In his simply terrible speech on Thursday evening (mid-day here in the U.S.), Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he won’t resign but he delegated some unspecified powers to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, an increasingly unpopular and untenable placeholder for a future Mubarak vacancy.
What was particularly gut-wrenching to the protesters around Egypt and to those around the world hoping for a non-violent resolution to the turmoil (whether or not they thought Mubarak should stay or go and for what period of time) was the several hours of news reports prior to the speech saying and “confirming” that Mubarak was going to step down.
Apparently as part of “not stepping down,” Mubarak has left Cairo for the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, with the Army filling a gap as a guarantor of political reform. So he’s stepping down, then he’s not; he’s not leaving then he is.
But was it any wonder Mubarak was confused after a week in which the Obama administration said that Mubarak should go, then stay, then go “yesterday,” then stay for a short time for “stability,” and then that it’s really not our place to comment?
It was a lesson the administration should have learned right away, following Hillary Clinton’s early (Jan. 25) statement that Egypt’s government was stable and her correct backing away from that statement a few days later. And if that weren’t enough, then Joe Biden’s comment on January 27 that Mubarak should not step down was contradicted a few days later by President Obama himself. (How many remember that the key argument to take Joe Biden as a running mate was his experience, particularly in international affairs, where Obama was thought to be extremely weak?)
And yet a full week later, the administration sent former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner to Cairo as a special envoy to the Egyptian Government — reportedly to tell Mubarak that neither he nor his son, Gamal, should be candidates in Egypt’s upcoming elections. Upon his return, although ostensibly “speaking for himself,” Wisner said that Mubarak “must stay in office” through a transitional period for the Egyptian government. The State Department immediately contradicted Wisner, saying “the views he expressed are his own.” Even presuming that’s true, it reflects badly on the Obama/Clinton team for two reasons: First, they didn’t have the sense to tell Wisner to keep his mouth shut while events were unfolding so that the appearance of disagreement with the administration wouldn’t occur. And second, Wisner is at least as credible as anyone in our current administration so any disagreement would increase skepticism about our government’s competence since Wisner is at least as likely to be correct as the naïfs running the show.
Even more emblematic of the U.S. government’s Amateur Hour was CIA Director Leon Panetta’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in which he said that “there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening” but was basing it on having “the same information you (have).” In other words, the head of our pre-eminent intelligence agency is publicly saying that his best source is CNN or Fox News. It’s not as if Panetta had a large reservoir of credibility to begin with; now he’s running on empty. If the administration needs a head to roll following their disastrous performance on Egypt, look for Panetta to go. Those politicians, including Democrats, who questioned his selection in the first place will offer a self-serving but justified “told you so.”
If the signals Mubarak was getting through official channels were as representative of the administration’s amateur hour as it’s seems through news reports, he probably felt like he has no friends, not even a decent international rational confidante. Instead, he probably thought, “Hey, I’ve done the U.S. an unbelievable favor by keeping peace with Israel for 30 years and now they repay me by throwing me under the bus at the first sign of a ‘democratic’ movement in the streets?”
We all knew that Barack Obama was going to be learning on the job. But he’s supposed to have career foreign service officers available to him who can help him avoid being so obvious about it. Instead, it seems that he must have a cadre of sycophantic idealists and wannabes who think they’re playing Risk without a clue as to how the real world, and especially the non-western world, works.
This isn’t just embarrassing, it’s dangerous. To the extent that our government’s confusion causes confusion and indecisiveness in Egypt, they sow instability across the whole region. And to the extent that representatives of our government are making public statements every day, statements which are frequently inconsistent with the prior day or something some other official said a few hours earlier, they allow Mubarak to blame foreigners for trying to influence events in Egypt.
Egypt is a proud nation with a longer recorded history than almost anywhere else on earth. Mubarak is a proud man, no matter what else you may think of him. In his speech, he made both of those things clear. And with a fortune estimated to be as much as an astonishing $70 billion he’s not going to be the easiest guy to push around. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that $70 billion would be pretty close to the total amount of foreign aid given from the U.S. to Egypt during Mubarak’s tenure in office, assuming a little growth from interest. By the way, the “official” richest man in the world is Mexico’s Carlos Slim with a net worth estimated around $53 billion, with Bill Gates is right in that range as well. In other words, Mubarak may be the richest man in the world. Even if there were a move to freeze Mubarak’s assets and find a way to return money to Egypt — something I doubt, given that unlike in the Iranian situation there has been no attack on the U.S. or other western interest — Mubarak would certainly have learned the lesson of the Shah and spread his assets around the world in a way which would make them very hard to recover.
There’s a saying I often use among my friends, especially people who are Jewish, as I am: “Two Jews, three opinions.” Well, who could have guessed that the highest levels of the US administration’s foreign policy apparatus, going right up to the top, are Jewish? I’ve never seen Hillary at a synagogue or heard about Joe Biden’s bar mitzvah. And Obama’s “apology to Islam” tour early in his term certainly rule him out as a member of the tribe. But what else could the explanation be for so many opinions coming from so few people in such a short period of time? Oh, I know, it’s that most dangerous combination in international affairs: ignorance and ego.
For all the harm that Obama and his henchmen are doing and have done to the American economy through “stimulus,” Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and all the rest of it, we may look back on their response to the uprising in Egypt — or should I say their responses — as this president’s Jimmy Carter moment, where his projection of fecklessness and weakness encouraged our enemies to act boldly. While the haughty urbane Obama is not the weirdly smiling peanut farmer and killer-bunny-victim that Carter was, in the 2012 election Obama’s personal appeal won’t easily trump his piling international failure on domestic failure.
In the meantime, the next several days in Egypt will be history in the making. We’ll be witnessing a revolution of some form in a very large and important (at least regionally) country, with existential implications for Israel as well as the House of Saud and other autocratic regimes across the Arab world. If this goes worse than it needed to, Barack Obama and his foreign policy Keystone Cops will have much more to answer for than just damaging the American economy.
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