EDITORIAL: Obama, Egypt and denial

White House support for Arab Spring doesn’t impress Arabs

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When Egyptian protesters clashed with police late last winter, the White House peremptorily informed long-time ally President Hosni Mubarak that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, and it must begin now.” Ten months later, violent anti-government protests have flared anew, but President Obama is publicly silent. Learning has occurred.

The Arab Spring hasn’t benefited the United States. Mr. Obama’s willingness, even eagerness, to help show Mr. Mubarak the door created unease in other regional capitals facing their own restive masses. Saudi Arabia in particular warned the United States against acting too forcefully against the ailing Mubarak regime, fearing a general collapse into anarchy. In an October interview, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, one of America’s strongest allies in the Mideast, said the response in Egypt left regional leaders “wary of dealing with the West. … Looking at how quickly people turned their backs on Mubarak, I would say that most people are going to try and go their own way. I think there is going to be less coordination with the West and therefore a chance of more misunderstandings.”

The influence America lost with regional governments wasn’t balanced by an increase in affinity from the people. An April 2011 poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that only 20 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States, 64 percent have little to no confidence in Mr. Obama, a plurality of 39 percent have a negative view of the U.S. response to the political situation in Egypt, and 52 percent disapprove of America’s response to the Arab Spring in general. Outreach has failed; U.S. favorable ratings in Egypt are 10 points lower than they were in 2006 during the heyday of the George W. Bush administration. In a region where it is better to be feared than loved, Mr. Obama is neither.

The predictable rise of radical Islamist movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere is another negative development, Mr. Obama’s romantic fascination with Islam notwithstanding. An Islamist government in Egypt would pursue policies that would harm U.S. regional interests. The April Pew survey showed that a plurality of 43 percent of Egyptians would prefer to have a less close relationship with America. A majority 54 percent of Egyptians want to annul the peace treaty with Israel that has been the linchpin of regional stability since the 1970s. The State Department called extreme Islamist movements “a fact of life,” but so is the flu.

The surge in crude oil prices that accompanied the Arab Spring helped kill U.S. economic growth in the first half of the year. Another spike in oil prices could choke off potential growth in the coming election season. So rather than rushing to the barricades again, Obama officials are working quietly behind the scenes, if at all. Rather than publicly calling for a swift end to military rule in Egypt, the administration counsels “restraint on all sides” and quickly changes the subject.

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