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.
Such tightrope-walking is the very stuff of high-stakes diplomacy, and by the lights of an assortment of masters of the art, including Baker and Henry Kissinger, Obama and his team enacted it with considerable skill. Despite the yapping of some on the nuthouse right, who are already developing a precooked narrative that Obama should be blamed for “losing Egypt” when it inevitably becomes a radicalized Islamist state, the vast majority of mainstream Republicans also supported Obama’s maneuvers.
That Obama would earn bi-partisan support in his handling of his first major foreign crisis is not as surprising as it might seem. To the consternation of some on the left, his handling of national-security matters over the past two years has been firmly rooted in the centrist-realist Establishment consensus from which almost all of his foreign-policy team hails. From Clinton to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the new national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, these are hardheaded people with a deep understanding of Realpolitik and a commitment to long-range thinking. In the case of Egypt, that has meant an abiding concern for what comes next: in terms of Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism, on access to the Suez Canal, on standing fast against Iran. Perhaps most of all—if perhaps less than the panicked members of the Israeli political class—they are worried about what a new, probably less secular, Egyptian government will mean for the Holy Land.
With all this in mind, the swift departure of Mubarak of his own accord, followed by an orderly transition to a reformed democratic system, would have been the ideal scenario, one in which America would have applied—and would have been seen to have applied—only the lightest touch. But it was not to be. With Mubarak’s refusal to go gently into that good night compounded by his decision to unleash his goon squads, Obama’s hand was forced. Thus the open break with Cairo in the middle of last week. And thus the news on Thursday that the Obama administration was pushing a proposal whereby Mubarak would step down posthaste and be replaced by a transitional government headed by Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military.
In the meantime, to be sure, the damage inflicted by Mubarak’s crackdown was severe—and it raised the question of whether swifter and more forceful action by Obama might have been in order. Yet the truth is that the pace of progress in Egypt has been remarkable. Within eleven days of the start of the uprising, the pressure from the street in combination with the pressure from Washington yielded an array of concessions that a month ago would have been unthinkable: Mubarak agreeing not to run for reelection; the forswearing of the notion that his son, Gamal, long seen as his chosen heir apparent, would succeed him; the call by Suleiman for an open dialogue with the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains officially banned. It is hard to imagine that any of this could have come much more quickly than it did.
And certainly not because of anything that Obama could have said or done. As David Ignatius wrote last week in the Washington Post, “Washington debate about the new Arab revolt tends to focus on the U.S. role: Has President Obama blundered by not forcing Mubarak out sooner? Should America abandon other oligarchs before it’s too late? But this isn’t about us. If Washington … can help broker a stable transition to new elections, so much the better. But Egyptians don’t need America to chart their course.”
Don’t need—and don’t want. No doubt some of the protesters in Tahrir Square pined for a clear sign that Obama was on their side. And no doubt many will be grateful if Obama and his people help to speed Mubarak’s exit. But the power of what is taking place in Egypt—and in Tunisia and, maybe soon, elsewhere—is that it is a local, organic, bottom-up phenomenon in which the United States has not loomed large. It really is not about us. And nor is the hard work that lies ahead, work much harder than the removal of a despot, the work of building a functioning democracy. Obama’s handling of the crisis suggests that he understands this. Here’s hoping that the aftermath of the crisis proves it definitively.