Saturday, 12 February 2011

Obama, Suleiman and U.S. decline

There's always a malicious pleasure in watching powerful people with flawed policies flounder as they adapt to unexpected and unpredictable events. Washington's hesitant response to the Egyptian uprising falls into that category. At each turn - at the concessions from president Mubarak and vice president Omar Suleiman, at the survival, defiance and growing resolve of the protest movement, the United States in fact did exactly what one would expect from a distant superpower with little control over either protagonist. It tailored its message to its perceptions of the likely outcome -- it was careful not to burn its bridges with Mubarak in case he survived, it offered the protest movement vague moral support while refusing to endorse its central demand that Mubarak resign immediately, and it tried, ultimately without success, to shape events towards the outcome it appeared to favour -- the empowerment of Omar Suleiman as guarantor of Israel's security. Marc Lynch is full of praise for the way Obama and his staff handled it:
The Obama administration also deserves a great deal of credit, which it probably won't receive.  It understood immediately and intuitively that it should not attempt to lead a protest movement which had mobilized itself without American guidance, and consistently deferred to the Egyptian people.   Despite the avalanche of criticism from protestors and pundits, in fact Obama and his key aides -- including Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power and many others -- backed the Egyptian protest movement far more quickly than anyone should have expected.     Their steadily mounting pressure on the Mubarak regime took time to succeed, causing enormous heartburn along the way, but now can claim vindication.       
     I disgree on several counts. Firstly, once Egyptians saw what Suleiman stood for, the chances of him playing the role of an acceptable transition figure rapidly evaporated. US administrations have worked with the man for many years in his role as spy chief and manager of Egypt's torture cells. They must have known that he was an inflexible 'law-and-order' conservative with contempt for the wishes and aspirations of ordinary Egyptians. To Egyptians, on the other hand, in this topsy-turvy world of patron-client state relations, he was a completely unknown quantity and he did not reveal his true character until he gave his interview on Nile TV a couple of days after he was appointed. Public opinion turned against him with every step he made, while the United States continued to promote him. Secondly, Washington's advocacy of a rapid start to a smooth transition meant little in practice - there were just too many ways that might be done -- so it added nothing to the dynamics of the conflict. Both Mubarak and the protest movement gave minimal weight to pronouncements from Washington. For Mubarak, they were just irritating background noise while he struggled to cling on to power or find a way out that was not completely humiliating. The protest movement assumed from the start that the United States would try to protect Mubarak behind the scenes, and stuck to its ultimately successfully strategy of mobilising so many Egyptians that Mubarak could no longer govern. It is hyperbolic to say that "steading mounting pressure" by Obama and his aides ultimately succeeded, unless Lynch has evidence that the United States was instrumental in arranging the military takeover on Friday.
    All in all, the US response reflects its declining power and influence in the Middle East and throughout the world. Remember that many of the participants on both sides of the conflict on the streets of Egypt portrayed Israel and United States as their enemies. State television and Mubarak's National Democratic Party said Israel and the United States had financed and incited the protests. Many of the protesters, especially the Islamists and leftists, listed Mubarak and Suleiman's cooperation with Israel and the United States among their grievances.
    It also reflects the flaw at the centre of Washington's Middle East policy - its support for Israeli racists whose policies ordinary Arabs are bound to oppose.
    There's a tendency in Washington thinktanks to imagine that everyone is looking to the United States for cues, ready to dance to its tune. But more and more, people outside the United States see the US administration's pronouncements on their affairs as interesting oddities addressed to US domestic opinion or the media.
    This reality of declining power does not seem to have sunk in among the US establishment. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, seems to think that the United States ("and its allies") can still set the terms for the policies of the new Egypt:
The U.S. and our allies must focus our efforts on helping to create the necessary conditions for such a transition to take place. We must also urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel, and other free nations.
Is anyone in Egypt listening?



  1. I was just going to add a comment to Marc Lynch's post with a link to this, but noticed you already did. So let me say instead: your posts over the last couple weeks have been among the best, and I hope you keep writing them. They're obviously informed by experience, analytical acumen, and an outside-the-echo-chamber perspective: a cool combination that we could use a lot more of. I have the impression (possibly from something Helena Cobban wrote?) that you had gotten out of this game, but I hope that these amazing events have drawn you back into it for a good while.

  2. Agreed that Obama's pressure on Mubarak/ Suleiman or statements to the crowds didn't count for much in this situation. But what about the deep relationship between the US and Egyptian armed forces? Aid money, toys, personal ties built up training together. Too early to know what exactly happened between US and Egyptian military brass during the protests, but surely the locus of (remaining) US influence over Egypt is the Pentagon, not White House.

  3. Thanks Will. My own view, based on remarks from US diplomats over the years, including a background briefing by former US ambassador Francis Ricciardone, is that the Egyptian military establishment has been remarkably opaque and has shared very little with US counterparts. Of course the Egyptian generals were happy to take the tanks and planes but most of them kept their distance at the personal level. As I noted, however, we still can't rule out a US role in the military's final decision to insist Mubarak leave.