As is his wont, a week ago Vice President Biden indulged in fantasy by saying, “Mubarak is not a dictator.” Only a few days later, President Obama decisively turned on Mubarak, declaring, “an orderly transition must begin now.” On balance, Obama should not have rushed to react to every day’s protest in Cairo. He came out too strongly against Mubarak, shoving him toward exile too quickly.
Mubarak’s reign had come to an end. However, Obama’s peremptory command of dismissal to a ruler who has been America’s staunch ally for 30 years was a geostrategic blunder on three levels. First, it signaled American arrogance; the White House presumed to tell another country’s leader what to do. Second, it guaranteed that Mubarak and his government, for however long they endure, will be less cooperative with us. Third, it unsettled our non-democratic allies throughout the Middle East. Since Israel is the only established democracy in that region, Obama’s command has unsettled the leadership in Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
It was appalling that in 1963 President Kennedy acceded in the overthrow of President Diem of South Vietnam, as did President Carter in the removal of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Those thoughtless actions undercut our larger foreign-policy goals. In the Iranian case, Carter sent a four-star general to tell the Iranian military to remain in the barracks. When the military did so, the theocratic radicals seized power and executed the generals. Given that history, it was wise for Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to speak out publicly against the thoughtless suggestion of Vermont’s Senator Leahy that the U.S. consider cutting off aid to the Egyptian military.
Perhaps mindful of the Iranian precedent, the Egyptian army has not obeyed Obama’s order to heave out Mubarak. Due to the power of the army, the Egyptian government appears determined to work out the nature and the structure of the post-Mubarak government at its own pace.
Obama was much more circumspect in his declarations when Iranians revolted in 2009. The geostrategic danger is that Obama — and the U.S. — will be seen as tougher on its non-democratic allies than on its enemies.
— Bing West is author of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan.