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Egypt presents a delicate balancing act for Obama

Supporters say the president is generally doing well dealing with a complex problem involving a key, autocratic ally and protests calling for democracy. Critics say he's been overly supportive of Hosni Mubarak and slow to react.

January 30, 2011|By Paul Richter and Paul West, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama is briefed on the events in Egypt by his national security team in the White House Situation Room. Thousands of protesters in Egypt have thrown the countrys government into tumult.
President Obama is briefed on the events in Egypt by his national security… (Pete Souza, The White House )

Reporting from Washington — President Obama inherited two wars when he entered the White House, and now the sudden upheaval in Egypt poses a big new foreign policy challenge for his presidency.

How effectively the administration manages it will shape perceptions of Obama as a leader abroad and at home. If events spiral out of control, Obama and his advisors will be criticized for failing to head off a potential disaster in a volatile part of the world.

Even as he winds down U.S. military involvement in Iraq and attempts to gain the upper hand against global terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has hoped to keep his main focus on jobs and the American economy. But the latest images from northern Africa, playing out across the region and in the U.S., challenge Obama's standing with the public.

"Who knows where this is going?" said Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to several Middle Eastern countries and currently dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. "Should things not hold in Egypt, or should this catch fire in other Middle Eastern states, people really are going to watch how he handles the first major new foreign crisis on his watch."

Diplomatic veterans like Crocker, and other outside analysts, give Obama's team generally positive marks for handling an exceedingly complex problem.

But critics are already making the case that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were slow to react. They say top administration officials issued public statements overly supportive of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while his regime was encountering a growing surge of popular protest.

Obama met with advisors Saturday at the White House to review the latest developments, including Mubarak's decision to name a top intelligence official as his vice president.

U.S. officials didn't object to Mubarak's government shuffle, but they made it clear that they want far more change in the days ahead. The U.S. is looking for "managed change: adjustments over a fairly extended period of time that allow you to manage it in a fairly orderly way," a senior administration official said.

Though the administration is pressing for opposition groups and civil activists to be given more political influence, "that doesn't necessarily mean the governing coalition will be swept away, not at all," the official said.

The official said it remained unclear what side the Egyptian military will choose in the contest between Mubarak and the opposition.

For Obama and American interests around the globe, the stakes in the crisis are potentially enormous.

"This is a big deal for President Obama," said Martin Indyk, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. "It requires very cool judgment to calibrate this in a way that does minimal damage to our interests."

Obama's remarks late Friday, seen as supportive of the anti-Mubarak uprising, were "the right thing to do," Indyk said.

"But it's a very risky strategy because the end result could be that an ally that we depended on to protect American interests and stability in this volatile region will be toppled, and that a very unstable situation in Egypt will then spread across the region, and that can do great damage to our interests."

At the same time, "clinging to Mubarak, when it's clear that he's lost his legitimacy among the Egyptian people and ends up using force and a great deal of bloodshed to retain his power, could produce the very instability we're trying to avoid," said Indyk, who held top State Department posts in President Clinton's administration and has served as an outside advisor to George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace.

From the start of his presidency, Obama has sought to defuse anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and end talk of a "clash of civilizations."

In his Cairo speech in 2009, he said the U.S. supported Arabs' aspirations for greater freedom. Yet, in many ways, the administration has continued the policies of previous U.S. governments, including support for the region's authoritarian regimes.

Polls show the administration's public support among Arabs has declined from the time of his inauguration. Some Arab activists say they preferred the more sharp-edged message of President George W. Bush, who pushed a "freedom agenda."

Obama came under criticism in June 2009 for failing to more forcefully back Iranians who took to the street to protest a presidential election they believed was rigged. He later stepped up his public expressions of support for the demonstrators.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has been a key to U.S. influence in the region for more than 30 years. It has been a U.S. partner in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, works with the administration against Islamist extremism and has joined the U.S. in trying to contain Iran.

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