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John Guardiano is far too kind in his assessment that the Obama administration’s Egypt strategy (if one can even call it that) is explained by an abundance of caution or temperamental conservatism. A better explanation is simple incompetence.
Consider this report on the thinking within an unnamed administration policymaker’s office, before Mubarak’s speech on Friday. “The mood was buoyant,” because “the favored bet would have been that Mubarak was about to ‘do an LBJ’ and repeat what President Lyndon Johnson did in 1968 in the face of a wave of protests: announce he would not stand in the upcoming presidential election.” In other words, it wasn’t that policymakers were worried about letting Mubarak fall so much as they were delusional about the willingness of an authoritarian dictator to loosen his grip of his own accord.
Until Mubarak’s statement on Friday, Obama had deliberately avoided contacting him, on the theory that “president-to-president intervention should be held in reserve as a last recourse” since “any exchange with Mubarak would require Obama to say whether he supported Mubarak’s continued rule.” So they tried to indirectly signal that he should offer concessions to the protestors. But this was the same administration that, last fall, helped kill a Senate resolution to support a transition to democracy in Egypt, and the same administration that, despite warnings that it was time to prepare for the end of the Mubarak era by pushing for political reform, had done nothing of the sort. Given that, and in the wake of administration statements that Mubarak wasn’t a “dictator” (Biden) and that his regime was “stable” (Hillary). Why would Mubarak assume that Obama would care whether he embraced reform?
Mubarak finally did announce yesterday that he wouldn’t seek another term, but it was pretty obvious that that wouldn’t be enough anymore to calm the protests down. Now pro-Mubarak forces (most of them paid thugs affiliated with the government — the backlash is clearly coordinated) are attacking the protestors, and the Obama administration’s calls for an “orderly transition” have become a bad joke. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a columnist for the UAE-based newspaper The National, sums up the perception abroad: “The White House has not looked weaker & more indecisive in decades.”