Obama’s Response to Egypt: No Accident?

In my last post, I described how individual leaders can shape foreign policy decisions, beyond simply noting that “leaders matter.” Although the lack of behind-the-scenes evidence makes it difficult to reach firm conclusions about how Obama’s personal beliefs shaped the U.S. response to the crisis in Egypt, we can make some preliminary assessments. Events are moving fast today, of course, but these comments are meant to address U.S. policy since the beginning of the crisis.

The available evidence suggests that Obama’s widely noted initial caution was no accident. Using the typology I discussed in my first post, Obama exhibits the traits of an externally focused leader. In the case of a crisis like Egypt, all American presidents would probably prefer a democratic outcome—but they differ in how they view the costs and benefits of using U.S. power to try to bring about that outcome. An internally focused leader would be more likely to press hard for a democratic transition and reach out to opposition groups. An externally focused leader might prefer democracy in the abstract, but his beliefs make it far less likely that he will see the benefits of expending U.S. resources as outweighing the costs, or that he will have diplomatic, military or other bureaucratic assets in place to try to bring about domestic transformation. Instead, such a leader would to try to find someone to work with, preserve order, and maintain strong ties with the United States—in this case, working with Mubarak, Suleiman, or whoever emerges as the next Egyptian leader.

Based on publicly available information, Obama seemed initially unwilling to push for an immediate democratic transition. Only when it seemed that Mubarak was unlikely to survive did the administration push for regime change, but by then it was far less costly to do so. As Mubarak has managed to retain his grip on power, the administration has once again signaled that it does not intend to push Mubarak out in the short term. Such a stance is consistent with other Obama administration actions. For example, according to news accounts and the narrative in Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, during the 2009 review of strategy in Afghanistan Obama consistently rejected the idea of full-scale nation-building in Afghanistan, opting instead for a more limited counterterrorism posture that ultimately even contemplates some reconciliation with the Taliban.

This conclusion may seem at odds with other, more internally focused evidence about Obama’s views. In his pre-presidential years, for example, there was his work as a community organizer, a focus on institution-building if ever there was one; as president, he invoked universal values in his 2009 speech in Cairo. But Obama was perhaps best known before his election for his strong stance against the Iraq War, and during the campaign he also supported talks with Iran without preconditions—both externally oriented positions. To be sure, it is still too early to draw firm conclusions. Conventional wisdom about presidents has been upended by later scholarship before: the work of Fred Greenstein, Richard Immerman, and others challenged the image of Eisenhower as a passive leader who was dominated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The view of Johnson as trying to carry Kennedy’s liberal legacy and the Great Society to Vietnam also looks different in light of evidence that much of what Johnson did in Vietnam was not aimed at internal change. But in Obama’s case, there is an emerging picture of an externally focused leader.

Of course, we still do not know exactly what Obama said to Mubarak or how administration deliberations have really played out. And circumstances do matter: as my colleague Marc Lynch has pointed out, it was unrealistic to expect Obama—or any American president—to push early and publicly for the ouster of a longtime U.S. ally. Any U.S. president probably would have pursued an initially pragmatic course. It is also not clear that what Obama says and does will necessarily affect events in Egypt, or that pushing earlier and more forcefully for Mubarak’s exit would have been good policy; in fact, I tend to agree with those who argue that the U.S. has limited leverage and influence.

Yet we cannot dismiss the possibility that it matters that it is Obama who is facing this crisis. One can imagine that a more internally focused leader might have pushed earlier and harder for Mubarak to step down or reached out earlier to opposition groups, even taking into account the need for caution with a longtime U.S. ally and the risks to U.S. policy in the region. Such a move would not necessarily have been wise: transformative actions, such as encouraging the removal of a repressive and unpopular leader, have proven destabilizing and burned the United States before (see: Ngo Dinh Diem). But in trying to explain how the United States responds to crises like the one unfolding in Egypt, we ignore the occupant of the White House at our peril.

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