Why handling the conflagration in Egypt will be tricky for the president at home, as well as abroad
As the uprising in Egypt moves into its second week, President Obama faces a moment of political peril as he seeks to support pro-democracy protestors and regime change without appearing to turn their fight into a U.S.-backed coup against a longtime ally, potentially undermining the legitimacy of whatever government succeeds that of President Hosni Mubarak and destabilizing relations with other U.S. allies.
As fire-bombs and gunshots flew in Cairo's Tahrir Square Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs condemned the violence as "outrageous" and reiterated U.S. calls for calm, saying, "The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators. We repeat our strong call for restraint."
And while GOP leaders gave support to the president's handling of the intensifying conflict in Egypt over the weekend, Republican and conservative critiques of his course of action are nonetheless emerging. They fall along three main lines, though there are already so many subthreads of criticism that the entire waterfront of potential outcomes in Egypt is covered.
This means -- and this is the real domestic political risk for the president -- that critics will be able coalesce at some future date around an argument based on facts on the ground for pretty much any eventuality other than the best-case scenario: a non-violent and prompt transition to a freely and fairly elected government not dominated in parliament or elsewhere by the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak cronies.
Here are the main lines of criticism:
Obama is Jimmy Carter
This analytic framework for understanding Obama's presidency has been kicking around for a while, and doesn't just come from Republicans. (See Richard Cohen on "Obama's Carter problem" from last October.)
But the question Walter Russell Mead asked on Fox.com in early January -- "Is Obama the New Carter?" -- has returned with fresh force now that he faces a political crisis in the Middle East with seeming parallels to the Iranian revolution of 1979.
The Washington Times laid out the argument bluntly on Jan. 30: "As Egypt's regime totters on the verge of collapse, President Obama is looking less like Ronald Reagan and more like the Gipper's predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The turmoil in Egypt is markedly similar to the revolution that gripped Iran 33 years ago. Egypt may be to Mr. Obama what Iran was to Mr. Carter."
Rush Limbaugh also took this approach, saying that Obama is repeating Carter's mistakes in his handling of the crisis in Egypt.
This argument seems most likely to take hold if the turmoil in Egypt leads to either of two outcomes: 1) uprising/revolution followed by a democratically-elected government dominated by Islamists or 2) a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy forces by the lame duck Mubarak government, followed by rapidly-conducted elections marred by fraud that elevate one of his cronies into power and change little (except opinion on the Arab street about America).
Obama lost Egypt by failing to maintain Bush's democracy agenda
"I think the White House abandoned the democracy agenda because it was the Bush agenda," former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) told ABC's Top Line Tuesday. "Had the White House been working more closely with the forces in Egypt, understanding that Mubarak could not continue on forever, that there had to be an alternative, an answer somewhere down the road, we might have been in a better position."
Elliott Abrams made a subset of this argument in The Washington Post Sunday in the piece, "Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world."
"All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush's 'freedom agenda' as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush's support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force," Abrams wrote.