White House thinking and Obama’s Reaction to Events in Egypt

The New York Times reports today on the thinking of officials behind the very bland reaction of Barack Obama and the United States to recent developments in Egypt, including Morsi’s seizure of dictatorial powers and the draft constitution which he pushed through the National Assembly–using dictatorial powers and by-passing the Constitutional Court– and submitted to the national referendum now being held on December 15 and December 22.

See David D. Kirkpatrick, “Obama Walks a Fine Line With Egyptian President,” New York Times, December 13, 2012 (December 15, 2012 print edition).

According to Kirkpatrick, following the clashes on December 6 between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators in front of the presidential palace, which left seven individuals dead, Obama in his call to Morsi did not reprimand him for what had happened.

Instead, a senior Obama administration official said, the American president sought to build on a growing rapport with his Egyptian counterpart, arguing to Mr. Morsi that it was in his own interest to offer his opposition compromises, in order to build trust in his government.

“These last two weeks have been concerning, of course, but we are still waiting to see,”said another senior administration official… “One thing we can say for Morsi is he was elected, so he has some legitimacy”(emphasis added).

As Egyptians vote Saturday on the draft constitution, the results may also render a verdict on …the Obama administration’s bet that it can build a workable partnership with a government guided by the Brotherhood — a group the United States shunned for decades as a threat to Western values and interests.

As for Mr. Morsi, administration officials and other outside analysts argue that so far his missteps appear to be matters of tactics, not ideology, with only an indirect connection to his Islamist politics….

What is more, the leading opposition alternatives appeared no less authoritarian…

But White House officials say that although the (constitutional) charter may be vague, it does not impose a theocracy. “The question will be, how does the next Parliament implement what is in the constitution, and what is their vision for Egypt?” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Under current Egyptian law, the president is allowed to fill about a third of the seats in the upper house of Parliament, known as the Shura Council, and one idea is that he could appoint political opponents, evening out the balance. The chamber is the sole legislature until parliamentary elections, handling delicate matters like the election laws.

It is absolutely amazing to hear the kinds of arguments the president and his aides employ in discussing what is going on in places like Syria, or Egypt.  After a coup d’etat, the use of Nazi “brown-shirt” tactics to shut down the Constitutional Court, and the deaths of seven demonstrators, the thinking in the White House is that these events are “concerning”?

The aides who are quoted in Kirkpatrick’s article obviously have no personal understanding of the Middle East or what is going on in Egypt. It is fightening to consider that these individuals are influencing and reflecting White House thinking on such key policy decisions.

It was not too long ago, it will be recalled, when Obama’s policy toward Syria consisted of plans to ask the Russians for help.

See Matt Williams, “US condemns Syria massacre and looks for Russian help to oust Assad; Hillary Clinton harshly condemns Syrian president as Obama reportedly plans to urge Putin to back a transition of power,” The Guardian, May 27, 2012.

The thinking at the White House, on Egypt as on Syria, is at a very high level of abstraction, with ideas being thrown out without the staff work and winnowing process through which proposals which come up through the State Department normally have to pass. In effect, Obama by directly controlling the foreign policy of the U.S. on critical issues, such as Egypt and  the policy toward toward Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, tends to cut out the inputs of the ambassadors, area experts, and higher officials in the State Department who should have a better idea of what is really going on. The Secretary of State, who should be centrally involved in these decisions, seems to have been relegated to a secondary role. 

Above all, thinking by Obama and his aides on foreign policy tends to consist of abstract ideas, which lack the granularity of ideas that are anchored in a deep appreciation of events on the ground, the context in which they occur, and their implications.

If the United States is to correct these defects and to shift its course from one of repeated foreign policy failures (Benghazi is but one example, emblematic of the rest), President Obama will need to select a new foreign policy team with clout.  He will need to find–and enlist–people of great stature, capability and relevant experience, who because of who they are and their own internal make-up have the ability to tell him directly when and why they disagree with him whenever they do.

The smartest man in the room needs other smart people in the room, who will speak forthrightly to him–and to whom he will listen.

The Trenchant Observer

Further reading:

The Trenchant Observer, “Morsi’s coup in Egypt: Obama’s silence, America’s shame,”
December 7, 2012

David Ignatius, “Our man in Cairo,” Washington Post, December 7, 2012 (5:01 p.m.)

The Trenchant Observer, “Is Obama losing Egypt?” December 6, 2012

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.