Friday, March 11, 2011

Obama and the Egyptian democratic movement: there's something to be said for caution

David Bromwich has followed the Obama Administration closely. And his analyses of Obama's style of leadership have struck me as being very perceptive.

In The Embarrassments of Empire: Washington Wonders What to Say about Arab Freedom TomDispatch 03/10/2011, he assesses the Administration's response so far to the dramatic wave of democratic protest in the Arab world in recent weeks, with particular reference to Egypt. These two paragraphs give a good sense of his take on the experience:

Throughout the 18 days of upheaval, Washington spoke of the need for an "orderly transition." President Obama and his advisers seemed to side with the Egyptian demonstrators vaguely and sentimentally, yet they never sought a connection with them, not even through a figure of international renown like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency who earned a Nobel peace prize in 2005. The U.S. took extreme care not to offend Mubarak. There was a period of perhaps three days after Obama dispatched Frank Wisner (a former ambassador and personal friend of Mubarak) as special envoy to consult with the dictator when the world was given to understand that America was planning the longest of farewells.

Such was the American response to an expression of popular will that had no precedent. For in the end, the protest swept up millions of demonstrators: by some estimates nearly a quarter of Egypt's population of 81 million, in a mass action whose exhilaration could be shared by all who watched. The crowd in Tahrir Square had none of the poisonous quality of a mob. Even the most respectable citizens -- doctors, lawyers, teachers, shopkeepers, women as well as men -- were drawn in little by little, visiting the demonstrations after work, throwing in their lot, and finally staying overnight in the square.
I'm not actually so inclined to criticize the Administration for their cautious response to the unrest in Egypt. The United States needs to be able to deal with regimes in power, even nasty ones. Thirty years of no diplomatic relations with Iran and half a century of none with Cuba don't seem to have produced any sterling results. Egypt's peace treaty with Israel didn't lead to a solution of the Palestinian problem. But it has preserved peace between Israel and Egypt for three decades. And that in itself is a benefit to the United States, even if primarily in a secondary way through our close relationship with Israel.

Revolutions are unpredictable. And the outcome in Egypt is still unknown. Any overt identification of the US with the opposition could well have done them more harm than good. Bromwich implicitly criticizes Obama for not being more forceful in pushing Obama out. When we someday know more about the details than we do now, I may agree. But based on what I've heard so far, I'm inclined to think restraint was appropriate when it comes to ordering a friendly government to step down because street demonstrations had suddenly made his regime look shaky.

Once the United States makes itself that much of a direct player in an internal conflict in another country, the consequences can be tricky. Bromwich writes:

Right to the end, Obama limited himself to comforting generalities whose practical significance was obscure. On day 13, for example, he allowed that Egypt was "not going to go back to what it was." Meanwhile, the administration that went on the record in favor of "real, concrete" reforms never named one.
It wasn't "Ich bin ein Berliner" drama. But sometimes diplomatic hot air is the thing the moment requires.

Bromwich indulges in some speculation that runs ahead of available facts in guessing what kind of private assurances Obama was giving to Egyptian President Mubarak. His reasoning is interesting. But the speculation seems a real reach. But the perspective from which he starts on it is based on his observations of Obama's style:

To say it another way, Obama visibly hates crisis. He is so averse to the very idea of instability that he seems unable to use a crisis to his advantage. Seldom, to judge by the evidence thus far, is he the first, second, or third person in the room to recognize that a state of crisis exists. The hesitation that looked like apathy and the hyper-managerial tone of his response to the BP oil spill offered a vivid illustration of this trait. Egypt brought out the same pattern. [my emphasis]
Bromwich has been a careful observer of this Administration. And what he has to say on the topic is consistently worth reading. Even if in this case he let speculation run away with him a bit.

Bromwich also spends some time on the Raymond Davis incident that has caused a ruckus in US relations to Pakistan. It's kind of awkwardly tacked on to the discussion of Egypt. But this is a memorable comment:

In obeying a White House request to keep them out of the American press, the Times (along with the Washington Post and Associated Press) was protecting not Davis himself but a government definition of "tact," while fostering the ignorance of American citizens about the actions of our own government. The protocol of the press under imperial rules -- as the British discovered in the Boer War and Americans have come to know in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- is simple and endlessly repeatable: power comes before truth except in cases where the truth is conspicuous. [my emphasis]
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