As events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world spiral out of control, the Obama administration has tried to portray itself as ahead of the curve, as in David Axelrod’s interview with Jake Tapper of ABC News. Axelrod tries to convey the impression that the administration has been on the case for a long time:
TAPPER: Hosni Mubarak is not a good guy and that government tortures, is repressive, doesn’t believe in the same freedoms we do and they’re also one of our closest allies in the Middle East.
AXELROD: Obviously these are the challenges of the presidency in a very difficult world. And, but the way he’s confronted it, is he went to Cairo and talked about the need, the universal human rights of people. He’s — on several occasions directly confronted Pres. Mubarak on it. And pushed him on the need for political reform —
TAPPER: To get ahead of this.
AXELROD: — in his country. Exactly to get ahead of this. This is a project he’s been working on for 2 years and today the president is working hard to encourage restraint and a cessation of violence against the people of Egypt.
The “project” apparently hasn’t made much progress. President Obama also made a statement on Egypt tonight. It was, in my view, cryptic and non-committal. Charles Krauthammer, on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, praised Obama’s statement because he thinks the administration is following the right, rather risky, line: sticking with Mubarak while positioning itself to aid in the transition to a new government, in hopes that chaos–i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood–will not reign. If Krauthammer is interpreting it correctly, I agree that this is the best course we have available; but it requires tea leaf reading of a high sort, in my view, to discern that intent.
Obama, like Axelrod, harkened back to his Cairo speech:
When I was in Cairo shortly after I was elected president, I said that all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion. That is the single standard by which the people of Egypt will achieve the future they deserve.
Actually, if you read Obama’s Cairo speech, what is striking is how irrelevant it was to what is now happening in Egypt. He may have delivered it in Cairo, but he never mentioned Egypt, or the Mubarak regime, or anything that related specifically to that country. Rather, his speech was directed to Muslims world-wide and dealt at a very high level with the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. It included four paragraphs on democracy, near the end of the speech, and those paragraphs included an apology for Iraq. They constituted, at best, a half-hearted endorsement of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda (about which, see the post immediately below). There is no sign that Obama anticipated in any way what is now happening.
The administration evidently thinks that it must claim to be on top of, if not in control of, events in Egypt. The truth is that what is now happening in the Arab world is not about us. We are spectators. Just as the administration’s claim to have been on the case for a long time is bogus, so, in my view, are criticisms of Obama’s performance to date. To be fair, we don’t know what role the administration has played behind the scenes–if any. If it has in fact supported Mubarak and helped to convince the Egyptian Army to stick with Mubarak but transition to a more open government, that’s a good thing.