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Monday, January 31, 2011

Obama v. Mubarak

Dore Gold worries about the message that President Obama - or more specifically, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs - sent to Egyptian President Mubarak on Sunday.
But it was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs who went beyond Obama by issuing what sounded like an implicit threat to Egypt. At a press briefing, Gibbs stated that the Egyptian government had to address the “legitimate grievances” of the Egyptian people “immediately.” A journalist in the press briefing room then popped the question to Gibbs: “You say that these legitimate grievances have to be addressed. I’m wondering. Or what?” Gibbs came back: “We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days.” In other words, precisely when the Egyptian government had its back to the wall with the worst protests in recent Egyptian history, the White House press secretary threatened the embattled Mubarak with a cut in U.S. foreign aid. Israel’s largest newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, reported these events with a headline: “Obama Against Mubarak.”

Presumably, the U.S. government had its reasons for holding Mubarak at arms length. If they embraced their old ally, at this time, they could undermine him. Moreover, Washington was displeased with the Egyptian government for not adhering to U.S. political advice. Mubarak had been reluctant to take U.S. advice on political reform. In 2005, when he listened to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s demands to open up the Egyptian parliamentary elections, the numbers of elected members of the Muslim Brotherhood vastly increased from 15 seats to 88 out of the 454-member Egyptian Parliament. The Obama administration was not alone in expressing its frustration with Mubarak. Indeed, leading editorials took a hard line against him, as well. Aluf Benn thus concluded that there was a sense in the last few days that “the U.S. foreign policy establishment was shaking off its long-term protege in Cairo.”

Whatever the motivation was in Washington, the rough handling of Mubarak will have long-term implications. Egypt is a critical country. The Suez Canal, that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, runs through its territory. With Egypt in hostile hands, how will the U.S. reinforce the Persian Gulf from Europe? Intercontinental air routes fly over Egyptian territory, as well. But the real problem will be the reaction of other American allies in the Middle East. What kind of signal did Gibbs’ threat about cutting aid send to King Abdullah of Jordan or to President Saleh of Yemen, as well as to other allies in the Persian Gulf? Did it mean that as soon as an Arab leader gets into trouble, he starts to get disowned? Egypt had its problems, but the approach taken towards this old U.S. ally will have implications across the Arab world in the months ahead.
It's actually even worse than Dore's portraying it, and I highlighted what I believe is the key sentence here. Mubarak's downfall is a failure of the Obama administration. Where Mubarak needed gentle pressure from the US two years ago to keep going with the democratization program, that pressure was missing. Instead, Obama used all of his capital pressuring Israel - and no one else - in the Middle East. My guess is that every country in the Middle East is going to experience the kind of upheaval that Egypt is now experiencing, with the exceptions of Syria (which would gas its population to stop it), Iran (which would beat them to death), Iraq (which has already been through it) and Hamastan (which would react like Iran). Jordan, Lebanon, the 'Palestinian Authority' and maybe even Saudi Arabia, along with most of the Gulf states, are likely to go through what Egypt is going through now. And all because Obama gave a bunch of despots a free ride and only pressured Israel.

Some 'fierce moral urgency.' What could go wrong?

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At 7:02 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Obama's obsession with Israel has been a blessing in disguise - he missed the train of history in the Middle East and didn't see it coming.



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