Obama's diplomatic balancing act on Egypt
"Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
---Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, January 25, 2011
Diplomats sometimes have a hard time keeping up with fast-moving events, but Clinton's comment--made as mass protests were building in Cairo just one week ago--now appears particularly ill-timed. Clinton spoke to reporters just three days before Egypt cut off all Internet service and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the resignation of his government. The Obama administration then spent the rest of the week trying to match its rhetoric to the mood in the streets.
The White House and the State Department have faced a difficult balancing act. A stable Egypt, ruled by Mubarak with an iron fist for three decades, has been one of the pillars of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. From the start of his administration, President Obama has made achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace one of his top priorities. That is a laudable, though unrealized, goal, and few experts believe much progress can be made without the active involvement of Egypt. So, as we have noted, the administration publicly did not emphasize the need for democratic reforms in Egypt.
Even after protests erupted, the administration could not easily abandon a long-time ally, no matter how many times his government's human rights abuses had been documented in State Department reports. Mubarak had kept to his end of the bargain--maintaining peace with Israel--for nearly 30 years. Egypt had received some $60 billion in U.S. aid during that period. Relations between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries are deep and well-rooted. If Obama or Clinton had immediately called for Mubarak's departure, other allies around the world would wonder how quickly the United States would abandon them in a crisis.
In that context, Clinton's comments could almost be seen not as a statement of fact, but an expression of hope. Two days after Clinton spoke, as the protests continued to swell, Vice President Biden appeared on the PBS NewsHour and again fell into the same trap. "We think that -- I hope Mubarak, President Mubarak, will -- is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised," Biden told Jim Lehrer.
Asked directly by Lehrer whether Mubarak was a dictator, Biden replied by first noting his importance to U.S. foreign policy. "Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel," he said. "I would not refer to him as a dictator."
Biden was criticized by many analysts for his remarks, so the next day, on January 28, President Obama himself tried to set things right. Speaking after Mubarak announced the forced resignation of his government, the president noted the "universal" rights, including for for Egyptians, of peaceful assembly, free speech and the ability to determine their destiny. He said that he had just told Mubarak that he "has a responsibility to give meaning" to pledges of greater democracy and greater economic opportunity. He called for "concrete steps," "a meaningful dialogue," and "a path of political change."
But Obama did not demand that Mubarak take specific steps, such as allowing for competitive elections. He also did not call on Mubarak to step down, leaving the impression that he believed Mubarak could manage the transition himself and remain in power. Still, it was still a far cry from what Clinton had said just three days earlier.
The message was further refined two days later. Clinton appeared on five Sunday public-affairs shows with a new message: It was time for an "orderly transition" to real democracy. This carefully crafted phrase clearly signaled the administration was showing Mubarak the door without actually demanding his departure. Clinton also offered no words of support for Mubarak: "It's not a question of who retains power. That should not be the issue," she told NBC's "Meet the Press."
When Clinton was reminded on Fox News Sunday about her comment five days earlier that the government was "stable," she dodged the question. "We recognize the volatility of the situation, and we are trying to do exactly what I have just said - to promote orderly transition and change that will respond to the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people, which is what the protests are all about," she replied. "I don't think anyone wants to see instability, chaos, increasing violence."
Clinton's remarks on Sunday were laden with diplomatic nuance. When she mentioned avoiding an outcome like "Iran," that was code for not allowing a vacuum that would permit the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to take power. When she warned against "violence by any security forces"--adding that "we continue to convey that message"--she indicated the likely red line for the Obama administration: If Mubarak authorizes the shooting of demonstrators, the United States will immediately call for his ouster. That bit of leverage may well be a factor for why the Egyptian government did not immediately launch a crackdown from the start--and also why the administration has not specifically demanded that Mubarak resign.
The language may have been too subtle for the people in Cairo's streets, but the tea leaves were quickly read in Israel. Commentators there denounced Obama for "stabbing in the back" an Arab leader who had kept the peace with the Jewish state.
The Bottom Line
The administration's balancing act on Egypt has been wobbly at times, and it may become more difficult if the crisis gets worse. Gary Sick, who handled Iran affairs in Jimmy Carter's White House during the Iranian Revolution, has noted that Carter's balancing act ended up being the worst of both worlds: "If the ruler falls, he and his supporters will accuse you of being so lukewarm in your support that it was perceived as disavowal; whereas the opposition will dismiss your pious expressions as cynical and ineffectual."
The history of the Egyptian uprising has not been written. But depending on how events turn out, Clinton's "stable" statement may enter a diplomatic hall of infamy that includes Jimmy Carter's Dec. 31, 1977 toast in Tehran in which he said that the Shah of Iran, then a key U.S. ally, was "an island of stability" in the troubled Middle East.
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| February 1, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Barack Obama, Middle East, Other Foreign Policy, issue context
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