Niall Ferguson is not impressed. In a recent cover story for Newsweek, the eminent historian and commentator lambasted Obama's handling of the Egyptian revolution, calling it "a foreign-policy debacle." His problem is the seeming absence of a "coherent grand strategy" on the part of the Obama White House. For Ferguson, any strategy is better than none – and he prefers them grand. During a subsequent television appearance on MSNBC, Ferguson was asked to compare Obama's foreign policy to that of George Bush's. "At least George W. Bush…had a grand strategy," was his response.
So, what should Obama have done differently?
Apparently, according to Ferguson, it would have been both possible and desirable for Obama to "catch the wave [of revolution]…by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests." Sounds so easy, doesn't it? And we know the President likes to surf.
But there are a few important details that Ferguson neglects to consider. For instance, was it not successive US Governments, including the present one, that had propped up the protestor's despised dictator? Ferguson seems to credit the average Egyptian with the intelligence of a sheep and the memory of a goldfish. Had Obama been more proactive in 'catching the wave of revolution' it would have been seen, and summarily rejected, as crass opportunism and the cocky President knocked off his surfboard. And rightly so.
But embarrassment would not have been the worst of it. Such a hypocritical and self-serving about-face by the US government would have threatened to undermine the most important characteristic of this revolution: that the Egyptians accomplished it themselves, without so much as the appearance of help from external forces. As the New York Times' Thomas Friedman put it, the "sense of self-empowerment and authenticity - we did this for ourselves, by ourselves - is what makes Egypt's democracy movement such a potential game-changer for the whole region."
The significance of this is not to be underestimated. As we have seen in recent years, the most popular way for oppressive regimes to delegitimize protest movements against them is to blame foreign mischief-making. So it was during Iran's Green Revolution, when Ahmadinejad blamed British and American governments for sparking the unrest. And so it is today, and I am not just thinking of Libya. As Perry Link recently reported in a blog-post for The New York Review of Books, leaked documents from a Politburo meeting in China advised that, "all of the major newspapers under the Propoganda Department must…stress the theme that the current turmoil is plotted by the United States behind the scenes."
Beijing's anxiety is understandable. If the Chinese people were to believe that the Egyptians achieved this mammoth feat without the backing of a world superpower, who knows what they might do? Clearly the Chinese government does not care to find out.
This bespeaks of the potentially far-reaching consequences of the events in Egypt: they show people living under corrupt and repressive regimes around the world that such a change is achievable, and one needn't wait for permission. Such a message would have been diluted – and credence lent to the false claims of repressive regimes – had Obama too-readily waved the flag of revolution.
Curiously, and as a side-note, one of the more prominent supporters of Obama's handling of Egypt has been the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. An endorsement from a man who many believe should be indicted for war crimes may not be music to the ears of many, but it's surprising that it hasn't made an impression on Ferguson. In the same Newsweek article Ferguson rates Kissinger as among America's best-ever national security minds, and presents his tenure at the top as a model for Obama and his team to learn from. No absence of grand strategies there.
But perhaps the best thing Obama has going for him is that whatever it is that he is doing does not have the appearance of one of those grand American strategies that so appeal to the likes of Ferguson. Whether by design, confusion, or a combination of the two, Obama's initial lack of decisiveness may be seen by future historians as an unintended masterstroke. But we won't know that for a while yet, and historians such as Niall Ferguson would be well-advised to allow for some historical distance before making their grand pronouncements.
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