No-drama Obama is getting mixed reviews for his performance during the first act of the Egyptian revolution—and there’s no question that he falls short as a rabble-rouser. As an orator he’s no Trotsky, or even America’s William Jennings Bryan. As president, he has too many interests in the region and has already disavowed the use of “anticipatory” military force to complete his arguments. The more persistent charge—the one that will cut deepest if Egypt eventually is lost to extremists—is that he sided with the idealists on the streets rather than with America’s known friends.
It’s obvious that he gave no comfort to President Mubarak and progressively pushed for immediate steps toward the creation of a popular and, ultimately, elected government. So-called realists in Washington have rallied around Obama’s own old-school diplomat Frank Wisner, who suggested last week that Mubarak “must stay in office to steer those changes through.” Allies in the region have also expressed alarm that an American president would abandon an old friend. Wits in the Republican Party have called this Obama’s Jimmy Carter moment.
The problem with individuals who call themselves realists is that they spend most of their time with each other and are invariably serving the interests of those who are already in charge.
Obama has been clear about what he’ll do to protect American interests: he will abandon friends and will go with events on the ground. He will not try to bring history to a halt in order to wait for Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” to shrink to manageable proportions. In short, he’ll not throw around limited American resources attempting to channel the forces of change in the Middle East.
He didn’t do any obvious harm to American interests, or any big favour to others. His performance is amazingly reminiscent of President Eisenhower’s conduct during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956.
Ike promptly sided with Egypt and international law, when his wartime comrades in Great Britain and France and Israel invaded Egypt after its popular leader General Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Using diplomacy and privately threatening Britain financially, he quickly forced his friends to back down before the world. Israel turned over the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and British Prime Minister Anthony Eden soon resigned from office.
No-drama Eisenhower was a realist from the old brutal school.
He may have held Nasser and his army in contempt. He had soldiered with the British at the glorious height of his career and was likely dazzled by the general-ship of Moshe Dayan. Nevertheless, sentiment and scenarios about “known unknowns” didn’t impress him. He didn’t think nationalism in the Middle East could be suppressed by two near-bankrupt European powers and he wasn’t going to squander American good will to support such an exercise.
Is there any chance Eisenhower today would have appealed to the people of Egypt to give America’s longstanding friend and bribe-taker another chance? Would he imagine today that the words of a Chicago Baptist would subdue throngs of Muslims who’d risked arrest to challenge the status quo?
And it’s pretty unlikely he’d try now to comfort nervous allies with promises about America being there when they get in trouble with their own people.