With Hosni Mubarak’s long-in-coming departure as Egypt’s repressive leader on Friday, President Obama would seem to have turned around what began as a foreign policy embarrassment for his administration into a real, constructive role in helping the Egyptian people make history.
Initial gaffes in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Mubarak’s regime “stable,” and Vice President early declaration that the man whose rule has gone on for 30 years was not a “dictator,” will soon fade and likely become nothing more than footnotes to history.
By clearly taking control of the situation, Obama quickly moved to side with the thousands of Egyptians who demanded change.
Publicly, the president and his administration never waivered on seeking a a transition to begin “now.”
In the end, though, Obama’s role in ousting Mubarak can be traced to that Friday evening statement after the demonstrations began. That’s when Obama began publicly boxing the Egyptian leader in. From a White House lectern, Obama told the world that he called Mubarak personally, to tell the Egyptian that the U.S. president would him accountable for real reform. Obama made clear he would accept excuses, or window-dressing made up to look like democracy. The key is that he delivered that ultimatum to Mubarak personally.
Already squeezed at home by thousands of brave demonstrators, Obama further squeezed Mubarak personally and internationally. The embattled leader would flail around for the next couple of weeks looking for a way to stay in power, including unleashing phony “pro-government” counter-demonstrators. But with no cover at home, or from Washington, the Egyptian had no where to go but out.
Obama certainly deserves credit in helping oust Mubarak, but now only begins an ever harder task for the president and his team.
Trading the old dictator for a new one simply is not acceptable, and the Obama administration must remain engaged to ensure that doesn’t take place.
Further, the American president must continue to serve the genuine desires of the Egyptian people. He cannot be seen as putting U.S. interests ahead of theirs, nor can he accept halfway measures, or expedient solutions. The challenge is that Obama must do this long-term, even as Egypt fades from the headlines and other matters take his more-immediate attention.
President George W. Bush notably gave lip-service to Egyptian democracy several years ago, but failed in any follow-through or enforcement, scholar Brian Katulis recently noted. The result is that Mubarak only took more power and U.S. credibility was damaged.
By contrast, Obama has proven that the United States can be successful by remaining measured, consistent and engaged.
The United States shoulders its share of blame for allowing a sham democracy to exist in Egypt for far too long.
If Barack Obama continues to stand resolutely with the Egyptian people, he will be helping make amends for that mistake.
Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington.