Egypt buries the myth that Obama would botch a foreign crisis

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 2/8/2011, 7:15 a.m.

Egypt buries the myth that Obama would botch a foreign crisis

The biggest potential stumbling block to then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s White House bid in 2008 was not race, but the knock he’d botch a major foreign policy crisis. This would signal to America’s allies and avowed foes that America’s leader was weak, indecisive, and a terrible choice to deal with the colossal pressures of the problems of the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, China, and repairing relations with the European allies.

In the early days of the campaign then President George W. Bush strongly hinted that Obama was a foreign policy neophyte who could not be trusted on international crisis issues. Republican opponent John McCain and the Republican National Committee hammered on the point that foreign policy was too vital and delicate for on the job training for a would-be president. Obama’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton grabbed at the green on foreign policy rap against Obama to imprint the notion that she was the best Democratic presidential candidate to handle the inevitable crises that saddle all administrations. Her play of the inexperience card against Obama was supposed to be a reminder that Obama would be a question mark in the White House. A Pew Research Poll Center Poll in May 2008 found that “inspiring,” “fresh,” “change” and “visionary” was not the one word that voters said best described Obama. The one word was “inexperienced.”

The Egyptian upheaval was just the sort of foreign policy crisis that Obama’s attackers had in mind and more than a few gleefully hoped he’d stumble over. It is a textbook crisis in which the slightest misstep could spin it out of control and have damaging and long lasting consequences for the U.S. Egypt is the linchpin of the U.S.’s Middle East policy and military balance. Its despotic, autocratic leader for three decades has staunchly protected American interests in the region, put a hard check on radical Islamic and pro-Palestinian mass sentiment, insured no disruption in oil transit to the West through the Suez Canal, and maintained unshakable cordiality with Israel. In the first hours of the crisis, it seemed that Obama might make the same time tested blunder that has been the signature of other presidents and that is to tie the U.S.’s string to yet another hated, failed dictator.

Vice President Joe Biden bristled in a PBS Newshour interview at the characterization of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a “dictator.” “I would not call him a dictator. Biden dubbed him an ally who played a big role in promoting regional stability. The shudder at Biden’s reflexive and rash defense of Mubarak could be heard from Pennsylvania Avenue to Cairo. Secretary of State Clinton made no shoot-from-the lip rush to judgment about Mubarak. But her early statements were testy, guarded and opaque about just what and how the U.S. would deal with Mubarak. Clinton gave no indication that the Obama administration would say or do anything to upset the delicate balance in U.S. support for and relations with his regime.