This should have been his defining moment. The world’s stage, in fact, couldn’t have been scripted better. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised U.S.-supported dictators of a perfect storm, President Barack Obama was sailing straight into one of his own. The Middle East's clouds had naturally parted for the transformative democracy that George Bush attempted to impose by force.
Tahrir Square offered the chance to empower global change from the bottom up - and reconnect the West to the Muslim world in the process.
“There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place,” Obama began his address shortly after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. “This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
Good thing they didn’t listen to him, or else Egypt stood a good chance of staying the same.
How time flies during a revolution. Not about to be conned by anyone after 30 years of propaganda, Egyptian protesters barely paused when reports first surfaced of the White House’s conception of democracy: “order” and “stability.” To think, after watching Friday’s mass euphoria, that only days ago the White House threw these words behind former Vice President Omar Suleiman. While conservative quarters in America attack Obama for “supporting the Muslim Brotherhood,” the truth is that his administration backed their enemy.
A plot revealed weeks ago, first in the international media and later through a series of WikiLeaks, U.S. and Israeli contingencies called for a Suleiman transition in the event of Mubarak's sudden departure.
If the protesters had ever listened to the White House during 18 days of struggle, they would have been stuck with the Israeli hot-lined, CIA torture chief who advocated "hungry" Gazans. Through Friday morning the White House still seemed O.K. with Suleiman’s transition, as it worked the phones to clarify just how much power Mubarak had transferred to him. Vice President Joe Biden released updates from his discussions with Suleiman, attempting to project an air of confidence and control. Suleiman also enjoyed support from Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
But Egyptians held their ground and refused any powers conferred upon Mubarak II. Under popular pressure and anxious of its own survival, the military’s “communique number 1" interrupted Mubarak’s finals hours and the U.S.-Israeli plot to replace him with a drone. Suleiman appeared grim as he finished Mubarak’s dirty work, his own power evaporating into the jubilant Egyptian night.
Both were cast out, a unilateral rejection of U.S. policy in Egypt.
In the end Obama still couldn’t bring himself to say the magic word: "leave, leave, leave." As former president Hosni Mubarak couldn’t bear to resign of his own accord, instead delegating the announcement to a sulking Suleiman, so too could Obama never take the final step. Failing to explicitly declare himself on the side of Egyptian protesters, Obama released his “strongest response yet” after Mubarak failed to resign on Thursday. True only because his prior statements were so weak, Obama must have cursed himself for prematurely jumping on the right side of history - once more landing him on the wrong side.
The conspicuous absence of Obama’s cabinet after Mubarak’s fall spoke volumes of his self-reflection. This wasn’t just a presidential moment unfit for Secretaries, but a deliberate attempt to make up for 18 days of ambiguity. An overt admission that he hadn’t supported the protesters enough. Egyptians ultimately freed themselves from the Hosni Mubarak regime and changed their destinies despite Obama.
Not because of him.
Although he may have escaped being run over by a popular uprising, Obama came dangerously close for someone of his professed ideals. One could easily forget that he owns a Nobel Prize after his administration initially sided with Mubarak ("not a dictator"), only for its message to crumble along with him. Consulting Israeli officials every step of the way, Obama processed America's response through an Israeli lens until Mubarak resigned. His manipulable policy and typical, middle-of-the-road strategy almost derailed Egypt's revolution, if such a thing were possible.
No force, neither Saudi oil, U.S.-Israeli defense pacts or a brutal police force could stop millions of Egyptian protesters. Thus Obama's response cost him everything and bought him nothing.
While Israel faced the same strategic dilemma on February 11th as on January 25th, Obama risked what was left of his credibility and left himself exhausted more than exuberant. Far from appearing celebratory as he sent Mubarak off into “history,” his stern tone drew from anger more than solemnness. At one meeting Obama was, “seething about coverage that made it look as if the administration were protecting a dictator and ignoring the pleas of the youths of Cairo.” He then, “made it clear that this was not the message we should be delivering.”
So why did he?
The official line, one parroted by the U.S. and international media, is that Obama had no choice in backing Mubarak and Suleiman. According to David Sanger, The New York Times’ Washington corespondent, Obama found himself, “often torn between idealism and pragmatism... navigating the counsel of a traditional foreign policy establishment led by Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, against that of a next-generation White House staff who worried that the American preoccupation with stability could put a historic president on the wrong side of history.”
This false choice led to a dead-end policy. Lost in their own world, Obama’s cabinet and stable of personal advisers held nothing more than an idealistic notion of U.S. empire - the arrogance and folly of believing they could channel Egypt's revolution into a personal candidate. And the U.S. media, pro-Israeli on the whole, attempted to clean their tracks.
“Pragmatist” became a codeword for Israeli, Saudi and Gulf interests.
Pragmatism, in fact, would have ridden the revolution and come out on top, repositioning America ahead of the curve. Realism cannot be defined as suppressing a popular revolution and installing Suleiman to protect political, military, and economic interests. Biden, Clinton, and Gates’s "traditional foreign policy" must be defined as something other than realism, given that Egyptians overthrew it. Vainly attempting to control or stop a revolution qualifies as an idealistic pipe dream.
Realism would have allowed the revolution to unfold naturally, confident that a functioning democracy will produce more stability than Mubarak’s autocratic regime. Obama has since latched onto the theory that a democratic transition would produce regional stability, not instability. If only he had done so on January 25th, before Egyptians grew furious with Washington’s mixed messages and fence-straddling. Many protesters expressed frustration at Obama and “hoped” that he learned his lesson.
“The White House shared those concerns,” Sanger and Helene Cooper write of Israeli interests, “but workers in the West Wing also worried that if Mr. Obama did not encourage the young people in the streets with forceful, even inspiring language, he would be accused of abandoning the ideals he expressed in his 2009 speech in Cairo.”
Aside from the fact that these accusations surfaced last year, why did Obama fly so close to the Sun? He's played the "policy rift" card before in Afghanistan and Israel, but “bad coverage” can’t excuse poor policy and indecision. He should have taken action if he disagreed with the White House's reaction. An inability to control his own office gives the distinct impression that Obama isn’t in control of the White House, ruled instead by the old guard.
Those wondering why Obama didn't connect with protesters should start here.
Fortunately for him all isn’t lost in Egypt, not yet anyway. America will remain an ally of the Egyptian people, but the latest loss of credibility requires a clear and expressed policy of supporting Egyptians. The opposition still desires U.S. support, only on their terms. The decades of suppressing Egyptians and Palestinians to favor the Israeli people must come to an end. No longer can such an heinous policy continue.
Obama will forever relive his handling of Egypt, but he must focus on seizing the next chance for regional empowerment. If he truly learned anything from Egypt’s revolution, Obama will apply this knowledge to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by negotiating a fair deal for the Palestinians. Standing silent during the Gaza war but vowing to push his peace process from “day one,” a reference to George Bush’s last minute Annapolis summit, Obama immediately staked out an unrealistic two-year deadline for a resolution.
Two years later with nothing to show, Obama’s policy has all too often shadowed Bush’s: limited talk and no action. Both of their “achievements” - declaring a Palestinian state and the illegality of Israeli settlements within Palestinian territory - are self evident. As direct talks once again stalled in September 2010, U.S. officials including Clinton held out hope for an agreement within one year. So did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007.
The present atmosphere between the Palestinians, Israelis, and White House isn’t poisonous so much as non-existent. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, recently resigned to widespread jokes that he doesn’t need a replacement before scheduled September elections. “What negotiations?” goes the thinking.
While the deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians played a negligible role in Egypt’s revolution, it also served to amplify U.S. and Israeli fears of Mubarak’s resignation, further impairing their out-of-touch response. More importantly for Obama, his inaction on the Palestinian front disappointed the Muslim world and placed him at a disadvantage for Egypt’s revolution. Cairo was perfect for recapturing Cairo, but instead Egypt's revolution engulfed any attempt to revive negotiations.
Now Obama must flip his miss into a second-chance opportunity.
Legitimate reasons exist to doubt Obama’s credibility amid Egypt’s aftermath, and he’ll prove his sincerity through a series of tests. Supporting or suppressing wider regime change in key states such as Algeria and Yemen, two corrupt states infected by al-Qaeda, is one. Shoveling copy-cat uprisings underground until they blow at a later date will recommit Egypt’s mistakes; continuing to manipulate the revolutionary spirit awakened in the Middle East will generate similar results.
Obama must also assume personal control in balancing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which includes substituting some Israeli boosters in the White House with Muslim intellectuals. He must stand up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As conservative fire rains upon him, he must personally convince Israelis that a fair two-state solution best serves the interests of all parties. Lopsided Israeli influence damages U.S. interests and obstructs regional peace.
The time demands impartial negotiations.
President Obama assumed office with the highest expectations on record: a two-state solution within two years and dreams of a new Middle East. Instead his pro-Israeli bias flushed two years down the drain, jeopardizing his regional vision. Luck wouldn’t begin to describe an agreement within the next two years, yet Obama shouldn’t presume a second term either. The conflict dominates millions of lives, leaving no time to waste - especially when he knocked Bush for waiting.
Though he blinked and missed a revolution in Egypt, Obama still retains the power to change the region in an instant. If the president controls his own office.