I have been trying to make sense of our government’s approach to the uprising in Egypt. Not just the statements and policies, but the inner logic, the deep structure: the vision of the world from which the statements and policies flow.
And I keep coming back to the idea that President Obama is uninterested in the world, and would – if the world allowed him – turn his back on it.
Much has been made of the administration’s inability to keep up with events on the ground in Egypt. This is a fair indictment. White House and State Department statements seem to shift according to the images on that day’s Al Jazeera feed.
I’ll cite one example. On 28 January, with demonstrators brushing aside the police in many Egyptian cities while Hosni Mubarak, the country’s “president” of 30 years, maintained a sphinx-like silence, the White House made emphatic noises about cutting US aid. Three days later, after Mubarak offered to leave office in September, Secretary of State Clinton stated, “There is no discussion of cutting off aid.”
US positions appear tactical, improvised, and often contradictory. Egypt is pronounced “stable” by the secretary of state, but a few days later the president finds the country to be suffering a “moment of volatility.” We deny any wish to “dictate” an outcome to the crisis, but this is how White House press secretary addresses the Egyptian government: “Violence in any form should stop immediately, and the grievances should be addressed.”
This obsession with tactical positioning is a symptom of a much graver malady. Toward a country like Egypt, ruled by a sickly 82-year-old despot and key to the frail US-sponsored arrangements in the Middle East, the administration had failed to articulate a vision of how American interests and ideals must evolve into the future. Tactics were necessary because no strategy existed.
The omission can only be described as attention deficit disorder on a world historical scale. I’m not privy to the motives of the president or his advisors, but they seem to me strangely uninterested in shaping events, in directing outcomes – in making history. They seem to me like they wish to be left alone by a turbulent world.
Our official declarations have tended to strike an angelic pose, as if the United States lacked any selfish interests. Of the Tunisian uprising, prime mover to the current Arab upheaval, Secretary Clinton said: “We are not taking sides.” For days after a human tide, like the Red Sea, overwhelmed the security forces of Mubarak’s pharaonic regime, US statements worried mainly about the possibility of violence. “We urge all parties to refrain from violence”: another way of saying, “We are not taking sides.”
Even when, in the press of events, the administration at length abandoned Mubarak for some sort of transitional process, the appeal was to airy “universal” principles rather than to American interests or ideals. “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people,” read a White House statement. “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” said the president, somewhat later, on TV. To the Egyptian government, Vice President Biden “restated President Obama’s support for universal rights.” In a statement condemning regime violence against journalists, Secretary Clinton first spoke of “international norms” but soon reverted to “universal values.”
The values in question were “freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.” These are truly noble ideals, but I’d like the chance to question Secretary Clinton about their universality. Neither she nor anyone else in the administration, I feel certain, would take up the debate. Their talk of universal values is a dodge, a way of pretending liberal democracy isn’t an American ideal.
In fact the US has an existential stake in the outcome in Egypt. We wish to prevent an Islamist takeover. We don’t wish to see the most populous and prestigious Arab nation – but also the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood – become, like Iran, a zealous promoter of terrorism. We wish to see the peace with Israel hold, or else the “moment of volatility” will give way to far more dreadful times.
And because America is an ideological country, and Americans are an ideological people, we wish to have peaceful relations with an Egyptian government which embraces liberal democracy – personal and political freedom – in all its aspects.
President Obama is shy in pressing these peculiarly American interests and ideals. He prefers the angelic pose. In a WaPo article, David Ignatius calls him the first “post-colonial” president – which I translate to mean, the first president who believes US influence brings more harm than good to the world. Maybe so. This would explain the president’s shyness, and would agree with observations I have made on this blog.
Yet a sincere post-colonialist would possess the theoretical framework to prefer a specific outcome in Egypt – the overthrow of the corrupt NDP clique – and the motivation to seek this outcome by the application of American power. Instead the president has dithered. At present he seems to favor a transition managed by the newly appointed Egyptian vice president, a man fully implicated in the crimes of the regime.
If, as Ignatius claims, the president is in his mind a disciple of Frantz Fanon, in his actions he appears to be a servant of the status quo.
Because of his exotic personal background, Barack Obama has been portrayed as uniquely at home outside our borders: a citizen of the world. The reality is that, like the typical Joe Sixpack, he is deeply uninterested in, and suspicious of, the sound and fury emanating from the world – the noise of history. His secretary of state is an invisible woman. His State of the Union speech scarcely took notice of the existence of contending nations and restless populations, any of which can erupt, as Egypt has, without a moment’s warning, to bring grief to American lives.
On the stage of history, President Obama so far has been, by orders of magnitude, the most passive and conservative chief executive in my lifetime. He seeks to freeze human affairs in a Faustian moment, with America’s clients distant enough that they won’t entangle us in their troubles, and America’s antagonists flattered enough that they won’t scheme our ruin. He can then turn inward, and achieve at home his parochial transformations.
But history won’t go away. The world is too much with us, and the United States is too large a force in the world. For peculiarly American reasons, that force has been exerted on behalf of freedom. From Hitler to Saddam Hussein, would-be Caesars have had to contend with the American fighting man, while totalitarians have had to reckon with a fierce American defense of liberal democracy.
American power and influence are identified in history with a way of life. It will be hard for President Obama to tiptoe away from America’s historical commitments, without wreaking havoc on the status quo he so desperately wishes to preserve.
UPDATE: Jackson Diehl at WaPo records another instance of the president’s obdurate loyalty to the status quo.