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.
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