The administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis — as typified by the bizarre set of mixed messages sent by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday as she wandered without point from Sunday morning show to Sunday morning show — has demonstrated a stunning lack of elementary preparation or thinking on a matter that has been under discussion among serious Egypt-watchers for at least six years now. That said, the demand that the administration “get out in front” on the need for democratic change with extreme haste is more a result of the increasingly hysterical tempo of the news in the age of Twitter than it is a central need for U.S. foreign policy.
The idea that Egyptians will like us better and that their new government will be friendlier to us because we said X on Sunday rather than on Wednesday is wishful thinking. A country of 80 million people with a complex economic and political structure and a radical Islamist wing will not make its future foreign-policy decisions based on when the U.S. said what. That might change if the army really opens fire on protesters and we do not instantly divide ourselves from Mubarak, or if we’re seen taking significant steps to bolster Mubarak’s regime, but that’s not the situation on the ground at present and looks unlikely to be the situation going forward.
Like many who supported the Bush push to open these closed societies to democratic change, I’m delighted to see the realists who pooh-poohed the agenda as unrealistic and foolish made to look unrealistic and foolish themselves — since if Mubarak had embraced rather than rejected the democracy agenda to the knowing nods of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, he might have ended his days as a hero of his nation rather than as a despised and rejected despot. And the fact that the Obama administration has come through two years without a clue when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East should be sobering for everybody.
But at this point, whatever part the U.S. plays in the Mubarak endgame is likely to be very, very minor. What our refusal to speak out forthrightly against dictatorships and for popular change says about us is more the issue.