To say that our leaders covered themselves with shame would be melodramatic. To say that they were embarrassed by unforeseeable obstructions would be much too kind. They could not help speaking for democracy, because that is what the U.S. thinks it stands for; if our actions sometimes expose us to the charge of hypocrisy, our words have the single-mindedness of sincere belief. How then did American policy in February come so palpably untethered?
We have supported a succession of military strongmen in Egypt going as far back as 1952, when the CIA judged Gamal Abdel Nasser a plausible bulwark against Communism. The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in aid (mostly military). Of all our clients, only Israel gets more, at $3 billion annually. The view in Washington has long been that those two nations will oversee "the neighborhood" on our behalf. That is why a nonviolent insurgency on the West Bank, if it should occur, would meet as baffled a response from Washington as the February days in Egypt. The embarrassment is part of the situation.
A fair surmise is that Obama was no less confusing in private than in public; that when he spoke to Mubarak, his words were muffled and decorous: "You must begin leaving, but I will never desert you" — something like that. The difference between Mubarak’s shakiness in his first televised speech to the country and his evident composure in his second speech may well be explained by a signal that he took for an assurance.
I will never desert you, one recalls, is the message that Barack Obama conveyed to Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (when Obama was still a candidate); to the banks and financial firms (in February 2009); to Dick Cheney and the torture lawyers (in his National Archives Speech of May 2009); to General David Petraeus (in the months preceding the 2009 administration review of the Afghan War); to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (in the summer of 2009); and to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (in February 2011).
The need to give assurance seems to be an inseparable trait of Obama’s character. He deals with big decisions by first moving to cement a secure alliance with the powers-that-be, no matter how discredited they are, no matter how resounding his previous contempt for them may have been. Yet this is a reflex that often prematurely cedes control to the powerful over whom he might otherwise be in a position to exert leverage. That fight, however, is not for him.
To say it another way, Obama visibly hates crisis. He is so averse to the very idea of instability that he seems unable to use a crisis to his advantage. Seldom, to judge by the evidence thus far, is he the first, second, or third person in the room to recognize that a state of crisis exists. The hesitation that looked like apathy and the hyper-managerial tone of his response to the BP oil spill offered a vivid illustration of this trait. Egypt brought out the same pattern.
Friday, March 11, 2011
Obama's Need to Give Assurance
David Bromwich, amateur Obama watcher, from his perch in the English Department at Yale, is always interesting and insightful, this time about the events of last month in the Middle East: