One of the persistent questions surrounding the waves of protest spreading across the Muslim world has been how the United States should respond.
The Obama administration is attempting to balance a number of concerns in crafting its stance on Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and the increasingly unstable environment in Jordan and Syria.
Among these concerns are America’s commitment to democracy and human rights, the need to avoid angering any governments that survive, concern for major allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a desire to maintain a positive international image.
So far, it seems the administration’s main priority has been to avoid “rocking the boat.” All public statements about the protests, especially those in Egypt, have been subdued and conservative.
Two major lessons from the last few weeks indicate this is not the appropriate response at this juncture. The first is that there is a clear trend toward popular participation and democracy in the Middle East, a region where a justifiably discontent population will not submit to the rule of a few autocrats for much longer.
The second lesson is that half-measures are bound to fail. Dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan have all made small concessions that did not placate their detractors, who will be stopped only by either a resignation or a terrible show of force, á la Tiananmen.
There is only one way for the United States and its allies to come out ahead in this situation: They must stay ahead of the trend.
The protests in North Africa and the Middle East are not about America. Some people have said this is a reason for Obama to stay quiet, but there is a way to speak out without becoming the center of the storm.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan did it, publicly calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down to preserve his legacy. As a result, when Mubarak finally leaves, Egypt’s new government will likely be friendly to Turkey and see Erdogan as an ally.
Obama could do the same thing, and it would make him massively more popular on the Egyptian streets. Though Obama has finally called for a transition of power, it is unclear why Obama did not assume leadership on such a critical international issue.
It is beginning to appear that Obama’s late reaction to changing events on the ground in Egypt and elsewhere is reflective of an ironically characteristic fault of his administration: a failure to capitalize on moments of change.
Obama entered office promising change, and he has largely delivered. His healthcare reform bill was considered one of the most important pieces of legislation in decades by supporters and opponents alike. The balance of power between Wall Street and Washington has been altered significantly. The war in Iraq is over, and the one in Afghanistan is making gradual progress.
Dr. William Bridges, author of Managing Transition, notes, “When a business or industry is going through a profound transformation — and there is hardly one that is not doing so today — competition blinds people to the real challenge, which is capitalizing on that change.”
If there is one systemic problem with the Obama administration so far, it has been its failure to heed Bridges’ advice.
All too often, it seems that the President is covering his tracks instead of boldly embracing trends.
Egypt’s budding revolution seems to be another example of this type of failure. The United States could frame this as a victory for all of the ideals we claim to hold, celebrate it, then use our support for Egypt’s protest movement to strengthen international perceptions of our government and ease relations with Arab countries after they transition to democracy.
Instead, we are left playing catch-up again, and will be sure to pay the price for it down the road.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Fridays.
For more stories on the crisis in Egypt, click here.