How Obama handled Egypt

Lexington’s take in The Economist seems spot on to me: “crossed wires, close calls but a good result–until the next friend wobbles.” I believe, as  I’ve previously argued, that the scope for effective US intervention in the crisis was very much smaller than you would think from reading the US media, but the administration made no big mistakes and the outcome, so far, is all right. As Lexington says,

What counts is the result, and this has been no disaster. America remains on good terms with Egypt’s new military masters without having alienated its youthful pro-democracy demonstrators—a neat balancing act whether by luck or design.

That said, harder choices may lie ahead. By his actions in Egypt, Mr Obama has put other authoritarian allies on notice that this president does not buy the “our son-of-a-bitch” theory. He thinks that even pro-Western autocracies that fail to reform deserve to die. But how much reform? And when will he decide they are dying? Will Mr Obama abandon gradual reformers such as King Abdullah or King Mohammed as soon as enough people turn out on the streets of Jordan or Morocco? How many people are enough? To judge by the gale rattling the Arab world this week, he may have to answer such questions rather soon.

I also admired Gideon Rachman’s thoughts on the revolution–not least his aside that the role of social media, though important, is being overstated.

The commentary about the role of social media in Egypt has become so breathless that it is easy to forget that the French managed to storm the Bastille without the help of Twitter – and the Bolsheviks took the Winter Palace without pausing to post photos of each other on Facebook.

The Americans managed a revolution too, I believe, without benefit of the internet.

Gideon went on to discuss the different models for Egypt’s transition to a more democratic future–it comes down to Turkey (if we’re lucky) or Pakistan (if we aren’t), or maybe something in between.

If the army now keeps its promise to hold clean elections in Egypt, the disposition of social and political forces in the country will become much clearer. Over the past 30 years, the population of Egypt has nearly doubled to more than 80m. This is a very young society, it is also an increasingly urbanised country, and one that has seen a visible religious revival in recent years.

One recent Pew opinion poll showed 80 per cent support in Egypt for the idea that adulterers should be stoned, the kind of figure that bolsters the fears of those who worry that Facebook Egypt will be outvoted by fundamentalist Egypt.

Was that 80% for stoning? What could possibly go wrong?

An article that puzzled me very much was Niall Ferguson’s much-discussed essay for Newsweek. I have a high regard for Ferguson, but the sense of history I expect from him was not evident in his strange view that a security conference in Israel was a better vantage point than Cairo during recent events:

Last week, while other commentators ran around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hyperventilating about what they saw as an Arab 1989, I flew to Tel Aviv for the annual Herzliya security conference. The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.

Mightily persuasive, I agree, but a couple of points. This is the Arab 1989, isn’t it? Then again, Ferguson says that Obama’s failure to emulate Bismarck (am I getting this right?) has resulted in a foreign-policy debacle. Why is it a debacle? And what should Obama have done, exactly, to achieve an outcome that was not a debacle? He should have had a map, says Ferguson. He should have had priorities. He should have had a strategy. Yes, those are good things to have. But tell us what this strategy should be. Tell us about the superior outcome that following it would actually have yielded.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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