The unrest in Egypt is easily the most critical international crisis of the Obama administration, and by all accounts the president is not handling it well. His ambiguous and overly cautious statements on the popular uprising in that crucial Middle Eastern nation have managed only to alienate both the pro-democracy protesters and the pro-regime forces, opening the door for truly radical elements like the Muslim Brotherhood to potentially exploit the chaos and seize power.
Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt by emergency powers for nearly thirty years. Mubarak’s chief value to the United States lies in the continuation of his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s peace with Israel, for which he collects $1.5 billion annually in American aid to prop up his government, close military cooperation for the forces that keep him in power, and the legitimacy that comes with being a “key” U.S. ally. In return, the United States has received “stability” in a vital region — a benefit that looks far less valuable in light of the events of the past two weeks.
President Obama’s initial instinct was to support Mubarak over the protesters. At the outset of the unrest, Vice President Biden refused to label Mubarak a “dictator,” and early administration pronouncements on the situation stressed Egypt’s important role in maintaining peace in the Middle East. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed the protests entirely early on, declaring Egypt’s government to be “stable.”
This early support for the regime, however tepid, enabled Mubarak to hold on to power at the most critical juncture. Moreover, the administration’s decision not to come down squarely on the side of the people against an autocratic government led directly to the violence visited on the protesters by government-organized gangs of regime supporters this week. The White House’s condemnation of the violence and call for an “orderly transition” have been completely ignored.
Some might chalk up President Obama’s hesitancy in embracing the protests to inexperience or the gravity of the situation. However, the Obama administration’s response to events in Egypt follows along the same lines as its responses to two other uprisings that have occurred on its watch: Honduras and Iran. In each case, President Obama chose to side with a dictatorship over its democratic resistance.
In Honduras, the uprising came from within the legitimately elected government against a president bent on remaking the country in the mold of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. The army, acting on orders from the Supreme Court, arrested then-President Zelaya before he could stage a sham referendum on his continuation in office in violation of the Honduran constitution. The Obama administration labeled the events a coup and demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement, thereby aligning the United States with the Western Hemisphere’s three notorious dictators: Chavez, Cuba’s Raul Castro, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega — against the democratic aspirations of the Honduran people.
More analogous to the current situation in Egypt is the Green Revolution that took place in Iran in the wake of the disputed presidential elections of 2009. Iranian opposition parties declared the elections stolen and poured into the streets in defiance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime.
After initially seeking to credit President Obama’s much-ballyhooed Cairo address to the Muslim world for the uprising, the administration pulled back, refusing to judge the conduct of the elections or even to condemn the Islamist regime’s brutal crackdown on the demonstrators. Obama spokesman Bill Burton dealt the death blow to the revolution, coldly saying that the United States would recognize whomever the regime certified as the winner of the election. “We’re going to take whatever leadership there is…and that means dealing with the Iran that we’ve got, and not the Iran we wish we had,” Burton said.
The Obama administration missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to destabilize and perhaps topple the Iranian regime, the world’s foremost sponsor of Islamic terrorism and the source of much of the region’s instability, because it could not bring itself to call the Iranian regime illegitimate. Yet it was quick to cast the legitimate Honduran government as a renegade actor. In both instances, the administration sought to uphold the status quo. Now in Egypt, the administration has again squandered a chance to foster good will in a populous Middle Eastern nation.
Because of the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to take a principled stand for democracy, America will receive no credit if the Egyptian revolution ends in a new, more democratic government. On the contrary, it may well receive blame if Mubarak’s crackdown succeeds in breaking the will of the people. Either way, America’s standing in the world will be diminished. Apparently, change stops at the water’s edge.
Mark Impomeni is a conservative opinion writer, blogger, and contributing editor at RedState.com.