06/02/2011

President Obama appears a winner and loser at the same time

There are numerous questions unanswered as turmoil continues to rock Egypt. What will the government look like post-Mubarak? Will the Muslim Brotherhood play an important role? And, if so, what role? How will the events in Egypt affect other countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Israel? How will the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt affect autocratic rulers in Russia and China? Calls for democracy in the Arab street may have global implications; they will certainly change the geopolitics in the Middle East.

The above questions will be answered over time. But what can be definitely said right now is that the United States is playing the role of the major outside power. Talk of American decline or the weakness of President Obama is nowhere on the radar as the world waits to see if and when he will definitively pull the plug on the former trusted U.S. ally. The United States position is what the world is waiting to see.


Who was not at the table? Certainly not the European Union represented by its foreign policy chief Lady Ashton. Certainly not the United Nations and its Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. And certainly not China with all the talk of the rise of China as the next world's superpower. While no one can be sure if any outside influence matters in the current Egyptian crisis, none of these actors is playing a significant role outside the usual banalities of stopping violence.

(By the way, I cannot avoid mentioning the policy planning experts in Washington. Hillary Clinton had previously called all ambassadors to Washington to review the first quadrennial policy report by the State Department, a 210 page document that took 18 months to write. The moment to have the review was deemed propitious since it was supposed to be a quiet period. Although tensions were known to exist in Egypt, did anyone predict the level of hostility to Mubarak? Is there a Plan B in a drawer? Or, like in 1989, are the experts desperately ad libbing?)

In addition to the lack of a serious non-U.S. involvement, it should be noted that the Republican Party within the United States is also missing at the table. While Barack Obama seemed very presidential with his Tucson address following the shootings while Sarah Palin and the Republicans fumbled to find a voice, President Obama now appears as the world's leader on a stage that is surprisingly vacant. The Republicans have little to say and have said very little. While they scream and yell trying to repeal health care legislation and begin looking for a leader for the 2012 election, their lack of a voice on a world important event makes them look extremely parochial, if not strident and irrelevant. Obama is in charge, for whatever that means. There are no Republican wise men to be consulted (I would be surprised and disappointed if Obama called Henry Kissinger, the last relic of Republic internationalism.).

Every crisis has risks and possibilities. The Egyptian revolt has called into question the historic American support for Mubarak. On the other hand, it also shows that the U.S. is the only potential influence to help calm the crisis. So while the people in the street of Cairo yell anti-American slogans, the world looks to the United States as its lead negotiator. President Obama appears a winner and loser at the same time.

 

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