Why didn’t the Obama administration see this coming?

Why didn’t the Obama administration see this coming?

Less than a week after a State of the Union address that relegated foreign policy to an almost parenthetical concern, the turmoil in Egypt serves reminder yet again how global events can surprise and demand a presidency’s attention nonetheless.

I am sympathetic to the Obama administration’s challenges in staying abreast of developments this past week, and calibrating their public and private diplomacy effectively. The balance has been difficult, between hedging that Mubarak might hang on to power while supporting the demands of the protestors for freedom and reform, all the while trying to minimize violence, and prevent outright chaos and state collapse.

Where I am not sympathetic to the administration is on two counts: their failure to anticipate this and prepare contingency plans, and their neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review. The Mubarak regime’s brittleness and Egypt’s stagnation have long been apparent to many observers. As just one example among many prognostications, the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt co-chaired by Michelle Dunne and Bob Kagan has for the past year been sounding alarms and urging a revision of U.S. policy.

Even a non-Egypt specialist like me has raised multiple concerns about the regime’s stability and encouraged the United States to support more vigorously the democratic reformers. For example in March 2009 I warned "on a recent visit, I did not meet a single Egyptian who had any positive words for Mubarak. My queries elicited either frustrated complaints or the furtive silence that comes from decades of living in a tightly-controlled society… Egypt embodies all the maladies of the non-Gulf Arab world: widespread unemployment and even more underemployment, few channels for popular expression, and a resilient and growing Islamist movement … serious destabilization in Egypt is a real possibility. Which should caution the Obama team against relying too heavily on this traditional U.S. ally and regional leader for any important policy." (See also here, and here.)

Yet as Tom Malinowski laments in this insightful article, the State Department’s default posture on Egypt and similar regimes has instead been a succession of short-term calculations on autocratic stability that may pay off day-to-day — but miss horribly when major paradigm shifts take place.  If anything, the Obama Administration’s policy towards Egypt has consisted of a double-down bet on the Mubarak regime’s stability and longevity, and a painfully shortsighted eschewal of any meaningful support for democracy and human rights.

Political reform is not the only issue; the Egyptian protests are against economic stagnation as much as political repression, as Egypt’s burgeoning population has faced a dismal job market and little prospect for improving their station in life. Here also is another missed opportunity – very little of the billions in U.S. development assistance sent to Egypt in the past decades has supported genuine economic reform, entrepreneurship, and private sector job-creation. Yet lest America’s billions in aid to Egypt be dismissed entirely, one potential fruit today may be found in its largest recipient: the Egyptian military. At least as of this writing — and hopefully going forward — the Egyptian military has played a pivotal role in preserving order and providing moral support for the reformers.  In doing so it has honored one of the most fundamental tenets of civilian-military relations — it has protected, not attacked, the citizens that it serves.

Meanwhile, as events in Egypt play out by the hour, various commentators are casting about for historical analogies. One being invoked, mistakenly I believe, is the 1979 Iranian revolution.  Yet as Robert Kaplan points out, there is no Egyptian Ayatollah Khomeini preparing to return from exile and lead an Islamist takeover, nor does the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt receive majority support.  Other analogies are possible, but limited. Perhaps 1986, and "People Power" in the Philippines when the Reagan administration at last withdrew support from the Marcos dictatorship and got behind Cory Aquino? South Korea in 1987? Or 1989 — and if so, which 1989? Tiananmen Square in China, or the mass movements in Europe that led to the peaceful fall of the Iron Curtain? Or Indonesia in 1998, when Suharto fell, replaced initially by a fellow general but soon enough by democracy (while the Islamists remained a minority)? Or the most recent mass protests in the Arab world, Lebanon’s stillborn "Cedar Revolution"? None of the analogies fit exactly, because history does not repeat itself exactly. However Egypt in 2011 plays out, it will soon become an analogy of its own.

Finally, as my former NSC colleague Elliott Abrams points out, Egypt vindicates President George W. Bush’s strategic insight in his 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. … As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

The window is diminishing, but not yet closed, for President Obama to seize the initiative and make emphatically clear to the people of Egypt — and to whatever leaders succeed Mubarak — that the United States supports their desire for liberty, prosperity, and a better future. Doing so now offers the best hope for a meaningful U.S.-Egypt partnership in the future.