Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Obama League in the Middle East

I cannot help but cheer people who are calling for their freedom from the clutches of a tyrant. But what I as an insignificant speck believe is not what the American President ought to be doing, certainly not in such a showy, obvious fashion. President Barack Obama's many moves in the last 96 hours are so thoroughly naive and unprofessional, so hamhanded and self-aggrandizing, that I am afraid it is now too late to step back. The potential for unpredictable blowback -- despite good intentions -- is great. Obama and his foreign policy team have a history of making serial mistakes when it comes to the Middle East and they have very little to show for it: an Arab-Israeli "peace process" at one of its historic nadirs, Iraq in chaotic stasis, Lebanon turning to Hezbollah. Obama's conduct this past week (and VP Biden's and SecState Clinton's, for that matter) is just more of the sad pathetic same.

On Friday, minutes after Egyptian tyrant and apparent President-for-life Husni Mubarak announced the appointment of a military crony as his very first Vice President, the White House made it known that President Obama had spent a full 30 minutes on the phone with his Egyptian counterpart, and Obama came out to the cameras in support of the move. Then today on Tuesday, within minutes after Mubarak gave a pathetic speech to his nation and the world, announcing that now at the age of 82 he will not stand for September's presidential election (and never intended to) -- but will not leave his post -- the White House again let it be known that President Obama had another unusually long 30-minute phone call to the Cairene presidential palace. Within an hour of Mubarak's pronouncement, there was the American President again on worldwide television, sternly declaring that "it is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." More than a hint of colonial chutzpah clings to his words.

Twice the beleaguered Egyptian President speaks to his proud people, and twice the American President directly inserts himself into the tumult. Obama made it positively crystal clear that his heart is with the young Egyptian demonstrators, even as he grudgingly rugtrades with the elderly Egyptian generals. This second appearance by the President of the United States was so thoroughly unnecessary, so completely uncalled for -- and suggests an extremely untoward insertion of the American President into the domestic concerns of the Egyptian citizenry -- that now one can only hope and pray that whatever the outcome, the United States of America is not directly linked either to the chaos or the counter-revolution sure to come.

I understand why Obama performed so clumsily today. During the summer of 2009 there was a massive citizen's revolt against the Ahmadinejad regime, brutally repressed, which captivated the world. When Obama was asked about it at the time, he used Harvardesque diplomatic doublespeak and clumsily dismissed the revolt as an internal "robust debate." He was pilloried at the time for this dismissive characterization, and the non-policy the US took then allowed the hardliners in Tehran to push ahead with their repression. So now Obama does not want to miss out on Middle Eastern history, particularly when the media seize upon the narrative that the Obama administration is "behind the curve" in reacting to momentous events in the Middle East.

When you are a despised and suspect superpower with grandiose aspirations, better to be behind the curve than ahead of the curve. You'll be blamed either way, but better to not inject yourself into the maelstrom. The danger is this: an overly intrusive and present America does no one any good. If the revolutionaries win, they will remember that all of Mubarak's pathetic half-measures were orchestrated not by Tahrir Square but by Lafayette Circle. If the generals survive, they will not forget the betrayal of their stable guidance by a knee-jerk presidential "change agent." In a region where conspiracy theories and suspicion of foreign intervention are overpowering, Barack Obama has unilaterally claimed ownership of Egypt. Which reminds me of Colin Powell's and Richard Armitage's "Pottery Barn rule" of diplomacy: "You break it, you own it." As Egypt was breaking before our eyes, Obama cried out: "Hey, that's mine!" Obama's conduct these last few days has been bush league -- or maybe we should now call it Obama league.

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