The biggest potential stumbling block to then Democratic presidential candidate Obama's White House bid in 2008 was not race, but the knock against him that when confronted with a major foreign policy crisis he'd botch it. This would signal America's allies and avowed foes that America's leader was weak, indecisive, and a terrible choice to deal with the colossal pressures of the problems of the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, China, and repairing relations with the European allies.
In the early days of the campaign then President Bush strongly hinted that Obama was a foreign policy neophyte who could not be trusted on international crisis issues. Republican opponent John McCain and the Republican National Committee hammered on the point that foreign policy was to vital and delicate for on the job training for a would-be president. Obama's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton grabbed at the green on foreign policy rap against Obama to imprint the notion that she was the best Democratic presidential candidate to handle the inevitable crises that saddle all administrations. Her play of the inexperience card against Obama was supposed to be a reminder that Obama would be a question mark in the White House. A Pew Research Poll Center Poll in May 2008 found that "inspiring," "fresh," "change," and "visionary" was not the one word that voters said best described Obama. The one word was "inexperienced."
The Egyptian upheaval was just the sort of foreign policy crisis that Obama's attackers had in mind and more than a few gleefully hoped he'd stumble over. It is a textbook crisis in which the slightest misstep could spin it out of control and have damaging and long lasting consequences for the U.S. Egypt is the linchpin of the US's Middle East policy and military balance. Its despotic, autocratic leader for three decades has staunchly protected American interests in the region, put a hard check on radical Islamic and pro-Palestinian mass sentiment, insured no disruption in oil transit to the West through the Suez Canal, and maintained unshakeable cordiality with Israel. In the first hours of the crisis, it seemed that Obama might make the same time tested blunder that has been the signature of other presidents and that's tie the U.S.'s string to yet another hated, failed dictator.
Vice President Joe Biden bristled in a PBS Newshour interview bristled at the characterization of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a dictator, "I would not call him a dictator. Biden dubbed him an ally who played a big role in promoting regional stability. The shudder at Biden's reflexive and rash defense of Mubarak could be heard from Pennsylvania Avenue to Cairo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made no shoot-from-the lip rush to judgment about Mubarak. But her early statements were testy, guarded, and opaque about just what and how the U.S. would deal with Mubarak. Clinton gave no indication that the Obama Administration would say or do anything to upset the delicate balance in U.S. support for and relations with his regime.
The Obama Administration was clearly in a wait and see mode on Egypt, careful not to give any overt support to the Egyptian throngs screaming for Mubarak to go. If Obama stayed in that spot even after the country was in virtual paralysis over Mubarak it would reinforce U.S. support for a dictatorial regime, make a mockery of Obama's words delivered in his Cairo speech in June, 2009 in which he championed democracy, and called for a new beginning in the Arab world. It would put the US once again on the side of a despised tyrannical police state as long as it did our bidding in the region.
The business as usual stance would have been a policy nightmare for the U.S. and a prescription for disaster in the short and long run. Obama recognized that. The suspension of aid to Mubarak, the welcome if not encouragement of the army to pledge not to fire on the demonstrators, and to respect their right to protest, and the blunt message to Mubarak to begin the democratic transition process now was a huge departure from past policy and practice. The practice was to a U.S. president choose the dictatorship (we helped prop up, turned a blind eye to its grotesque violations of human rights outrages, and then refuse to abandon) over the democratic forces that loudly demanded change.
Obama ignored the screeches from Mubarak backers in Egypt and ultra-conservatives in the US who lambasted him for "meddling" in Egyptian affairs, claiming this would pave the way for a takeover of the government by radical, Islamic radicals, or Al Qaeda, boost Iran, and put Israel security in dire jeopardy. This was shrill propaganda, with not a scintilla of proof that any of this was true, and much evidence from the pro-democracy leaders and opposition in Egypt that that this talk was a ploy to keep Mubarak in the presidential palace to the bitter end.
Obama didn't buy it and in diplomatic speak said so. In doing so he buried the myth that he'd crumble in the face of crisis. This put real meaning to his call for democracy. The message wasn't lost in Egypt.
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