In case you haven’t seen this, Niall Ferguson of Harvard and Oxford (yes, he’s a Brit) and most recently of Newsweek Magazine was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe a couple of days ago and offered a not-very-sunny assessment of the Obama administration’s handling of the governmental turnover in Egypt.
Ferguson may be a bit harsh, as even if the administration dropped the ball in foreseeing Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt it’s not exactly clear what America could have done to steer events there (other than opting to continue to fund democratic advocacy groups at the same level the Bush administration did so that maybe there might be a more organized good-guy opposition able to win an election).
Ferguson’s Newsweek piece, though, goes a good bit beyond his Morning Joe appearance. And it’s pretty hard to argue with his argument that this administration has no strategy at all when it comes to foreign policy in general and the Middle East specifically, with potentially awful consequences to come.
In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.”
The result has been a foreign-policy debacle. The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness.
This failure was not the result of bad luck. It was the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of coherent grand strategy, a deficit about which more than a few veterans of U.S. foreign policy making have long worried. The president himself is not wholly to blame. Although cosmopolitan by both birth and upbringing, Obama was an unusually parochial politician prior to his election, judging by his scant public pronouncements on foreign-policy issues.
It’s unusual to find something thought-provoking in Newsweek. Or on MSNBC. Ferguson has certainly brought value to both.
UPDATE: Now that Ayman Nour, who is the secular liberal hero we’ve touted as the Vaclav Havel of Egypt, has come out and said the Camp David Accord is more or less nugatory, two things are probably true.
First, the full import of a runaway Egyptian revolution is starting to come into focus when a more-or-less conventional politician like Nour, who is probably the best we could ever hope for as an elected leader there, says Camp David is busted. Nour may not actually believe it’s a smart idea to touch off a war – or even a state of war – with Israel, but he certainly appears to think that’s what you’re going to have to say if you want to get elected.
And second, now that all this is out in the open, somebody in this confused and dysfunctional White House needs to recognize we finally have a clear role to play in Egypt. Namely, we need to make it known – and publicly – that if the Egyptians want one more red cent from us in foreign aid, Camp David stays on the books. Camp David goes, and it either gets replaced with something else securing peace with Israel or else Egypt can pound sand. Which will, based on the geography of the place, take them a long time.
Maybe we can’t pick their government for them. Maybe we couldn’t save Mubarak and maybe he wasn’t worth saving. Maybe we can’t stop the Muslim Brotherhood from taking over in Cairo. But we sure can let these people know what the stakes are if they want to rattle their sabers at those infidels on the other side of Mt. Sinai – maybe that will give them a reason to pause.