“It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call. Whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?”
What an amazing turn of events. Who could have predicted, when Hillary Clinton first aired that commercial against Barack Obama in 2008, that the White House’s first 3 a.m. call would be about Egypt? That the person making that call would be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? And the person answering it would be Barack Obama?
And who could have predicted that, in our lifetime, we would see a wave of democracy sweep the Middle East and topple Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-time despotic ruler, from power.
The situation in Egypt is the first foreign-policy crisis faced by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton (they inherited Iraq and Afghanistan). It hasn’t been easy. It’s required a delicate balancing act. But the Obama administration has handled it with just the right amount of public patience and private pressure.
For 30 years, Mubarak has been a dependable partner of the United States. He was the one Arab leader we could always rely on to keep the Suez Canal open, to crack down on Islamic extremists, to keep pressure on Iran. He was the first Arab leader to recognize Israel, and the only one to send troops to fight alongside American forces in Iraq.
At the same time, because he was so helpful on national security issues, we were only too willing to overlook the dark side of Mubarak’s repressive regime: torture, outlaw of political dissent, lack of open elections, one-man rule, denial of basic freedoms of speech and assembly – all enforced by his own secret police. Add a stagnant economy and mass unemployment, especially among the young, and the people of Egypt finally had enough.
At first, Mubarak’s dual role of trusted ally and brutal thug demanded that President Obama walk a fine line. And he did. In the briefing room, press secretary Robert Gibbs informed us that Obama had pushed Mubarak to adopt serious reforms in eight different meetings. However, he insisted, the United States was “not taking sides” in this popular uprising, lest it appear we were trying to dictate the outcome in Egypt.
But all you had to do was read between the lines. By supporting their demands for democratic reforms, it was clear that President Obama was siding with the protesters. That became even clearer after Mubarak announced he would not seek re-election. In a phone call immediately after his speech, Obama told him directly that was not good enough, a point he then made more obliquely in a White House statement: The transition “must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.” Lest there be any doubt what he meant, Gibbs told us the next day: “Now means now” – not seven months from now. The only way to bring stability to Egypt is for Mubarak to leave the country – and he may have already done so by the time you read this column.
Perhaps the best sign that Obama’s delicate public/private balancing act on Egypt worked is the total confusion it’s created among Republicans. They’re all over the place. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Mitt Romney credit Obama for getting it just right. Tim Pawlenty argues he should have called for Mubarak’s resignation, while Mike Huckabee, just back from a visit to Israel, condemns Obama for being too quick to throw Mubarak under the bus. And professional Obama critic Dick Morris blames him for “losing Egypt.”
What Republicans can’t admit is that Obama has succeeded in helping bring democracy to the Arab world where George W. Bush failed. And he did so, not by launching another long, bloody and costly war, but by supporting the aspirations of the Egyptian people – who used Facebook, Twitter and cell phones, not guns, to overthrow their government without firing a shot.
George Bush spent billions on bombs. A laptop would have been cheaper – and more effective.