Commentary Magazine


How Not to Win Arab Hearts and Minds

According to Fox News, Egypt’s young people grilled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, asking her why the U.S. didn’t express support for the revolution sooner. “The attitude of the U.S. during the Egyptian revolution was to support the Egyptian regime first,” read one of the nearly 6,500 questions, videos, and audio files users submitted through the Egyptian social-media website Masrawy. “Then, when the revolution turned successful, the U.S. switched sides and supported the Egyptian youth. Why?”

Secretary Clinton disputed that assessment. But in fact, early on the U.S. did cast its lot with Mubarak. On January 25, days after the demonstrations had begun, Clinton declared, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” That happened not to be true. Vice President Biden denied that Mubarak was a dictator. That happened not to be true. And Frank Wisner, who was sent to Cairo by President Obama to meet with Mubarak, said that the Egyptian president “must stay in office” to guide his country through transitions in the coming months. That, too, happened not to be true.

Added to all this, of course, was the belief among the Egyptian people that President Obama himself was timid, weak, and late in supporting their cause. Yet almost inexplicably, Obama, having made this mistake with Egypt, seems intent on repeating it with Libya. As the Washington Post put it in its editorial, “By late Wednesday only one major Western leader had failed to speak up on Libya: Barack Obama.” It went on to ask, “Shouldn’t the president of the United States be the first to oppose the depravities of a tyrant such as Mr. Gaddafi? Apparently this one doesn’t think so.”

These are the kinds of actions that can leave searing impressions on people in foreign lands. Unlike other nations, the United States was founded on certain ideals. When it looks like we’re applying them selectively and cynically, it’s a problem. Now, I understand the difficulty when national interests seem to collide with moral convictions, as some argue was the case in Egypt (though I was in favor of an earlier and more active stance by Obama to take the part of the Egyptian demonstrators). But Libya is a case where a brutal, anti-American dictator is declaring war on his own people. Our moral and security interests are twinned. Yet the president still seems unable to find his voice, to say nothing of taking concrete steps that might mitigate the slaughter.

Everyone from the European Union to the Arab League to John Kerry has taken stronger stands against Muammar Qaddafi than has Mr. Obama. It is a shame, bordering on being a disgrace.