Despite fits and starts, Obama threaded the needle on Egypt

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 11, 2011 

WASHINGTON — He often appeared one step behind events. He changed his message. He appeared to be flying blind at times. And he still has a long way to go before knowing how Egypt will turn out.

But President Barack Obama is getting good marks from experts for his response to the first major foreign crisis of his presidency, the popular uprising in Egypt that led to President Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down and leave Cairo Friday.

Analysts said he managed to navigate through two competing U.S. interests — the yearning for democracy among the people in the streets of Cairo, and the need to stand by — or at least not be too quick to dump — an ally, lest it foment instability in a vital and dangerous region.

"They have done relatively well," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank.

The first key to analyzing Obama's performance, he and others said, is recognizing that Obama didn't have the power to stop the popular movement against Mubarak once it was unleashed, led by young people and fed by Facebook and Twitter.

Nor did Obama have much power to force Mubarak to abdicate — as suggested when Mubarak on Thursday backed off the expected announcement that he'd step down.

"There are many people who wanted the president to wave a magic wand," Cordesman said. "But the fact is, we haven't got the wand and certainly don't have the magic."

Another central fact is that Obama didn't have clear intelligence on what was happening inside the Egyptian government, particularly in the last several days.

As events built toward a crescendo Thursday, CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress that there was a "high likelihood" that Mubarak would be gone by Thursday night. He wasn't.

Meanwhile, Obama watched event unfold on TV in the conference room of Air Force One en route to a previously scheduled event in Michigan on Thursday. "We are in contact with our embassy, obviously, in Cairo. We are watching the reports that you are," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. "I do not know what the outcome of what is happening today will be."

Nobody did — but it's somehow jarring to some to hear the White House admit it.

Indeed, Mubarak did not resign as expected. "I think everyone was surprised a bit," Gibbs acknowledged Friday.

Surprised when Mubarak didn't resign, Obama huddled with his top national security aides for almost four hours, then issued his strongest statement of the crisis, leaning hard on Mubarak.

"The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy," Obama's statement said. "And they have not yet seized that opportunity."

He didn't start that forcefully.

When Egyptians took to the streets in January to protest Mubarak's dictatorial rule, Obama and his administration at first leaned toward supporting a friend who had maintained peace with Israel and been an ally in the fight against al Qaida terrorists. Vice President Joe Biden, in a PBS interview as the crisis erupted, pointedly declined to call Mubarak a dictator.

In following days, Obama's White House declined to criticize Mubarak directly, but urged the Egyptian government and its army to refrain from violence against the people.

Advocates of human rights complained that Obama was too timid, urging him to side with democracy.

He did. When Egyptian authorities arrested journalists, he urged that they be freed. When pro-Mubarak forces in plain clothes roughed up demonstrators, he urged restraint.

But he did not urge Mubarak to step down.

One fear was that public calls from the U.S. president for Mubarak to resign would be seen as meddling that might prod Mubarak to tighten his grip on power. Indeed, when Mubarak spoke to his nation Thursday night, and put off his expected resignation, he criticized foreign interference.

Another fear was that overt pressure on him to resign would send a signal to other autocratic allies in the region that the United States would be quick to abandon them, too. Obama spoke personally this week to Saudi King Abdullah.

"The U.S. was hearing from many parts of the Arab world, 'What are you doing?' Friendly governments were saying, 'Why are you throwing Mr. Mubarak overboard? What kind of friend are you?''' said Robert Danin, a former Middle East representative for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The result was a White House message that evolved over time, moving more toward siding with the demonstrators and against Mubarak, albeit in fits and starts.

Gibbs said that Obama and the White House were mindful of "a lot of different audiences" each time the president or his aides spoke.

"They were in crisis management mode and modulating their message to meet the events of the hour," said Danin.

Human rights activists were less understanding.

"From the beginning, they were not clear. They were wavering back and forth," said T. Kumar, director of the Asia & Pacific program at Amnesty International USA.

He liked Obama's remarks pressing Mubarak Thursday night, but said it came late. "The message yesterday should have been delivered two weeks ago," Kumar said.

National security analysts dispute that.

"People all wanted them to get out front," said Cordesman. "But getting out in front before you knew what happened might have meant pushing the power structure into staying. The risk of that was very clear from Mubarak's speech."

(Margaret Talev contributed)

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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