Crisis in Egypt: in Defense of ‘Quiet’ American Diplomacy | Power & Policy

Crisis in Egypt: in Defense of ‘Quiet’ American Diplomacy

By Nicholas Burns

By Nicholas Burns

The people’s rebellion in Egypt is the most daunting and  dangerous foreign policy test of the Obama Presidency.  And, it got a lot harder on Wednesday.   Shocking violence by pro-Mubarak armed gangs against largely peaceful protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square raised the stakes both for an embattled Hosni Mubarak and for the U.S. government.

The attacks appear to be the first strike in a counter-offensive by Egyptian security forces to take back the streets of Cairo and reverse the momentum of the reformers who, until Wednesday, appeared on the verge of  unseating Mubarak after thirty years in power.  Watching the discipline and uniformity of the pro-Mubarak forces in Cairo on Wednesday led many  around the world, myself included, to suspect that they were acting in concert with security forces or were part of the security establishment themselves.  Whoever they were, they have turned this crisis in a new and more menacing direction.

Riots in Cairo, Egypt

Riots in Cairo, Egypt, February 2, 2011. (Globaltechfirm photo)

Mubarak and his hard-line supporters may believe that they can regain authority and control in Cairo.  But, it is more likely that their actions will lead to further protests, instability and violence.  After Wednesday’s events, Mubarak should resign and ask a transitional government, backed by the Army, to lead the country towards reform and an eventual election.

This sudden turn for the worse in an already complex and difficult situation poses some tough challenges for President Obama.  Until now, he has maneuvered skillfully to serve two vital but competing objectives.  First, he has used carefully timed and worded Presidential statements to throw U.S. support clearly behind peaceful protest and reform.  Second, he has also succeeded behind the scenes in convincing Mubarak to reject another run for the Presidency–a textbook case of quiet diplomacy.  By sending  veteran U.S. diplomat, Frank Wisner, to Cairo on Sunday for private discussions with the Egyptian leadership, he was able to convey a direct and personal message to Mubarak that he should agree to give up power, albeit after an excessively long wait of eight months.  In addition, the U.S. has been talking quietly throughout the crisis to the military–the real power in Egyptian politics.

Obama’s many critics, however, have not been impressed.  They have accused him of every diplomatic mistake in the book from being behind the curve, overly reactive, on the wrong side of history and insufficiently vocal in telling Mubarak publicly to leave power.

I couldn’t disagree more with those, largely on the right, who are trying mightily to paint this crisis as yet another example of what they charge is the President’s weak grip on American power.  On the contrary, the President has demonstrated over the last week that he has a sophisticated understanding of when to raise his voice publicly and when to work behind the scenes to advance American interests.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the Grand Hall of Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the Grand Hall of Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Muhammad Ghafari photo)

If the President had engaged in the megaphone diplomacy that some critics have championed, it would surely have backfired on the U.S.   Giving public advice to Mubarak last weekend, for example, would have injected the U.S. right into the drama this week in Tahrir Square.  In a country largely suspicious of or downright opposed to American influence, it would have diminished our considerable influence before we had a chance to exercise it.

Obama has recognized  a fundamental lesson for American power in the messier, more complex time we live in.   The events in Cairo and Alexandria are not about us and we will not be the primary author of how the story ends.  That will fall on the shoulders of the Egyptian government and people.   We will be far more effective in this crisis if we continue to stay largely behind the scenes and choose carefully when we decide to challenge the government openly.

Americans have a lot at stake in this crisis.  Egypt is our most important Middle East Arab partner.   Its 1979 peace agreement with Israel has been the basic foundation of our overall regional policy.  In addition, Egypt has joined us to oppose Al Qaida and other terrorist groups, to block Iranian ambitions and to encourage moderates in the Palestinian community.  We thus have a huge stake in this drama.   At this point in the crisis, we have no idea where it might lead–from Mubarak clinging to power or the emergence of a more moderate, transitional regime or a more radical government that could undo it all.   While we should continue to champion a democratic outcome, President Obama must also do everything possible to keep any future Egyptian government committed to a moderate foreign policy.  American interests depend on it.  This is what makes what is happening on the streets of Cairo so fundamentally important to the U.S.

One last point about the centrality of U.S. power in this crisis.  At a time when pundits worldwide have predicted the end of America’s global  power and the rise of China, one thing is abundantly clear–the U.S. is the only country that matters to the Mubarak government and to most of the protesters.  The Chinese leadership has been invisible from the start and undoubtedly worries more about the crisis’ possible impression on the Chinese people than on the events themselves.  So much for those who believe the U.S. is finished as the world’s indispensable power.

One week gone in a drama that may turn out to be a marathon  extending months into the future, the Administration, like the rest of us, has had to scramble to keep up with events.  Its timing hasn’t been perfect and it has stumbled at times, but it has managed the first moves in this complex chess match pretty well.

About Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns is Director of the Future of Diplomacy Project and Faculty Chair for programs on the Middle East, and on India and South Asia. He served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008, leading the effort to reshape U.S. relations with India. Previously, he was U.S. Ambassador to NATO. Full bio >

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5 Responses to Crisis in Egypt: in Defense of ‘Quiet’ American Diplomacy

  1. Dan says:

    I think you are right that the quiet diplomacy can be the solution in such crisis, but at the moment I do not really see the effects of the American approach in the Egyptian case. Why do you think the United States matter to Egypt? Which is the best American advice in your opinion?

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  3. Paul says:

    I must admit, as an African and Middle-Eastern security specialist I was surprised to see Obama wade in so quickly to take the side of the disgruntled masses. This is mainly due to the the fact that is widely known that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group that produced Al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Sudan’s Hassan Al-Turabi (who invited Bin Laden into Sudan and was also a major catalyst in the introduction of Sharia Law in that country) is a large agitator and supporter of the current uprising. I think it is no coincidence that these current problems in Egypt coincide with the loss of Southern Sudan by the North, which is extremist and closely allied to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has lost half of the Sudan, including billions of dollars of resources and they have now seemed to refocus on securing Egypt and removing Mubarak, who though far from democratic has played an important role in stabilising the region and declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be an illegal entity. In fact the Muslim Brotherhood has been firmly implicated in several attempts on Mubarak’s life.

    Yes, the protesters are crying for democracy which may appeal to many in the West but if transition is achieved a ‘democracy’ in which extremist elements and leaders who have also made negative comments about the West and the US hold the reins of power could mutate into a very unpredictable and possibly threatening government. The Israelis although remaining relatively quiet will no doubt already be closely monitoring the situation and preparing appropriate responses to these new threats posed to their security.

    Obama seems to me to have made one of his first major mistakes in foreign policy by abandoning strategic considerations. Western style democracies are not uniformly stable throughout throughout the world when implemented and by his recent statements Obama is actually supporting the party possessing a past and present riddled with extremism and terrorism.

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  5. Thanks guys for sharing this educational info

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