The video phones are ringing off the hook. Crumbling and nervous allies, observing foreign governments, journalists, activists, maybe an opposition figure or two. All wanting to know how the White House will respond to the revolutionary furor sweeping the Middle East - all wanting to know what President Barack Obama will do next.
But what can he do?
As Tunisia’s revolutionary fire spread from Cairo to Egypt’s periphery, the U.S. media began to reflect an uncharacteristically harsh light back upon the White House. With Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pleas falling on deaf ears and Egyptian security forces multiplying by the day, news organizations were left with nothing to print except the truth. Sinking into the same historical quicksand as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reports starting labeling the Obama administration as “surprised,” “overwhelmed,” and “trying to catch up” to Tunisia’s chain reaction.
The descriptions fit. A novice in foreign affairs and seemingly afraid to get dirty, Obama has relied on Clinton to do most of his talking. Experience has finally assumed a dominate role, and Obama is reportedly leaning hard on his stable of advisers to handle the massive flow of information. Though he needs a couple dozen heads to track the region’s quakes, a lack of executive decision-making has slowed the White House’s response time during a pivotal moment in world history - and Obama’s presidency.
These factors, however, shape the mold of the real handcuffs limiting America's reaction. Even a mind perceiving the deepest nature of the Middle East’s upheaval would, when dumped with the collective failure of U.S. policy, find the challenge impossible to solve overnight. He or she must summon their full imagination and unconventionally extract America from its position “on the wrong side of history.” Unfortunately Washington’s dilemma is strategic in nature and rooted in decades of shaky policy, and thus faces the prospect of having no solution.
"There's no easy answer," Clinton admitted on CNN's "State of the Union.”
America’s paradox can be expressed in a simple syllogism. To contain Islamic elements hostile to the U.S. or Israel, it became necessary to prop up those regimes that could exert relative control of their territory. This arrangement of convenience often inflames tensions between the government and opposition groups; popular movements are quelled at the expense of long-term stability, as militant groups thrive on the unequal status quo.
al-Qaeda’s ideology bases itself on overthrowing morally-bankrupt Western puppets.
Counterinsurgency lives or dies by its message - in word, deed, and impression - and America has long contradicted its message of freedom and democracy through support for unpopular or unlawful regimes. Now, as legitimate revolutionary protests spread across the Middle East, Washington must weigh the risks of bankrupting its ideals against an Islamic uprising that intentionally or unintentionally empowers its enemies. This fatal contradiction poses the main strategic dilemma in America’s war against al-Qaeda, and the White House knows it.
One former Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Oval Office, "recognized that change was coming and they needed to be on the right side of history and not try to keep Mubarak in power against all odds. It's a very difficult balance to be struck... The administration understand this. But the most important thing they understand is that they have to get in front of this and not behind it.''
Yet this reasoning has left U.S. officials to overly spin the situation. Portraying Obama as active and attune with movements on the streets, the White House even released a statement saying that he received "multiple updates," and that he was currently on the phone with foreign leaders. Clinton bombarded Sunday news programs with a warm but stern message to both Mubarak and protesters, urging them to work together and move forward.
Beyond neutralizing the crisis, these efforts were designed to stem criticism that the White House has over-focused on the perception of its response, neglecting the response itself.
"The events in Egypt as well as in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria should spark a broader rethink in America's approach to the entire region," says Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "Currently, the Obama administration is largely stuck in a reactive and tactical crisis management mode on many key fronts.”
Obama and Clinton are now floating a “peaceful transition” in Egypt to appease both sides, calling on the Mubarak regime to negotiate and for protesters to refrain from violence. For all the reasons above, the White House continues to toe the line hoping it can prevent outright revolution. Seeking a transition through the chaos, not a transition of the Mubarak government, some officials believe it wise to, "stay on the sidelines and keep American fingerprints off too much support of the regime on one hand and too much support for protesters on the other."
But negotiations and lineage are unlikely to yield permanent stability, and maintaining the region’s equilibrium contradicts the realization that the Middle East is metamorphosing. At some point, sooner than later, the White House may well be forced to pick a side: the government or popular movement attempting to replace it. The middle of the road ultimately reflects indecision, not pragmatism or wisdom, and is where people get run over.
Washington must take a decisive stand to break out of its strategic dilemma. Mohamed ElBaradi, Egypt’s highest-profile opposition figure, countered in his own series of interviews to CBS and ABC, "It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, 'It's time for you to go.’”
And to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “People need to see that you not only talk the talk, but walk the walk... To say we have a tight rope - between the people and the dictator - to say that we are asking a dictator who's been in power for 30 years to implement democracy is an oxymoron, frankly.”
So what can Obama and Clinton do right now to improve the situations in Egypt and Yemen, Algeria and Jordan? Any strategy must operate on multiple levels. If the choice ultimately comes down to governments or populaces, then America must let the dust settle wherever the people cast it. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes into power, so be it. As in Hezbollah and Muqtada al-Sadr’s cases, the Brotherhood isn’t about to attack U.S. or Israeli targets after securing political power.
With the group in her sights, Clinton claimed that she wanted to see “real democracy... not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or a so-called democracy that then leads to what we saw in Iran." In fact, the Brotherhood has taken a conscious back-seat in Egypt’s revolution, and their main “threat” appears to be increased support for the Palestinians. Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group’s retired leader, explained, "This is on purpose. We want to be part of the fabric of society. If we had led, they would have massacred us. All we want is freedom for all the people. Freedom would give us space for movement."
"They are no way extremists,” ElBaradei told ABC's "This Week" program. “They are no way using violence. This is what the regime... sold to the West and to the US: 'It's either us, repression or al Qaeda-type Islamists.’”
Exactly America’s strategic dilemma - and the means to escape is by rejecting fear.
This strategy does become more difficult in Yemen. To blanket opposition movements as Islamists is politically and morally reckless, yet there’s no doubt that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula eagerly awaits a situation similar to Egypt’s. AQAP doesn’t even need a power vacuum to thrive; a temporary raid on a military base could stock the group, which has shown itself adept at living off the enemy. As a smaller cadre AQAP can’t afford many suicide bombings, and instead employs ambushes to overwhelm and loot Yemeni security forces. Last week a payroll convoy was stolen.
After watching Egyptian inmates break out into the chaos, AQAP could use the growing protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh to strike an armory or financial institution.
In general, the war against AQAP will suffer so long as Saleh must focus his energy on political survival. Washington has few options since Saleh poses the same problem as Mubarak. Recently ordering his General People’s Congress (GPC) to set about eliminating his term limit, which expires in 2013, Clinton was forced to urge a dialogue after Yemen’s opposition threatened to boycott April’s parliamentary election. But repeated references to “unity” indicate that America doesn’t want to see a divided Yemen, despite some of the deepest resentment emanating from the secessionist Southern Movement.
Now, just as Washington is trying to ramp up operations in Yemen, Obama must choose between the unpopular Saleh - and the wrong side of the future - or Yemen’s opposition and the risk of AQAP’s expansion.
Any solution requires a persistent grind and continual emphasis on non-military operations. Although $300 million in aid is marked for 2011, supposedly split between military and non-military aid, reports have $250 million going to military support. Non-military aid should greatly exceed military assistance to prove the sincerity of America’s concern for the Yemeni people. AQAP tries to avoid killing civilians, non-Houthis anyway, and busies itself supplying food, medicine, and wells for local tribes.
America has to consistently beat this message over time.
At the macro-level, it seems too obvious that Obama must redouble (or triple) his efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Clinton has spent a good deal of air-time spinning Arab revolt into an example of why America advocates a permanent peace. Yet negotiating in Israel’s favor, the present breakdown with the Palestinians, and now the infamous Palestine Papers magnifies America’s favoritism and ineptitude on an international level. A policy reversal won’t address the grievances of each regional crisis, but one must assume a general improvement in U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
Unfortunately Egypt, Yemen, and other hot-spots appear to have further distracted the White House from conflict-resolution. Though America’s support for Israel remains a main source of negativity, protecting it from the fallout has introduced another check on Washington’s decision-making. The White House and Congress must realize that the best way to protect Israel is an equitable two-state solution, complete with a divided Jerusalem that Obama should personally split.
Becoming distracted from the peace process during such a critical moment leads into a death spiral.
With Washington lagging far behind the revolutionary train that left Tunisia and panting to catch up, the Obama administration has no time for an Afghanistan-like review or Palestinian collapse. Events in the Middle East call for rapid, unconventional thinking and decisive action. Only drastic measures will jump America to the right side of history.
Being the tortoise doesn’t work after starting off as the hare.