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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.