February 15, 2011

Obama Passes the Revolutionary Buck

Today was a day for answers. Hearing enough of himself and his policies tossed around in the media, a smiling, loose President Barack Obama descended upon the South Court Auditorium to brief the press. Effortlessly moving between fiscal responsibility and health-care, Obama portrayed the confidence of someone who would bet his life on his policy.

He even insisted that the White House was “on the right side of history” in Egypt “at every juncture.” Unfortunately no reporter asked the crucial follow-up: “Do you possess an aversion to blame, or are you simply delusional?”

One needn’t look far to find an Egyptian dismayed by Obama’s handling of their revolution. Popping up on every media channel and social site, Egyptians saved their anger for the Mubarak regime as they adopted a parental disappointment in Obama. Jaded by false promises of Cairo, Egyptians held out hope that Obama would ultimately choose their freedom over Mubarak’s totalitarian machine. They knew that Egypt still needed America’s support.

Thus came the final expression that they hoped Obama “learned his lesson.”

This impression, however, is hard to find in his latest remarks. Unsatisfied with a basic defense of his crisis management during the 18-day standoff, Obama offered no indication of regret for a policy that he clearly sees a need to defend (along with Clinton). On the contrary, Obama argued to reporters who asked just the question, his "3AM" response was as good as it gets.

“What we didn't do was pretend that we could dictate the outcome in Egypt, because we can’t,” Obama told reporters... “So we were very mindful that it was important for this to remain an Egyptian event; that the United States did not become the issue, but that we sent out a very clear message that we believed in an orderly transition, a meaningful transition, and a transition that needed to happen not later, but sooner. And we were consistent on that message throughout.”

Obviously Obama offers two different sets of conditions, as an “orderly” transition under former Vice President Omar Suleiman had little in common with a “meaningful” one. His administration's (and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states) free-fall from protecting Mubarak - the infamous “not a dictator” - to supporting Suleiman to accepting a military council is well documented. Now Obama praises the purer expression of Egypt’s democracy as “messy” - what happened to order? His definition of consistency is confusing at best, contradictory at worst.

So how does Obama explain himself?

“Well, first of all, without revisiting all the events over the last three weeks, I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history.”

How convenient and historically accurate to ignore Egypt’s time-line. He might have to write those books himself though. Maybe George Bush can help.

Listening to Obama and one starts to wonder what revolution he was watching. During questions about Iran’s enthusiasm for Egyptian protesters, Obama at one point responds: “on Iran, we were clear then and we are clear now that what has been true in Egypt should be true in Iran, which is that people should be able to express their opinions and their grievances and seek a more responsive government. What's been different is the Iranian government’s response, which is to shoot people and beat people and arrest people.”

Apparently Mubarak loyalists - mostly policemen and party members - didn’t do that in Egypt. Did Obama forget that Egyptians were protesting police brutality and state torture?

Continuing to draw attention towards his personal comments and away from his cabinet, Obama argues, “Particularly if you look at my statements, I started talking about reform two weeks or two-and-a-half weeks before Mr. Mubarak ultimately stepped down. And at each juncture I think we calibrated it just about right. And I would suggest that part of the test is that what we ended up seeing was a peaceful transition, relatively little violence, and relatively little, if any, anti-American sentiment, or anti-Israel sentiment, or anti-Western sentiment. And I think that testifies the fact that in a complicated situation, we got it about right.”

First, while Egyptian security forces violently suppressed the opposition during November’s fraudulent parliamentary election, Obama was busying issuing "no comment." Egyptians have since overthrown the results themselves after the military dissolved parliament. The “reform” that Obama speaks of, starting on January 25th, also admits to the fact that he originally supported Mubarak, who no protester was prepared to accept. When revolution subsumed reform, Washington initially hoped to prevent the former by supporting the latter.

The one benefit of waiting 18 days rather than two is the resignation list of Mubarak's allies, although not all have left power.

Furthermore, anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans were eliminated in order to keep Egypt’s message on Egypt. The revolution raided the fuel depot of Zionism and Americanism imperialism, then stuck a smiling Egyptian mask on the front. Conversely, the revolution’s overwhelming expression of non-violent disobedience had nothing to do with Obama’s “calibration.”

Egyptians peacefully united in their intent to eject Mubarak and disprove Western stereotypes.

Obama still places a priority on Israel too. “What we’ve seen so far is positive,” he says, only to begin with the Egyptian military’s ratification of its treaty with Israel. Next come negotiations with the opposition, free elections, building democratic institutions, and finally strengthening the economy. Perhaps this order is coincidental, or he was saving the most important for last, but the power of words spring alive by starting with Israel.

No comment, however, displays the perplexing state of Obama’s reasoning more than “the media card.” As analyzed several days ago, The New York Times provides a number of accounts in which Obama blames the media for casting him on Mubarak’s side. If Obama was so pleased with his response “at every juncture,” why did he constantly complain of the White House being "misrepresented? Why did his younger staffers lament the old-guard’s stonewalling that embarrassed Obama in Tahrir? And why did he agree?

Clearly he was dissatisfied with the policy and message coming out of his own office, and vexed by his inability to correct either.

Yet Obama states early in his briefing, “Part of the challenge here is that this town - let’s face it, you guys are pretty impatient. If something doesn’t happen today, then the assumption is it’s just not going to happen. Right? I’ve had this conversation for that last two years about every single issue that we worked on, whether it was health care or "don't ask, don't tell," on Egypt, right? We’ve had this monumental change over the last three weeks -- well, why did it take three weeks? (Laughter.) So I think that there’s a tendency for us to assume that if it didn’t happen today it’s not going to happen.”

Such a statement reveals a desperation belying Obama's confident projection. “Impatience” in the U.S. media is unrelated to his personal handling of Egypt, or his runaway National Security circle. It just so happened that Egyptians grew irritated and angry with Obama’s lack of support, leaving reporters no choice except to describe the popular sentiment in Tahrir Square. Beltway culture was irrelevant to his response.

Egyptians rejected his “orderly transition," not journalists.

Speaking of impatience, Obama demanded health-care overhaul and Guantánamo's closure within a year, a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in two. U.S. generals believed that he sped up Iraq's withdrawal too fast. Why is impatience suddenly a sin? Yes, Egyptians demanded immediate results. They wanted Mubarak gone before January 25th.

Upheaval is the nature of revolution.

Obama will likely have one leg to stand on when Egypt's current history begins to emerge. All he can claim is that he didn’t prop up Mubarak beyond his demise, however this policy is so suicidal that it barely warrants consideration. Obama inevitably had to jump Mubarak’s ship, yet he missed the chance to tap the revolution’s deepest potential by jumping after Mubarak sank.

Obama has proven during his short tenure that he despises blame and admitting when he’s wrong. Not many people do, of course, but life is different in the Oval Office. First Obama passed Egypt’s buck to his officials, international news organizations, and political critics, and now to a generally protective U.S. media blanket. Worst of all, he’s complaining that Egypt’s events happened too fast, even though millions of protesters and many outside observers preemptively recognized the end of Mubarak’s reign.

Revolutions are supposed to be fast. They can happen in an instant. What about a life-or-death emergency on U.S. soil - who will he blame then?


  1. A very searching exposition. Obama must have been reading books by Tony Blair IMO. He is interested in the superficies of power rather than what it could achieve. You have touched on the media dimension but his trouble is that everything he does or says has one eye on the media reaction. No use blaming them thereafter for criticising him. He and Shillary don't get it in the ME. They have no empathy with the cultures or aspirations there. Still less do their advisers and spin men. As a consequence they have the knee-jerk AIPAC stance (and nothing much else) to fall back on and they always do. All the more depressing since they are the least worst option to be in the WH from the present crop. But what a disappointment.

  2. Yes, Tony Blair's standing in the UK is as good as George Bush. And Obama's personal response is especially interesting given his attention to the media reaction. This is why Egypt, Palestine, and Afghanistan confound him so much. Though Obama cares deeply about the message he sends, he often laments losing control to Clinton's circle and the Pentagon. And, as you say, those seizing control have scant concern for foreign peoples in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. This usurpation of power now openly treats Obama as a puppet, a startling admission that hasn't received near the attention it warrants.

    And Gates did get his military council in Egypt, the WH and Israel's last resort, which contradicts everything Obama said on Tuesday.