A chance to look presidential

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 1, 2011


The political crisis in Egypt offers an invaluable opportunity for President Obama to consolidate his presidential image and extend, for a few weeks, his good approval ratings. Political crises with little risk of immediate international ramifications are invaluable opportunities for US presidents to show resolve and engaging leadership and, at the same time, to rise above the national political disputes and distinguish themselves from domestic political opponents.


The crisis in Egypt gives Obama a chance to look and act presidential, differentiating himself from Republican presidential hopefuls and from Congressional leaders. Last week, Obama used his State of the Union address to build on the presidential image he so carefully forged after the Arizona shooting rampage that cost the lives of six people and critically injured a congresswoman. The crisis in Egypt affords him a new opportunity to extend his presidential aura well into February. There is no better time for Presidents to use their incumbent power and position themselves as world leaders than international crises that capture the attention of the US public.


The Egyptian uprising has also influenced the US domestic political agenda. Republican control of the House of Representatives—with all the symbolic measures, including the useless attempt to repeal ObamaCare—is no longer the dominant news. Instead of discussing deficit reduction or spending cuts, politicians have been forced to discuss democracy in the Middle East. Moreover, Republican presidential contenders have been pressed to show their foreign affairs credentials. Washington has paused on its bitter partisan disputes to focus on the Middle East. The longstanding US policy of supporting autocrats who are friendly to the United States has once again come into criticism. Because previous Republican and Democratic administrations have embraced the Mubarak government, there is limited opportunity for pointing fingers across the political alley.


Obama, being a much younger politician—he was only 20 years old when Mubarak took office—and having opposed the war in Iraq can distance himself from the historic US policies that are now being criticized. If Washington can be accused of acting hypocritically by overthrowing some authoritarian leaders in the region on grounds of promoting democracy and at the same time supporting other autocrats who happen to be friendly to the United States, Obama can credibly claim to have proposed a more consistent policy of active engagement to peacefully promote democracy across the Middle East.


True, the crisis in Egypt has the potential to destabilize peace in the region. Past history suggests caution and some agnosticism when it comes to optimism in the Middle East. However, given the highly volatile conditions today in Egypt, it is hard to imagine that the authoritarian Mubarak government can now guarantee the somewhat peaceful stability that made him such a reliable ally of the United States for thirty years.


Certainly, if the country were to move toward Islamic fundamentalism, the end result would be much worse for Washington. Fortunately, at this point, there seem to be better prospects for the resolution of the crisis in Egypt. The Egyptian military seems firmly committed to keeping a secular government in place. Islamic fundamentalism is not as strong there as in neighbouring countries. If the Obama administration plays its cards well, Egypt will be a freer and stronger ally after the crisis. Furthermore, prospects for peace in the Middle East—and a sensible permanent solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—do not need to be adversely affected by the crisis. In fact, democratic change in Egypt might also lead to positive change elsewhere in the Arab world.


Some critics have denounced that the Obama administration was caught off guard by the popular uprising. The accusation seems unwarranted. Obama did visit Egypt in May of 2009, a few months after taking office, and delivered a strong speech calling on Arab leaders to rule by consent, rather than by force. The Obama administration has been engaged in promoting elections and democratic transitions in the region. Moreover, Washington was better prepared than most other interested countries to quickly outline a Plan B when the protest movement grew too large and threatened the stability of the regime.


When compared to a political arena dominated by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the Egyptian crisis seems like a breath of fresh air for an administration that was looking for opportunities to cast Barack Obama as a presidential figure, with influence over developments abroad and with a voice of leadership and moderation that distinguished him from the new Republican leadership. Precisely because the domestic arena looked less favourable for Obama after the midterm elections, the White House had designed a plan that would have Obama travel to foreign destinations to strengthen his image as a world leader. The political crisis in Egypt is a remarkable opportunity for Obama to show that he can deliver on the expectations of new US leadership in the world arena.


All crises can be transformed into opportunities. Occasionally, the opportunity you are waiting for presents itself as a crisis. The Obama administration could not have asked for a better timing for the political crisis in Egypt to erupt.