Niall Ferguson: Egypt: How Obama Blew It

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.]

The statesman can only wait and listen until he hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then he must jump up and grasp the hem of His coat, that is all.” Thus Otto von Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman who united Germany and thereby reshaped Europe’s balance of power nearly a century and a half ago.

Last week, for the second time in his presidency, Barack Obama heard those footsteps, jumped up to grasp a historic opportunity … and missed it completely.

In Bismarck’s case it was not so much God’s coattails he caught as the revolutionary wave of mid-19th-century German nationalism. And he did more than catch it; he managed to surf it in a direction of his own choosing. The wave Obama just missed—again—is the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy. It has surged through the region twice since he was elected: once in Iran in the summer of 2009, the second time right across North Africa, from Tunisia all the way down the Red Sea to Yemen. But the swell has been biggest in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.

In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.”

The result has been a foreign-policy debacle. 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....

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Cary Fraser - 2/18/2011

The lack of a Grand Strategy is, unfortunately, not singular to the Obama administration. It has been evident since the Johnson administration and the Nixon-Kissinger strategy in the Middle East is at the source of the current problem - the failure to understand the urgency of the need for a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinin conflict.

Paul Siff - 2/18/2011

There is nothing that the U.S. government could have done to aid the Iranian protesters of 2009 short of military action, which would have been catastrophic. As for alienating the Saudis, the very thing Ferguson advocates, stronger support of the Egyptian revolutionaries, would have alienated them further. Finally, regarding "cluelessness," the Israelis themselves are in that position, now that Mubarak is out.