Frank Rich on the National Circus: Obama Looks Lost in Egypt for a Reason

Egyptian protesters throw stones towards riot police during clashes near the US embassy in Cairo on September 13, 2012. Police used tear gas as they clashed with a crowd protesting outside the US embassy in Cairo against a film mocking Islam.
Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/Getty Images/AFP

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Obama remains on the sidelines in Egypt, Eliot Spitzer makes a surprising comeback, and Rick Perry steps aside — for now.

President Obama has been criticized by both the left and the right for inaction amid the continuing upheaval in Egypt. His predecessor, of course, will forever be remembered for his active (and largely disastrous) intervention in the Middle East. Has Obama overlearned the lessons of the Bush administration? Or is his hands-off approach (Libya excepted) the most sensible way to pursue foreign policy in the post–Arab Spring era?
If there is a sensible, one-size-fits-all approach to foreign policy in the Middle East in 2013, no one in either party or the White House or the punditry has proposed it. It’s easy to criticize Obama for sending mixed signals, and in Egypt that included the embarrassing spectacle of the White House’s Hamlet-like vacillation as both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes crumbled. But the administration can only be faulted for “inaction” if you have a clear definition of what “action” might be. This morning in the Times, for instance, Tom Friedman proposed that Egypt find a “moderate path” to save itself — rather the same prescription he offered for America in its last election cycle — and while that is without doubt the perfect solution, it’s a wish, not an action plan. John McCain, the last active foreign-policy voice in the Republican Party, has called for America to suspend our $1.5 billion aid to Egypt, a pointless gesture that would only diminish whatever tiny leverage we have there. (Our aid package is dwarfed by the billions Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now pouring into the post-Morsi order, or chaos.) Whatever lessons President Obama has learned or not from the Bush administration, the country took away at least a couple, possibly for a generation: (1) Don’t trust the entire bipartisan political-foreign policy-intelligence-punditry Establishment that pushed the war in Iraq; and (2) don’t put American boots on the ground to build democracy in the Middle East. And so even Republicans (McCain and the neocons aside) have joined Democrats in trending toward isolationism. I find it hard to see what any post-Bush president can accomplish in the region without the country behind him or her, and neither Obama nor any of his likely Republican successors seem inclined to make a case for any serious intervention.

Eliot Spitzer, former scourge of Wall Street, former New York governor, former Client 9, leapt back into politics this weekend, announcing he would run for New York City comptroller. Should we applaud Spitzer’s comeback? And does it surprise you that a former governor (albeit a disgraced one) would choose a relatively humble office as the vehicle of his hoped-for electoral redemption?
Anyone who cares about having an uninterrupted supply of fresh American comedy during the summer dog days should applaud Spitzer’s comeback. The Weiner jokes were getting, as the tabloids would have it, limp. There are things to admire about Spitzer, including his ability to drive Wall Street insane, but how he would accomplish any political goals he actually cares about as comptroller of New York City is a mystery. It’s not even clear he is going to succeed in gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot at this late date, so we should probably hold off judging the substance of his campaign until there is a campaign and some substance. In the short term, my own personal hope is that Ashley Dupre, the prostitute at the center of the Client 9 scandal, will now resume the column she was given by the New York Post as a reward for helping to bring him down.

Comprehensive immigration reform passed the Senate last month. Now it’s the House’s turn. There’s little doubt that any bill that emerges from the GOP-controlled chamber will include major compromises (if one emerges at all). Chuck Schumer said that without a path to citizenship, the bill shouldn’t pass. How much will Democrats have to bend on this? And how much should they?
I have been convinced for some weeks that immigration reform will be killed by Republicans in the House, and that all the “will they or won’t they?” drama being whipped up by the Washington press is an effort to keep suspense, if not hope, alive, much in the way we were asked to believe post-Newtown that some gun-control measures had a serious chance of getting through Congress when it was clear from the get-go that even background checks were a nonstarter. On the immigration bill, the only concession the Democrats can make to placate the GOP base is to eliminate a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and of course they can’t bend on that. That’s the whole point of the exercise. So it’s not happening. Today John Boehner is holding a meeting of his caucus to figure out what to do, but immigration reform is a death foretold. “Kill the Bill” is the headline of William Kristol and Rich Lowry’s Weekly Standard editorial calling for exactly that this week. The moneyed party Establishment — the Chamber of Commerce, the Koch Brothers, all the Bushes and Bushies, the Wall Street Journal editorial page — is begging for the House to sign on rather than risk (as the Journal put it this morning) “political disaster” in national elections. But most of this same Establishment either supported the tea-party movement or gave it a pass, and now they will have to pay the price: The only action on immigration these radicals want is billions more in border patrols and fences.   

One of the most pro-immigrant Republicans in last year’s presidential field, Texas governor Rick Perry, announced on Monday that he won’t seek reelection, stirring speculation of another national run. Perry had an embarrassing turn in the 2012 primaries. Any reason to suspect he’ll fare better in 2016?
Rick Perry’s final political act as Texas governor seems to be to make sure he leaves office as his party’s foremost advocate of absolutist opposition to abortion rights: the guy who can and will slay the likes of Wendy Davis. And prohibiting abortion is once again becoming a top-tier cause for the national Republican Party in almost every region of the country. So much so that Marco Rubio is threatening to introduce a draconian, Perry-esque anti-abortion bill in the Senate — almost as if to make sure that Perry doesn’t get to the right of him on the issue should they face off in a 2016 presidential run. It’s preposterous to speculate now on how any presidential candidate, real or imagined, will fare in that election. But I do think we’re learning that the GOP, having been united by anti-Obama animus but little else in the post-Bush era, is capable of all sorts of surprises as it searches for a political direction when Obama is no longer on the ballot. And given that the Democrats have only a shallow and aging bench of presidential hopefuls, you cannot rule out any scenario. 

Frank Rich: Obama Lost in Egypt for a Reason