02.04.11 9:30 PM ET
Obama's Egypt Flip-Flop
U.S. media pundits are intoxicated with protests and naïve about religious and military extremists—and the White House's daily policy shifts aren’t helping, writes Leslie H. Gelb. Plus,
full coverage of the Egypt uprising.
As the Egyptian earthquake rumbles into its second week—with implications for U.S. security in the Middle East rivaling those for the Soviet Union during the 1989 uprisings in Eastern Europe—three matters roil my mind:
Photos: Egypt Protests
First, most of the American talkocracy is now so utterly intoxicated with protestocracy, which they call democracy, that they outright neglect the enormous trials of getting from the streets to a real democracy. It's hard as hell, and the process lends itself to hijacking by extremists.
Second, the Muslim Brotherhood jumps immediately to mind as hijackers, but don't overlook the potentially equal or greater threat to democracy from Egypt's beloved armed forces. The history of venomous domestic and foreign-policy pronouncements by the MB should keep us all awake at night. All who ignore this history are naïve, best suited to cable-TV commentary, not policymaking.
Third, the Obama White House hasn't helped matters by shifting policy ground almost daily, causing confusion, and thereby squandering America's credibility and limited but precious influence. President Obama has got to learn the fundamental rule of dealing with careening crises: State your basic principles and then shut up publicly! (Meaning, just boringly repeat your mantra daily.)
I'd like to believe that, if I were an Egyptian, I would be in the streets with the protesters. I'd be mad as hell with Mubarak and would want to get rid of him as quickly as possible. But that wouldn't make me or my fellow mobsters democrats. Generally, one cannot count on mobs, no matter how nice or liberal or unfilled with hatred, to produce democracies.
The United States has no power to shape events in Egypt, but it does have real influence. Using that influence effectively absolutely requires consistency out of the White House. That has not been forthcoming.
The best way to get from the streets of Cairo to some semblance of a constitutional government that ensures rights and freedoms is, of course, to get Mubarak and his lot to help with the transition from dictatorship to the desired end. That's what the Obama administration is now trying to do behind the scenes. And that's the right approach. The protestocracy is justifiably skeptical of involving Mubarak and his bunch in any capacity whatsoever. And that's understandable because he disappointed and lied to them so many times before. And they're afraid that if they get out of the streets and let him take the lead, Mubarak will revert to business as usual or worse. I'd think that way if I were in their shoes as well.
But from a very safe distance here in New York, I truly believe that circumstances are different today than in the unhappy past. Mubarak will have to go, and I believe at some level he now understands this. His support has clearly dwindled, even among his own backers in the army and elsewhere. Not to be discounted at all, he now has practically no support whatsoever from any nation in the world. He can't hold on this time. The policy trick for the U.S. and others is to try to "praise" Mubarak into saving his nation once again by turning over power to his subordinates, calling for an assembly to fix the worst parts of the present constitution, and holding supervised elections in, say, three months' time. To my friends in the talkocracy, I have to say that trying this approach is far better than pretending that the protestocracy can somehow magically transform itself into a democratic government. They have no organized political parties and, alas, no experience with governing.
As for the long list of gargoyles to be encountered during this process, I've already disgorged myself about the MB. They promise democracy and nonviolence at home and not to Islamicize Egypt. Given their long history, it's simply naïve to take them at their word. And I'll bet most Egyptians are even more worried about the MB than the American talkocracy.
The other potential threat to democracy, the Egyptian military, is almost always forgotten. Right now they're seen as saviors, the keepers of peace, the ones who will preserve the future democracy. But their history is one of supporting dictators. The present corps of generals are all Mubarak men. The colonels could be anything, including secret members of the MB and plotters for future dictatorships. Just as there are groups within groups within the MB, so it is with the armed forces. It's important that Egyptians and Americans don't close their eyes to these risks.
As for Obama's performance, it has been more wanting than helpful. As I've written many times, the U.S. has no power to shape events in Egypt, but it does have real influence. Using that influence effectively absolutely requires consistency out of the White House. That has not been forthcoming.
Obama has consistently upheld the universal rights of free speech and protest, acknowledged legitimate grievances, and called for peaceful change. That's all fine.
But here's the gist of the administration's rhetorical roller coaster since the crisis began: They started out saying that Mubarak's regime was "stable," they proclaimed Egypt a "close and important ally," suggesting the need to support Mubarak, and added that he was not a "dictator." Then they threatened to review the billion-dollar U.S. aid package to Egypt, a real body blow to Mubarak and the military. After Mubarak said he would not run for reelection in September, they called for an "orderly transition." As protests continued, they called for Mubarak to begin the transition "now." In sum, they danced to and fro during the first several days and then increasingly hardened their position against Mubarak even as they were privately trying to get him to participate in his own political demise.
The only statement that made complete sense throughout this roller-coaster process was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's on Sunday: "It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy." That's the heart of the matter, and that's all the administration should have been saying publicly along with a line like, "And, of course, we stand ready to help Egyptians as and when they call upon us to do so."
One should focus sharply on Mrs. Clinton's wise words last Sunday—that is, our goal should be a real democracy, not a fake one. I'm accused all the time now of favoring an illusory stability for Egypt, but I think my critics are doing their best to encourage Egypt and the protestocracy to accept an illusory democracy. Let's hope the Obama administration can cajole Mubarak toward a peaceful and orderly transition and that Egyptian elites and protesters will be mindful of the threats lurking just beneath the surface. For if we, and far more important they, are not on their guard, we shall all be very sorry.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.