Friday, January 28, 2011

What the President Knew (and Didn't Know)

As the situation in Egypt spirals out of control, the Obama Administration is trying to play both sides of the fence--and put the best possible spin on a worsening crisis.

Friday evening, the White House announced that Mr. Obama had a 30-minute phone conversation with embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, encouraging him to restore cell phone and internet service in his country. Those communication channels were cut earlier in the day, part of Mubarak's attempt to complicate organization efforts by the opposition.

And, in an effort to distance the administration from Mr. Mubarak--a reliable U.S. ally for three decades--the White House trotted out political advisor David Axelrod for an "exclusive" interview with Jake Tapper of ABC. During their conversation, Mr. Axelrod eagerly volunteered that President Obama has "confronted" Mubarak on Egypt's human rights abuses "on several occasions" in recent years.

That message was clearly aimed at the growing throngs of protesters in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. While the riots have not acquired an anti-American tone (at least not yet), many of those participating in the uprising openly chastised the U.S. for its long-time support of the Mubarak regime. That criticism will likely grow in the hours ahead, with word that the Muslim Brotherhood is now taking an active role in the protests. The Brotherhood (which has been officially banned in Egypt for decades) never misses an opportunity to attack the U.S., through propaganda or other channels. It's almost certain that the protests will become stridently anti-American in the next few days--if not sooner.

That's one reason Washington sent out feelers to the opposition on Thursday. But, on the other hand, we're not quite ready to thrown Mr. Mubarak overboard--at least not yet. When PBS anchor Jim Lehrer pressed Joe Biden on the Egyptian president's record, the Vice President refused to describe him as a dictator. That showed continuing support for the Mr. Mubarak--for that moment. But a few hours later, as protesters clogged the streets of Cairo once more, it became apparent that Washington was hedging its bets, demanding the Mubarak regime respect human rights, and that both sides refrain from violence. Mr. Mubarak wasn't exactly tossed under the bus, but it was hardly a rousing show of support.

Meanwhile, there are nagging questions about the U.S.'s role in forementing the rebellion and whether the President was surprised by the sudden threat to Egypt's stability. As for the first issue, the U.K. Telegraph reports that American diplomats aided an Egyptian dissident's participation in an activist's conference in New York in 2008, hiding his identity from Mubarak's security services. In return, the dissident told American diplomats in Cairo that a coalition of regime opponents would attempt to topple the Egyptian leader in 2011. So, if the Telegraph report is true--and they published a classified U.S. cable that supports the story--then Washington helped put these events in motion.

We should note, however, that the British paper failed to put this development into proper context; as the American Spectator reports, the dissident's support was part of a program, advanced by the Bush Administration, to support legitimate democratic reforms in Egypt and elsewhere. Since then, the Obama team has discontinued the initiative, and appears to be "winging it" on the current crisis. Foreign policy expert Robert Kagan told the Politicio that he was "stunned" by the lack of planning in response to (or in advance of) the current upheaval in Egypt.

The lack of preparation apparently extends to the State Department, which forgot about the Egyptian dissident's vow about a coup attempt in 2011. Indeed, the Obama Administration has been ad-libbing its way through the crisis all week. One of the key indicators: Friday's Presidential Daily (Intelligence) Brief, or PDB. Last night, NBC White House Correspondent Chuck Todd breathlessly reported that Mr. Obama's daily brief lasted 40 minutes and it was devoted entirely to the situation in Europe.

The focus is unsurprising, but the length is. During my own career as a spook, I briefed senior officers and civilian officials during several conflicts and crises, including the invasion of Panama; the First Gulf War and Operation Allied Force. The longest brief I ever delivered for any of those events was 10 minutes--including questions from the audience. Of course, my audiences were fully prepared for what was unfolding. Friday's marathon PDB suggests a commander-in-chief playing catch-up on fast-moving events.

If it's any consolation, he's not alone. This type of situation is the most difficult for any administration. There's little they can do, except observe and issue periodic statements designed not to inflame any of the factions.

But this situation is slightly different. The "dominoes" of U.S.-backed Arab governments are beginning to topple, across North Africa and into the Middle East. Think about the consequences of Islamist governments in control of Egypt (and the Suez Canal); Jordan and Yemen, among others. American access to key waterways could be effectively blocked, making it much more difficult to move warships between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, to the Persian Gulf.

Ironically, the canal is less important for U.S. trade; many of the tanker and container vessels moving crude and products to North America are too large to pass through the canal. However, access problems at the canal would have a devastating effect on the European economy, so there will be pressure from our NATO allies to keep the waterway open.

The loss of Egypt and Jordan would also have dire consequences for Israel. Thirty years of peace with those Arab neighbors would come to an end, and Tel Aviv would (again) be surrounded by hostile foes, committed to the eradication of the Jewish State, and supported by an Iranian regime on the verge of going nuclear. That must be a part of our strategic calculus as well. If Mubarak goes, the tenure of Jordan's King Abdullah will be measured in days, and the West Bank will probably fall under the control of Hamas as well. Meanwhile, Israel's most implacable foe (Syria) sits on the Golan Heights, while Hizballah controls the "new" government in Lebanon. If that isn't a nightmare scenario for Mr. Netanyahu, we don't know what is. What is the U.S. prepared to do to ensure Israel's security in that sort of environment.

And beyond that, how do we respond when the protest movement advances to the Persian Gulf Region? Those oil-rich states, long controlled by autocratic monarchs, are ripe for revolt as well. This is hardly a movement that is limited to Egypt or Tunisia, and there are plenty of Islamists (read: terrorists) ready to stoke the fires of revolution in places like Saudi Arabia; Oman, Dubai and Kuwait.

Despite those past "lectures" to Hosni Mubarak, it seems likely that Mr. Obama (and his administration) was blind-sided by this crisis. We can only hope that he gets up to speed quickly and develops some sort of strategy to protect U.S. interests, including the Suez Canal. The consequences of inaction would be enormous.
ADDENDUM: Recent bulletins from Cairo report that Mr. Mubarak has installed his intelligence chief, Omar Sulieman, as Egypt's new vice president. That's not the sort of move Mubarak would make if he was planning to surrender power. The new VP is well-known to U.S. intelligence officials; he's ruthless, extremely competent and not shy about cracking skulls to keep the regime in power. If Mubarak can retain the support of his army, the situation in Cairo (and other Egyptian cities) may resemble Tiananmen Square before the end of the weekend. What happens then is anyone's guess.

One more thought: that 40-minute PDB is also significant in this regard. While the presentation likely included video from media reporting, the unusual length also suggests a substantial stream of intelligence reporting on the uprising. That is encouraging, but it also raises the question of how much information Mr. Obama had received on conditions in Egypt before the uprising began.


Sassenach said...

I've been the briefing officer too....I'd venture to say that there was intel, and that like most warnings it was blithely ignored in favor of triangulating on health care, or plotting the next Sarah Palin journolist strategy, or writing the next speech blaming Wall Street for something.

1389 said...

I don't believe for an instant that Obozo was blindsided by any of this. On the contrary - he and his supporters were behind it from the get-go:

Obama supports Islamist takeover of Egypt

Egypt: Populist revolt or Muslim Brotherhood?