Voice

Is Obama slipping on Egypt?

It is tempting to write off the Obama administration's recent missteps on Egypt as classic symptoms of NPD: narcissistic policy disorder. This is a disease, common in American presidents, in which they feel that every event is about them, demands their response, always offers a starring role for them. 

But the mistakes Thursday were of a more serious variety. The worst of them was CIA Director Leon Panetta's absolutely inexcusable and shockingly atypical decision to announce to the Congress that in his view Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would likely be out of office by midnight. Obviously, the agency was feeling the heat because it had failed to call the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the one region of the world to which the most agency assets are (likely) directed. So it made the classic error of overcompensating for the past failure to predict event... by predicting one that didn't actually happen. 

This was a lose-lose idea. Had Panetta been right, how would it have looked if the CIA had actually been the first entity to announce Mubarak's departure? Might it have fueled perceptions that the United States was pulling the strings behind the scenes in Cairo, that Suleiman was the CIA's guy? (Not exactly a big stretch to begin with.) Who thought it was appropriate that the U.S. ought to get in front of Egypt's story? 

The answer, one has to assume, is someone in the White House. It is hard to imagine that on this issue this administration would let its CIA Director make public remarks to the Congress without vetting them beforehand. Which brings us to the other two major statements made by the White House on Thursday.

The first of these involved President Obama's rather breathless assertion that we were watching history unfold in Egypt and also implying that soon Mubarak would be stepping down. Once again, who was it that suggested to the president that it was in his interest...or America's... for him to be the warm-up act for the Egyptian president's expected big exit. 

It was the kind of decision that was a sure sign that the president was spending more time listening to political and press advisors than he was seasoned foreign policy professionals. It is understandable how a flack might suggest it was important to take advantage of the high press interest in the story and to "stay ahead of it" (thus avoiding the kind of criticism associated with the lagging responses to the Iranian and Tunisian uprisings). The problem of course is that revolutions don't play according to scripts and are notorious for generating rumors.  And the consequence was that the president looked in the first instance like he was grandstanding and then, after Mubarak's disappointing and infuriating remarks, he just looked foolish.

The second statement from the White House, which came after Mubarak's remarks, demanded further explanation as to what the fossilized, politically tone deaf Egyptian strongman meant. These seemed impotent and petulant and also had the effect of further entrenching the White House in opposition to Mubarak, Suleiman and a regime that might well be around for some time.  It even included a demand: "The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity." The ungrammatical nature of the sentence aside, it also had the effect of giving some credence to what was perhaps Mubarak's least credible statement, the one in which he asserted he would not be pressured by foreign diktats. That assertion was redolent with irony thanks to the fact that what Mubarak really meant was that he would not be pressured by the legitimate demands of his own people. .. at least it was until the White House served up a foreign diktat as if they were selling them at a drive through window on West Executive Drive (the little street on the White House grounds where senior staffers get to park.)

The president and his team started out managing this crisis fairly well. But the longer it goes on, the more ragged their handling of it has seemed (viz. the embarrassing back and forth with Frank Wisner last weekend or the profusion of slightly overheated statements on the subject from soon-to-be-departing Press Secretary Robert Gibbs). Stories have also started to emerge in the press about internal divisions on the stance the administration should take (see the Los Angeles Times piece entitled "Obama advisors split on when and how Mubarak should go" which explains why the administration is producing mixed messages.)

If the awkwardness associated with Thursday's statement doesn't produce a little introspection and a more modulated response going forward, then the recognition that these are actually very early days in this process should. While 17 days of upheaval may seem like an eternity to 24 hour news producers who have to fill air time, however long this uprising might last, it is important to remember that any transition to a new government will take time and it will be years before it is clear what the nature of the changes that transition produces will be. Governments may come and go during that period and their attitudes toward America or issues in which we have an interest may ebb and flow. 

If we try and stay "out in front" of such a story we will be spun around so many times we will be able to replace the Secretary of State with a weather vane. The hard work of U.S. diplomacy on this issue must take place behind the scenes and it must involve a kind of patience and perspective the White House seems to have lost touch with in the past few days.

That's not to say that the U.S. should not express solidarity with the people of Egypt or defend their legitimate rights. We should. And behind the scenes it is my personal view that we should work hard to ensure that Mubarak, Suleiman, and their odious cronies both go and go soon. And then, with balance and perspective restored, someone should go into the office of Obama's smart, talented incoming press secretary Jay Carney and put up a sign that says "Do Not Feed the News Cycle"...because, at least on foreign policy stories like this one, it is an insatiable beast that will eat an administration and its policies alive if they are not careful.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

You have picked the wrong Great Satan: a note to Anwar Al Awlaki

First, congratulations on having been selected by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assocation Michael Leiter, head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center as "the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland." Given your U.S. roots, this must be particularly gratifying. Your family must be very proud. I'm sure that the U.S. institutions of higher learning you attended-Colorado State, San Diego State and George Washington University-are all updating their websites right now. While you have achieved many such accolades in the past-from sources as diverse as soon-to-be-ex Congresswoman Jane Harman to "Investor's Daily"-this most recent acknowledgement of your achievements as the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula must be especially gratifying.

Having said that, despite having spent your formative years in the American heartland (thus confirming my worst fears about the effects of extended exposure to country music), may I take this opportunity to point out to you that you guys have picked the wrong great Satan.

Have you seen what's been going on in Europe lately. Over the weekend, David Cameron gave an address in Munich in which he decried the failures of British multiculturalism. In the audience listening to him was Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who had made similar remarks herself.  Shortly after he spoke, his remarks were embraced by Marine Le Pen, Princess of France's ultra-right wing National Front Party that her father founded.   Le Pen said "It is exactly this type of statement that has barred us from public life [in France] for 30 years. I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him."

Now in my family we have a rule. If you receive a thank you note with a return address from the Le Pen family, don't even open it. It can only be bad news. And since Le Pen's warm French smooch on both of Cameron's rosy British cheeks, the Prime Minister's people have been taking pains to say that she misinterpreted him.

But Anwar, it's really pretty hard to misinterpret what he said. On the eve of a major anti-Islamic rally in the United Kingdom, that country's chosen political leader decided it was the right moment to suggest that "passive tolerance" had only served to encourage Islamic extremism. The Prime Minister was clearly attempting to have it both ways-playing the populist game of pandering to nationalist fears while also mouthing words about liberalism and implying that the alienation that produced radicalization was due to separatist policies within the Islamic community. In short, he was essentially saying "we're to blame for our policies allowing them to be themselves." 

But the bigger point isn't whether Cameron made a rhetorical and political blunder but that his remarks echoed Merkel's crowd-pleasing speech on the same topic in Potsdam days before. The Chancellor said, "(In) the beginning of the 1960s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country. We kidded ourselves a while. We said: 'They won't stay, [after some time] they will be gone,' but this isn't reality. And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side by side and to enjoy each other ... has failed, utterly failed."

She got a standing ovation. In Germany. Attacking foreigners. What a shocker, right?

And that's my message to you. Why do you think America is your primary enemy when there is probably no non-Islamic country in the world in which the Islamic population lives with as much freedom and tolerance as in the United States? Why do you think America is your primary target when the inflammatory, insensitive and disturbing views expressed by European leaders are not a departure but are really European standards, old favorites that are played on the radio from generation to generation? Look at European attitudes toward immigrants from the Islamic world? Toward letting Turkey into the EU? Who's doing the anti-Mohammed cartoons? Who did the crusades?

It is the Europeans (and their Eurasian cousins in Russia) that have a longer, more hostile history? Do you think any major country in Europe could elect a leader today whose middle name is Hussein? Do you think any major American political leader could survive five minutes in the media after spewing the veiled and not-so-veiled anti-Islamic, intolerant messages that are so popular in Europe today?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you should direct your anger at Europe. The real work for Islamic leaders like yourself is fixing the Islamic world first-because the only places where there is less tolerance and where Islamic groups are more viciously targeted is in the Middle East. And the real need of the people for whom you are allegedly fighting is for real opportunity, education, economic growth and responsive, representative government at home. 

But still, if there is an East-West faultline that is growing more tense, you can look for it a lot closer to home.  Back where it has been for a couple thousand years. Back where it once made famous the Siege of Vienna and the Moorish conquest of Spain. Back in Europe where intolerance, nationalism and social polarization have given us many of the darkest stains on the pages of world history.