As with other crises during his administration, President Obama and his team know not what to do with the revolution sweeping Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. The White House has gone through some of the motions of reacting, but has not said clearly and convincingly what it wants. That plus the administration’s decision to reach out to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood could lead to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
American interests ought to be clear enough. We should see in the demonstrations in North Africa and elsewhere a nearly unbelievable opportunity to help Middle Easterners replace dictatorships with democracies, while sidelining Islamists. Such a world would be dramatically safer for the U.S. and other free nations.
One possible reason the White House seems dazed is that according to our Washington foreign policy establishment—including both its Democrat and Republican precincts—the events we are seeing are impossible. The conventional wisdom was that the only viable alternatives to authoritarians like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Now we see people in the streets seeking the same freedom and economic opportunity Americans enjoy. They are not calling for redemption through an Iranian-style Islamist theocracy, not burning American flags, not chanting “Death to Israel.”
And yet embracing democracy and defining U.S. interests seems impossible for a White House with a habit of approaching crises with a lack of urgency and purpose. When this crisis began, Secretary of State Clinton inexplicably said that Egypt was “stable.” Two days later, Vice President Biden publicly complimented Mubarak and asserted he was not a dictator. Tom Donilon, the National Security Advisor, convened another elaborate process of meetings at the White House. On the heels of those meetings, Secretary Clinton appeared on every major Sunday talk show to declare: “We’re not advocating any specific outcome” in Egypt.
Really? Does it not matter to us how Egypt is governed? Is the ‘outstretched hand’ of Mr. Obama’s diplomacy equally ready to embrace the grip of a radical Islamist tyranny as that of a democracy that respects individual rights? Asked another way: would it not matter for a new Egypt to be an ally of the Iranian regime versus an ally of the U.S.?
Some have commended Mr. Obama’s call for Mubarak not to run again for president, and his statement last night that the “United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Egypt and around the world.”
But neither of these amounts to a coherent and credible policy. Running for re-election directly was not Mubarak’s plan. As for the notion that the current U.S. government supports democracy, it is lost on no one in the Middle East that Mr. Obama refused to back democrats in Iran when they took to the streets.
Some will also note Mr. Obama welcomed the dictator of China to the White House just last month for a formal state visit where he was regaled with a musical performance calling for the defeat of U.S. forces in wartime. Still others will recall that Mr. Obama backed the leftist in Honduras who attempted to undermine constitutional democracy. As usual with President Obama on foreign matters, the message is as clear as mud.
Worse, what little is being done is dangerous and naive. On Monday, the White House said it supports a role for the Muslim Brotherhood in a new Egyptian government. This is supposedly conditioned on the Brotherhood renouncing violence. But this is too clever by half. The same theory of inviting undaunted enemies in from the cold has resulted in a Lebanese government now in the firm embrace of Hezbollah—and Iran. Whether pledged to violence or non-violence, it is unwise to invite into your political system ideologues determined to destroy that system.
So what should the U.S. do? First and foremost, we should understand and declare that we will press for a real democracy in Egypt—one that separates mosque and state and which acts against Islamists in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy seems to be to ride out the protests and take advantage of the aftermath. Despite never approaching majority support in Egypt, the Brotherhood has an advantage given its degree of organization.
As a result, we need to help make fair elections happen, rather than just hope for them. We should enlist Egyptian-Americans and operatives of both our political parties to help Egyptian democrats organize themselves for elections. We should also urge a system that works against Islamists, and avoids the extremist-empowering model of proportional representation on display in Iraq. We should also replicate this effort in Tunisia and anywhere else where protests create an opportunity for change. To the extent some Middle Easterners prefer not to work with Americans, we should ask political operatives from Central Europe—many of whom were once dissidents themselves—to support their successors in history.
The changes we see sweeping Egypt and other nations are more significant than any since Middle Easterners evicted European colonizers in the middle of the last century. This holds great opportunity and risk not only for the people involved, but for U.S. security. It is time to get our head in the game.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).