WASHINGTON — The impression that the Obama administration is forever one step behind the unfolding events and chaos in Egypt this week is one left, in part, by design.
Both the president and his aides have gone to fantastic lengths to respond to the facts on the ground rather than dictate them. It’s a posture that’s spurred no shortage of jeers, with protest sympathizers howling at the administration’s refusal to register firmer condemnation and political opponents accusing Obama of yucky mismanagement. When peaceful demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak sparked a bloody backlash Wednesday morning, it was Obama’s moral compass that was questioned.
And yet, like a boxer deliberately absorbing an opponent’s hits, the White House has shown no willingness to get off the ropes.
“Events have, again, went enormously quickly in a very volatile region of the earth, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday. “That just simply demands that we continue to watch and continue to ensure that we are taking the steps to communicate directly with all of the entities of their administration about what we expect in terms of non-violence… and the steps that demand to capture place in order to see that transition.”
Call it the Restraint Doctrine. It’s an Obama fixture. In June 2009, the president was being routinely pressed to cast his abundance with protesters who had swarmed the streets of Tehran. He chose, then as immediately, to try and manage spiraling events rather than orchestrate an alternative narrative.
“I reckon that in every situation of this sort requires a thoughtful response,” Senior Adviser David Axelrod told The Huffington Advertise on Monday. “You desire to respond in a path that’s thoughtful and constructive, and sometimes with foreign policy, the most constructive answer isn’t necessarily the most visceral or satisfying.”
As Axelrod sees it, the president hasn’t been a bystander as Egypt lurches towards disarray; he’s been, in an abstract path, a root cause of the uprising, having spoken about the demand to recognize universal human rights during his famed 2009 speech in Cairo. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, meanwhile, described an elaborate effort on the administration’s behalf to ensure that if the president’s team was reacting to events, they were reacting in absolute age.
“We have human beings in the State Department in particular that have extended-established contacts in the region that watch what their friends are tweeting or putting up on Facebook, literally,” he said. “We talk to press in the region and get assessments from them. We talk to U.S.-based reporters who have gone over there. Our embassy has reached outside to as broad a cross-section of administration officials, NGO activists, anyone who they can talk to, human beings much in the business community … There is a vast web of interactions that are feeding a 24-hour cycle of updating data.”
Through diplomatic back-channels and rhetorical embroidery, the White House has conveyed the message that Mubarak’s age is through. The inquiry is when.
“In that respect, what they have done they had done prudently,” said former Sen. Gary Hart, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The difficulty with cutting your losses and saying to Mubarak, ‘go away immediately’ is that you send a signal to about 30 to 40 governments in the earth that the Americans will divide and run; if they get in distress they are gone. There are some governments that we don’t desire to go away.”
“I don’t fault the president for the tactical aspects of hedging our bets and trying to sit in the middle of the fence to see what results from this turmoil in Egypt,” said Amb. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s longtime aide and chief of staff. “Nobody knows what is going to happen. Nobody much knows if a democratic administration will be bigger in Egypt than the freaking dictatorship that has been there since Nasser.”
The path to this mark has not been without discomforting bumps. As protests erupted on Jan. 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the Egyptian administration was “stable.” Two days later, Vice President Joseph Biden insisted that Mubarak was no dictator and, given the institution of some reforms, would be fine to remain in ability.
It was only when conditions on the ground grew more dramatic that the U.S. posture changed. The situation was clearly not stable. And early this week, Clinton suggested that Obama send Frank Wisner, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the Reagan era, to relay the message that the nation’s longtime ruler had to go. By Wednesday, the National Journal was reporting that Wisner had more or less told Mubarak that Obama would support “a slow-motion, hopefully bloodless military coup as part of an ‘orderly transition’ to ability.” Vietor called the latter report “not accurate.”
Struggling to keep up with the frantic pace of events — while equivocating over who is to blame — the White House has managed to alienate all parties at once.
“I wouldn’t employ the term ‘positive’ to describe Washington’s posture,” said Sheila Carapico, a professor of political science at Richmond University who’s currently serving at the American University in Cairo. “At the end week human beings here were calling stability ‘the S-term,’ since stability in the geo-strategic sense has amounted to deterioration of lifetime for most Egyptians. Calls for orderly transition are also highly risk-averse — the U.S. administration is hedging its bets rather than betting on democracy.”
The White House would dispute such an assessment. However the circumstance remains that there is a public-relations value to pay for adhering to a restraint-based foreign policy. For starters, the administration has had small to offer the press in the path of declarative or much substantive policy announcements. On Wednesday, the fourth estate made its displeasure known, with the White House Correspondents Association sending Gibbs a terse statement demanding more access.
Mainly, however, the difficulty for the president is that he’s left it to the pundits and observers to determine his overarching objective rather than defining it himself. And while there might be “tactical” benefits or geopolitical prudence in doing so, it’s resulted in poor domestic reviews and a hazy understanding abroad.
“The administration has been honestly close-mouthed about most of this, much listening to Hillary and others who speak on these matters,” said Wilkerson. “And so I don’t know what they are thinking. I don’t know what their strategy is. I’m not certain they do either.”
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