Thursday, January 27, 2011

Whither Egypt?

The authoritarian government of Tunisia has disintegrated in the face of spontaneous demonstrations of popular discontent. Is Egypt, and the Mubarak regime, next?

Since the viability of its policy toward the Arab states turns on the answer, the Obama administration is understandably hedging its bets. It still speaks of Mubarak as one our strongest Arab allies, but it isn’t endorsing his brutal response to street demonstrations either. Truth be told, the administration doesn’t look like it has a clue about what our objectives respecting Egypt ought to be. We’ve seen this kind of indecision from Obama before, in his arguably prudent, but morally unsatisfying, silence in the face of the “Green Revolution” in Iran the summer before last.

Here’s Leslie Gelb, explaining that the administration’s ambivalence is a function of its having to confront radical foreign policy uncertainty (my emphasis):
“Obama administration officials say they are not taking sides between President Hosni Mubarak, America’s key ally in the Arab world, and the street protesters who purportedly represent a path to democracy in authoritarian Egypt. These officials might even believe what they’re saying. But the very assertion of “not taking sides” is itself a tilt away from the all-out support traditionally given by Washington to this Egyptian strongman in recent decades.

The administration’s move is a slide toward the unknown. Senior officials have no idea of exactly who these street protesters are, whether the protesters are simply a mob force incapable of organized political action and rule, or if more sinister groups hover in the shadows, waiting to grab power and turn Egypt into an anti-Western, anti-Israeli bastion. The White House has called upon its intelligence agents and diplomats to provide answers, but only best guesses are forthcoming. No one, no matter how well informed about Egypt, can divine what will happen to power within Egypt if the protesters compel concessions from the Mubarak regime or, on the other hand, if Mubarak hangs onto power by using brutal force.

“So, some administration officials are thinking that for all the risks of losing a good ally in Mubarak, it might well be better to get ‘on the right side of history.’ . . .

"The overriding point is that no knowledgeable diplomat, no secret agent or Harvard professor can speak with confidence about where turmoil will lead in poor and repressed countries like Egypt. This White House will have to be forgiven for not knowing whether to ride the tiger or help put him back in a cage—for a brief time at least."
The difference between "risk" and "uncertainty" matters in this context. People's different responses to calculable risks don’t tell you much about their core values and intellectual commitments. I leave my raincoat in the closet when the weatherman says there’s a 30% chance of rain while you reach for yours and your umbrella too. That needn’t mean that you dislike getting wet more than I do, that I dislike being encumbered by rainwear more than you do or that we have different views about the reliability of weather reports. It might just mean that I like taking risks better than you do.

Different reactions to incalculable uncertainty tell you more about differences in the reactor’s respective worldviews. When the material for prudential calculation runs out, there’s nothing for a decision-maker to fall back on other than foundational intellectual and moral commitments.

Questions about how to react to popular opposition to authoritarian regimes in the Middle-East were a lot easier for George Bush to answer to his satisfaction than for Obama because Bush “knew” in his bones how to get on the “right side of history.” 9/11 turned him into a cornpone Hegelian convinced that, human nature and divine providence being what they are, history tends toward the universal realization of something like constitutional democracy. So when Bush had to put his foreign policy chips on the table without knowing the odds of winning, he bet that promoting middle-eastern democracy would serve American ideals and American national security interests at the same time. That’s what Bush’s (not at all cornpone) Second Inaugural Address was mostly about.

Try imagining Obama saying, much less believing, anything like that. He aspires to be a clear-headed realist with a mind that’s uncluttered by grandiose thoughts like Bush’s theory of history or his democratic evangelism. Those are just the sort of things that Obama and Hillary Clinton were thinking of when they promised not to let “ideology” distort their foreign policy judgments.

On balance, that’s probably a good thing because it reduces the chances of the administration's marching us headlong off a foreign policy cliff. But it also helps explain the administration’s deer-in-the-headlights expression when it’s confronted with challenges like the present instability in Egypt or a popular revolt in Iran.  And it doesn't quiet the suspicion that, not having bothered to figure out what its foundational commitments are, it lacks the intellectual and moral resources to get the really big things right.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've never understood why an idealogy would distort foreign policy judgments. Don't you need an idealogy to make judgments, foreign and domestic? Isn't that what presidents and world leaders are for?
I agree with your point that Mr. Obama's head is uncluttered by grandiose thoughts. Though I call him simply empty-headed on matters such as foreign policy and how to prosecute the war on terror.