Is The US Missing An Opportunity On Egypt?

President Obama and his administration are in a tough public position on Egypt. The trajectory of the situation seems clear – Mubarak is done. But the question then becomes, does the White House try to get out in front and be seen as aiding the demonstrators and the transition? Or does it hold back and be seen as pursuing a cautious course that attempts to show support for democracy, while also remaining respectful of a once close ally? They are clearly choosing the latter. The problem is that this is a very hard needle to thread, and it doesn’t appear that they are threading it.

By carefully parsing their words, the Administration appears to be pleasing no one. Instead, they are angering jittery allies in the region and failing to satifisfy demonstrators in the street. For instance, Mike Huckabee, who is in Israel, said this morning, said that Israelis felt that the White House had “abandoned a 30-year ally.” While, as Think Progress’ Zaid Jilani noted, this is patently ridiculous claim, even if Huckabee were right, that Obama was throwing Mubarak under the bus, Obama clearly isn’t getting credit for doing so by the Egyptian people. Mohammed El Baradei attacked the parsed nature of the Administration’s response, and many interviews with Egyptians have expressed the same feeling.

Yet, the cautious public statements likely camouflage an Administration that is very active and influential behind the scenes. When the Green Movement erupted in Iran, the Iranian state could follow the standard dictators playbook: expel media, turn off communication networks, deploy troops to violently, and brutally crack down. Egypt started to follow this as well. But importantly, and essentially, large scale violence wasn’t used to suppress the protesters and international media were not intentionally targeted or evicted. There are likely several reasons for this, and one of the most important is probably that Mubarak is less secure in his position witin the Egyptian state than the leaders in Iran and therefore is not powerful enough to initiate such violence.

But the United States, behind the scenes, has almost assuredly used its considerable leverage with Mubarak and the military to play an important role in constraining the Egyptian response to the demonstrations. In a conversation with his Egyptian counterpart, Admiral Mullen publicly:

“thanked them [Egyptian military] for their professionalism” up to now, and emphasized “that’s the kind of behavior we’d like to see.”

We can pretty clearly assume that Mullen was less passive in the private conversation, not just thanking, but urging, if not demanding, restraint. The Administration is also urging an “orderly transition” to democracy by encouraging negotiations between the parties.

This is likely why Israel and other Arab allies are critical of the Administration for undercutting Mubarak. They are paying attention to the private actions, as well as the public. And they see that the White House has not only likely constrained Mubarak’s ability to suppress the demonstrations, and have therefore ensured that the demonstration has turned into a revolution, but are actually involved in trying to bring about an “orderly transition” to democracy that entails Mubarak’s departure.

I bet in a few years, when the documents are declassified or when WikiLeaks dumps another tens of thousands of pages of State Department documents, the role of the US and the Obama administration will likely be seen by historians as much more transformative and influential than it is perceived currently. But the question the White House needs to be asking itself now is whether its cautious public stance, which likely masks its larger roll, is in the best interests of the US. If Israel and other allies in the region believe we are currently throwing “Mubarak under the bus,” why don’t we at least get some credit for it with the Egyptian public?

To look at it another way, should the Mubarak regime fall and the US maintains its current public stance, Mubarak would have seemed to have fallen despite the actions of the US. If that occurs, what leverage would the US then have on a new popularly elected regime? What would attitudes in Egypt be toward the United States then? The current US approach could easily prompt a new Mubarak-less Egyptian government (and people) to be more anti-American than it otherwise would or should.

But if the US were to now call for Mubarak’s departure — if President Obama were to say its time for legitimately free and fair elections — the US would be seen in Egypt and the region as contributing to the effort to bring about democratic change. As Matt Duss explained, Obama would be seen as making good on his Cairo speech and any new Egyptian government would therefore likely be more pro-American than they otherwise would have. As Mohamed El Baradei noted, “It’s better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, it’s time for you to go.”