Burns: Obama’s delicate balancing act in Egypt | Power & Policy

Burns: Obama’s delicate balancing act in Egypt

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Nicholas Burns has followed up his Feb. 3 blog post on Egypt on Power & Policy with a contribution to an online forum on Foreign Policy.com. Burns says President Obama is skillfully walking a dangerous diplomatic tightrope as he works for democratic change while avoiding chaos in the region.

Burns, who was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008 before joining the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School, participated in a roundtable forum hosted by FP that called on some of the top thinkers on US policy-making in the Middle East, including Elliot Abrams, Thomas Pickering and Aaron David Miller.

Here is Burns’ contribution:

“Most of the critics complaining about President Obama’s actions during the Egypt crisis charge that he has been excessively reticent and has failed to send an unequivocal statement of support to the young protesters in Cairo and Alexandria.   They worry the President risks being left behind by history and that popular anger against the U.S. in the Arab street will cripple American interaction with the Middle East for years to come.

Egyptian protesters gathered in Tahrir square watch a screen showing U.S. President Barack Obama live on a TV broadcast speaking about the situation in Egypt, Feb. 2, 2011. (AP Photo)

Egyptian protesters gathered in Tahrir square watch a screen showing U.S. President Barack Obama live on a TV broadcast speaking about the situation in Egypt, Feb. 2, 2011. (AP Photo)

I find this criticism to be way off the mark. Starting on January 28, the President has thrown America’s open support to the reform movement in Egypt.  His transparent attempt to convince President Mubarak to leave office and his calls for the transition to begin now are now the actions of a President who has made up his mind to support the Egyptian reformers.

That his actions could be understood in any other way is hard to grasp.  Yes, the President has stopped short of calling openly for Mubarak to leave power.  But, that is just common sense.  The U.S. needs to preserve its influence with Mubarak, his advisors and the military, Egypt’s ultimate power broker, in order to convince Mubarak to leave power.  Obama’s “quiet diplomacy” starting last weekend and until today is a critical American asset that he should not relinquish to satisfy critics who seem to believe that public statements are the sole measure of an effective foreign policy.

I worry about something quite different.   I told students in my Harvard Kennedy School class this week that the image I have of President Obama is of a lonely figure up on a high wire, without a net, juggling two very important but conflicting American aims.

One of those is for America to be Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” to others struggling for freedom around the world.  It does matter what the American President says to the young people of Egypt in this crisis and it will continue to be vital for Obama to speak out in support of a future of freedom in the Middle East. With luck, Obama will be able to convince Mubarak to leave power soon.

But there are other American interests at stake in this crisis–some of the most important global objectives we have–a continued Egyptian peace with Israel and Egyptian support to counter Al Qaida, Hezbollah and Iran in the years ahead.

This is the other set of high priority aims Obama can be seen juggling in the full glare of the international spotlight.

I worry equally today about whether we will do everything possible to ensure that, no matter what happens in Tahrir Square, we protect those core American security interests.

President Obama’s dilemma is that these security interests and our responsibility to be true to our values appear, and may well become, mutually contradictory.  As he has said more than a few times, the U.S. cannot direct or control this fast-paced crisis.  That will demand that the President continue to try to achieve all of these interests as he negotiates the unpredictable, complex and dangerous twists and turns ahead.

That tells me that a President trying mightily to accommodate the pull of idealism and real world interests has no option but to continue to try to achieve both.  It may be that he will have to choose at some point down the line but he should not do so now.

What does this tell us about how the U.S. should play out the drama in Egypt?  I see a President convinced that we must support freedom in the Middle East and hope he will continue to do so.  But, I also hope the President will keep to the more quiet, behind the scenes diplomacy of trying to convince Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman and the military to agree to the transition to a new Egypt.  And, as that process proceeds, the U.S. will need to build bridges to Mohamed El Baradei, other reformers and even responsible members of the Moslem Brotherhood so that we have a real chance of avoiding the worst case actions of any future post-Mubarak government in Egypt–an abrogation of peace with Israel, accommodation with Iran and an end to close U.S.-Egypt military cooperation.

Despite the wishes of some Washington armchair critics unused to the demands of government, a crisis like this does not present clean and easy choices.  President Obama, illuminated in the arena of a chaotic and dangerous conflict in the most unstable region in the world, cannot afford the luxury of siding with right or left in Egypt.  He has placed himself firmly in the center of the drama and that is where America’s ideals and its self-interest demand that he stay.”

About James F. Smith

Jim Smith joined the Belfer Center as director of communications in July 2010 after more than two decades in journalism. At the Boston Globe from 2002 to 2010, he was foreign editor, national political editor and international affairs reporter, writing and blogging about Boston’s global connections. Full bio >

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