UPDATE: Apparently, we should praise Obama for doing the best he could with the poor hand he was dealt. Perhaps a valid argument, but we can’t be justifying America’s weak and confused stance on Egypt by pointing to thirty plus years of failed American policy, saying “Look, it could be worse!”
It is a rare occasion that I find myself disagreeing with Marc Lynch. Yet his latest post on the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt caught me by surprise; he devotes a good third of the piece praising the Obama administration for its work and implies that it was Obama that peacefully removed Mubarak. Obviously, Lynch does not believe that the credit to the Egyptian revolution should go only to Obama – and states as much (“There is no question that the first, second and third drivers of this Egyptian revolution were the Egyptian people”), but I have a hard time seeing why any should. Initially, Obama and his team completely misread the political situation (Clinton calling Egypt stable; Biden refusing the term dictator), though slowly caught up and called for an immediate transition. Presumably the Obama administration worked behind the scenes to convince Mubarak to retire, though did next to nothing publicly (here I agree that Obama perhaps was giving the perception of deferring to the Egyptian people.) From Lynch:
The Obama administration also deserves a great deal of credit, which it probably won’t receive. It understood immediately and intuitively that it should not attempt to lead a protest movement which had mobilized itself without American guidance, and consistently deferred to the Egyptian people. Despite the avalanche of criticism from protestors and pundits, in fact Obama and his key aides — including Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power and many others — backed the Egyptian protest movement far more quickly than anyone should have expected. Their steadily mounting pressure on the Mubarak regime took time to succeed, causing enormous heartburn along the way, but now can claim vindication. By working carefully and closely with the Egyptian military, it helped restrain the worst violence and prevent Tiananmen on the Tahrir — which, it is easy to forget today, could very easily have happened. No bombs, no shock and awe, no soaring declarations of American exceptionalism, and no taking credit for a tidal wave which was entirely of the making of the Egyptian people — just the steadily mounting public and private pressure on the top of the regime which was necessary for the protestors to succeed.
While it is true that Tiananmen Two was avoided, perhaps by behind-the-scenes work by Obama, Omar Suleiman is now in charge of the country and that is hardly any improvement from Mubarak. Publicly, the Obama administration backs the former spy chief to oversee major constitutional changes and to implement a functional democracy, which is a major blunder. The Egyptian revolution is not over; indeed, it has only entered a more critical phase. Without Mubarak, we will likely see fewer protesters pushing for change and a leader presumably disinclined to make the fundamental changes that are needed. American interests are at stake in this revolution, and the way in which the Obama administration handled this uprising made it clear that Washington has only one eye on its values (and the Egyptian people) while the other is firmly focused on American interests (which are at odds with the Egyptian people.)
Perhaps more frustrating was how Lynch ended his piece:
By the way, for those keeping score in the “peacefully removing Arab dictators” game, it’s now Obama 2, Bush 0. The administration has been subjected to an enormous amount of criticism over the last two weeks for its handling of Egypt, including by people inspired by or who worked on the previous administration’s Freedom Agenda. It was also attacked sharply from the left, by activists and academics who assumed that the administration was supporting Mubarak and didn’t want democratic change. In the end, Obama’s strategy worked. Perhaps this should earn it some praise, and even some benefit of the doubt going forward. And now, a day to celebrate before rolling up the sleeves for the hard work to come.
Certainly, the Egyptian revolution underlines the folly and hubris (not to mention hypocrisy) behind Bush’s Freedom Agenda, but shouldn’t the score keepers be giving the Egyptian people credit for this amazing turn of events. Little is really known about Obama’s work on Egypt – how much of a role did he have in pushing out Mubarak? – but come on Marc, giving Obama credit for overthrowing both Mubarak and Ben Ali is similar to giving Fox News credit for the massive media coverage of the events: it was there, but hardly the main actor.
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