As President Obama watched events unfold this past week in Egypt and the surrounding Arab world, he is said to have reflected on his own boyhood experiences in Indonesia - when the country was ruled by a corrupt, authoritarian leader who was later toppled by a reform movement.
Obama looks at the Egyptian drama through an unusual lens. He has experienced dictatorship firsthand, a world where "the strong man takes the weak man's land," as he quoted his Indonesian stepfather in his autobiography. The president came of age reading Frantz Fanon and other theorists of radical change. He is sometimes described as a "post-racial" figure, but it's also helpful to think of him as a "post-colonial" man.
Obama's policy decisions over the past several weeks have been guided by a sense that the fissures in Egyptian and Arab society have been building for a long time, and that, as one person familiar with his thinking says, "this is not something that can be put back in a box."
While Obama thinks it's important to protect U.S. interests amid the turbulence, he believes that as a democracy, the United States can't respond in the narrow way that, say, China would. He is said to have ended several meetings in the Situation Room over the past week with an admonition to think broadly about the process of change that's under way now and align U.S. policy with these larger themes.
The formative experiences of Obama's life tell him that change in developing countries is inexorable and that reform can often succeed. Not every popular movement turns out as disastrously as the Iranian revolution of 1979, Obama believes. There are positive models, including the "people power" movement that replaced Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the overthrow in 1998 of the dictatorial President Suharto in Indonesia, whom Obama remembers from his boyhood.
If Obama hasn't publicly articulated these broad themes lately, that's partly due to the rush of events - and also because of his reticent manner. He is not a man who likes to govern by anecdote. Critics have argued that Obama has been too slow to embrace the Egyptian protest movement. But he seems genuinely to believe that change is a matter for Egyptians, not Americans, and that too heavy an American hand would be counterproductive.
Friday, February 4, 2011
Thinking Broadly and Deeply
This reporting by WaPo's David Ignatius about Obama's reaction to the Egyptian crisis is encouraging: