Obama: Politics vs. diplomacy

February 7th, 2011

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

Diplomacy is subtle. Politics is not.

President Barack Obama is under pressure right now to pursue a subtle, delicately nuanced diplomacy in trying to influence the course of events in Egypt. That can be politically hazardous.

In politics, people don’t want subtlety. They want directness, even — or especially — in foreign affairs. They want Ronald Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” They want John F. Kennedy saying during the Cuban missile crisis, “One path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”

The Obama administration is pursuing a cautious, subtle diplomacy in Egypt because U.S. interests and American values are pulling in different directions. For more than 30 years, Egypt has been a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East peace process and in the campaign against terrorism.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is “our man.” For the United States to be seen as abandoning Mubarak would send a message to other allies that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its commitments or stand by its friends.

American sympathies are clearly with the anti-Mubarak protesters. Liberals are frustrated that Obama is not more outspoken in demanding that Mubarak go immediately. It looks like the familiar Cold War pattern where the U.S. supports nasty dictators because they side with us over our enemies. (Then, the Communists. Now, Islamic radicals.) Such alliances usually come to a bad end. Hence the warnings to Obama that he not end up on “the wrong side of history.”

Conservatives are becoming openly critical of Obama’s cautious diplomacy. They’re gearing up for a battle over “Who lost Egypt?”

Sarah Palin said, “We need to know what it is that America stands for so we know who it is that America will stand with.” That’s a good rule in politics. Not so good in diplomacy.

Some conservatives are drawing parallels between Obama now and President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Newt Gingrich wrote in The Washington Post, “The No. 1 American goal in Egypt should be to avoid the weakness, confusion, self-deception and timidity that led the Carter administration in 1979 to demoralize the Iranian military and allow the replacement of a U.S. ally with an enemy.”

For years, the U.S. has been pressuring Mubarak to reform his corrupt, brutal dictatorship. It was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who said at the American University of Cairo in 2005, “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Obama issued a direct warning to Mubarak when he said in Cairo in 2009, “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion.”

In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush argued that it is in the strategic interest of the United States to promote democracy in the Middle East: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

Does it? If Saudi Arabia were a true democracy, would it be a more reliable ally? Or Jordan? Democratic elections in Gaza resulted in a Hamas victory. In Egypt, a democratic government with genuine popular support would almost certainly be less friendly to Israel.

Mubarak is pro-U.S. Is Egypt? We’re not so sure.

One thing is clear: Mubarak will not be in power by the end of this year. Maybe not by the end of this month. The United States must try to cultivate as much influence as possible with the new Egyptian regime.

And so Obama has sent a cautiously balanced message: We want President Mubarak to step aside but not necessarily step down. When Obama said last week, “an orderly transition’’ in Egypt “must begin now,” he seemed to be siding with the protesters on the streets of Cairo: Mubarak must go now, right?

It depends on what the meaning of “now” is.

A few days later, the administration scaled back the pressure. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that an orderly transition “takes some time,” adding, “There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.”

Suddenly, the United States seemed worried that unsavory forces might come to power. “Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy,” Clinton said, “only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power.”

The U.S. tilt against Mubarak is very worrying for Israel, which has no illusions about what might result from a democratic regime in Egypt. “Americans look at what is going on in Cairo and see 1989,” an Israeli official said. “We see 1979.”

1979 was the year of the Iranian revolution. 1989 was Tiananmen Square.

The rule that people don’t want subtlety in politics is just as true in Egypt as the United States. The protesters in Cairo seem exasperated by Obama’s cautious diplomacy.

A protester in Cairo told The New York Times, “President Obama better put pressure on Mubarak to leave or things are going to get a lot worse here. He needs to get the army to force him out of here. America is going to create another Iran here. America doesn’t understand. The people know it’s supporting an illegitimate regime.”

He’s saying more or less the same thing Palin is saying: Whose side are we on?

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.