Politics & Policy

Commentary Wrap

The WaPo editors say “The U.S. needs to break with Mubarak now

The United States should be using all of its influence – including the more than $1 billion in aid it supplies annually to the Egyptian military – to ensure the latter outcome [Mubarak stepping down]. Yet, as so often has happened during the Arab uprising of the past several weeks, the Obama administration on Friday appeared to be behind events. It called for an end to the violence against demonstrators and for a lifting of the regime’s shutdown of the Internet and other communications. Encouragingly, the White House press secretary saidthat the administration “will review our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days.”

Elliot Abrams writes in the WaPo that the Egyptian uprising vindicates George Bush’s foreign-policy goals, and the belief that Arab peoples are not “beyond the reach of liberty.”

 

All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush’s “freedom agenda” as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush’s support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force. Consider what Bush said in that 2003 speech, which marked the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, an institution established by President Ronald Reagan precisely to support the expansion of freedom.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” Bush said. “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.”

This spirit did not always animate U.S. diplomacy in the Bush administration; plenty of officials found it unrealistic and had to be prodded or overruled to follow the president’s lead. But the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right – and that the Obama administration’s abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy.

…It turns out, as those demonstrators are telling us, that supporting freedom is the best policy of all.

And don’t miss the WaPo symposium.

Newsweek attempts to reconstruct the debate in the White House:

 

As Mubarak ended his address, someone in the room voiced the thought on everyone’s mind: “Well, what do we do now?”

In the White House, that judgment was swiftly made. Mubarak’s speech was a climactic moment: It was time for President Obama to act.

Throughout the week, as the crisis gathered storm in Egypt, the administration had otherwise been slow to react, seemingly always one step behind events. This was partly because neither the U.S. intelligence community nor diplomats on the ground foresaw how swiftly the protests in Egypt would gather momentum—even if everyone realized that virtually the entire Arab world is a tinder box of pent-up frustration, with despotic regimes unable to meet the needs of, especially, their youth. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself put it last month, in aspeech in Doha that now seems uncannily prescient, Arab leaders would face growing unrest, extremism, and even rebellion unless they reformed “corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” It was the starkest warning ever delivered by a senior American official, and a message brought home a few days later when Tunisia erupted in revolt.

 

 

From the start, according to sources privy to the discussions, talks revolved around two objectives: how to cajole Mubarak to respond to the demonstrations, while, at the same time, not saying anything publicly that could be taken as American approval of the forcible overthrow of Arab regimes. But as the demonstrations grew in intensity, that balance became increasingly fraught. The demonstrators were, after all, demanding human and political rights to which the United States is committed, but which Mubarak showed no sign of granting.

After much discussion, it was decided that President Obama would not try to speak directly to Mubarak. According to an informed source, the assessment was that president-to-president intervention should be held in reserve as a last recourse. Besides, any exchange with Mubarak would require Obama to say whether he supported Mubarak’s continued rule. And the president was in a bind: He couldn’t bluntly say no. On the other hand, Egyptian authorities would instantly broadcast any expression of support as proof that Washington was backing Mubarak’s hold on power. (Shown this article for review, the White House said: “There’s nothing we’d comment on here at the moment.”)

So the administration tried to reach Mubarak by other means. The Cairo embassy reached out to his advisers. Other Arab leaders were enlisted. Across the region, the events in Cairo were viewed with mounting concern by other governments. The longer their television screens were filled with those scenes of protest, the likelier they were to trigger comparable uprisings in other capitals. The administration’s message was clear: for your own sake, persuade Mubarak he has to quell the revolt by offering concessions.

By Thursday, though, the Cairo embassy was reporting that Mubarak was mobilizing the Army. Everyone knew that Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, would see the biggest demonstrations yet. Mubarak’s mobilization of the military could only mean that he was set on suppression. There was a real risk of bloodshed—and the judgment both of analysts in Washington and of Arab leaders in other capitals was that killings on any scale could ignite a firestorm—not only in Egypt but across the region.

 

Whether Obama’s warning influenced Mubarak’s actions is unclear. The Army did roll into the streets of Cairo and other cities on Friday. But it did not shoot; and, on Friday evening, Mubarak appeared on television for the first time in the crisis.

Meanwhile at the Pentagon, a high-powered delegation of Egyptian military leaders, including the armed forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, cut short a scheduled week-long visit after only a few hours, departing instead for the airport. Their Pentagon hosts wished them well, with careful expressions of hope that a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Egypt would permit the continuation of the U.S. military’s long-standing relationship with Egypt’s armed forces. (Since the U.S. funds the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year, the message was clear.)

Administration officials suspect—or, at any rate, hope—that Obama’s blunt declaration forced Mubarak’s hand, prompting the Egyptian president to address his nation. What Mubarak offered in his televised speech, however, was “too little, too late,” as someone at that popcorn-eating gathering said. There was no prospect, Obama’s advisers believed, that Mubarak’s vague promises of reform would pacify the streets.

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Obama and his top officials, including Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon among them, concluded that the time had come for Obama to talk directly to Mubarak. And Mubarak’s address to the Egyptian people had given Obama the opening he wanted. The White House organized the call.

It was an intervention that dramatically—and publicly—escalated the American involvement in the Egyptian crisis. In an address from the White House, Obama outlined what he had told Mubarak, putting the administration unequivocally behind the demonstrators’ demands. “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” Obama said in his speech. “And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” The president also warned both sides against violence but his message was clear: “When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech, and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.” And, said Obama, “we are committed to working with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people—all quarters—to achieve” those goals.

It was a breath-taking pledge, with Obama coming close to making the U.S. the guarantor that Mubarak will act. In Egypt, his reference to “all quarters” will be taken to suggest that the U.S. will even reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, an unprecedented step.

The editors of the Times write that the U.S. must make clear its intention to withdraw aid if Mubarak responds with violence.

 

The administration struggled to get its public message right this week. On Thursday, it made clear that while Mr. Mubarak is a valuable ally, it is not taking sides but is trying to work with both the government and the protesters. By Friday, the White House said it was ready to “review” aid to Egypt — after Mr. Mubarak cut most communications, called out the army and effectively put Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure and former leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency, under house arrest.

Mr. Obama will have to be willing to actually cut that aid if Mr. Mubarak turns the protests into a bloodbath and fails to open up Egypt’s political system.

 

 

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