Niall Ferguson's Deeply Unconvincing Obama Attack

Writing in Newsbeast, Niall Ferguson had nothing but withering criticism for President Obama's handling of the Egypt crisis:

The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak's cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn't end there. America's two closest friends in the region--Israel and Saudi Arabia--are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington's failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration's apparent cluelessness.

This is a strange and sloppy interpretation of recent events. The Obama Administration, of course, stumbled early (and as Pete Wehner recently explained, who wouldn't?) but it ended well, not only because it sided with the Egyptian people and the Egyptian army, but also, by the way, because it picked the winners in this fight before their win was assured. Also, and not inconsequentially, the Obama Administration managed to exit this crisis without making the sort of mistakes that could have led to the deaths of Americans, or the sacking of the American embassy or other American institutions. Liberals, naturally, saw much to praise in Obama's actions, but conservatives, both neo and otherwise, also found Obama's performance more than adequate, especially as the crisis reached its climax. Bill Kristol, speaking on Fox News this weekend, said that Obama ended-up in the right place, and John Boehner told David Gregory on Sunday, "I think they've handled what is a very difficult situation, about as well as it could be handled."

It quickly becomes clear, in the Newsbeast piece, that Ferguson's criticism is rooted in geography. His geography:

Last week, while other commentators ran around Cairo's Tahrir Square, hyperventilating about what they saw as an Arab 1989, I flew to Tel Aviv for the annual Herzliya security conference. The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.

The condescension here is more than somewhat annoying. Those "hyperventilating" commentators running around Tahrir Square were reporting the news, and risking their lives while doing so. What idiots! How could they not know that the real action was in Tel Aviv, at a conference of hawkish Israeli defense ministry officials eating halvah parfaits! (I've been to the Herziliya Conference several times, so I know of what I speak. By the way, I don't mean to insult either Israeli generals or halvah parfaits.) The Israeli leadership, as readers of Goldblog know, have not covered themselves in glory on this issue, and their pining for Mubarak is a wee bit pathetic. (Jackson Diehl has written an excellent piece explaining why.). The most pathetic aspect of Israeli thinking these past few weeks has been the oft-stated belief that President Obama could somehow have snapped his fingers and turned off the Egyptian street protests. The Israelis, and Saudis, too, don't seem to understand that no one had control over Mubarak's fate, except his aggrieved people.

Ferguson's time in Herziliya seems to have led him to adopt the posture of an Israeli paranoiac on the subject of the Muslim Brotherhood. He quotes President Obama's Cairo speech -- "America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles--principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" -- and then writes:

Those lines will come back to haunt Obama if, as cannot be ruled out, the ultimate beneficiary of his bungling in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains by far the best organized opposition force in the country--and wholly committed to the restoration of the caliphate and the strict application of Sharia. Would such an outcome advance "tolerance and the dignity of all human beings" in Egypt? Somehow, I don't think so.

Worrying about the Muslim Brothers is legitimate, but for many reasons, unexplored in the Ferguson piece, their takeover of Egypt is not imminent, or even likely (there is the small matter of the Egyptian Army standing in the way, as well as the Brotherhood's relative lack of popularity and its own internal discord).  This is not to say that I don't find it refreshing to see, every now and again, the official Israeli view of an issue explicated in the pages of an important magazine by an important writer, but Ferguson's interpretation of events, and endorsement of this particular line of Israeli thinking, is inadequate and unfair to Obama. 


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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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