Lee Smith is the author of the timely book The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, now out in paperback. He is also a senior editor for the Weekly Standard, where his article “The wages of weakness” appears today. I comment on the article below.
I wasn’t sure if I was reading Lee’s article correctly and asked him if he would respond to my comments or expand on his article for us. He has graciously responded with this amplification of his article:
Scott writes that, “Smith berates Obama for not being stronger in standing up to Mubarak”–which isn’t really the case.
I think the administration is right to be very concerned about what the Mubarak regime is doing in the streets right now; but not because being allied to this regime will much affect our standing on the so-called “Arab street,” since there is very little that Washington can do to shape that perspective.
Maybe it’s worth recalling the Peter Rodman essay where he noted that Eisenhower called the 1956 Suez Crisis his greatest foreign policy mistake. After getting our British, French and Israeli allies to stand down and handing Nasser the Egyptian president’s only foreign policy victory in a career marked by disastrous adventurism, Eisenhower couldn’t understand why the Egyptians still hated the US.
So no matter what Obama thinks he can get from Mubarak, the American president is not going to win the affection of the Arab masses. The administration’s concern is appropriate insofar as Americans do not like to see people crushed in their own streets by their rulers, especially when those rulers are US allies and get American aid money.
That said, whatever Obama wanted from Mubarak should have been conducted in private–not just because that is how you treat allies, no matter how mad you are at them, but also because to do otherwise, to make public demands, sets up the likely possibility that you will be rebuffed in public.
Obama tried to take Mubarak out to the woodshed, but the Egyptian knows he doesn’t have to take the US commander-in-chief seriously, because of his actions in the Middle East the last two years. Whether or not you think that Obama is right to deal with a US ally the way he has treated Mubarak, or whether Mubarak should step down immediately, the fact is that Mubarak knows Obama does not need to be taken seriously.
As I say in the piece, the US president did not project power in the region because he failed to observe the cardinal rule of Middle East politics–reward your friends and punish your enemies. These are very clear redlines, but Obama ignored them–with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians and Israel–and so regional actors assumed they were free to behave as they saw fit without having to worry about the US. This is the definition of impotence.
And now Obama looks yet weaker for making demands that Mubarak has ignored. Insofar as the administration may escalate its rhetoric, it will only get worse. Mubarak has dug in. In his speech Thursday, the man said he is going to die on Egyptian soil, which is a promise I believe he means to keep. So what is Obama going to do about it? Send a SEAL team to extract the Egyptian president?
The very strange thing is that getting Mubarak to agree to name a Vice President and to step down is actually a victory for US policy. The White House is putting out word that it is disappointed in the intelligence community for not anticipating this uprising, but it has been the working assumption of US policymakers for at least a decade that the succession in Egyptian leadership would be a difficult one.
This is why several US administrations and the State Dept have sought precisely this from Mubarak–to name a VP. Instead of pocketing the win, Obama overplayed a limited hand, a hand he had made even weaker by diminishing America’s regional profile.
And now in demanding something from Mubarak he cannot secure or enforce, he has come across looking even weaker. But of course, this is what happens to a president who says he does not believe in the balance of power–his own power is thereby attenuated.
Thanks to Lee for expanding on his valuable article for our readers.