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What is Obama’s strategy in Egypt?

The president is keen to avoid “meddling”, but US interests go far wider than the next Egyptian lead

Regime change: as unpredictable as it is uncertain. And as White House officials discuss the options for a post-Mubarak regime, questions are being raised over President Obama's strategy and the speed of his response.

This isn't just a question of making policy on the hoof as fast-moving events in Egypt leave the administration running to catch up. It's a question of values: of intervention, of autonomy, of the best way of fostering democracy and stability in the Middle East.

There's been much trawling through the principles that President Obama outlined in his Cairo speech in 2009, when he reached out a hand to the Muslim world. Back then, the chief lesson Obama had learned from Iraq was that too much US interference would prove supremely counterproductive – though he was also keen to champion his core values, warning dictators that "suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away". In June that same year, Obama resisted pressure to back protesters in Iran after its disputed presidential elections, saying it would not be productive to be "seen as meddling".

All this was a deliberate reversal of the Bush freedom agenda of trying to spread US-style democracy throughout the region. Repression and tyranny, Bush believed, bred radicalism and instability. The answer lay in free elections. And it was his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who put all this in context, in her Cairo speech in 2005. Sixty years of realism in US foreign policy, she argued, had created neither democracy nor stability. "Now we are taking a different course," she said. "We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Democracy, however, won't always give you the results you want. As Caroline Glick put it in the Jerusalem Post: "Bush's belief was based on a narcissistic view of western values as universal."

In reality, given the choice, the Palestinians voted Hamas into power. Lebanon ended up with Hezbollah. Iraq – well, let's not go into Iraq. And an insight about where Egypt might be heading was revealed in a Pew survey last October which showed that 59 per cent of Egyptians supported Islamists, half backed Hamas and some 20 per cent supported al-Qaeda.

Hence the dilemma. There will be regime change in Egypt, no matter what, and the White House is pledged to "let the Egyptian people decide" what happens next.

There's no shortage of advice for the White House. Michael Rubin, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that if the US doesn't find a way to empower secular leaders in the region "we will create a vacuum that the Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood will fill, which, given the scars of the Iranian Revolution, remains our biggest fear", And, he added:

The irony is that if Condi Rice and the Bush administration hadn't walked away from the "Arab spring" in 2005 before it had a chance to bloom, we would have a lot more leverage right now to channel these popular protests.

In the absence of any obvious liberal oppostion in Cairo, the US is weighing its options. Joe Biden has been talking to his new Egyptian counterpart, Omar Suleiman, about the transition. Meanwhile, the US Senate has just approved John McCain and John Kerry's call for Hosni Mubarak to transfer power immediately to an inclusive caretaker government, followed by moves towards free and fair elections later this year.

It is pushing Obama far futher towards that interventionist strategy he was so keen to avoid. But although he has been criticised for being late in the game – and by NBC's Andrea Mitchell of being "lumbering . . . passive and reactive" – American interests go far wider than the next Egyptian leader. There's the small matter of Middle East stability to consider.

In the long game of diplomacy, it's surely better to act with intelligence and subtlety than conduct policy through a giant megaphone.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.