Commentary Magazine


Silence, Speeches, and Strategy

Last year, Barack Obama said nothing as mass demonstrations against an evil regime took place in Iran. This year, he said and did nothing as Lebanon was taken over by a Syrian/Iranian proxy. He had no comment on Tunisia while events were occurring — his secretary of state announced we were not taking sides. It got a shout-out in his State of the Union address (“America stands with the people of Tunisia”) once the dictator was gone.

It seemed as if Obama’s guiding principle in foreign affairs was to avoid confrontations (unless someone announced Jewish housing in Jerusalem). He ignored human-rights issues in China, reset relations with Russia, outstretched his hand to Iran, went to Cairo to issue a message of peace to the entire Muslim world, and endlessly courted Syria even as it rejected him. It was a hazardous time to be a U.S. ally: Poland, Georgia, the Czech Republic, Columbia, Honduras, South Korea, Britain, and Israel all saw their interests slighted or subordinated to Obama’s other concerns.

Obama’s initial response to the mass demonstrations in Egypt was also silence. Ironically, this might have been the appropriate strategy. Dealing with an important U.S. ally, in a tense and uncertain situation, with repercussions affecting U.S. interests throughout the Middle East, required private efforts. Calling publicly for the overthrow of a leader who had allied himself with the U.S. for decades might simply energize U.S. enemies and demoralize allies; even Jimmy Carter never publicly called for the Shah’s resignation. At 82 years old, Hosni Mubarak was likely to be leaving soon in any event; the transition to a different leader, or a different regime, called for quiet diplomacy, not a speech.

Getting rid of Mubarak and holding an election within a few months, where the only organized political group was an ally of Iran, was not necessarily the best way to promote freedom in Egypt — as the 2006 Palestinian election demonstrated. The outcome of the 1933 German election is not an argument against democracy — but having seen what happened in 1933, one might not necessarily make it a central goal in 1938 to hold an election in a neighboring country and risk transforming it into another ally of Hitler.

An important sentence in John’s important post was the one acknowledging “no strategy is applicable in every circumstance.” He acknowledged that the danger is very real that Egypt might follow the path of revolutionary Iran. If that is true, promoting regime change when regime change might produce a significantly worse regime is not self-evidently the right strategy.

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