Commentary Magazine


“The Problems Are More Difficult Than I Imagined Them to Be”

As readers of this site know, I’m more than willing to criticize President Obama when I think that facts warrant it. And for the record, I believe that his policies toward the Middle East have often been inept and demonstrably unsuccessful, and they’ve certainly fallen short of the “new beginning” he promised in Cairo in 2009.

That said, it’s also important to recognize that even if Barack Obama had done everything right, things in Egypt might be roughly where they are today. It may be the case that the capacity of the United States to influence events in Egypt was intrinsically limited. The popular movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, after all, was organic; it was not driven by American policy. There’s nothing we could have done to save Mubarak’s rule. And in fact the Obama administration itself stuck with Mubarak until very nearly the end of his rule.

Once the Muslim Brotherhood took over, our ability to dictate how Morsi governed was limited as well, despite the huge aid we give to Egypt. Several administrations attempted to pressure Mubarak, after all, to ease up on his authoritarian ways, with little to show for it. Mr. Morsi was an even tougher nut to crack.

As for what to do now, the issues seem to me to be complex and difficult to sort through. Would it be wise to cut off aid to the Egyptian military after yesterday’s massacres? If we do, won’t that diminish our leverage in the future and alienate the current leadership? As LBJ is purported to have said, they may be bastards–but at least they’re our bastards (at least in comparison to the Muslim Brotherhood).

On the flip side, if we don’t cut off aid, doesn’t that undermine our professed commitment to human rights, free elections and the rule of law? And as Max Boot asks, hasn’t the crackdown demonstrated that we have very little leverage to lose? If we can’t influence the Egyptian military, shouldn’t we at least stand for American principles? 

And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Should we press for it to be part of a post-military rule coalition? Or would that be unwise and impractical? If not, what should happen to the Brotherhood? Should we view events in Egypt as tragic and unfortunate–but also recognize that the Egyptian military, for all its faults, is vastly superior to the Brotherhood? Shouldn’t we understand that to undermine the military at this moment would be to encourage the Brotherhood to continue to fight to regain power?

I have my own thoughts on these matters, but they are tentative. And they should be. After all, I was among those who was moved by the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011 and hopeful of what a post-Mubarak Egypt would look like. Things turned out a good deal worse than I expected. So modesty in predicting the outcome of events is warranted, at least in my case.

Beyond that I’m reminded, in part because I’ve served in three administrations, that the world is untidy, that events are contingent, and that arguments that sound reasonable and logical when discussing them in the Situation Room often don’t work out in the real world. The difference between being a commentator and working in the White House is that in the case of the latter the consequences of being wrong can be far more durable and damaging.

That doesn’t mean that President Obama, or for that matter any other president, shouldn’t be criticized for his policies and his failures. Nor does it mean Mr. Obama shouldn’t be held accountable for the promises he made before and shortly after he took office, when he seemed to be under the impression that he could shape world events like hot wax. But I for one can’t help having some sympathy for those in the Obama administration who right now are being forced to make decisions about rapidly unfolding events, based on incomplete knowledge, with an imperfect ability to predict the consequences of each course of action. I recall during my years in government being struck by the fact that making the right decision seemed a good deal more obvious when I was on the outside looking in rather than on the inside looking out. 

In an interview in 1962, President Kennedy was asked whether his experience in office matched his expectation and whether things had worked out as he saw in advance. President Kennedy responded this way:

So that I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.

So will the commentators.

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