Leading From the Rear

President Obama gave a brief speech on the situation in Egypt tonight; if you didn’t see it, the text is here. I’m not sure that any other administration could have done a materially better job of dealing with the crisis that began in Tunisia and continues in several Arab countries. What is happening in the Arab world is not about us. But I’m pretty sure that another administration could have adopted a less annoying tone.
It is obvious to everyone that our government has no control over events in Egypt; that the sort of explosion now taking place has long been predicted, yet was not foreseen; and that Obama has been sitting back, awaiting developments, before deciding what way to jump. Now that it is clear that Mubarak’s regime cannot survive, he pretends to get out front of the Egyptian popular movement and to tell it, and Mubarak, what to do. That’s the way it looks, anyway.
Obama’s first concern, seemingly, was to assure Americans that he is relevant to what is going on:

And my administration has been in close contact with our Egyptian counterparts and a broad range of the Egyptian people, as well as others across the region and across the globe. And throughout this period, we’ve stood for a set of core principles.

Most people are well aware that for a long time, America has not been guided by core principles in dealing with Arab governments. There have been good reasons for this, but President Bush was not the only one who argued that we have erred on the side of promoting stability by upholding the status quo. And no core principles were in evidence as the administration watched events in Egypt unfold.
Obama assured us that he has been laying down the law to Mubarak:

After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place. Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people.

Some more so than others, of course. I trust Obama isn’t planning on staying in office for 30 years. This was the climax of the President’s statement:

What is clear — and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak — is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.
Furthermore, the process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties. It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that’s not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.

Are we really in a position to tell either President Mubarak or the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in the streets of Cairo and other cities what “must” be? I doubt it, notwithstanding our billion-dollar-plus aid to that country. No matter how “clear” Obama may be, our control over events is minimal.
Moreover, Obama was not particularly clear. The burning question is what role, if any, Islamic extremists–personified in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood–will play in the government that succeeds Mubarak’s. On that topic, Obama kept his cards close to the vest. The next government “must” include “a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties.” Apart from the patronizing tone–would anyone utter a sentence like that about a real democracy?–the central question remains unanswered. Should the broad spectrum include the Muslim Brotherhood, or not? Obama didn’t say. And his conclusion–“it should result in a government that’s not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people”–was incoherent. If that was in code, I don’t have the key.
The reasonable inference is that Obama is still waiting to see what happens next, and, once events have taken further shape, he will again scurry to the front of the parade, as though he were leading it.

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