Obama walks delicate line with Egypt crisis

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 4, 2011 

WASHINGTON — For President Barack Obama, the crisis in Egypt presents two sometimes contradictory challenges:

How to intervene into another country's business in a way that protects or advances U.S. global interests, or, at minimum, doesn't make the situation worse.

And how to act in a way that also sits well with U.S. voters, who aren't all steeped in the nuances of diplomacy, and who want to see that their president can take command of a global crisis and hear him champion U.S. values.

The prevailing view of U.S. foreign policy experts is that Obama and his team were slow to see the popular uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak coming and to grasp its intensity, but they've done a pretty good job of adjusting their private diplomacy and public statements since the protests broke out on Jan. 25.

"Essentially, he's gotten it right," said Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center, and a former deputy secretary of state under President Clinton. "If they had been softer, it would look as if they were encouraging Mubarak to stay in there. If they were harder, to say 'he's finished, he's got to get out,' it would have made it look that yet again the United States is trying to run things."

As the protests sprouted, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first said that Egypt's government was "stable," but the White House quickly pivoted to demand that Mubarak respond to his people's demands, then that he begin an "orderly transition," and finally that the transition "begin now."

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who helped manage a chaotic world when the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated, said in an interview on the Council on Foreign Relations' website that Obama has responded "reasonably well."

The Egypt crisis is "a textbook example of why it's hard to conduct foreign policy," Baker said, because it presents a clash of U.S. interests between holding onto a stable Middle Eastern ally who's also a dictator, or championing American democratic values at his expense.

However, some think that Obama has rebounded too aggressively in recent days, and that in using words such as "now" and "must" to call publicly for a transition of power in Egypt, he may have been counterproductive.

"My feeling on this is that the communication has been a little bit heavy handed, made the situation worse in Egypt without advancing either democracy or stability," said Clark S. Judge, managing director of the White House Writers Group and a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.

"Mr. Obama said 'now,' and that was taken by Mubarak as President Obama telling him what to do."

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the White House national security adviser during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, echoed Baker, saying in an interview Friday that Obama has responded "reasonably well."

Brzezinski said it was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs who overemphasized the import of the word "now" in his own comments. "This requires in Egypt a serious political process that cannot be created overnight," Brzezinski said.

However, he said that Obama may have gone too far in saying the transition "must" begin now; Brzezinski would have preferred "should."

Speaking Friday, Obama adjusted his rhetoric to say the transition "needs" to begin now.

This level of word-splitting among experts shows just how perilous it can be for a U.S. president to weigh in at all. Said Brzezinski: "It's much easier to mess up the situation than to shape it constructively."

A messy foreign crisis can wound a president politically back home. President Jimmy Carter suffered political damage from the way the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, and from the protracted hostage crisis that followed.

Reagan, in contrast, more successfully navigated the 1986 ouster of Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos, and famously struck a popular chord with his 1987 "Tear down this wall" speech in Berlin. A public uprising tore it down in 1989.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek said that even if Obama's priority is on getting his response right for its impact internationally, he also must consider how it's seen back home ahead of the 2012 election: "Domestic politics are a big part of this, how it's going to register on Americans."

In the end, though, Dallek said that whether U.S. presidents are helped or hurt by their responses to foreign crises probably has more to do with the outcome of the crises than the role the president played.

"The guy's in an impossible situation. You can't control events there, obviously. It's beyond his capacity to control what goes on either with the people in the streets or the Egyptian government. We only have a certain amount of clout.

"If it plays out that Mubarak goes and you have a government that's friendly to the West, friendly to the United States, people are probably going to say, 'Well, Obama handled this quite well,'" Dallek said. "So in that sense he's either going to get blame or praise depending on what happens, and we don't know what's going to happen. This is a story in progress."

So why bother?

"The message I think he wants Mubarak to hear is, 'Respect and accede to the legitimate aspirations of Egyptian people for a bigger say in their government," said G. Philip Hughes, a former ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean and the former chief of staff of the National Security Council.

"What I think he wants the American public to hear is, 'We are on the job, handling this in a competent, responsible way that's mindful of American interests.'"

Some of the anti-Mubarak protesters felt Obama was too supportive of Mubarak early on, and are frustrated that he hasn't publicly demanded Mubarak's immediate departure. Mubarak, meanwhile, told ABC News there'd be "chaos" if he left now and that Obama doesn't understand the Egyptian culture. Some other leaders in the region worry that Obama's rhetorical shift toward the protesters over the past week also could leave them vulnerable.

"No one can steer a tornado as far as I know, and the forces that have been unleashed in Egypt have reached the characteristics of a tornado," Hughes said.

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)

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