Barack Obama was still luxuriating in the afterglow of his State of the Union address when he suddenly found himself blindsided by the first full-blown foreign-policy crisis of his presidency. The swelling, surging pro-democracy uprising in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, rocking Egypt to its core. The shocking downfall of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s staunchly pro-American and abominably autocratic president for the past three decades—and, until this week, presumably for life. The reverberations throughout the region, from Jordan to Yemen. And then the bloody, all-but-certainly Mubarak-sponsored crackdown on protesters and journalists alike.
At the time of this writing, on the afternoon of February 4, that crackdown seemed to have ended, however temporarily, with a vast throng once again filling Tahrir Square. And though Mubarak continued his desperate bid to cling to power for as long as possible, his departure was a foregone conclusion, the only question being its precise timing—and thus equally certain was the start of a new and uncertain future for Egypt and the dynamics of the Middle East.
Yet whatever the long-run implications of the insurrection, in the short run the episode has provided something we hadn’t seen before: a picture of Obama in the crucible, grappling with an unpredictable and unpredicted foreign imbroglio. And although that picture isn’t wildly at variance with earlier portraits of him, it is revealing nonetheless. It’s an image of a president who views foreign policy, as he does so much else, through the lens of pragmatism, not idealism or ideology. Of a president who is in some ways (and surprisingly) more sure-footed playing the inside game of old-school diplomacy than the outside game of grand public gestures. And who is striving to balance a modest conception of American influence, especially in the Middle East, with an awareness that, in the end, the U.S. still packs a throw weight rivaled by no other nation.
This combination of qualities has been for some a recipe for frustration. In the face of the raw exhilaration of the scene in Tahrir Square in the uprising’s first week, with thousands of peaceful demonstrators challenging the legitimacy of a corrupt and crapped-out regime, the expectation among many Obamaphiles was that the president would adopt a heroic stance, demanding Mubarak’s instant exit. Instead, his initial reaction was one of reflexive restraint. When the president reported on January 28 that he had spoken with Mubarak and urged him to undertake democratic reforms, the Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei dismissed Obama’s pronouncement: “To ask a dictator to implement democratic measures after 30 years in power is an oxymoron.”
The president’s people were well aware that his words were underwhelming, but argued that circumspection was, in fact, a virtue in these circumstances. “I think that every situation of this sort requires a thoughtful response,” the outgoing White House senior adviser David Axelrod told the Huffington Post. “You want to respond in a way that’s thoughtful and constructive, and sometimes with foreign policy, the most constructive answer isn’t necessarily the most visceral or satisfying.”
The trouble for Obama was that his posture was consistent with that of the rest of his administration, which in the first few days of the uprising seemed less guilty of thoughtfulness than of cluelessness or fecklessness. Critics pointed quickly to Hillary Clinton’s declaration, as the protests took off, that Mubarak’s government was “stable,” and to Joe Biden’s proclaiming to PBS’s Jim Lehrer that he would “not refer to [Mubarak] as a dictator.” Asked by Lehrer if it was time for the Egyptian president to go, Biden answered, “No. I think the time has come for [him] ... to be more responsive to some ... of the needs of the people out there.”
Certainly those statements seem embarrassing now, and certainly they reflected a serious underestimation of the uprising. But there was also a logic to them. From the outset of the crisis, Obama and his people were acutely aware of the signal they would be transmitting if they cut Mubarak—our most reliable ally in the Arab world for 30 years—loose precipitously. “It would have been terrible, in my view, if on the first day of this, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton had totally pulled the rug out from under [him],” said former secretary of State James Baker. “That would send a horrible message to other countries in the region about being allied with the United States.”
By the weekend of January 29 and 30, the administration had concluded that it would try to ease Mubarak out. And so began several days in which there was a fairly sharp divergence between the messages being conveyed in private—by Frank Wisner, the longtime diplomat dispatched to Cairo to meet with Egypt’s president in person; by various officials to the newly appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman; and by the Pentagon to the Egyptian military brass—and those being broadcast, including by Obama himself, for public consumption.