Eggshells on Egypt and foreign policy folly

Newsweek slams Obama for his conflicting statements regarding Egypt that reflect a shaky US foreign policy. Israel, on the other hand, chooses to remain silent when what is needed most is a clear strategy.

Newsweek: How Obama blew it (photo credit: Courtesy)
Newsweek: How Obama blew it
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week’s Newsweek has an “in your face” cover, blasting what is supposedly an irrefutable fact: “Egypt: How Obama Blew It,” the bottom line reads. Simple and unambiguous, it is lucidly written by Niall Ferguson, a renowned historian. Despite making savvy observations on contemporary US foreign policy - if indeed there is one to observe - Ferguson may be wrong, or at least premature in the conclusions he draws.
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According to Ferguson, US President Barack Obama missed the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy. This wave came in two surges: the demonstrations in Iran in June 2009 and those in North Africa (Tunisia and Egypt) in early 2011. Obama, comments Ferguson critically, lost both worlds. At first the US exhorted Mubarak to leave and the next day recommended an “orderly transition” of power. The result is nothing short of a foreign policy debacle stemming from a lack of a coherent and comprehensive foreign policy strategy. Furthermore, Ferguson argues that “the defining characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy has been not just a failure to prioritize, but also a failure to recognize the need to do so.”
Coming from a historian who wrote two enlightening books on the fall of empires, the conclusions on Obama’s performance with Egypt should be alarming. Except that there is a distinct disconnect here.
While Ferguson’s criticism of American foreign policy and the absence of an intelligible strategy are insightful, their specific application to the Egypt crisis is incompatible.
This isn’t a simulation game at Harvard. This is real life and there are no flawless text-book solutions. So let me start with a different bottom line: President Obama’s handling of the Egypt crisis was successful.
Although events in Egypt are still too fluid for an accurate political or historical assessment, in terms of foreign-policy crisis management Obama minimized the risks and maximized US interests. Obama kept Egypt as an ally when he could have easily lost it by having too coherent a strategy that would have pleased purists on either side of the argument.
Sure there were imperfections and frequent vacillations, but the stakes were too high to develop a rigid policy instantly. Given the uncertainties and the lack of reliable intelligence, including a split national security team on Egypt, Obama’s performance was skillful, cool, poised and resolute.
The strategic objective was to maintain Egypt as an ally through ensuring stability. That was attainable only through cooperation with the Egyptian military and the deposing of Hosni Mubarak, even though Obama himself never actually called for the former Egyptian president to leave.
Consider a scenario whereby Obama recognized “the tide” of democracy and unequivocally supported the protestors only to witness Mubarak’s secret policy open fire and kill 800 of them? No doubt pundits and experts would label him an inexperienced state senator from Illinois who lost an ally and sent panic shockwaves throughout the region. On the other hand, what if Obama had sided with Mubarak and the latter had eventually been ousted? How would millions of Egyptians, and for that matter Iranians, Algerians and Saudis, take him seriously when he makes his next “Cairo Speech?”
Ferguson makes many valid and salient arguments. What got me really worried was not the Newsweek cover. It was the climate that Ferguson seemed to be writing in, underscored in particular by his comment that “…at the Herzliya Conference…there was a consensus among the assembled Middle East experts that this was a colossal failure of American foreign policy…”
Dear professor Ferguson, I have read four of your books and numerous articles. They are splendid. Which is why I was amazed that you bought into this consensus nonsense; It’s analogous to a bunch of gamblers in a Las Vegas sports book developing a consensus that a player in a football game can be blamed for losing their money.
First, these “Middle East experts” colossally failed to comprehend what was going on in Egypt. Most sagely opined that Egypt is not Tunisia and were clairvoyant beyond doubt in predicting that Mubarak would stay in power.
You know what else, Niall? Had these experts been consulted in May 1948 we wouldn’t have the State of Israel because they would have undoubtedly assessed that it has no chance of long term survival.
Second, you should know by now that in the Middle East, every shortcoming and debacle is a direct result of “American foreign policy failure.” Luckily, this time, President Obama did not heed the post-factum advice.
Meanwhile, back in Israel
Yet while Niall Ferguson at least tries to understand US policy and deduce lessons from it, the Israeli body politic seems to have all the answers. What never ceases to astound is how frenzied and hectic reactions in Israel are.
This is characteristic of the Israeli psyche’s pendulum: One day we are on the verge of possible annihilation and the next we can bomb Iran back to the stone-age. The world delegitimizes us and we don’t care, yet at the same time we beg it to love and understand us. One day the US is an ally without which our survival is threatened and the next day Obama is an Arab-loving novice. One day Maj-Gen. Yoav Gallant is the best IDF Chief of the General Staff we can dream of, the next he’s dubbed a Mafioso.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is persistent in warning that Egypt may become the next Iran. According to him, Iran is essentially 1938 Germany and therefore by extension, a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt is also. While Egypt may not become a democracy overnight, it is unlikely to devolve into an Iranian-style theocracy. It is a military junta in a transition period. Even though threats of another Islamic Republic may be valid, the lack of tangible proof and the timing showed signs of confusion rather than a policy.
Netanyahu is a prescient commentator, but a confounded prime minister. In other words, he’s a man capable of smart diagnosis but is clueless on the prognosis.
In the weeks preceding the Tunisia/Egypt upheavals, Netanyahu was busy with far more important things than observing the region and furthering Israel-Palestinian peace process efforts: He was occupied, for example, with instigating MK Orit Noked to defect from Labor, or ensuring that MK Shalom Simhon be upgraded in the cabinet. Encouraging Defense Minister Ehud Barak to form a new pseudo-party was indeed a monumental achievement, especially seeing as Egypt was so stable.
And what has the government said since Mubarak was deposed? Nothing much really.  Maybe they’ve chosen to walk on eggshells or maybe they were just busy appointing an ambassador to Britain. No doubt an issue of great importance to the Zionist enterprise and an issue people care about, unlike, say, the price of gasoline or water.
Will all due respect to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and for that matter the Editor-in-Chief of this newspaper, is appointing an ambassador to London really more important than getting on an airplane to Washington to meet Obama and discuss a clear strategy regarding Egypt?
The writer is a diplomat who recently served as consul-general in New York.