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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Obama's failure of imagination

By Jennifer Rubin

Hosni Mubarak, sensing the end may be near, is now apparently attempting to bargain for his survival. The Post reports:

As pro-democracy demonstrators vowed to bring 1 million people to the streets of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak offered a gesture of conciliation on Monday, directing his new vice president to begin talks with his opponents about changes to the country's constitution.

That, obviously, is not going to work. The time for haggling has long since passed. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mails me, "It's way too late. The protestors are demanding the end of the Mubarak regime, and nothing less. They're not interested in dialogue."

And what of President Obama? Schanzer doesn't beat around the bush: "The president is still sitting on the fence because he doesn't have a plan."

That Obama does not have a plan is both unsurprising and dispiriting. It's not surprising because this administration has never embraced the notion that secular democratic activists are not the opponents of "stability," but the means to cultivate it. Because of this failure of understanding (and the peculiar notion that oppressive Muslim regimes are preferred partners), the administration did not rise to the occasion when the Green Movement emerged. And again, when Tunisia and then Egypt erupted, Obama was utterly unprepared for the crisis. He still is not able, or willing, to leap from the tyrant's side to the victims'.

As Michael Gerson observes: "The lesson from these events is that America should be anticipating democratic traditions long before a crisis makes them urgent -- trying to encourage the leadership and institutions that will make eventual change less traumatic." But that would require that our president understood the direction in which the tide of history is flowing. If he, instead, is consumed with rejecting the freedom agenda and insists on listening to the "realists" (who had no clue what is happening in the real world), he and his advisers aren't going to plan for popular revolutions.

It remains a testament to the administration's obtuseness that there has been no call for Mubarak to step down and no cut off of U.S. aid to his regime. Our standoffishness becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: The less we do to aid the protestors, the less influence we have. And when Mubarak's regime does collapse, how do we suppose the new government will regard the U.S.? Not well, I'd suggest.

By Jennifer Rubin  | February 1, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  President Obama, foreign policy  
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Schanzer is mistaken, Obama and Clinton do have a definite plan and that is to throw Hosni Mubarak under the bus and toss the dice that the radical Islamist don't take over Egypt.
Of course if they are wrong, the Egyptian government will become a part of the Greater Iranian Axis of Islam with a modern American armed, trained, financed, and equipped military at it's disposal.
Then it's God help us all!

Posted by: Beniyyar | February 1, 2011 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I would be very surprised if the FDD spokesman said anything else, given its reputation as a hawkish anti-Obama think tank.

As for "anticipating democratic traditions," how precisely should the U.S. go about doing that without being perceived as meddling in the internal affairs of the country in question? And what if the group most likely to win an election in said country isn't pro-American (or pro-conservative American)? Would Mr. Gerson or Ms. Rubin still want the U.S. to promote democracy there?

Posted by: MsJS | February 1, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse

beniy wrote:

"Obama and Clinton do have a definite plan and that is to throw Hosni Mubarak under the bus and toss the dice that the radical Islamist don't take over Egypt."

Why do you keep saying things that are the exact opposite of what every other commnetator is saying, even the far right wingers like John Bolton?

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 1, 2011 10:55 AM | Report abuse

"And what if the group most likely to win an election in said country isn't pro-American (or pro-conservative American)? Would Mr. Gerson or Ms. Rubin still want the U.S. to promote democracy there?"

MsJS, I'd say yes. I think we need to take a longer term view on things here. Especially since there is no immediate scenario where an Egyptian "George Washington" is ready to step in right now.

Democracy has to start somewhere. In some countries (i.e. Arab), it'll take longer to develop than in others (i.e. Western). Even if embryonic democracy comes to Egypt and there are elections and the Muslim Brotherhood wins them (a terrible development), at the very least, Egypt will have established a "democratic tradition." Or at least some "democratic history." Once that has happened, it creates a situation where Egyptians can rally around that concept to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood (or whoever) in some future year if (when) the MB oppresses/abuses/kills the citizenry.

To the extent that he has any influence left, I think Hosni should declare free and fair elections later this year and instruct his VP and the military to make sure that it happens. And then Hosni takes a sabbatical to spend the rest of his life in some other country. He might even be considered an Egyptian hero some day down the road if it brings political freedom to that country.

As an added note, I wonder if this stuff would be happening if we didn't bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. I know the tipping point here was some poor vendor taking a match to himself. My guess is that others in the Middle East now see how much better (even if imperfect) it is to live in a democratic country than an authoritarian one. This is the result of the "rock in the pond" that GWB threw into the rotten Middle East. At least in a base, rudimentary sense here.

Posted by: RitchieEmmons | February 1, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, did history just begin in 2009? Is Jennifer really making her argument as though US policy towards Egypt through the last five (Republican and Democratic) Administrations never happened?

Maybe Jennifer really is just this obtuse, but I'd like to think she's smart enough to know that an American President openly aiding democracy activists in the Middle East is an easy way to delegitimize their cause, or perhaps get them declared "puppets of the American government" in a region where the US has a negative history of interfering with government decisions it does not like (think Iran in the 1950s).

Posted by: mustangs79 | February 1, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

You're being Jennifer Romney agains today.

Your last post vociferously stated that this was not about Israel. Yet the only people you quote for expertise on Egypt are American Jews who are strong advocates for Israel!

I can't imagine under any circumstances you quoting an Egyptian (because apparently you don't know any) about a domestic crisis in Israel.

Ironically enough, none of these "experts", has ever lived in an Islamic nation and the President has.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 1, 2011 11:06 AM | Report abuse


It didn't start over democracy it started over food. The riots in Tunisia were about food prices. They rose 17% last year in Egypt, a country where unemployment is thought to be around 20-25%. Egypt is also a net grain importer on a large scale.

In the poorer countries of the world, the percentage of individual income that goes just to food costs is about 25-30%, much much more than in this country.

So we would differ on how much Iraq and Afghanistan factored into the current siutation.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 1, 2011 11:13 AM | Report abuse

"As pro-democracy demonstrators vowed to bring 1 million people to the streets of Egypt"

Really? I've heard the make-up of the crowd is the complete opposite. Radical islamists is a more accurate. We haven't heard Oblah-blah call or even mention the "D" word now have you? Thats because it isn't a "pro-democracy" crowd!

Posted by: surferlou | February 1, 2011 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Living conditions in Egypt will not get better, but change is blowing in the wind. Authoritarian rhetoric will be replaced by flowery words and democratic platitudes. Freedom to discuss the possibility of sharing the wealth will be permitted, but not a dime will ever change hands.

Posted by: morristhewise | February 1, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Jennifer, I admire your work, but I'm puzzled at how you can write post after post about this topic without addressing the threat of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover. I would like to see these events as you do -- the tide of history flowing toward freedom -- but a recent Pew poll indicates the Egyptian public wants Sharia and renewed conflict with Israel. Please address this topic.

Posted by: eoniii | February 1, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

John, I know all that (although I didn't know what % of income went to food). To me, it's all related. If the govt is more representative and less authoritarian, more market driven and less command style, the food problem will sort itself out. The protesters want Hosni out, but they're not going to want Hosni II in there. My guess is that Gamel Mubarak (or some other thug) would not be accepted, even if he promised that food prices would be reduced by X%.

Now, while this Egypt business may have been sparked by an immolation, which itself was sparked by a food issue, it all had been simmering below the surface from an oppression issue. When GWB decided that Saddam was persona non grata and disposed of him a placed a democracy in Iraq, that was a turning point in Middle East history. Where people once accepted that they lived under oppressive authoritarian dictatorships, they now see that they no longer have to tolerate that. And into the streets they go.

Anyway, that's my take on it.

Posted by: RitchieEmmons | February 1, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I too worry about the Brotherhood.

Here's a deeply disturbing article about Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and why we should all fear their coming to power.

What you haven't been told is this: the Moslem Brothers were a small, unpopular group of anti-modern fanatics unable to attract members, until they were adopted by Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in the 1930s.

Under the tutelage of the Third Reich, the Brothers started the modern jihadi movement, complete with a genocidal program against Jews. In the words of Matthias Kuntzel:

"The significance of the Brotherhood to Islamism is comparable to that of the Bolshevik Party to communism: It was and remains to this day the ideological reference point and organizational core for all later Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and Hamas."

What is equally ominous for Jews and Israel is that despite Mubarak's pragmatic co-existence with Israel for the last 30 years, every Egyptian leader from Nasser, through Sadat, to Mubarak, has enshrined Nazi Jew-hatred in mainstream Egyptian culture, out of both conviction and political calculation.

Nasser, trained by Nazis as a youth, spread the genocidal conspiracy theories of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, making it a best seller throughout the Arab world. On the Ramadan following 9/11, Mubarak presided over a 30-week long TV series dramatizing the Elders and its genocidal message.

Israel is justified in being very worried.

Posted by: pvilso24 | February 1, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for the reply.

"If the govt is more representative and less authoritarian, more market driven and less command style, the food problem will sort itself out."

I don't realy agree with this. It's unlikely that any new gov would be more market driven, but possibly less. Also Egypt is not blessed with natural resources. The three chief sources of income are tourism (which of course is likely to be shot to hell for the foreseeable future), money sent home from ex-pats abroad, and revenue from the Suez Canal. So the prospect of increasing that revenue is daunting.

Regarding democracy in Iraq, I don't really believe that democracy imposed by a foreign power will outlast our military presence. I can't prove that to you, but it's my belief. We will see.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 1, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I have question. Since Elliot Abrams wouldn't answer it perhaps Ms. Rubin's will.

Seeing how we need to "embrace democractic activists" in countries that are not democracies, How do you think the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates would react to our reaching out to factions in those countries that wish to end the monarchies in those countries? (I'm willing to bet about as well as Pres. Obama would if the head of Russia reached out to the head of the Tea Party.)

As far as I can see there is a lot of 20-20 hindsite going on here. The premise is lovely. Dictatorships appear stable right up to the moment they collapse and then they collapse into chaos and that is inherintly more dangerious for the US. I agree but how do you know which ones will collapse? and when? and suppose you need to get something done in the interim? E.G. Yemen. Certainly an unpleasant ruler. However al qeada is running around there and we want to cruise a few predators over head to drop a few pounds of high explosive on them every so often. Do we deal with the ruler of Yemen to get what we want? Where is this line drawn? Mr. Abrams was gung ho for dealing with Musharaf in Pakistan so we could tackle al qeada and the Taliban. We've been using Mubarak to try and pry arab support away from Hamas for years. Is that a good enough reason? Pres. Bush was in office for 8 years and other then some speaches Mr. Abrams was very short on concrete details of what the administration did to try and get Mubarak to hold elections. Very short on details but long on saying how right they were.

Alot of 20-20 hindsite going on here.

Posted by: kchses1 | February 1, 2011 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Is there anyone who has not yet figured out that Obama is a lousy leader? Speechifier. OK; but leader, fuggetaboutit.

Posted by: nvjma | February 1, 2011 4:18 PM | Report abuse

John, I have no idea whether a new govt will be more open or free. My guess though is that is what the protesters want (which is what I was referring to above). I hope they get it.

As for a country with no resources not generating revenue, one could make the argument that Israel has not much in the way of resources, but they nevertheless have a thriving economy. It would take awhile for Arab Egypt to get there, but like I said before, democracy has to start somewhere.

I too fear that a nascent Iraqi democracy might not last beyond the departure of the US troops. That's why I want the troops there for a Germany, South Korea, Japan legth of time. Speaking of those countries, do you think that any of them would dispose of democracy if our troops left? I highly doubt it. And those were all imposed by a foreign power. The more a democracy gets roots in a society, the harder it will be to go back to what was there before.

Posted by: RitchieEmmons | February 1, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse

If you're gong to read hysteria from right wing bogs pvilso24, then yes, you might be scared.

Sadly, this author is another typical right wing know nothings.

The jihad movement had nothing to do with the Third Reich, but was born of resistance to colonialism, you know, the same agenda that drove our founding fathers to fight for independence?

The MB had no concern for Jews one way or another.

As has been pointed out many times, Al Qaeda began as a break away group from the MB. It's founded, Zawahiri, was radicalized not by the MB, but by being tortured by the Egyptian government after the assassination of Assad. The MB have publicly disavowed AQ.

Bin Laden had nothing to do with the MB.

Nasser was NOT trained by Nazis as a youth. This is such BS, it's hard to know where to begin.

Posted by: Shingo1 | February 1, 2011 5:47 PM | Report abuse


"Jennifer, I admire your work, but I'm puzzled at how you can write post after post about this topic without addressing the threat of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover."

What threat do you perceive from a Muslim Brotherhood takeover (ie. democracy)? What are you so afraid of? That Egypt would send an armada of ship to the Eastern Seaboard and invade?

Posted by: Shingo1 | February 1, 2011 6:23 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for the reply:

"That's why I want the troops there for a Germany, South Korea, Japan legth of time. Speaking of those countries, do you think that any of them would dispose of democracy if our troops left"

I agree with you that now, we are unlikely to leave Iraq or Afghanistan for a long time. We are stuck to these nations, due to recent events.

Germany actually was a democracy of sorts long before 1900, but a monarchial one. Few remember that Hitler actually won an election on his way to absolute power.

In South Korea we have supported oligarchy and democracy for about equal periods of time. I hope this is a permanent state of affairs now.

In Japan I will make the same somewhat awful remark that I did the other day. The change succeeded because we killed off enough military age men to give the new government time to take root. In Iraq we failed to kill nearly enough men to stabilize the post invasion government.

Enjoyable discourse with you as always.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 1, 2011 7:20 PM | Report abuse

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