian, we will keep our hands off.  Remember Tehran, June 2009?  Obama, unlike any US president before him, kept largely silent in the face of a pro-democracy movement, so as not to lend credence to the Iranian claim that Western meddling was behind the protests. 

Very crafty.  Classic Obama.  New and different.  Avoiding a repeat of past “errors,” such as Western support of the Tiananmen Square protests over twenty years ago, brutally crushed by the Chinese, who blamed the protests on Western agitators.  Fast forward to Egypt 2011.  The smart, but inexperienced hands in the White House have called for Mubarak to step down and to implement a democratic transition.   The million plus protestors must be right, must reflect the popular will of over eighty million Egyptians, something quite possible, but not at all certain.  Remember Nixon’s “silent majority,” conservative and numerous, propelling him into the White House in 1968 in spite of the high profile anti-war protests going on at the time?  I’m not saying that a majority of Egyptians prize stability over democracy, as Mubarak argues, I’m just saying, be careful if you believe the contrary.  Some would still call for democracy now, regardless of whether or not that is the sentiment of a majority of Egyptians.

It seems that over the last few days the Obama team has realized that the Mubarak regime has been a long-time ally that has promoted US interests, fostered peace in the Middle East, and reformed its economy, and that the alternatives suddenly seem less palatable — Mohammed ElBaradei, an opportunist, the Muslim Brotherhood – democrats all of a sudden, the intellectual elites – lacking a popular base, or the secular opposition, amorphous and rudderless.

What of loyalty, that elusive and essential currency in international relations?  Egypt’s was forgotten overnight, while America’s was discarded the same night.  Re-establishing it will be difficult indeed.  The twin body blows of Wikileaks and the confusing signals on Egypt may undermine US relations with foreign governments.  What must an ally do to stay in America’s good graces?  Pursue US interests and adhere to the principles of the Declaration of Independence?  If you don’t live up to America’s ideal of itself, then you’re a bum, especially when your people take to the streets.

It’s interesting – Democrats and Republicans sometimes do things completely different in foreign policy, confusing friend and foe alike.  This goes back at least as far as Teddy Roosevelt, a realist and imperialist, comfortable dealing with many types of regime and in favor of spheres of influence, and his nemesis, Woodrow Wilson, whose holier-than-thou idealism, making the world safe for democracy and all, set the tone for American foreign policy ever since, while at home he hypocritically backed segregation and Jim Crow.  Nowadays, you’ve got George W. Bush, confronting and unseating authoritarian adversaries (Iraq and Afghanistan) and cozying up to allied dictators (Egypt and Saudi Arabia), followed by No Drama.  Similarly, Jimmy Carter, whose foreign policy put Latin American dictators on notice, while his détente reassured the Soviets, was followed by Ronald Reagan, who would not tolerate double-standards regarding dictators, palling around with allied strongmen such as Saddam Hussein, while confronting the Evil Empire and its proxies.  America’s foreign policy consistency is not the envy of the world. 

That said, it could turn out that Obama’s moves will work out in the end, allowing the US to stay, as many have said, “on the right side of history.”  He got out publicly in support of democracy, and now as the difficult work of transition is under way, he is attempting to nudge Suleiman and Mubarak down the right road.  One can’t help but think, however, that in this White House, especially with about twenty months before election day, policy is driven by making popular statements, including that Egypt’s transition “must begin now” and that “now started yesterday.”   As my readers hopefully know, I am not an inveterate Obama-basher or a reactionary, just a gadfly who likes to question the accepted wisdom and the blind following of charismatic individuals.  So, I leave you with the question, Will this hubris cost America in its relations with foreign nations?



Roger Scher

Roger Scher is a political analyst and economist with eighteen years of experience as a country risk specialist. He headed Latin American and Asian Sovereign Ratings at Fitch Ratings and Duff & Phelps, leading rating missions to Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, Korea, Indonesia, Israel and Turkey, among other nations. He was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer based in Venezuela and a foreign exchange analyst at the Federal Reserve. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, an M.B.A. in International Finance from the Wharton School, and a B.A. in Political Science from Tufts University. He currently teaches International Relations at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy.

Areas of Focus:
International Political Economy; American Foreign Policy