Credit Where Credit Is Due, Obama Played This Beautifully
Posted by Michael Cohen
First things first; this is an extraordinary day and while it's a bit trite to salute the people of Egypt . . . I salute the people of Egypt. I think President Obama summed it up best in his remarks today:
The word "tahrir" means "liberation." It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forevermore, it will remind us of the Egyptian people: of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world.
Yup. And now a word about the Obama Administration. At times I've been fairly critical of this president's handling of foreign policy, but credit must be given - this Administration handled this situation about as deftly as possible. This was truly an American diplomatic tour de force.
From the beginning the White House was caught betwixt and between - not wanting to be seen supporting the status quo, particularly when the winds of change seemed to be blowing in the direction of reform and yet at the same time not be seen as throwing a key ally under the bus.
And while obviously critics can point to individual mistakes (Wisner's wandering off the reservation, Panetta's bizarre comment yesterday in congressional testimony that Mubarak was out the door) on the whole this Administration did a really excellent job - sending public signs that a crackdown would not be acceptable, working the military behind closed doors, trying to ensure a soft landing that wouldn't lead to violence, but still never backing down from the public position that an immediate transition to democracy (and not one in September) was the only acceptable course. (I'll be curious to see the impact of Obama's statement last night on Mubarak and the Egyptian military, but it was absolutely spot-on).
In a sense we helped throw Mubarak under the bus without directly delivering the push (a fact that I'm sure will leave many a non-democratic US ally a tad less secure this evening - which is good).
As Marc Lynch wisely points out the Administration basically followed the lead of the Egyptian people and didn't try to get too far ahead of what was actually happening on the ground.
To this point they didn't overplay their hand or overstate their own influence or demand too much from the government or the protesters. They played it about as well as can be expected, calibrating public and private pressure - and all this while being cognizant of the host of obvious constraints on US actions and words. They seemed to understand something that a lot of the armchair pundits couldn't quite grasp; this wasn't about us and we were, if anything, a bit player in this drama.
And then after all that, President Obama delivered a speech today that was absolutely pitch perfect - one of the best of his presidency (Ben Rhodes take a bow). Most deftly, even though we've supported the Egyptian regime for more than 30 years Obama was able to place the United States, rhetorically, on the same side as those in Tahrir Square - and it actually seems to ring true.
From a diplomatic standpoint this section of Obama's speech was particularly smart:
The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt's citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free. Above all, this transition must bring all of Egypt's voices to the table, for the spirit of peaceful protest and perseverance that the Egyptian people have shown can serve as a powerful wind at the back of this change.
This is exactly the right tone going forward; praising the military but at the same laying out the expectation that their stewardship of the country will be temporary and will lead to a democratic transition.
Of course, none of us know what will happen in the weeks and months to come, but for at least one day this Administration and his advisors should take a victory lap.