While I share the frustration of the Washington Post’s editors at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rejection of President Obama’s call for international observers for Egypt’s imminent elections, I really had to marvel at the claim that “Mr. Mubarak’s rude dismissal of what have been gentle U.S. calls for change is making the Obama administration look weak in a region that can be quick to act on such perceptions“:
Mr. Obama should make it clear that he will not be dismissed or pushed around by Arab strongmen. If Mr. Mubarak gets away with it, others will be quick to follow his example.
Leaving aside the lazy Orientalism on display here (is there some other region of the world where leaders are rewarded for looking weak?), if Mubarak does imagine that the Obama administration can be “pushed around,” it’s obviously not difficult to imagine where he got the idea, given that Obama has spent the last eighteen months being stiff-armed by a different Middle Eastern leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, as he has tried to hold Israel to its obligations to halt settlements.
The Post’s editors have, of course, taken a decidedly different view in that dispute. Rather than recognize the administration’s position on settlements for what it is — a long-overdue corrective to years of U.S. indulgence of Israel’s entirely illegal and hugely provocative settlement enterprise — the editors warned from the outset that “President Obama’s battle against Jewish settlements could prove self-defeating.”
During the dust-up resulting from the settlement announcement during Vice President Biden’s March 2010 visit to Israel, the Post’s editors interpreted the Obama administration’s “determin[ation] to prove that they will not be pushed around by Israel” as “quickness to bludgeon the Israeli government.”
According to the Post, when Obama’s requests are rejected by Mubarak, Obama is in danger of looking weak in the face of Arab intransigence. When Obama’s requests are (repeatedly) rejected by Netanyahu, Obama has made a tactical error and must try to be nicer.
There are certainly criticisms to be made about the way the Obama team has gone about dealing with the settlements issue, but their function as a driver of Palestinian anger and suspicion and the danger they pose to a viable two-state solution aren’t in serious dispute. Likewise, the Mubarak government’s decades of repression of political opposition is a driver of extremism and undermines U.S. support for democracy elsewhere (we’ll leave aside for now how addressing that problem was made an order of magnitude more difficult by the Iraq war, for which the Post editors were, and remain, head cheerleaders).
Democracy promotion is an important element of U.S. foreign policy, and it’s troubling to see Obama rebuffed by Egypt like this. It’s also true that it sends a bad signal to other leaders. But let’s not pretend the problem began with Mubarak. As Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted in a letter to the Post yesterday, Obama’s struggle with Netanyahu “reinforces the perception, especially in the Middle East, of a weakened United States.” I heard this same analysis from more than one Israeli official this past summer. But it’s apparently novel to the Washington Post’s editors.