Sometimes big changes happen fast. Last week, Egypt was a case in point. After 18 days of trying to wait out the mass protests in Cairo, Hosni Mubarak finally gave up the Egyptian presidency. His last hours in power were schizophrenic ones; if the stakes had been lower, it might have been funny. Live from CNN: Hosni Mubarak is stepping down… no, actually, he’s staying put… but wait, according to the Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. he handed over power to Vice President Omar Suleiman. In the end, Mubarak called it quits and left the office he had held for 30 years.
Throughout the crisis, America was officially on the fence. The surprising number of people who RSVP’d “Maybe Attending” to Facebook’s “Virtual ‘March of Millions’ in Solidarity with Egyptian Protestors” event pretty much mirrored the Obama administration’s approach to the situation. Was the U.S. for Mubarak or against him? It was never really clear. Commentators in support of Obama described his policy toward Egypt as “realist.” Those who disliked his approach labeled it “heartless.” Less partisan observers might have described it as “confused.”
Consider the following. According to The New York Times, on Feb. 5, Obama’s special envoy to Cairo, Frank Wisner, informed a diplomatic conference in Munich that then-President Mubarak was “indispensable” to Egypt’s hoped-for transition to democracy. Upon hearing the news, an “incensed” President Obama ordered Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry to make a statement on the Sunday morning talk shows clarifying that Mr. Wisner’s remarks “just don’t reflect where the administration has been from day one.” America, the President wanted to emphasize, stands firmly for democracy and against despotism. But soon after, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued comments in which she “echoed at least part of Mr. Wisner’s argument.” Around the same time, Vice President Joe Biden told an interviewer that “he did not believe Mr. Mubarak was a dictator.” White House officials followed up this comment with a statement declaring that Biden “quickly regretted” his remarks. Nothing in this tableau of assertions and retractions exactly screams clear and focused foreign policy.
Needless to say, in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, the Obama administration has taken some heat. The basic headline ran something like: “Grassroots Protests Succeed while Uncertain U.S. Government Looks On.” Some of this criticism is clearly deserved. Obama’s foreign policy team is divided between older hands like Biden, Clinton, and Wisner and younger diplomats like Samantha Power, Denis McDonough and Benjamin Rhodes. The veterans looked at Egypt and told the President, “Go slow: don’t throw Mubarak overboard yet.” The up-and-comers said, “Show some spine: kick the dictator out.” Unfortunately, the President failed to fuse the two viewpoints into a coherent message to the international community. His heart seemed to be with the younger camp, but his actions gave greater weight to the advice of the old timers. Overall, he just appeared indecisive.
Still, it’s somewhat encouraging to see that this type of internal debate actually occurred. After all, both sides offered fair points. The old hands were right to wonder, “What happens if America goes against the advice of its friends in the Middle East and breaks with a long-time ally—a despot, sure, but also the scourge of Islamic extremists for 30 years?” The new crop of advisors was equally prescient when they pondered, “What happens to our already tarnished image in the Middle East if we continue to support a dictator in the face of mass protests?” Either decision implied serious consequences. If we had tried to kick Mubarak out, we would have risked disorder, which breeds extremism. If we had actively supported Mubarak, we would have angered the Egyptian people and might have ended up feeding al-Qaeda’s fire anyway. Both potential outcomes were important considerations, and the President clearly took them into account—perhaps too openly—in his decision-making process.
The Obama administration’s open-mindedness becomes all the more noteworthy in comparison to the last administration’s foreign policy strategies. President Obama’s fact-based, cautious and occasionally uncertain approach is a far cry from the decisiveness and belligerence of George W. Bush.
Both Obama’s cautious approach and W.’s “cowboy diplomacy” have roots in old and divergent traditions of American foreign policy. At the most basic level, one tradition prizes certainty and the other prioritizes humbleness. In the army of the certain are Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and W. All three dreamed big: Wilson wanted to achieve world peace in a decade; W. envisioned liberating the Middle East in a few short years. This tradition of certainty tends toward idealism and quick, unequivocal decisions. If human rights abuses are taking place, denounce them. If the world isn’t democratic enough, reform it—by force, if necessary. In this formulation, disagreement or compromise are anathemas, since they tend to weaken the collective resolve. Woodrow Wilson called opponents to his League of Nations plan “contemptible quitters.” George W. Bush simply labeled dissenters to his freedom agenda un-American.
The humble tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama is considerably quieter and practices a different faith: skepticism, or what David Brooks, speaking at Scripps last week on a different issue, called “epistemological modesty.” Practitioners of this approach are modest about the sheer amount of information they don’t have access to and the possible outcomes they can’t predict. They’ve read some history and they know that when Americans start thinking that we’re infallible, we get into serious trouble. Maybe they’ve read the work of British historian Arnold Toynbee, who characterized America as “a large, friendly dog in a very small room: every time it wags its tail… [it] knocks over a chair.” These humble foreign policy practitioners want America to stop being the canine version of Dennis the Menace.
I suspect that the Obama administration didn’t handle the Egyptian crisis perfectly. But given the past results of the idealistic approach, I feel safer with this President in the White House.