Pajamas Media’s Patrick Poole is correct when he says Feb. 10, 2011 was one of President Barack Obama’s most dreadful days ever, and not just due to external events:
It’s hard to overstate how bad February 10, 2011, will rank among the worst days of Barack Obama’s administration…CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress that Mubarak would announce his departure today. That didn’t happen. Now our intelligence agencies are scrambling to understand what all this means. This catastrophic intelligence failure is the worst since 9/11 (rivaling even the 2007 Iran National Intelligence Estimate).
Even worse: it later emerged that Panetta (whom I greatly respect and admire both for his work in government and the superb work he and his wife have done in their academic incarnation) was basing his assertions on published reports. We ran those reports, too (the big ones were from ABC News and Fox News) — but at least TMV attributed the information. It is NOT unusual for intelligence officials to monitor the published press. When I was a journalist in India I received, as a courtesy to a journalist, a mailed digest put out by the embassy of reports in the American and foreign press on India and South Asia. Panetta not attributing his comments was unwise. (It fits into the current trend where many who write and talk regurgitate what they heard their favorite talk show host say which in effect means the talk show host’s spin sets the theme of the debate.)
And there was more:
Then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in response to a question by Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) that the Muslim Brotherhood was “largely secular,” despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood lists as its two “key pillars” the imposition of sharia law and the reestablishment of the global caliphate — in English on the Muslim Brotherhood’s official website. This is the same organization that has as its credo, “Allah is our goal. The Quran is our constitution. The Prophet is our model. Jihad is our way. And dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” A bastion of secularism, apparently. (Brian Fairchild has more of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “largely secular” greatest hits.) Understandably, Clapper’s media flacks are now trying to walk back his statement.
But you can’t blame just the intelligence community for this administration’s worst catastrophe (so far, yikes!). While many were pointing fingers at Panetta and Clapper, this is as much, if not more so, a failure of the State Department. How exactly did our embassy in Cairo not know what Mubarak was going to say? Hasn’t Hosni Mubarak been our closest ally in the Arab world? Didn’t Obama go to Cairo at the beginning of his administration and vow to improve the United States’ diplomacy in the Middle East. What’s the status of that now?
Of course just going to talk to leaders in a part of the world has NEVER created instant transformation. Even in the case of Richard Nixon’s then-surprising overtures to Communist China, it did not occur due to one meeting or one speech.
The problem now is that America is largely 24/7 partisanship and there has been a (relative) suspension of it during this crisis. Don’t expect that to last. The temptation is to grab at any possible opening and try to turn it into a chance to turn it into 21st politics…which usually involves inaccuracies, outright mis-statements and demonization.
And there is this: if there is some perceived confusion in the Obama administration’s stand on Egypt, it’s because there has been a healthy debate within the administration about the best course of action.
The LA Times ran an excellent piece yesterday — before Mubarak’s big fake out. Here is part of it:
The Obama administration’s shifting response to the crisis in Egypt reflects a sharp debate over how and when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should leave office, a policy decision that could have long-term implications for America’s image in the Middle East.
After sending mixed signals, the administration has appeared to settle on supporting a measured transition for easing Mubarak out of power. That strategy, which remains the subject of vigorous debate inside the administration, calls for a Mubarak crony, Vice President Omar Suleiman, to lead the reform process.
If you notice this is more or less what appears to have happened yesterday — except there is considerable speculation now on the role of the Army.
According to experts who have interacted with the White House, the tactic is favored by a group of foreign policy advisors including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security advisor Thomas Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who worry about regional stability and want to reassure other Middle East governments that the U.S. will not abandon an important and longtime ally.
But that position has been harder to defend as Suleiman and other Mubarak allies appeared to dig in, refusing the administration’s entreaties to undertake swift reforms such as scrapping the country’s longstanding state of emergency. On Wednesday, Suleiman warned ominously of a coup unless the unrest ended. That prompted White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to fire back that the Egyptians should “expand the size and scope of the discussions and the negotiations and to take many of the steps that we outlined yesterday — one of which is lifting the emergency law.”
Suleiman’s behavior reinforced the arguments of another camp inside the Obama administration, including National Security Council members Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, which contends that if President Obama appears to side with the remnants of Mubarak’s discredited regime, he risks being seen as complicit in stifling a pro-democracy movement.
That has long been a problem for American Presidents: the ideal is democracy. But geopolitical considerations sometimes trump the idea.
Obama’s own statements have evolved as the situation has changed, but they illustrate a gradual pulling away from Mubarak’s regime and a call to begin the transition immediately. On Jan. 28, after Mubarak said he would not run for reelection in September, Obama said the Egyptian president “has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.”
But over the last several days, his administration has expressed increasing frustration with the slow progress, and Wednesday the National Security Council made its strongest call yet to speed up the transition.
Aides acknowledge privately that the differing views among Obama’s advisors have produced a mixed message. Even Wednesday, as they continued to call for an orderly transition to democracy led by Suleiman, White House officials said the process wasn’t moving fast enough.
“There is a realist camp who above all would like to see order,” said Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has been in contact with the administration. “They acknowledge there has to be some kind of transition, but their emphasis is on an orderly transition, and they feel Suleiman can deliver order and is shrewd enough not to stonewall. On the other side, the idealists feel the time has come — that the old regime is finished … and that this is a true democratic outbreak.”
In reality, a lot of the expectation that Mubarak would acknowledge the boot being firmly placed on his butt by the demonstrators were fueled by the three key perception shapers:
1. An ABC News report that Mubarak would resign and a Fox News report that he would leave and in-effect the Army would hold power for a while.
2. Panetta regurgitating published and other news media reports about what was said to be about to happen in Cairo. When people hear a CIA official speak, they assume the information is a bit more substantial than the info they earlier heard, read — or linked to on their blog.
And also add this:
3. Special cable news coverage in anticipation of Mubarak’s (supposedly) big speech…showing the crowd..talking about how we’re watching history…putting on talking heads, anchors, experts…setting the stage for Egypt’s President to announce he would resign.
And then he didn’t.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.