Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Obama Doesn't Deserve Any Credit for Egypt

With Mubarak gone, we (rightly) want to assess Obama's handling of an entirely unexpected crisis. Niall Ferguson criticizes Obama's team for not appropriately gaming such a difficult to image scenario. Sure, this would have been advisable, but at some point your foreign policy team has to decide which in conceivable threats to deal with, and which are, well, simply inconceivable (This makes some sense, whether or not revolutions are inherently unpredictable (as Scott Wolford argues) or if a group of Egypt experts had, in fact, predicted Mubarak’s weakness (as Dan Drezner claims)). Slate’s John Dickerson weighs in in Obama’s favor, arguing that when events move quickly, doing little isn’t such a bad option. Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell argues similarly that Obama, while spending too much time trying to "thread the needle," came down in favor of the protests, but in a way that avoided making the protesters look like foreign stooges.

All of these arguments miss an important point about what Obama did. Under pressure from Middle Eastern allies, the Obama administration responded carefully, finally deciding to "support" the protestors in their calls for reform, but by maintaining calls for stability. Mubarak and his government could stay in power, handle the transition, and work toward September elections. Some commenters (like Stephen Walt and Blake Hounshell) claim that this represents Obama’s ultimate support for the protesters.

I don't see it that way. Unless Obama and his team are much more naive than I give them credit for, they, like any other politician, know the value of political promises. Without strict incentives to follow up, political promises aren't credible. And any promise by Mubarak to work towards "transition" wasn't credible. The Egyptian protesters knew this: that's why they stayed on the streets. If they had gone home, Mubarak could simply have loaded up Facebook and started hunting down the organizers, one by one. By September, any new protests that could have been generated by the new elections could have been shut down by arresting the organizers and putting security forces out in force to quell new protests. End result: Mubarak stays in power, with Obama's support for reform giving him the out he needed. 

Good thing the Egyptians didn't fall for it.

Here's the real rub, though. The US can pretty much afford to piss off Arab dictators--Mubarak and the rest, since, as far as foreign policy goes, their interests are our interests. Saudis don't want high oil prices, but not because they're worried about the US. Mubarak's Egypt will always play along on combating terrorism and maintaining the treaty with Israel. They can't afford not to. Both because of the outrageous levels of development and military aid we give Egypt, but also because it's in their interests to do so.
If Mubarak hadn't fallen, angering him wouldn't have mattered so much, because our interests are aligned. If he did, then it's critical that we played the right game during the protests. And that game was to unambiguously side with the protesters. We weren't, and I'm certain that if the next government is a non-military one, they'll remember who got them there and who didn't.


  1. Chris,

    How do we know exactly what Obama did on this? Like you said, public statements aren't exactly credible or enforceable. But beyond that, what good are the revealed preferences of a democratic leader on the international stage? What if the counterfactual is actually this: suppose Obama did not do anything through more secretive, diplomatic channels, would we still have the same outcome with a relatively peaceful transition (to what, I don't know, but that is another debate altogether)? What if the private, credible signal to cut funding to Egypt if violence was used actually bought the protesters and military time to figure out the relative capabilities of Mubarak and each other, leading to what we might expect: a low conflict bargain. Seems hard to really deny or give credit to the administration without some better knowledge of immensely secret diplomatic communiques. I wonder what Julian Assange is up to...

  2. Hi-
    You make a good point about the behind the scenes stuff we didn't see. But the thing is that nobody else--outside of Obama's and Mubarak's inner circles saw them either. Maybe the Egyptians will be nice, "rational" Bayesian updaters when they learn what secret deals Obama cut for them, but in the interim I can't imagine that they're too happy with the US.